“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the fifth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ: there are two kinds of righteousness in this world, self-righteousness and Christ’s righteousness. Self-righteousness is outward; Christ’s righteousness is inward. Self-righteousness it is concerned with show, with making certain everyone knows just how righteous it is. Everything is picture-perfect; like a well-manicured lawn and newly painted house, self-righteousness makes sure everyone can see how clean it is. No violation of the commandments here; the whitewashed walls reveal no imperfection. “All these I have kept since my youth.” No murder, no adultery, no stealing here, and self-righteousness makes sure that everyone knows it. “I thank God that I am not like other men.” Self-righteousness is loud, always pointing to itself, always making sure that others see just how righteous it is; how pious, how ‘religious,’ how charitable. If self-righteousness can afford it, it gets its name on plaques and buildings; if not, it just makes sure everyone around it sees how holy, morally upright, and certain of God’s favor it is.
Self-righteousness feeds on pride; pride in its own achievements and holiness. Self-righteousness is driven by competition; comparing itself with others, showing off its own beautiful lawn and whitewashed walls next to its dingy neighbors. Pride and competition lead to anger at every perceived slight, they lead to insults toward those who are not nearly so righteous, they lead to thoughts of revenge when others sin against them. Self-righteousness exalts itself over others, and it despises those who are beneath it. And not only toward strangers, but against brothers and sisters, those who have the same Father, God Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth. Self-righteousness divides itself from others, from its spouse, from its children, from its parents, from pastors, and from fellow Church members. Every sin by others is magnified by self-righteousness; each is a reason to rage in anger or to break off the relationship, to seek revenge instead of reconciliation.
Self-righteousness refuses to be reconciled; it has too much pride to admit wrong and repent. Self-righteousness holds onto each and every perceived slight; it is much too concerned with what others have done to it to examine itself for any sin. Every situation of division between brothers and sisters in the Church is the fault of someone else. When brought to the table to reconcile, the tone is not humble repentance but wounded pride. There is a demand for its own rights, for the respect that its outward righteousness should’ve earned. Self-righteousness is so consumed with itself that it cannot imagine ever being in the wrong. Every request for reconciliation is then an opportunity for everyone else to repent, for everyone else to acknowledge what should be obvious: the holiness, the piety, the impeachable moral character of self-righteousness.
Jesus exposes self-righteousness; that is why He came. He sees past the beautiful landscaping to see the corruption within; in fact, He calls self-righteousness “white-washed tombs,” structures that have the appearance of good, but are full of death. Self-righteousness is outward; Jesus points inward, to the heart. He takes the commandments and He sharpens them, so that they slice through the white-washed walls and expose the death that dwells inside. “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be liable to the judgment.’” Self-righteousness nods its head smugly; no judgment here, one can dig as deep as they want and they will find no deaths on my record. But Jesus doesn’t stop there. “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 whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” The Fifth Commandment will not be avoided so easily, the Law will not be deceived—self-righteousness stands condemned.
Self-righteousness cannot tame the Law, it cannot control it, and it cannot fulfill it; it can keep from taking another life (usually), but it cannot keep from anger and insults, it cannot keep from causing division. Through pride and competition, self-righteousness tears apart every relationship in the horizontal realm, especially between it and its brothers and sisters in the Church. And Jesus declares that the destruction of horizontal relationships destroys the vertical relationship. Those who hate their brothers and sisters will be judged by the Father, they will be held accountable by the One whose wrath burns against sin; self-righteousness stands guilty before God Almighty.
Self-righteousness has nowhere to go, no place of escape. Jesus has exposed it, he has cut to the heart of the outward show of piety and revealed the damnable corruption that dwells therein. This work is necessary, because stubborn self-righteousness must be broken by the Law to drive it to repentance. But Jesus did not come only to reveal the darkness; He came to overcome it. Jesus did not come only to condemn self-righteousness, He came to destroy it, putting it to death and raising up His own righteousness in its place. Jesus did not come only to show the sin that lies behind the façade of self-righteousness, He came to die for that sin and rise to forgive it. Jesus did not come only to show that self-righteousness is liable to judgment, He came to make Himself liable to judgment, accountable before God for the sin of the world.
Jesus came to place Himself under the judgment deserved for the sins of self-righteousness. He was not angry with His brothers, even though they condemned Him to death, but yet He was liable to judgment. He did not insult His brothers, even though they insulted Him, but yet He was liable to the council. He did not say ‘You fool!’ even though they called His preaching foolishness, but yet He was liable to the hell of fire. He was liable in the place of self-righteousness, to restore the self-righteous to the Father. He was perfectly righteous, outwardly righteous and inwardly righteous, and He died in the place of the self-righteous, to give to them a righteousness that is not their own, but His. The vertical relationship, destroyed by the sins of self-righteousness, is restored; God is reconciled with the self-righteous, for Christ gives His righteousness to all who in humility repent of their self-righteousness and cling to Him in faith.
Self-righteousness is put to death at the font; there the relationship with God is restored, and a new righteousness, Christ’s righteousness, is raised up. Christ’s righteousness then seeks reconciliation with those in the horizontal realm. Reconciliation with God comes through humility, the humility of repentance and the humble reception of forgiveness. Reconciliation with man comes through humility, the humility of repentance and the humble reception of forgiveness. Christ’s righteousness does not fix its eyes on what others have done to it, but instead in humility repents of what it has done to others. It freely confesses its sin to God and man. Jesus instructs those clothed with His righteousness: “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
Christ’s righteousness seeks harmony, reconciliation; it doesn’t insist on its own rights, it doesn’t demand its due, but on the contrary it admits sin and asks for forgiveness. Its relationship with God in the vertical realm is based on repentance and forgiveness, and so are its relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ. Jesus says explicitly where pride and the refusal to reconcile in humility will lead: “Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.” Pride has no place before God or man; humility instead is the way of Christ’s righteousness: the humble confession of one’s sin, and the humble reception of grace, forgiveness for that sin.
There are two kinds of righteousness in our world, self-righteousness and Christ’s righteousness. Self-righteousness is outward; Christ’s righteousness is inward. And as Christ Himself teaches, one is far superior to the other. “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Self-righteousness leads only to condemnation and death; Christ’s righteousness brings forgiveness and life. Self-righteousness is your natural condition; Christ’s righteousness is His gift to you, won through the cross and empty tomb and given in the Word and Holy Sacraments. Christ’s righteousness puts self-righteousness to death, drowning it in the font at your baptism and every day since. Your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees because your righteousness is Christ’s righteousness. He stood in your place and received your condemnation, and then rose in your place as the pledge and promise of your resurrection, and now His righteousness is your own, and will be, forever.
It is your connection with Christ that fulfills the Law; both the outer keeping that self-righteousness excels at and the inward keeping that God demands. Because you are connected with Christ, your good works are righteous. The unbeliever does no good works in the eyes of God; self-righteousness is no righteousness at all. And Jesus gives this promise in Matthew chapter thirteen: “To the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance.” Your righteousness exceeds any and all self-righteousness because Christ gives all of His gifts in abundance; He pours His righteousness out on you in His overflowing generosity. The One who multiples loaves and fills boats with fish fulfills all righteousness and He gives all righteousness. In the name of Jesus, Amen.