Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Your righteousness is your goodness. Have you been good enough to enter heaven? Good enough not by your standards, not by the culture’s standards, not by family standards, but by God’s standards. Jesus says your goodness has to exceed, surpass, the goodness of the scribes and Pharisees. The Pharisee says of himself in Jesus’ famous parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, that he fasts twice a week and gives a tenth of all he has to the church. Does your goodness exceed that? I don’t know. I don’t check the balances at church, that’s not my job. But you know. Do you give ten percent of what you have to the church and to people in need? Does your goodness even equal the goodness of the scribes and Pharisees? It better. If you don’t equal it, you’re certainly not going to exceed it.
Jesus says that he will not relax the law, the standard of what it means to be good, one iota, one dot. And Jesus consistently shows what this means – that the law requires not just outward actions but inward good intentions. You shall not kill means also you shall not be angry with your brother – it demands goodness of your heart, not just your hands. You shall not commit adultery means you shall not even lust in your heart after a woman not your wife. So to exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees is to go beyond the outward action, go beyond giving ten percent, and do it from the heart, happily, joyfully, loving to be generous, thinking of it as a privilege and honor and not a burden, giving in fact your entire life, all you have to God’s service.
You do not have this goodness of yourself. Jesus is showing you this. You do get angry with your brother. You do lust in your heart. You do get stingy and it pains you to give money away. Jesus goes further. He says love your enemies. Those people you’ve been gossiping about, he says to speak good about them, love them, bless them, pray for them. He finally ends it with saying, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” That’s how you get to heaven. Jesus did not change that one iota. You must complete the law perfectly, your goodness must be outward and inward.
There is only One who has done this. He is the Way to heaven. You need a perfect righteousness and Jesus alone has it, is it, has done it. If you have Christ by faith, you have perfection. If He is yours, you have the goodness both outward and inward the Law demands. He fulfilled it. He gave richly and freely of His own life, of God’s life, not ten percent, but all. He not only did it as a man, but because this man is God, He is the righteousness of the Law, is the Standard of Good, is eternal perfection, is exactly what the Father loves and welcomes and embraces. You have Him, you have the righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. And to have Jesus by faith, to trust in Him, means that you are so joined to Him, that it is exactly as if you have done everything Jesus has done, perfectly done it to the last iota, the last dot.
Do you not know that as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have been baptized into His death? And if you have been united with Him in His death, then you are united with Him in His resurrection. This is how the Bible talks. This is how God talks. We call it the mystical union. Trust in Jesus is a union with Jesus. In this union, everything Jesus is, has, has done, is yours. We call it also the blessed exchange. You give Jesus your sin and your death and your punishment – He bears it, He dies it, He suffers it; and He gives you His righteousness, and His life, and His reward – you receive it, you live it, and you enjoy it. That’s the exchange.
You should not look at the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees and think it is too high for you. It is too low for you. They do not meet God’s standard and so they can’t meet yours. That’s what faith confesses. You are God’s child. You do the works of children of God. A Pharisee fasting twice a week shouldn’t impress you, because the discipline that takes pales in comparison to the discipline the Christian has in his life of reading Scripture, praying to His Father, and doing it from the heart. A Pharisee or a Mormon giving ten percent of his income to his false church should not impress you, because that generosity pales in comparison with the Christian generosity that gives not only money, but life and prayer and home and heart and everything to the service of the Almighty.
It was not Pharisees who founded hospitals and orphanages, who revolutionized the world by treating women with respect, upholding the family, and valuing the life of every child and of every human being. That is the legacy of the Christian Church. Christians are, as Jesus said in this sermon and meant it for all time, Christians are the light of the world, the salt of the earth, the ones who genuinely love their neighbors and live their lives in faith toward God and in fervent love for one another.
The good works of Christians far exceed the good works of the Pharisees.
But this righteousness does not parade itself, it does not boast of its goodness. It gives generously, but it does not go into the Temple and tell God about it. It practices discipline, but it doesn’t think it’s earning something from God by its praying and its reading and its fasting. It boasts in one thing only, and that is the righteousness of Christ, the love of God toward unworthy sinners.
It doesn’t boast for two reasons.
First, because every good work a Christian does is still stained with sin. Look at Jesus’ warning against anger, for an example of this. There is such thing as righteous anger. A dad gets angry at his son for backtalking his mom – he should get angry and he should discipline his son. This is what we call righteous anger, because it’s the anger God has against sin, and those who stand in God’s place – like parents – will need to have this same anger against sin. It’s a divine thing, a righteous thing. But however much righteous anger there is in the Christian, there is still at least something in that anger that comes from our flesh, from our selfishness, from our impatience. Nothing comes out pure, so long as this sinful flesh clings to us. Even though we are sons of God through faith in Jesus, even though we have the Holy Spirit Himself dwelling in us and inspiring our thoughts and feelings, still even our righteous deeds will be filthy rags unless cleansed by the blood of Jesus. So we cannot boast in our works which are always imperfect. We can boast only in Jesus who is always perfect.
Second, we don’t boast because the good we do do we trace back to God. What do you have that you did not receive? St. Paul talks about this when he says, “If I give all my money to the poor, and have not love, I have nothing.” It is only the love of God that changes hearts. And that love only comes from God. Again, we can turn to the example of anger. Jesus forbids unrighteous anger. He condemns as murder the anger that does not come from love. [This should not be a riddle to us, that love can produce anger. God is love. And God is angry at sin. This is all resolved in Jesus, who suffers God’s anger against sin, because He loves us and because He loves the Father and because the Father loves Him and loves us. That is the cross, where righteousness and peace kiss, where love and anger are wedded.] So the father who disciplines his son loves his son. This is what the Proverb says. The Lord disciplines the one He loves, just as the father the son in whom he delights. So we don’t boast in our works for this second reason, that we can’t love unless God first loves us. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and gave His Son to be the payment for our sins. What do we have that we did not receive?
Love, and particularly the love that God reveals in Christ, and pours into our hearts by His Holy Spirit, love is the motivator of every good work. You should not be impressed with the righteousness of the Pharisees, who were angry with Jesus for no cause, who were motivated even in their generosity and even in their almsgiving, by selfish reasons. You should be impressed instead with the love of God in Jesus Christ your Lord. And this love is mercy toward poor sinners.
The Pharisees’ righteousness, in the end, led them to crucify the Lord of glory. It led them to hate God Himself and to persecute the only righteous man who ever lived. That is not a righteousness you want anything to do with. God would rather you not give a cent to the church than to think that your giving earns you His favor. He would rather you not fast a day in your life than to imagine that your fasting makes you better than your brother. Pride in your own goodness will always make you despise your brother, and that is the absolute opposite, the antithesis of righteousness.
Jesus’ righteousness, in the end, led Him to lay down His life for unworthy sinners, for the very ones who crucified Him. Jesus’ righteousness led Him not to seek vengeance against our offenses, not to pursue strict justice and punishment for our many transgressions, but to bear our burdens and take our punishment. That is love, that is mercy, that is the fulfillment of the law, and it is the only righteousness that can impress us Christians. It is the righteousness, the image, that is impressed, imprinted on our hearts through faith in Christ Jesus. It is our righteousness, because it is Christ’s righteousness, and we have put Him on in Baptism and we feed on Him in the Lord’s Supper and we live through Him as a branch in the Vine.
If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. As the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; as Christ forgave you, so you also do. But above all these things, put on love, which is the bond of perfection. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in your richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.