Christ our Lord tells us, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
When we naturally ask, “How do you do that?” Christ responds by showing how the Law of God is to be read accurately. The scribes and Pharisees had diluted the commandments to make them all about the outward action. But Christ shows that the commandments are stronger than that. They must penetrate onto the tongue, and into the mind and heart.
So our example is the Fifth Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” And the scribes and Pharisees said, “Oh, that’s easy! We have never murdered anyone!”
But the Law is deeper than that. It is not enough to avoid committing murder. Murder also includes murderous words. When hate is on the tongue, then we have already begun to kill our brother.
Christ says that we should not insult our brother. The original text reads that we should not say, “Raca!” to our brother. So of course we say, “We have never said ‘Raca!’ to anyone! . . . What’s Raca?” Well, we do not know exactly what Raca means. It is obviously some expression of contempt or verbal abuse. The point is clear: If we put down our brother with our tongues, then we are committing murder.
We want to wiggle out of this. “I haven’t said bad things to my BROTHER.” But we should regard every man as our brother, especially, but not limited to, our brothers in the faith.
Or we want to wriggle out of it by saying, “Surely saying a bad name is not the same as MURDER!” In a way, that is true. If we feel hostility towards a person and we wrestle with it and master it, then that is better than if we follow our hostility all the way to the grave. Unrestrained, unrepented sin is deadly. So it is better in some ways if we speak hateful words yet do not follow through with our fists.
Saint James is talking about this when he says, “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” So we should strive to keep our desires from giving birth to sin that matures and becomes fully grown.
Yet God’s sight pierces through flesh and blood and hears our sinful words and even our sinful thoughts. All are equally damnable in His eyes. If the only sin you ever committed in your lifetime was one hateful thought, (however unlikely THAT would be) then you would still go to Gehenna, the fiery furnace of hell.
Likewise the words, “You fool!” should also be avoided.
Now, when a person is standing in a vocation of teaching, then they have the right and duty to rebuke error. For instance, Christ called the scribes and Pharisees “fools and blind men”. Several Psalms declare that “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” These are not sinful sayings, obviously.
The difference is that when hatred is pushing the words out of our throat, then scornful words are not merely rebuke. Even if we are in a vocation that calls for rebuke, nevertheless if we let hate drive our tongues, then we are speaking murder.
So the starting point and the fountain from which all sins come is the heart. Our thoughts stand naked before God’s eyes. He sees if we think or feel unrighteous anger.
This is terrifying. Think of it – that even the unrighteous thoughts that momentarily flit across our brains are repulsive to God and worthy of judgment. How can we escape these? A good man will certainly avoid murdering outright. But if you struggle with all your might to discipline your tongue, it will still sometimes escape your control. But the HEART and MIND are so full of uncleanness that no realistic person can think that they are clean. We may try to hide it from ourselves, or we may be in denial. But God’s Word is clear: Our hearts and minds constantly make us guilty, and no man is righteous in them.
So when Christ says that your righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees and scribes, He is saying that you must not only have a righteousness that is superficial and avoid the really obvious sins. Do we have this kind of righteousness? Should we claim that we only have pure thoughts and desires? Well, we do not have that. But we really do have what Christ is talking about. We have the righteousness that is beyond what is merely external. But I am not talking about perfection.
What I am saying is that we have a righteousness that is created in us by the Holy Spirit’s work. This can only happen when He dwells within us because we trust in Christ for salvation, life, and forgiveness. Then we will also be renewed and recreated by the Spirit in acts of love, as well as in turning away from what is displeasing in His eyes. In other words, true saving faith will produce both good works and repentance.
Instead of minimizing the requirements of the Law as the scribes and Pharisees did, a believer in Christ upholds the whole law. We try hard to obey it because we take it very seriously. We also feel genuine sorrow when we fail. Instead of altering the Law in our minds to fit our self-chosen works, instead we denounce our sinful works and confess that the Law is true and good.
This new life of faith flows from the life that Christ has put inside us. He has planted new desires for goodness in us. We will work hard at these things, even when we do not realize it.
And then we return to the Gospel to be forgiven since we realize that we are failing constantly. Even now with the new life, we are still stumbling sinners.
This kind of life is the only kind for believers in Christ. Those who enter the new kingdom will always be this way.
Part of this life that we lead is the desire to be reconciled to one another. When you know that your brother in Christ has something against you, then go to him and work it out. Be ready to drop everything, if need be, and seek him out.
If we were the kind of people that do not care about reconciliation, then we would look down upon our brother. “Why should I be reconciled to HIM? He is not worth it.” That is the way the flesh wants to think.
But Christ says, “Go. Make peace. Forgive and ask for forgiveness.”
If we despise reconciliation, then woe to us! Then we are acting as if forgiveness does not matter. If we act as if we are keeping score on how badly our brother has hurt us, then we are not acting in harmony with the Gospel. The Gospel does not count or weigh or measure. It simply forgives.
But if we want to have a life where scores are kept and people are judged by their works, then that will be done to us. And we will not get out of that prison house ever.
God keep us from that.
Let us be the kind of people that love forgiveness and forgive easily and repent easily. That is the way Christ was, and how we should strive to be.
He was the One who fulfilled all things so that we could be reconciled to God. He did not minimize or dilute the Law. He upheld every jot and tittle. Even the so-called “tiny Commandments” He obeyed and fulfilled. Even down to His hidden thoughts, He was pure and loving at all times.
This was His whole job! He had to fulfill all the Scriptures. This did not only mean the Law with its requirements. It also meant all the words of the holy Prophets who spoke about Christ’s coming. He had to fulfill all, because that was the way to redeem us. Only when the Lamb without a single blemish offered His life could our atonement be paid.
Our righteousness as saints can only happen because He first was righteous. If the atonement was not won, then what we did or did not do would not matter. If there was no redemption in the holy Blood, then there would be no sanctification for us. We would not be renewed in His life.
But there was, so there is. He has made us His people on earth. Our righteousness truly abounds now, overflowing and running over constantly, because of Him. It may not always feel as if we have abundant, overflowing righteousness. Yet that is what we have, not of ourselves; it is the gift of God.
Let us give thanks to Him who has fulfilled all things that we might be saved from the Gehenna of fire. And let us strive to live the life that He has prepared in advance for us to live.
In His Name, in which alone is salvation. Amen.
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