The Righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees
The scribes and Pharisees got a bad rap. When you read the New Testament and encounter them, you know that they are the bad guys. They are the evil empire, the corrupt mob, the plotting villains. You were probably taught to think this way about the Pharisees in Sunday School, but it’s not actually true. If you met one of the Pharisees today, you’d quickly realize that he was not just a good guy, but he was one of the very best.
When a pastor daydreams about the ideal church member, he usually has a Pharisee in mind. A Pharisee is the perfect Lutheran. His church attendance is flawless. He serves on the school board and church council. He tithes ten percent of his income faithfully. He gives generously to missions and outreach. He actually reads his Bible, and he’s probably also read all 55 volumes of Luther’s Works – in German, of course. His children sing in the choir and are active in the youth group. His wife is the first one to sign up for church dinners and potlucks.
The Pharisee makes the world’s best neighbor. He mows his lawn. He rakes his leaves. His dog never barks all night. He drives a hybrid car and has solar panels on his roof. He takes your recycle bin down to the curb when you forget. In winter, he shovels his snow and yours. He’s happy check your mail when you go on vacation. Everybody wants to live next door to him.
The Pharisee is also a model citizen. He generally votes conservative, but he still keeps an open mind on important issues. He volunteers at the fire department and coaches little league. He drinks socially, but never too much. He is known and respected in the community. If our country had more Pharisees, there’d be more order and less crime. If our churches had more Pharisees, we’d have no problem balancing the budget or paying our pastors. This Pharisee is the guy that you secretly wish you could be and know that you are not.
Are you impressed yet? Well, you should be. But Jesus isn’t. Jesus says to you, “Unless your righteousness is greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will absolutely never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:20). How’s that for a cold dose of reality? If this guy, whose life looks basically perfect, can’t get into heaven, then what hope is there for you? If this Pharisee with all his amazing works doesn’t have a shot, then what chance do you have with your mediocre list of accomplishments? None! Zero! Nada! When it comes to heaven, God demands absolute perfection and you don’t have it.
Imagine that you and 1,000 other people are trying to get into Harvard. You take the entrance exam and score in the top 90%. Surely, you’re in, right? But the admissions counselor says, “Sorry. You don’t qualify. You needed a perfect score – on the exam, AND on your senior finals, AND on every test, quiz, or assignment you’ve ever had from preschool until today. Remember that time you missed a spelling word in 2nd grade? Sorry, you’re out.” This is what the Law of God requires of you.
It’s easy to look around at your neighbor and think, “Well, at least I’m better than he is. I don’t curse. I don’t lose my temper. I don’t sleep around with my girlfriend.” We tend to think of sins only as outward actions – things we do or don’t do. But Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Mt 5:21-22a). Jesus tells us that sin is not a matter of the hands; it’s a matter of the heart.
Now, in the eyes of your spouse, there is a big difference between lustful thoughts and actual adultery. In the eyes of your neighbor, being angry with him is not the same as punching him in the face. But in the eyes of God, there’s no difference. When it comes to qualifying for heaven, being angry with your brother is the same as pulling the trigger. What’s the difference between you and the guy on trial for murder? Perhaps it’s simply that in the heat of anger, he had a gun in his hand and you didn’t. Why not? Maybe you couldn’t afford one. Maybe you were too lazy to go to the store and buy one. Maybe you simply got lucky. In any case, there’s no room for boasting or judgment. Instead, thank God that he was merciful to you. Thank God that your hands didn’t have the chance to carry out the evil that was in your heart.
So you haven’t choked your neighbor with your hands. You haven’t beaten him with your fists. That’s good. Your neighbor will appreciate this. But if you’re counting on this to get you into the kingdom of God, then you’ve got a big problem. Because you’re nowhere close to being as righteous as the Pharisees, and Jesus said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds the scribes and the Pharisees, you will absolutely never enter the kingdom of heaven.” As the disciples watched the rich, young ruler walk away, a man who had kept every commandment from his youth, they asked Jesus in despair, “Who then can be saved? (Mt 19:25). If this guy can’t make it, then what hope is there for us?” The Law answers, “None at all. With man it is impossible!”
The name Satan is simply the Hebrew word for accuser. The Bible calls Satan the accuser of the brethren, and he’s very good at his job. No man on earth is his equal. He’s the sharp prosecuting attorney that has never lost a case. He knows the law forwards and backwards, and – you’d better believe it – he’s got an airtight case against you. Your accuser has been keeping track of your sins, since way before second grade. He knows what you’ve done, he knows what you’ve said and thought, he knows all the things you think you got away with. So Jesus warns, “You’d better settle with your accuser quickly before the Day of Judgment, lest he hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be thrown into the prison of hell. Truly, I say to you, from there you will absolutely never get out until you have paid the last of your debt” (Mt 5:25-26 alt.).
How can you settle with your accuser? Promise to be a better person, better even than the Pharisees? That’s impossible for men. You’ve made that promise many times before and broken it just as often. Offer to make a deal? Your accuser is demanding that you be punished to the full extent of the law. He’s out for blood and nothing you can offer would change his mind. So what can you do? There is only one way to settle with your accuser and you aren’t the one to do it. You’re going to need to let Jesus speak for you. And so your Advocate, your Defense Attorney, stands and says, “Your Honor, my client is guilty, but I’d like to make a motion to dismiss all charges.” On what grounds? “On the grounds that my client has already died.”
Your accuser is quick to answer, “That’s impossible!” – and he’s right. But what’s impossible for men is possible with God. The very same God who spoke and created the universe with his words, also spoke these words over you, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” That’s it? Yes, That’s it! These few words accomplished for you what a lifetime of righteous living could never do. With these words you became a child of God. With these words you were translated from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of heaven.
“But what about his sins,” your accuser asks? God, the Father, the righteous judge, looks at you and says, “What about his sins? I don’t see them. Instead, I see the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. I see only the perfect righteous of my Son!” And then you remember – when you were baptized you put off the old sinful nature and you put on Christ. His righteousness was wrapped around you like a garment. You sins are gone because Jesus took them. He stole them away like a thief in the night. They are nailed to his cross and now they are no more. The mouth of your accuser has been silenced. The mouth of the Pharisee has been silenced. Indeed, every boasting mouth in this world has been silenced except for the voice of our mediator, Jesus, whose sprinkled blood speaks a better word than the blood of Abel (Heb 12:24). That word is the Father’s verdict concerning you, “Not guilty, for the sake of my Son, Jesus.” Your debt to the law has been paid in full. Your accuser has nothing on you, because you are – not were – you are baptized. You are dead to sin, and alive in Christ. The door of heaven, which once was closed to you, now stands open wide to receive you. For if we have been united with Christ, through baptism, we shall certainly be united with him in the resurrection. (Ro 6:5). This is the promise of Christ to you and to all who believe. You didn’t earn it, but, by golly, you can take this all the way to the bank. The righteousness that exceeds the scribes and Pharisees is yours, by faith in Christ. Amen.