Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” So . . . how much righteousness is enough? When it comes to righteousness is it quantity that is important, or is it quality? Jesus brought in the scribes and Pharisees as an example of the righteousness that will not gain the kingdom of heaven. What did righteousness mean to them? Put simply, it meant performance of duty, and the better the duty was done the closer one came to the kingdom of God. All of this was laid out in a commentary on the Ten Commandments called The Mishnah. Nearly 600 different applications of the commandments of God were discussed in The Mishnah, and the righteous Jew did his very best to keep them all. And yet, that was clearly not enough. “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Luther said that one of the things that troubled him most about the teaching of the Church he was trying to reform was what he called the “monstrous uncertainty.” How much righteousness is enough? Have I been forgiving enough to those who have sinned against me? Have I held my tongue from unkind words in response to those who have been unkind do me? Have I helped my neighbor enough? Have I obeyed my parents enough? When have I done enough of those works which are pleasing to God that I can be certain of my entrance into the kingdom of heaven? What Luther realized, and what every human heart knows, is that the question can never be given a certain answer. If the question of righteousness is a question of quantity, you can never know if you have done enough.
But look at the setting of this text. It is a portion of the Sermon on the Mount. What is the Sermon on the Mount? It is a portrayal of the life of righteousness. It is an account of the way Christians will live. It is a running description of the various attributes that will mark the lives of Christians. How much different is this from the approach of the scribes and Pharisees? Both sound as if righteousness is a matter of doing, a question of quantity. What is the difference?
The difference is found in this statement from Jesus: “Do not think that I came to destroy the law or the prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.” Jesus Christ is righteousness in Himself. All righteousness is found in Him. As St. Paul wrote: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them. For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” It was Jesus who came to John the Baptist and insisted that He be baptized by him to fulfill all righteousness.
For Jesus, righteousness was a matter of doing. It was a matter of being born in this world, a helpless Babe in the manger. It was a matter of living out His life according to the will of the Father in heaven, the will to save His human creation, creatures who had gone astray and were now trying to save themselves by every manner of self-righteousness. It was a matter of suffering and dying, both doing what was necessary according to the Law of God, and enduring everything that hateful, evil men would do to Him. It was matter of bearing to the cross the sins of the world, and then resting in the tomb for three days, only to rise again on the morning of the third day. It was matter of ascending to heaven, there to reign over all things for the sake of His Church. In doing all of this He was fulfilling the law and the prophets, and in this way fulfilling all righteousness. And it is this righteousness that He would give us, the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. It is for us a righteousness not of quantity, for we have done nothing to gain it, but one of quality, for it comes as a gift from the Savior of the world.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, we have a problem with all of this. Our problem is that we rather like the idea that we might have some hand in our own salvation. The truth is, we much prefer to trust ourselves than Jesus. We are not always confident He knows what He is doing; we would much rather keep our own hands on the controls. Even with all the shortcomings we see in our own righteousness, we would rather have that than to entrust our souls to someone else. Even if it means that our righteousness is of our own doing, we seem to find that more appealing than simply receiving the gift of righteousness from someone else. We are rugged individuals; surely we can make it work for us.
And we feel the same way when it comes to others. We cannot possibly see how a gift of righteousness is going to benefit others. If we have unruly children, the way to handle them is to make more rules for them to follow. If something is amiss in the nation, surely the answer is to pass more laws. And even in the Church, there must be some way to get people to be more obedient to God’s Word, to take more seriously the life of the Church. Surely, there is something to be done, more rules and laws and directions that will bring in line what is out of step.
But righteousness is really not a question of what we do; it is a question of who we are. We are not righteous because we do righteous works. We do righteous works because we are righteous through the gift of righteousness from our Savior; the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation which He gives us through faith in Him. The righteousness which comes from Jesus Christ, His gift of Himself and all He has done to save us, is all that we need. Because when we have Him and His righteousness, we have everything! When we have Jesus Christ and His righteousness we have all that is needed. As St. Paul wrote to the Romans: “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?” When we have Jesus Christ and His righteousness then what will follow is a righteous life, peace, joy, hope, and all that He would give us in His grace.
How much righteousness is enough? The righteousness of Christ is enough, the righteousness He gives us—the righteousness that was placed on you in Holy Baptism, the righteousness restored to you in the words of Holy Absolution, the righteousness fed to you in the body and blood of Jesus this day. This righteousness is sufficient for you. In the name of the Father and of the Son (+) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.