The Righteousness that Simply Deceives

Epiphany 5 Saturday

Matthew 5:20

“For I tell you: Unless your righteousness is better than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Here you see how Christ carries out his assault: He is not speaking out against some lowly people in general, but against the very best among all the people who were the true core and apex and who shone before others like the sun–there was not a more praiseworthy station in life or a more honorable title in the people than that of Pharisee and scribe. And those who wanted to name a holy man had to name a Pharisee, just as among us we used to name a Carthusian or hermit. Without a doubt, the disciples of Christ had practiced this custom as well, believing that there was no greater holiness to be found than that of the Pharisees and scribes. The disciples would never have dreamed that Christ would attack these people. Still, Christ quickly mentions them by name, criticizing not only some among them but the entire group. He also does not merely rebuke some bad things or sins they might have committed, but assaults their righteousness and holy life to the point of denying them the kingdom of heaven and briskly condemns them to the hellish fire. This would be as if he said today: “All the priests and monks and what is called religious, no one excepted, is eternally condemned to hell, with all their life, even where it is at its best.” Who could hear or tolerate such a sermon? This is the first thing Christ has in mind here: They have a righteousness and lead an honorable life, but Christ completely rejects this righteousness so that, if it is not better than theirs, it is already condemned; and all the things one could accomplish with it are lost. Note, secondly, that Christ here talks about those who would like to enter heaven and who are serious about thinking about a different life, which the great majority of the people do not take seriously. The great majority of the people also do not ask for God or God’s Word. Everything you tell them about the gospel is preached in vain. Christ, however, does address those who think about heaven so that they know that such righteousness is wrong and must be salted and rebuked, because they deceive themselves and others by such righteousness, leading them from the right path to hell. Christ also, as he will soon demonstrate, shines his light on the true goodness required by the law.

St. Louis ed., 7:427-428.

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