In the name of the Father and of the † Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Dear Friends in Christ,
Great Righteousness Required
At the end of last week’s gospel reading, we heard Jesus say these words, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
These were not very comforting words for the disciples or the crowd who had gathered around Jesus. The Scribes and Pharisees had the reputation of being extremely righteous men. Those around them recognized how devoted they were to studying, discussing and obeying the Law so that they could be right with God, righteous in his sight..
So you can imagine how the words of Jesus might have shaken up the disciples and the crowd. Jesus was teaching that in order to enter heaven a person must do better than the Scribes and Pharisees.
What horrible news. Everyone recognized that the scribes and Pharisees were doing better than most everyone else. If their righteousness wasn’t good enough, what hope was there for everyone else. If there were Scribes or Pharisees in the crowd this was certainly not good news for them either.
Imagine if you were in the crowd that day, what would have been your response to the words of Jesus. If your righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees, one place to start is to find as many faults as possible in the Scribes and Pharisees.
You can call them hypocrites and self-centered, you can accuse them of not loving their neighbor or of only obeying the letter of the law. If you can make their righteousness seem insignificant then your righteousness does not need to be all that great to exceed theirs.
Perhaps you say, “Well I would never do that.” The other option then is to look at the commandments and say, “Well I’m doing okay – I haven’t murdered anyone, I haven’t robbed a convenience store, I don’t look at pornography, I attend church, I say prayers when someone asks me to pray for them, and I gave money to my favorite charity – I’m doing okay.”
When it’s impossible to say, “I’m doing okay, I have kept the Law,” then the next answer is “there was a good reason that I didn’t follow the Law.” Maybe there were extenuating circumstances so that the Law didn’t really apply. Maybe it was really someone else’s fault that I fell short of perfection.
Jesus didn’t wait for answers or questions from his disciples or from the crowd. He began to whittle away at accuses that are used to make us seem righteous when we are not. Four times in today’s reading we hear Jesus say something like this, “You have heard it said,” in reference to what people had said about obeying the law. Four times Jesus then said, “But I say to you.”
Jesus was teaching just how impossible it was to be righteous before God through obeying the Law. He was teaching that obeying God’s Law is more than obeying the letter of the Law. For example God’s Law says “you shall not murder.” Jesus explains that this Law is broken when you are angry at someone, when you insult someone, when you call someone a fool.
None of these responses show love to a neighbor so they all break God’s command not to murder your neighbor. Jesus next said, “I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her IN HIS HEART.”
I could go on to talk about the other sins that Jesus explains, but three little words have just said it all. Jesus said, “In his heart.” That is where all sins start. Sinning in thought, word, or deed is only the result of sin that starts in our hearts.
Earlier in this chapter, we hear Jesus say, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Our culture seems to like reality shows. The reality of our life is that all of us come into this world with a heart that is not pure.
Jesus made this clear when later in the Gospel of Matthew we hear Jesus tell his disciples, “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, and slander. These are what defile a person.”
So here we sit with hearts that are not pure – hearts that cannot keep the Law perfectly. Our righteousness does not exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees. The outlook is not good. Unless there is a cure, we will all die of heart disease. Unless there is a physician with a miracle, we will all surely die and be forever separated from God.
We sit here and say, “O Lord, what am I to do?” The Lord answers our question today with good news. He tells us that there is a righteousness that exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees. Our hearts are not pure and holy, but the heart of the Lord Jesus is righteous. His heart is holy and full of love. His righteousness fulfills the Law.
As we heard last week, Jesus did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill the Law. He came to earth to life a righteous life for you. And when the demands of perfect righteousness demand death he went to the cross for you.
The good news is that his righteousness is a gift to you. The steadfast love God for you resulted in God’s Son coming to earth so that he could be the one who was pure in heart. Saint John tells us that God opened his heart and sent Jesus Christ into the world not to condemn you but to save you.
While your heart was full of unrighteousness and not able to fulfill the Law, God sent his Son into the world with a pure art to fulfill the Law in your place. While you were dying of heart disease God sent his Son into the world to take upon himself you sin and to shed his blood for you.
Saint John wrote in his first letter, “This is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the sacrifice for our sins.” He also wrote, “This is love, not that we loved him but that he loved us.”
God’s love, his heart not only saves us from our sins through the death and resurrection of his Son, but he also promises to teach us through his Holy Spirit how to love. God is working thru his Holy Spirit to make in you a pure in heart.
King David wrote in Psalm 51, “Create in me a clean heart O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” Just like a heart transplant patient, we cannot do anything to change our heart, our will to do what God wants us to do, how God wants us to live.
We cannot become righteous before God, but he has done that for us through Jesus Christ. He daily gives to us forgiveness and a new life. Our new heart is not so that we can earn forgiveness, forgiveness is a gift from God. We were the robe of Christ’s righteousness
Our new heart is God’s blessing to us so that we can have faith in him, trusting always in his love. Our new heart is God’s blessing to us so that we can love one another, so that we can forgive as we have been forgiven and so that we can love as we have been loved.
Today the Lord has made know his salvation to you, he has revealed his righteousness to you. Go in peace, comforted with the knowledge that by God’s grace you have been made alive and that your heart is being restored.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.