I do not know if it is my age or if it is something else, but my tastes in music have changed. For the longest time, I thoroughly enjoyed it when a soloist would take the stage and belt out a particular piece of music. I thought this was the best singing had to offer. Perhaps it is singing in our gospel group that has changed my taste, but I now have a much, much higher appreciation for harmony. For some reason, music becomes more meaningful, more touching when several voices sing together and fill out the chord. Recently, I was introduced to Pentatonix an a capella group. They did a cover of Lourde’s “Royals”, and in my estimation, if you listened to Pentatonix, you’d wonder why their’s isn’t more popular. I think it’s 100 times better because of the harmony. So, what does all of this have to do with our lessons for this Sunday, especially that Gospel lesson from the 5th Chapter of the book of Matthew?
The core Gospel proclamation of Christianity is obvious. John 3:16-17 says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all who believe in Him may not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” Further, this core proclamation occurred by pure grace. It happened without any action on our own part. Christ died for us while we were still sinners and completely unrepentant. For those of us who know this message at our deepest core, we also have come to know that no matter how hard we try–no matter what kind of new leaf we try to turn over, we cannot stop sinning. We know we still fall short of the glory of God. We are not perfect. Sometimes, it’s painfully obvious.
With this in mind, we hear Jesus tell us this morning, “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Whoa! Wait a minute. What happened to grace? What happened to God’s unconditional love and mercy? What happened to Christ dying for us while we are still sinners?
Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. What’s going on here?
Let’s look at this within the context of ancient Israel. First, let’s recognize who the Scribes and Pharisees were. These were two Jewish groups who thrived during Second Temple Judaism. The Scribes were, of course, those who wrote on and interpreted the Law. They were held in very high esteem as those who were blessed by God as they wrestled with interpreting and living the Torah. The Pharisees are often Jesus’ main nemesis throughout the Gospel stories. The Pharisees longed and yearned for the coming Kingdom of God, and they had a very particular understanding of how that Kingdom would arrive. They believed that the Jewish people needed to be holy and pure so that the Kingdom would come. They believed that the Jewish people needed to be obedient to the purity code with all its various intricacies in order for God to take notice. Basically, the Pharisees believed if a person ate the right food, associated with the right people, washed hands in the right way and right times, tithed to the temple appropriately, offered the right sacrifices, and so on and so forth, then they would be seen by God as holy and righteous. Once they were seen by God to be holy and righteous, God would finally forgive Israel for its sins, drive off Israel’s enemies, and establish Israel as the world power and beacon of light and hope God promised Abraham it would be. When it came to keeping this code, the Pharisees were the supreme example of righteous living–at least as far as most of the populace was concerned.
So I am sure Jesus caused a few heads to be scratched when He said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of God.” Is it possible to be more righteous than the scribes and the Pharisees?
Apparently so, because Jesus then begins laying out what it means to be truly righteous. #1. “You have heard it was said, ‘You shall not murder.’ but I say if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.” Stop and think about that one for a minute. Anger must disappear. This is true righteousness.
#2. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ but I say if you even look at a woman with lust in your heart, you have committed adultery.” Stop and think about that one for a minute as well. Lust toward a person of the opposite sex must disappear. That is true righteousness.
#3. “It was also said, ‘You can give a woman a certificate of divorce.’ but I say if you divorce a woman except on the grounds of unchastity, you cause her to commit adultery. And if you marry a divorced woman, you commit adultery.” Pause once more to consider Jesus’ words. Life-long commitment is the only option. That is true righteousness.
#4. And last, at least for this little snippet of the Sermon of the Mount. “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ but I say, don’t swear at all. Let your word be yes, yes or no, no.” Reflect on that for just a second. How many of us accomplish that one? True righteousness makes no excuses, doesn’t try to be tactful, doesn’t try to explain one’s position or be nuanced about it. True righteousness says yes or no. No wiggle room. Period.
Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. How is that possible? Jesus gives it to His disciples on the hill that day and to us without hesitation.
You see, the Scribes and Pharisees had all the externals going on. They were doing all the commands of Torah to keep themselves holy and pure. They were following the law, and from the outside, they looked squeaky clean. They looked like they were pure. They looked like they were holy. But in reality, they were a brand new Corvette Stingray with a flawless exterior with a rusty modified Fort Pinto engine underneath. The inside didn’t match the outside.
This was problematic, and for this reason Jesus made that intriguing comment in the middle of this teaching, “29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.”
Now, when you first hear this, you might think Jesus was being literal. Go cut your hand off if it causes you to sin. Go pluck out your eye if it causes you to sin. But everyone would have recognized what Jesus was really getting at. A HAND DOES NOT CAUSE YOU TO SIN. AN EYE DOES NOT CAUSE YOU TO SIN. Where does sin come from? Where does anger come from? Where does lust come from? Where does a lack of commitment come from? Where does the fear of being straightforward and honest come from?
It comes from the heart. Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of God. How is this possible? Well, the Scribes and the Pharisees weren’t righteous. They had the externals, but their internals weren’t so good. Their hearts weren’t oriented toward God. Their hearts were oriented toward themselves. For, by God, you know that everything revolves around me. If I do the right things; if I say the right things; if I follow the commandments the right way; if I believe the right things and tell everyone I love Jesus; if I come to church every Sunday of the month; if I put the right amount of money in the offering plate; if I do all these things and more, then I have a claim on God. He has to listen to me! He has to give me what I ask for! He has to unleash the Kingdom of God. He has to grant me health, wealth, and security. I hope you catch the sarcasm here.
So often, we think the externals save us. We think the externals bring about the kingdom of God. We think the things we do make us holy and righteousness. But we can and do a lot of good things for the wrong reasons. And Jesus calls us on it.
If your heart isn’t in line with God, then you will never enter the kingdom of God. Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of God.
So, get your hearts in place! Make your hearts right! Turn them toward God!
If it were only so easy!
Me telling you to do that this morning is equivalent to me telling you, “You have a blockage in your heart, give yourself a bypass.” Do you think you are capable of doing such a thing?
St. Paul writes in the seventh chapter of Romans, “I know the good that I am supposed to do, but I cannot do it...Wretched man that I am! Who will save me from this body of sin?”
Paul knew he suffered from a heart condition. We suffer from that same condition? Who will save us from this body of sin? Who will save us?
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but so that the world may be saved through Him.”
You see, by Jesus’ death and resurrection and the unleashing of the Holy Spirit into the world, God works to turn our hearts toward Him. Through the Word become flesh, God acts in you and me to pound our hearts into submission and orient them toward Him and His love. God enters into our very being to stomp out anger and lust and lack of commitment and selfishness and fear. God lives within us as our hearts are convicted by the power of the Gospel. And when our hearts are convicted by the Gospel, they beat in line with God’s heart. They begin to sing–not a solo by any means, but they sing in harmony with God. They join the chorus of God’s own song for the world which says, “I love you. I died for you. You are my child!”
Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Because of Jesus, your righteousness does exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, not because it is your own but because it is based on Jesus’ righteousness. Jesus died for you that your heart may be turned toward Him. And when your heart is singing with Gods, then you are truly Living God’s Word Daily. Amen.