Sermon: Excessive Righteousness

Audio is available here: Excessive Righteousness

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Aren’t you glad you’re not a Pharisee? Those poor guys kept running headlong into Jesus, and ending up on the short end of the argument. They were hypocrites who believed one thing and did another. They were legalists who wanted to impose their vision of religiosity on everyone else. I mean thank God Jesus said that our righteousness was different. That we didn’t have to be righteous like they did. We didn’t have to observe the law.

Except, of course, Jesus didn’t say that. If we are going to really hear Jesus’ words rightly—hear them first as law which exposes our sin and then as Gospel which frees us for service—we need to do a little more work with the Pharisees. And that means a bit of a detour into 1st century sociology of religion.

And the place we need to start is with the word, “religion.” When we talk about religion, we talk about something that is separate from daily life. Something that is marked off and identifiable. Religion, wrote William James, “is what a man does with his solitude.” And while we might not fully subscribe to that—after all, we are not alone here—that definition is something we get. Religion is what we do as a result of or to encourage experiences that are inner, that are private, that have to do with the heart and its relation to God and not with the mind and its relation to truth or our bodies and their relation to lived life.

If that is what we mean by religion, then we need to write the Pharisees off right away. They would not have known what do with that peculiarly modern understanding of the soul’s duty toward God at all. Neither would any of the first century parties that made up the Judaism of Jesus’ day. If this is what we mean by religion, then the Pharisees were the name for a political party far more than religious one, and indeed, the same is true for the Jews they argued with.

We can plot the various parties on a line based on political interference. At one extreme, there were the Essenes. A group of ascetic Jews who had given up not simply on the Romans, but also their fellow Jews. They had withdrawn to the little communities around the Dead Sea, and from there, waited for the coming judgment of God who would purify the land of idol-worship and sin and bring in his kingdom, a kingdom led by a Priestly Messiah who would order worship and a Kingly Messiah who would reign from a renewed Davidic throne. Their political stance was self-conscious and deliberate non-participation in public life. God was going to sort it all out. And soon. And they would watch from a safe distance.

Next in line came the Sadducees were the urban elites who controlled the Temple. They were, if you want, the priestly caste. They had entered into a truce with the occupiers, a truce in which each would not interfere in the specific scope of the other. Why on earth put the Sadducees, urbane and urban as they were, next to such a fringe group as the Essenes? Precisely because of their strict uninvolvement in politics. That was the affair of Rome. They would police, (and they did have their own police) the Temple Courts. And the Romans would police everything else. And each would manage their own affairs. Theirs was an arrangement borne of pragmatism. By remaining studiously uninvolved in discussions about the land, the Temple guardians had purchased their own corner thereof and ensured that Temple worship would continue.

Last come the Zealots. Now the Zealots did not exist really as a party in Jesus’ day. But their ideas were sufficiently common that the writers of the New Testament could look back at one of Jesus’ disciples—a fellow named Simon—and to distinguish him from Simon Peter, they named him Simon the Zealot. The Zealots (or at least their fathers) advocated the taking up of arms against the Romans, in the hope that God would reward their resolve for political purity and autonomy with victory over their idolatrous enemies. Their inspirations were the Maccabean leaders of some centuries before. As Judas Maccabeus and his followers had expelled the Greeks from the Holy Land (a victory celebrated in the festival of Hannukah), so the Zealots would expel the Romans.

Now, where on our plot did the Pharisees fit?

The Pharisees fit between the Sadducees and the Zealots, and probably leaned a little more toward the Zealots than to the Sadducees. Their name comes from the word Parush, which means, separate. And they were concerned with keeping themselves holy without giving up on life in the land. They would observe the law rigorously (indeed, there were lively debates among their Rabbis about how best to keep the law). They would thereby keep themselves separate both from their compromised Jewish brothers and sisters, and from the pagan Romans. And in their keeping of the law, they would bear witness to the God who had given them the Land that the Romans now occupied. In their keeping of the law, they would find covenant fellowship with that God. In their keeping of the law, they hoped to hasten the coming of the Messiah, the King, who would vindicate them and purify the land. At the coming of the Messiah, the dead would be raised, the world would be judged, and all would be put right for God’s people. Their creed, if we can put it that way, was incredibly simple. One God. One people of God. One future for God’s people in God’s holy land.

And Jesus—this is the point—was a Pharisee. At least, based on his depiction in the Gospels, Jesus has far more in common with the Pharisees than with any other of the parties we have mentioned. Jesus did his Temple duties, as all observant Jews did. But Jesus taught in the synagogues—where the Pharisees were in charge. Jesus debated over keeping the law—a Pharisaic concern. Jesus believed in the resurrection of the dead at the end of days—a key Pharisaic belief. Jesus was a Pharisee.

