If you came to church today feeling like you were a fairly decent person, I’m sure the Readings we have heard today have changed that perception. “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” doesn’t sound like much Gospel. For as bad of a rap as we give them, the Pharisees were good people in a worldly definition of good. They were the people you would trust with the most intimate secrets, knowing the combination to the safes at Fort Knox, and the like. They were good people. They strove to do everything correctly, to be honest and upright people. They did it for the wrong reasons, of course, but to the outside world they made the saintliest grandmother look like the member of a biker gang. So, unless you’re better than them, there’s no way you’re entering heaven. And since you’ve been confronted by the Ten Commandments, St. Paul’s admonition to stop living in sin, and Jesus’ revelation that keeping the Ten Commandments is far more than simply keeping the letter of the law, you have been shown that, no, there is no way your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, and, no, you cannot hope to enter heaven on your own merits.
You know this because the Law has done its work. The Law always accuses. Since the Fall into sin, there is no good use of the Law. It will never reveal an ounce of righteousness in us. When Jesus begins to unpack the Ten Commandments in the Sermon on the Mount, He exposes our hypocrisy, our false belief that we are good people, that our sins are just little mistakes to be expected, and not a big deal. But we see that they are a big deal. A deadly, damned-to-hell big deal.
It’s not just the letter of the Law we have to keep, but the spirit of it as well. Jesus reveals that by the time we break the actual Commandment, there has been a long lead-up to it. Murder doesn’t simply begin with taking the life of another person. It begins with thinking life would be better without that person around. That’s what Jesus means when He says that insulting your brother or calling him “you fool” is equal to murder. It’s not the insult itself that damns. Even Jesus calls the scribes and Pharisees “fools and blind men” later in Matthew’s Gospel (23:17). It’s the underlying attitude, the anger at the person that thinks whatever situation just happened that brought about the outrage wouldn’t have happened had they not been present. Then this leads to hatred, and hatred left unchecked can lead to murder, bringing it about that the person in question no longer exists in this life.
Were we to read on, Jesus goes on to explain that the same process is involved in sins against the Sixth Commandment as well. It’s not just the act of adultery, being intimate with someone who is not your spouse, but the lead-in that is sinful as well. Looking at another person and lusting over them is equal to committing adultery. You may not have been physically intimate with them, but in your mind you were. Just like murder, lusting after someone can lead to physical action, and every step along the way has broken the Commandment not to commit adultery.
What we are shown is that sin is a slippery slope. It may start with something that seems innocent enough—an insult hurled in your head or a lingering glance at the person who has piqued your lust. But even that is a sin and it becomes a gateway that leads to greater sin. Even if we all took Xanax around the clock or dressed everyone in unflattering mumus, put the strictest of parental controls on our Internet connections, and cut off the sexual images that have taken over every form of media from newspapers to TV, we still would not be free from sin. Our mind can conjure up images that lead to sin, and unless we can burn out our memories, we will always recall what someone did to us that day on the playground in second grade and become angry. So long as we are in this sinful flesh we will never be entirely free from uncalled for anger against our neighbor, impure lust, covetousness, boasting, and all the rest.
Our minds, inspired by the way the world works, tell us to try harder. To read the rules and strive to follow them, to become experts in the rules. Those who follow the rules and are good people will be rewarded. But the solution isn’t the Law. It’s not trying to keep the Ten Commandments, because there we can only find hell. St. Paul told the Romans that the more we study the Law the more we see our sinfulness. As we meditate on God’s Law we see that no part of us is unstained by sin. Even though the Law of God is good, it’s not good news for us who break it.
What did we sing in the Introit at the beginning of the service? “Hear the voice of my pleas for mercy.” Our righteousness is never sufficient and our good works are never enough. We don’t tell God, “Look at all the good I’ve done and judge me by that.” Instead we plead for mercy, for forgiveness, for the withholding of what we truly deserve. At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus already reveals what He will do to give us that mercy. He said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them.” Jesus came to fulfill the Law in your place. He actively does all the things written in the Law, keeping every Commandment perfectly where we have not, and He passively suffers everything the Law demands for sin, being judged in our place. He alone has the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.
Whenever we become angry with our neighbor and break the Fifth Commandment, our prayer is for mercy, to be delivered because of Jesus’ righteousness. When we look at our neighbor with lust in our heart and break the Sixth Commandment, we pray for mercy, to be delivered because of Jesus’ righteousness. When we waste our time, lie, speak words that harm our neighbor’s reputation, covet our neighbor’s house, spouse, or life, the only thing we can do is plead for mercy, praying “O Lord Jesus, deliver me in Your righteousness.”
And He does! He makes His righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees yours. He gives you His righteousness, His fulfillment of the Law, His victory over sin, death, and the devil. He Baptizes you into His death and resurrection. He gives you the benefit of that death and resurrection in the words of Absolution and in His forgiving and strengthening Body and Blood. Jesus takes onto Himself what you deserve and pours into you what is His, to guarantee your forgiveness and everlasting life. By His Holy Spirit He gives you new light, new hope, new strength, new powers, the ability to turn from sin, and when you do sin, the ability to cry out for mercy that responds in forgiveness. Because you cannot keep the Law, Jesus has in your place. The Law is fulfilled by the Gospel, by Jesus dying and rising, and keeping you in His forgiveness and His grace until you reach your journey’s end.
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.