[Matthew 5:20] “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Christ Is Your Righteousness
You must have a righteousness that is exceedingly righteous - a righteousness fit for God. In what is your righteousness found?
“Righteous” and “righteousness” are related to the words “justify” and justification”.
To be righteous means to have the quality of goodness, rightness, acceptability to God. To be justified means to be deemed, or counted, or declared righteous or good.
As a comparison, when my dog eats his dog food, sits when I say sit, comes when I call him to come, and does his business in the grass and not in the house, he is being “righteous” - he is being a “good boy”. When I pat him on the head and call him “good boy”, I am justifying him - I am declaring him to be a good boy.
Righteousness is goodness. Justification is the declaration that one is righteous. On what basis does God put His hand on your head and say, “Good boy”? What is your righteousness?
Jesus says we must have a righteousness which exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees if we are to be declared good for God’s kingdom.
In hindsight, we might think of the Pharisees and scribes as being the obvious hypocrites – the obvious bad examples. So, we think Jesus is saying, “you need to not be hypocrites like these rotten Pharisee guys”.
But that’s not what is happening here. In the eyes of the people, the scribes and Pharisees are those who are definitely fit to be called righteous. The scribes were the experts in the scriptures – experts in the 10 commandments and in the whole Law.
The Pharisees were the respected teachers and local leaders of the people. They were Jewish patriots and promoters of the people’s cause, faith, and traditions.
So, when Jesus says, “You must have a righteousness that exceeds theirs”, the people are thinking, “then who can be saved?” Jesus is beginning to teach the people about a righteousness that is entirely different than what they ever thought.
The scribes and the Pharisees trusted in a righteousness that was their own. Their own keeping of God’s Law was the righteousness by which they sought to stand before God.
But Jesus goes on to show us in the following verses that, though we might think of ourselves as those who have done good, we in fact have not done good at all in God’s eyes but have only sinned. In the next few verses, Jesus takes God’s Law and points it not just at our actions but all the way down into our hearts and at our lips and at our sense of sight.
You have not killed a man, but you have been a murderer of men in the anger of your heart – “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 whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” [Matthew 5:22]
Hasn’t God heard what you’ve muttered against another under your breath? Will not God who created mind and thought judge you for your mind and evil thoughts? Won’t God who created human emotion judge us for our emotions and desires?
Don’t my thoughts and emotions and desires come from me? Aren’t they mine? Aren’t the words of my inner ranting and arguing and insulting of others really my own? So, am I not liable to judgment for them before God? It all reflects who I really am, my unrighteousness.
Aren’t your wandering eyes your eyes? Is it marital faithfulness to have eyes for another? And doesn’t God see all these things? So, all these things - of heart and mind and eye and speech and desire – all of these things show clearly that you and I, and the Pharisees, are not righteous but unrighteous. According to what’s in us, God cannot put His hand on our head and call us good.
Like the Pharisees, the righteousness I have from myself is at most only skin deep. It’s an empty eggshell, and God doesn’t deem it truly righteous.
But we try to deem ourselves righteous. Think of all the little ways that we try to be righteous in our conversations - the little excuses or unnecessary bits of information we slip into our sentences to show that we’re good. Even when talking to ourselves we do this.
Or think of how quickly you might agree to what’s acceptable to the other person so that you too appear acceptable. And look at how quickly we group ourselves into righteous camps – to be right-wing-patriots or to be left-wing-justice warriors - with the result that we really become self-righteous Pharisees toward each other.
We are desperate to justify ourselves – to be deemed righteous – to be called good –clinging to whatever little righteousness we can because of the enormity of what we truly lack.
You cannot produce the righteousness that makes you fit. But God has accepted the righteousness of another in your place. It’s by the righteousness of another that God can put His hand on your head and call you good.
Scripture teaches us that Jesus Christ is now our righteousness. “Jesus Christ, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” [1 Corinthians 1;30]. Jesus has become for you that exceedingly great righteousness of which He spoke.
Likewise, the Apostle Paul says, “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” [Philippians 3:9]
Jesus has become your righteousness from God and is now counted as your goodness, righteousness, and holiness in place of all you lack. Thanks be to God.
How is it that Jesus has become your righteousness in place of your own? When Jesus became man, He stepped into your skin. And when you were Baptized, you stepped into Him. On the cross, all that is Christ’s – His righteousness, goodness, merit, innocence - became yours, and all that is yours – your guilt, your sin, your debt to God – became His.
As Christ said in our Gospel reading, He came to fulfill God’s Law. Jesus became your righteousness by fulfilling all that God’s Law requires and by offering that perfect obedience and perfect life as a sacrifice to God on man’s behalf.
On the cross, Jesus also wore your unrighteousness and suffered all that God’s Law requires for sin, meaning that His agony of hell and death on the cross was the debt of punishment paid for all sin on man’s behalf. Fulfilling the God’s Law and suffering the punishment owed to it is righteousness. He has become your righteousness.
Not by your own, but by this righteousness of Jesus, God has declared you fit and has called you good - He has declared you righteous because it was all done for you. You, a sinner, have a righteousness that is not your own.
Is it right? Can God really do that? Can He really call someone good who is not good in themselves? Well, ask yourself this: Is my dog really always a good boy? I can tell you that he is not. Yet, to me, he is a good boy, not because he is, but because he’s mine and I call him good.
And you all have sons and daughters who are not always good. Yet you call them good, and to you they really are, not because they are, but because they are yours and you love them and you call them good. (And it’s the same with us and our kids.)
How much more is this true of God, who not only has made us His own, but has given His Son into death to be our righteousness. You are His by your Baptism. Though we haven’t yet been very good in many ways, nevertheless, we are good to Him, and He puts His hand on our head and He says so now and on the Last Day. Amen.