“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus declares. And then, beginning with our text, He lays down five examples to illustrate the nature of the new “exceeding” righteousness that is called for. His mighty “But I say to you” reveals that He is indeed the end of the Law. An end, not because He does away with its demands – as you will see, He opens them up and intensifies them in a way never conceived of before. He is the end of the Law because He is the only one to perfectly fulfill all of God’s Law.
The contrast that Jesus sets up in these verses of scripture is not between the OT regulations and His remarkable and new teaching (he has just established the validity of the OT Law). Rather, it is between simplistic, external interpretations of the rabbinic tradition on the one hand, and Jesus’ correct interpretation of God’s Law on the other. To properly obey God’s Will, to be truly righteous under the Law’s demands, we must be concerned not simply with outward deeds, but with every thought and word that leads to them too!
(21-26) “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; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there 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. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
One needs not to have physically killed another to have committed murder. You fool … you empty-head … or other angry outbursts. The harboured grudges, the desire for vengeance, retribution or the simple joys of just desserts. The unwillingness to find peace, to work for reconciliation, to suffer an indignity (any indignity) because of another. Each in its own way brings the judgment of a true murderer, down upon we who do such things for each in its own way has already judged another and pronounced them dead to me.
And if you’ve done any of it even once, it is already too late for you dear brothers and sisters. For as you have judged another so you shall be judged. Your righteousness has not exceeded. The fires of Gehenna are all that await those who have even one thing against them. A prison that cannot be escaped until every last bit of that sin debt is paid.
Yet the one who speaks these fearsome cutting Words of righteous Law never once angry with His fellow brother to the point of sinning and being liable to judgment. Jesus never once had an insult or hurtful word for anyone, not even those who so often and mercilessly opposed Him … His righteousness was so exceeding that even His harsh words were spoken for healing not hurt.
And yet for all that exceeding righteousness, Jesus was liable to judgment – but ours. Jesus stood before that council and was condemned to death. Jesus was handed over to the judge, and the sentence was death on a cross. Everyone who had a hand in it (washed or not) knew He was innocent, but still they killed Him. And in His death Jesus paid every last penny to free us – even His own eternal soul. Jesus is the gift that reconciles us to our brother and to our God!
(27-30) “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.
Youthful indiscretions, harmless flirting, a lingering gaze, a jealous heart. There is more to the sixth commandment than meets the wandering eye. The off-colour humour, the belittling of the opposite sex, the attitude that marriage is something to be put up with, something to settle for, something for my own convenience. The failure to appreciate your spouse. The attitude that people can be used for my own fulfillment, or that it is OK to be used this way in return. Needs have the right to be fulfilled, and we are all creatures of biological necessity. Each in its own way shows how the lusts of the spirit and of the flesh are selfish and only ever self-serving. Always consuming – always self-absorbed. And no one ever needs to know for it to already be too late. Our righteousness has not exceeded. Not one wayward hand need ever find its mark for your whole body to already be forfeit.
And again, the one who speaks these shaming, piercing Words of righteous Law never once looked with lust, only compassion and conviction. Never once was His heart stirred to take from another, but to give for every other. Never once did God divorce His truly unfaithful bride, even though the grounds were there time and time again! Instead He continued to love and lift up, to care and console, to serve and sacrifice for her.
And what a painful bloody sacrifice it was! For on that cross Jesus becomes that one single member of this sinful, lustful human race that was cut off and thrown away. Violently torn out and cast upon the dirt that the rest – that you and me – would not be lost to hell.
(33-37) “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.
The scribes and pharisees were lawyers by trade, but we are law-jockeys by heart. Little white lies, errors of omission, vagaries, misleading conversations. Showmanship, style, presentation … we all know how to make our case sound better. Make ourselves look better. We are full of distinctions, we live in loopholes. We ride on the favour of bigger men and women than ourselves. It is the overpowering influence of the devil, the “father of lies” that keeps our word from simply being our word. Our Yes from being a real yes and our No from being a firm and binding No. If you’ve ever felt the need to colour your words, for whatever reason, then hear this word … your righteousness has not exceeded. You have God’s word on that.
Yet the one who speaks these simple, straightforward, black and white Words of righteous Law performed for the Lord precisely what He swore. His yes was yes and His no was no.His word of forgiveness really forgave. His word of rebuke held no misgivings or doubt. His word of love was backed by the whole of life and death. Why? Because He said so. Because He had always said so. (Luke 1:68-73) “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David, as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember His holy covenant, the oath that He swore to our father Abraham.
You have heard it said, but you have not fully understood. Here today, Jesus tells us straight. These Words of Law are meant to show us not how we should do better, to be more Pharisaical than even the pharisees. These words are here to show us that we are no good what-so-ever. Not in Thought, not in Word nor even in our Deeds. (Rom. 3:10-12) “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” We are murderers every one of us. We are adulterers, each of us. We are liars and braggarts and oath breakers each and every single one of us …
… But Jesus is not. He is everything we can never be. He is perfect in every thought, word and deed. And thank God that He is, because in Him (and Him alone) we find our life truly protected and restored by a love that would die especially for the loveless, just as God swore, by an oath to our fathers so long ago. For every thought, word and deed of God has always led to this Jesus.