✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
Jesus speaks some hard words in today’s Gospel: “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” The problem is, our righteousness is exactly that of the scribes and the Pharisees. It’s the same, for we think that righteousness is primarily about our good behavior and good moral appearances.
To prove this, our Lord points us to our anger. Anger and indignation is the result of our having been wronged or sinned against in some way. But what we do in response is the telling thing. It reveals how we view ourselves, and how we view our neighbor. When we are angry, we take the higher position and condemn them as wrong. And they may very well be in the wrong, especially if they’ve sinned against us. But have you ever noticed how even when we are at fault, we can still get angry? We think that they’re over-reacting and blowing things out of proportion and freaking out about some little flaw or mistake of ours. We turn things around on them. And so even when we’re at fault, we still find reason to get angry and justify ourselves and look down on them.
The problem with anger is that if it is not dealt with, if it is not confessed to God and to one another so that it can be taken away, if it is not cleansed from us by the blood of Jesus in His words and Sacraments, it enslaves us. Satan gets us to brood over it, obsessively, with growing and distorted emphasis on its injustice. In the court of our minds we hold a secret trial in which we prosecute the wrongdoer. And then we remember all the other offenses that we have suffered from that person. And that fuels our anger further and our desire for justice. We convince ourselves that we are justified in our judgment of them. We hold the moral high ground against them. This anger leads to bitterness and resentment. And so we end up stewing in our own poison. For we have begun to despise those whom we should love. We have self-righteously placed ourselves above them. In other words, we have become the scribe and the Pharisee.
This is spiritual suicide. For “you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and who ever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” This sort of stewing, bitter heart eventually overflows in bitter words and leads to hell. When we despise our neighbors and hold a grudge against them, we don't usually attack them physically. We do so verbally, emotionally, and spiritually. We talk to others about them to get them on our side so that they will join us in condemning them. We give them the cold shoulder and treat them as being dead to us. That is spiritual murder. And by cutting ourselves off from our brothers and sisters in Christ, we cut ourselves off from Christ as well, which is spiritual suicide. We take the position of the scribes and the Pharisees, and we follow in their righteousness, which is really only an outward righteousness. And unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Repent, then, and turn to Christ. For the only righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees is the righteousness of Jesus. He came not to abolish the Law and the Prophets. He came to fulfill them–inwardly, outwardly, actively, passively–all for you. Righteousness is not ultimately about your works but about the works of Jesus done on your behalf. The Pharisees’ righteousness was about good appearances, though in truth they were whitewashed tombs, inwardly full of dead men’s bones. But Jesus doesn’t just cake a bunch of make-up on your sinful flesh to make you look good. He actually takes away your sin and makes you righteous, right with God and restored to Him.
Jesus fulfilled the Law and brought righteousness to your humanity in two ways. First, it is written in Hebrews, “He was tempted in all points just as we are, yet without sin.” Not only did Jesus not do the things that the commandments forbid, He also did do everything the commandments demand. Not only did He not murder or steal or have impure thoughts, but He also perfectly loved His Father in heaven and His neighbor on earth, doing good and healing, teaching the truth to all, forgiving even His enemies. Jesus did this not only as an example, but as your representative and your substitute to redeem you. Jesus gives you His righteous life as a gift through faith in Him. His keeping of the Law counts for you.
Jesus also fulfilled the Law for you by suffering its penalties in your place. “The soul that sins shall die.” Jesus Himself knew exactly what it was like to be the object of people’s anger and bitterness and resentment. He heard in His own human ears the words of betrayal, the cries for His death. Every vengeful thought, every desire for payback was pointed at Jesus on the cross. But it wasn’t just the murderous judgment of the world but the righteous judgment of God that Jesus suffered at Golgotha. Since the wages of sin is death, Jesus was put to death by the Father in your place to take the judgment of eternal death away from you forever.
Only in Jesus is there deliverance from the judgment of the Law. For only in Jesus do we receive an inward righteousness before God, the righteousness of faith, where we despair of our own goodness and instead rely on Christ alone. We prayed it in the Introit, “The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusted in Him, and I am helped.”
Our Lord is not one who constantly replays the video of your sins in His mind so that you might get what you’ve got coming. All anger, even the righteous divine wrath, was fully removed at the cross. “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” The Lord has erased all your sins from the video of your life. He remembers them no more.
In fact, actually the Lord has done even better than that. He’s given you a whole new video, a whole new life, the life of the risen Jesus, which is entirely yours in holy baptism. For St. Paul says in the Epistle that by water and the Word you were buried with Christ and raised with Him to a new life. That means that His death for sin counts as your death for sin. It’s all done and behind you. “There is therefore now no condemnation for you who are in Christ Jesus.” You are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. His life is yours, the life of mercy, of forgiving your neighbor, letting go of your anger and desire for payback, since Jesus has already taken care of all that.
Jesus now says to you, “Come to Me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” “I release you from the crushing weight of the Law; I give you the peace of being reconciled with God.” “It is finished, accomplished, completed, fulfilled. All has been done.” Romans 10 declares, “Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”
So hear Jesus’ words again with Gospel ears: “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” But your righteousness does exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, for you are clothed in the righteousness of Jesus. By faith you are as spotless and holy as He is.
So when you come to the altar to receive the gift of the Lord’s body and blood, if you have something against your brother or sister, or they against you, this is the place to release it and let it go. Confess your sins and forgive one another. Be reconciled in Christ, whose body was sacrificed for you and whose blood was shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. Here at the foot of the cross, all anger dies. There is only mercy here and righteousness that far exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. Our Lord has brought you through the Red Sea of Baptism, out of the house of bondage. Believe it. The righteousness of Christ is yours. In Him you shall enter the kingdom of heaven.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
(Most of the above is borrowed from the Rev. Jason Braaten at Gottesdienst Online,