6th Sunday after Trinity – Matthew 5:17-26 – July 31st, 2011
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit +
One of the worst things a Christian can think about himself is that he is a “good person.” There is nothing more damaging to your faith than pride and self-righteousness, than viewing your own actions with a smug grin and saying, “I’m certainly not that bad.” The reason for this is two fold. First, when we say that we are “good” – we don’t really mean “good” as in “God is Good”, but we tend to mean “good” as in, eh, okay, meh, pretty good. We lower our standards to make sure we meet them – and the problem is God does not like us lowering our standards. The second major danger of thinking of ourselves as “good”, is that this then gives our sinful flesh free reign to look down upon, despise, and berate anyone whom we think doesn’t measure up to our standards. Both of these attitudes and approaches are dangerous to you. Both of these approaches are warned against by Christ Jesus in our Gospel Lesson this morning.
“Therefore, whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” We are not to go monkeying around with God’s Law. We aren’t to undercut it, we aren’t to say that what God has commanded isn’t what He has commanded. We are not to lower God’s standards to something that we can do much more easily. But, this is the temptation that we face from Satan all the time, especially when we get to thinking about how we are good, or at least pretty good. Well, I know I’m not perfect, but I’m pretty good. Did you hear what that idea just did? It just relaxed the commandments. The command is not to be pretty good, the command is to be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect. And what happens when we as Christians look at our lives and we settle for pretty good, or we settle for good enough? If I think am good enough, why would I need this place? Why would I need to ponder God’s Law and learn and grow in knowledge – I’m already pretty good? But even more dangerous than that – if I am pretty good, why would I need to confess my sins and receive forgiveness? If I think that I’m pretty good, I’m not going to think about how much I need Christ – I’ve been thinking I’m good enough on my own.
And bear in mind, it’s not a simple, automatic jump to where you think, “Eh, that wasn’t too bad” and then the next thought is “Beh, I don’t need no stinking Jesus.” But there is a pattern, a movement. When you relax the Law, you don’t see your own sin, and the less and less you see your own sin, the less and less you confess your own sin, the less and less you will see and rejoice in Christ’s forgiveness for you. Christ Jesus has come to forgive your sins – to Justify you… but if you are already saying you are pretty good, if you are already ignoring the Law and calling your own actions justified already, you’ll slowly, more and more, stop looking to Christ. You’ll only think about Jesus and His forgiveness for the “big” mistakes… and then, because you get more and more used to patting yourself on the back, you won’t see any of your mistakes as being big anymore… and slowly but surely, less and less time is spent listening to God’s Word, hearing the Law in its fullness, and certainly less in hearing and receiving Christ’s forgiveness.
And American Christianity tends to lean this way. When we listen to the radio folks, when we read books – a lot of it tries to water the law down into something that we can do – a lot of it revolves around trying to make us good people. Instead of preaching God’s Law in its fullness, its sternness, and then having to say, “I am not a good man, but I am a poor miserable sinner,” we Americans like to water things down to where they are doable. Instead of being the giant reminder of sin, we want the Law to be a checklist of things that we can accomplish to show everyone what good little people we are. It’s strange, but when someone says, “You can’t drink, Christian don’t drink” – that’s weakening, that’s relaxing the law. That’s making up something new that some people can do easily – and then patting yourself on the back, all the while ignoring other parts of the law. No, when we look at God’s Law, when we hear it, when we hear the Ten Commandments, we must never let ourselves think, “Oh, I’ve done that.” No, the Law shows us our sin, kills our sinful pride, and drives us to Confess our sins.
