Trinity VI.  July 28, 2019.  St. Stephen’s, Athens

St. Matthew 5, verse 20 – For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

I write this sermon late morning Friday after in the very early morning one of those unpleasant procedures that we are supposed to have after age 50.  Anaesthesia was administered.  My take-away patient instructions tell me that my judgement may be adversely affected for up to 24 hours.  So, if you do not care for my sermon, kindly blame the doctor, but be aware that he may reply, ‘I did warn him.’

In our epistle today from Romans 6, Saint Paul speaks of baptism as a kind of dying, a death with Christ so that we may rise with Christ.  We could expand this idea with other passages to show that many Old Testament events involving water combine the ideas of death and new life.  Noah’s ark is an example, as is the crossing of the Red sea, which brought life and liberation to the Israelites but death to Pharaoh and his armies.  The casting of Moses into the Nile in a papyrus ark and the crossing of the Jordan river at the end of the Exodus are further examples.  Baptism by water brings a death, death to sin and to our old nature; but also brings new life in Christ.

Our gospel lesson today from the Sermon on the Mount in St. Matthew presents our Lord as a new Moses.  As the new Moses, Christ gives God’s people a new law – a law for those who come to new life in God by baptism in water.  This law describes how we should live in this world and with each other:  it tells us what dying to self and rising in Christ look like.  It tells us how we should live.

In my text from this lesson, our Lord compares the behavior and attitudes demanded by the Old Testament with what he himself expects from us.  He compares the ‘righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees’ with the righteousness of his followers.

One obvious fact in the comparison is that our Lord in one way makes things more difficult and more demanding for us.  He says, ‘Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.’ (5:20)  Now, ‘exceeding righteousness’ sounds pretty daunting to me.  It is true that our Lord and the apostles removed from us many of the ceremonial burdens of Jewish law.  We can eat pork and shrimp; we can drive and sew on a button on the sabbath; we aren’t obliged to circumcise; we don’t sacrifice animals.  Those laws were types and foreshadowings of Christ and the sacraments, and when the reality came in its fulness, the shadows passed away.  So some things became easier and simpler.

But while many ceremonial and civil laws of Israel passed away, the moral and ethical side of the Old Testament remained in force and, in fact, became more demanding in the new law of Christ.

Our lesson gives an example in the matter of anger and forgiveness.  The Old Testament law as interpreted by the scribes and Pharisees mostly required outward restraint:  ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ says the old law.  Christ wants us not to kill, of course, but he also demands that we go beyond that and also control and purify our inner attitude.   We are expected not just to control our outward behavior but also our  desires and our motives.  Christians are expected not just to suppress our impulses to actual violence, but also hatred, anger, harsh words, and even harsh thoughts.  The Sermon on the Mount is daunting because it says that what really matters is not our outer behavior, but what is in our hearts.  If we are full of anger, malice, wrath, and all uncharitableness, then that is what and who we are.  That we do not kill will do us little good if we are full of those other things.  God looks to our intentions and attitudes, not just our actions.  We may sin in thought as well as in word and deed.

To illustrate the meaning of ‘exceeding righteousness’, I often say, use the example of a parent dealing with a squabbling brother and sister.  Which is more demanding:  to say, ‘Johnny, don’t hit your sister!’; or, to say, ‘Johnny, love your sister!’  The law of the scribes and Pharisees seems to concern the less demanding, outer thing.  The law of Christ concerns the exceeding, more demanding command to love.

The good news of the Sermon on the Mount is that our Father in heaven is infinitely compassionate and infinitely forgiving.  There is no end to the mercy of God.  This good news, however, itself makes a demand on us.  God’s perfect mercy to me calls me to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees in response and in gratitude for the forgiveness I myself am given.

Now how can this be possible?  How can we possibly exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, who were so very scrupulous in religion?  How can we achieve the forgiving heart and exceeding righteousness that Christ calls for?  The answer is that we cannot if we rely upon ourselves and our own strength.  But the process of receiving God’s grace changes us so that we want to respond to it and its Giver by showing grace to others.  It is more blessed to give than to receive, because we want to give when we have already received the gifts that really matter.

In short, our righteousness cannot exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees until it is no longer our righteousness, but God’s righteousness in us, transforming our hearts, smoothing out the scars of our fallen nature, and drawing the sting from our painful pasts which can make it very hard for us to forgive.  Our own righteousness cannot go very far.  But God working in us can go as far as we need.  That is our hope of salvation.

Alone we cannot surpass the scribes and Pharisees, but God can and will.  Our duty is to use the means of grace that God’s gives us — namely, prayer and the sacraments — so that by those God-given means he may convert us and make us pleasing to him.  In this way we may exceed the scribes and Pharisees — by being exceedingly forgiven and exceedingly blessed and therefore exceedingly grateful in return.  Then we may enter the kingdom of heaven.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

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