Moreover, when Matthew pens his Gospel, he appears to pen it to a group of people for whom the Pharisees would have been the heroes of the story! These are the people who had time and means—both in terms of education and leisure—to parse out the many ways in which the Law of Moses did and did not apply to daily life. And they were strict in its keeping, not because they were self-consciously hypocrites, but because they longed to be in fellowship with God and longed for the restoration of the people of Israel—even if only a righteous remnant—under the reign of the Messiah on the day of resurrection.

For the first readers of Matthew’s Gospel, a background assumption would have been, if ANYONE had a chance at being raised from the dead, to be part of God’s future in God’s land under God’s reign, it was a Pharisee.

And then here comes Jesus: “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom.” Jesus does not say, do better than the fellow next to you. He says, show a better righteousness “than that of Israel’s best and strictest and most zealous representatives. . . . better than the official form which it had assumed at the hands of its most competent human champions.” (KB CD IV.2, 551)

And that is how we first need to hear the words. We need to hear them as law. We need to hear them as judgment. Jesus is not about sidestepping the demands of Torah. He raises them. Rather than imagining all the possible ways in which Torah applies to daily life as the Pharisees did, trying thereby to make pastoral sense of Holy Scripture, Jesus exposes his hearers to their deep intention. And in so doing, he raises the standards!

Listen to his words “You think I came to abolish Torah? I came to fulfill it. Not one stroke of a pen will pass away from Torah until the world ends. You have heard it said, do not murder, but I say to you anyone who calls his brother a fool is in danger of going to hell. You have heard it said do not commit adultery, but I tell you if you have lusted in your heart, you are guilty of adultery. If your eye causes you to sin, cut it out. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better to enter into heaven blind and lame than to go to hell whole.” That’s the Jesus we meet in the Gospel of Matthew. And it is the same Jesus who says, unless your righteousness exceeds, you will never enter the kingdom.

And if we do not hear those words as words of judgment, as words of condemnation, at least at first, we do not hear Jesus this morning, and we will not hear just how wonderfully good the good news of the Gospel is.

But we’re not quite there yet. First, we need to see that Jesus is not, in these words, saying much of anything that was not already written in the Scriptures of Israel, whether the Torah (especially Deuteronomy 27-30) or the prophets (especially Jeremiah 31). God gave Israel Torah as a gift of grace, so that they could live as his people, and in so doing, be a light to lighten the Gentiles. But Israel failed, failed often, and failed consistently. To the degree that they were exiled from their land, and the “returns” of Ezra and Nehemiah and the victory of the Maccabees had not brought about the great restoration that the prophets promised. Were you to ask a first century Pharisee from the synagogue in Capernaum, he would tell you, we are still in exile until we keep the Torah and God restores our fortunes.

But to be those people, the people who would see the restoration, the prophets said, Israel would have to not keep the law outwardly, with rules and regulations, food laws and circumcision. Cutting the law into your body through circumcision, said the prophet Jeremiah, was not what God wanted. On the day of restoration, God would soften his peoples’ stiff necks. He would write the law on their consciences. He would circumcise their hearts. Torah on that day would no longer be an impossible external standard reminding Israel again and again of her inability to keep it. Torah on that day would well up from inside. It would be a fountain of living water flowing out from Israel to give life to the whole world.

And that day, Jesus says to us, is here. That is the good news!

Unless your righteousness exceeds the Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. Those words should first lay bare before us our sin, our inability to keep God’s Torah. They should prompt us to repentance.

Then, and only then, will we hear the Gospel call of the Lord Jesus: “Come, all who labour and are heavy-laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you for it is easy and my burden is light.” Exceeding the righteousness of the Pharisees begins when we recognize that such righteousness is, because of our state, as we now are, impossible to attain. We need first   to become different kinds of people. People for whom God’s Torah is not an external standard against which we are measured, but a life giving spring flowing out of us. Exceeding the righteousness of the Pharisees begins when we recognize that such righteousness is itself a gift to be received, a gift that renews our hearts, and makes us—to use the language of St. Paul—new creations.

New creations. That is precisely the kind of people that Messiah Jesus wants to present to his Father. People—Jews and Gentiles—who have through his grace and in the power of the Holy Spirit, have had their hearts renewed, made alive. People for whom Torah is the gift of God and a spring of life welling up from inside us, rather than a curse and a standard outside and beyond us.

And here is the place where that transformation happens continuously. Here at this altar. Here we are united to Christ. Here our communion with him by his Spirit is strengthened. Here we receive the grace of a softened and circumcised heart. So that we might go forth from here and be the salt of the earth, the light of the world, obeying God’s Torah and teaching others to do the same.


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