Another aspect of this, of thinking that we are “good” people, is that normally if I think of myself as good, it isn’t good as by God’s standards (for I know I can’t do that), but good compared to my neighbor. And so what happens is that if I am interested in making myself feel better about myself, I will look down upon my neighbor. Did you hear what so-and-so did? Well, I’d never… Kick mud in the neighbor’s face and then note how lily clean you are without all that mud. It happens. And listen to how our Lord describes the 5th commandment, especially in light of our sinful desire to elevate ourselves over our neighbor. “You have heard that it was said 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; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” Oh, I’m a good person, I’ve never killed anyone. But have you been angry with your neighbor? Have you looked down upon them, insulted them, called them names, thought how you are so much better than them – were glad you weren’t a fool, and idiot like them? Then you are vile sinner, and Christ Jesus Himself says that you are liable to the hell of fire. The Hell of fire. His words. There’s no way to soft-sell that one – Jesus here is blunt. So what happens when we start playing goody-two-shoes games and start looking down upon our brother to make ourselves seem better, to make ourselves feel better? We deserve hell. God didn’t put your brother into your life so that you can pat yourself upon your back as you look down upon him, God put your neighbor in your life to give you someone that you could love and serve and thus be the servant God created you to be – and when you try to justify yourself, when you try to say how good you are, and especially when you think how much better you are than them, you completely forget who you are, who you were created to be, and you trash God’s Law totally and utterly.
None of us should be comfortable hearing this. We shouldn’t. This should make us squirm a bit. This should make us remember our need for Christ Jesus. While Jesus does quite a bit of warning, quite a bit of smacking us upside our self-righteous heads here, there is beautiful Gospel for us to consider – because Christ Jesus your Lord doesn’t look at you condescendingly, He doesn’t despise you for your sin. Rather, He comes to redeem you. Listen: “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 doesn’t come to pat you on the back and tell you to just keep on sinning. He doesn’t get rid of that mean, harsh law so you can be content being jerks to each other. He does something much more wondrous than abolishing the Law – He fulfills it. In your place. The attitude of the unfaithful is to try to justify, to excuse himself. “It’s not my fault.” We saw that in the garden. It’s not my fault, it’s the woman You gave me, she tricked me. Oh, it’s not my fault, it’s the snake’s fault, the Devil made me do it. But dear friends in Christ Jesus, that isn’t the game we play. Rather this – we confess our sins, but then we also confess that Christ Jesus has come into this world and that He is perfect, that He has fulfilled the Law, that He is the Lamb of God, without blemish or spot or flaw, Who takes away the sin of the world. We are not perfect, but Christ Jesus is – and this same Christ Jesus has fulfilled the Law and the Prophets for us. Are you good enough for heaven? No, but Christ Jesus is good for you, good in your place. And He has traded places with you. Christ Jesus your Lord has taken up your sin, and He has crucified it upon the Cross. That is the point of our Romans passage – your sin has been punished already – it was punished almost 2000 years ago. And in exchange for your sin, Christ Jesus gives to you His own righteousness and life. He joined Himself to you in the waters of Holy Baptism, He gives Himself to you in His Supper. And what does this mean? “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” You aren’t good enough to earn yourself heaven. Simply aren’t. Even the scribes, the folks who study the Scriptures all the time, they aren’t good enough themselves. Even the Pharisees, the best of the best among the Jews, they aren’t good enough in and of themselves. But you, dear friends, your righteousness does exceed them, because Christ Jesus is your righteousness. You do not justify yourselves, rather you confess your sin and let Christ Jesus justify you. This is His great love and mercy to you, that He redeems you from your sin.
This is why our Lord teaches this: “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother and then come and offer your gift.” Now, don’t merely understand this as some holy hoop to jump through, some divine checklist to scratch off. Rather, our Lord is teaching us that He is always about reconciliation. He came down from heaven to forgive you your sins and to reconcile you to God the Father. Likewise, His forgiveness is upon you, upon your brother, so that you may be reconciled to each other in this life. If your brother has something against you, if you have done that which has tempted your brother to call you a fool, confess your sin to him, and beg his forgiveness. If your brother has wronged you, offer him forgiveness, be reconciled to him. Our lives here ought not be about our sinful pride that would isolate us from one another. Rather this – Christ Jesus is your righteousness, He is your life, and this applies to all things. You need never defend yourself. Repent and receive forgiveness. Remember that the one who wrongs you is just a sinner as you are, and speak Christ’s Word of forgiveness to them. None of us are perfect, and there’s no point in ranking ourselves or figuring out who is better. Rather this – let us all remember that we are sinful folk, people who without Christ Jesus’ love for us would be liable to the hell of fire. But the great and wondrous truth is this. Christ Jesus has come, He has won forgiveness for all our sins, and He gladly gives us this forgiveness daily and richly in His Church – all praise and glory be to Him, for He is our righteousness, for He has fulfilled the Law and Prophets for us. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit +