That last line, a new start with a life that belongs to you. That’s really the essence of our faith, right? And I want to talk today about true righteousness because that really relates to this new start that we begin with God. Today’s passage started with talk about salt and light, but I’m going to focus on the end of this passage first that talks about righteousness. And at the end, we relate that back to salt and light.
So this passage is taken from the gospel of Matthew. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus began his public ministry. The first thing he said was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near. The kingdom of heaven is a big theme of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew. But he wasn’t talking about this afterlife in heaven. That’s not what he’s talking about. He was talking about a heavenly kingdom here on earth. Not a physical kingdom, right? Not a geographic physical kingdom, but a new way of life. A new kind of human community. And this new way of life, this new heavenly kingdom, would reflect life as God intended. People would live according to God’s will. And that’s why the Lord’s prayer, which was also taken from the gospel of Matthew, Jesus prays this, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This was the kingdom of heaven that Jesus is talking about.
Righteousness to Enter the Kingdom of God
But there’s a puzzling verse right at the end of today’s passage. It goes like this and Jesus says, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. It’s like there’s this key to entering this kingdom and that’s a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees. So what is this righteousness? Why is this the key to entering into this new way of life that is the kingdom of heaven?
As you see, the scribes and Pharisees, they were seen as righteous. These guys were experts in the law. They knew them all and they practiced keeping the law. Now we’re talking about the law that was given to Moses back in the old Testament. The law was good. It was all about proper conduct. How to honor God and how to treat others. How to take care of those who needed to be taken care of. The law was good. And the scribes and Pharisees were the most righteous people in following the law. I mean, how could one be more righteous than them?
But you see, Jesus had tremendous insight. And in the gospel of Matthew, we see that for Jesus, the main beef he had, the main problem he had towards the scribes and Pharisees is that they ended up focusing so much on their own adherence to the law. They focused so much on that that it actually started to become all about them. The focus was centered on themselves. And then what happened was they started losing touch with those who could not be as righteous as them. They started to lose empathy and compassion and would instead start seeing them as sinners. On the one hand, they were very respected for their remarkable adherence to the law. “Wow. These guys, they know how to uphold the law.”
A Righteousness That Separates
But you know what? This elevated sense of righteousness separated them from other people. Other people start to feel inferior and lower. And then these leaders started to drink their own Koolaid. They began to start judging others based on the standards that they had worked so hard to live up to. Sorta like, “I worked hard to achieve this level of righteousness. So if you haven’t, you’re inferior.” That sort of thing. And then they began to associate only with people like them. Became like a club of those who met the standard of righteousness. They did a lot of the good works that the law prescribes, but it was starting to not stem from hearts of generosity, but more from their own need to be and feel good. And this righteousness separated them from others.
I think for us, just like them, we have our own notions of righteousness. To put it in our own words, like right living. Living the right kind of life, don’t you think? Our lives are consumed with trying to be good and doing the right things. We want to be a good son or daughter, a good parent, a good employee and just a nice person. That’s what we want to be. But here’s the thing. Our lives can become so focused on doing the right thing that it actually ends up becoming all about me. Am I doing the right things? Am I looking acceptable? Do I feel good about myself and what I’m doing? And if I’m able to live that right kind of life based on my own efforts, then it starts to separate me from those who have not met that standard. It’s kind of like, “Hey, I worked hard to get where I am and I deserve this. Others just need to step it up and figure it out.” We start to become a little judgmental. And that judgment separates us from those who are different. And then we begin to associate with those who have attained a similar level of the right kind of living as us. So we’re living out our own sense of righteousness or right living, but really all this focus on the right living stays on me. So we can become very self-centered and self-absorbed. See this kind of righteousness that we live out in the world, it begins and ends with me. And it separates us from others.
Living Out the Attributes of God
But the righteousness that Jesus is talking about is different. He’s not talking about a me-centered righteousness. He’s talking about God’s righteousness. So to have God’s righteousness is to have, and live out the character and attributes of God. Let me repeat that. To have God’s righteousness is to have, and live out the character and attributes of God. That essentially is what the law and of the old Testament are. The law reflects the attributes of God in our daily living. What are these attributes of God? This is how God describes himself when he appeared to Moses on Mount Sinai, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” Merciful, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, forgiving. These are the attributes and character of God. And the law and the prophets was all about living these out in real daily life. That’s what it meant to be righteous. To treat others kindly, graciously and with mercy. It meant taking care of the poor, the weak and the vulnerable. It meant to forgive others.
This is the true righteousness of living out God’s character in our real life. And what’s the defining characteristic of this true righteousness? We learned that the righteousness in the world separates us. But God’s righteousness brings people together instead of driving them apart. With grace, with mercy, forgiveness, love. These are things that bring us together. So unlike the righteousness in the world, it’s not all about me. It begins within me, but flows out to others. It’s not about doing good works so that I can feel righteous and good about myself. But it’s grace and love within me that leads people to God and brings us together.
What Seems Impossible
It sounds nice, right? But let’s be honest: who among us is truly like that? Put up your hand if that’s you. Who is so gracious, merciful, and loving? Be honest about yourself when you’re at home with your closest ones, loved ones. Who of us is really like that? I definitely am not. And so Saint Paul, he recognized the state of human beings and human nature. This is what he said in Romans, “There is no one who is righteous, not even one; there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God. All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one. Their throats are opened graves; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of vipers is under their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery are in their paths, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.” What an indictment of who we are. So true. I think deep down, we know this. We are not very proud of the people we are. And so we hide. We hide behind our appearances of niceness, being a good person, of living rightly, but Saint Paul called us out on the truth that we are not righteous. We’re too insecure and weak. You see, forgiveness sounds good, but not if you’ve truly wronged me. I can love only if you don’t mess with me. There is no one who is as patient forgiving and merciful as God is. So how are we going to enter this kingdom of heaven with God’s righteousness? It seems impossible.
But Amen. What is impossible for us God has made possible. By God’s own initiative, that righteousness of God is offered to us. Saint Paul said this too in Romans, “But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” The law and the profits, like I said, they all attested to the righteousness of God. They reflected the character of God. And this righteousness was ultimately reflected in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ himself. But here’s the real good news. That very righteousness of God is now offered to us as a gift.
Come Clean With Who You Are
For people who have suffered through low self-esteem or who have gone through a lot of issues, the paths of gaining confidence begins with self-acceptance. It means to stop pretending, to stop fronting, to come to grips with who one truly is. That’s the starting point. And that’s also the first step in the path to true righteousness. To stop pretending with our false righteousness. To come clean with who we really are. To admit, this is me saying this too, maybe I’m really not that nice of a guy. Maybe I ain’t that patient. And I ain’t that forgiving. Until we can come honestly clean with who we are, we will continue to live a life of illusion. Pretending that all is good as long as the outer surface looks good. But when we come nakedly honest before God with our true selves, God tells us this: you are loved. You are forgiven for all the bad things you’ve thought and done. And now my own righteousness I give to you. I call you to live out my righteousness, not by your own power, but by the power that I will give to you. All that you have to do is just accept and believe my word, what I’m saying to you.
So the question is, do you believe this? Do you believe this? Deep down, many of us probably feel like we’re unworthy of this kind of gift. There’s a sense of shame and unworthiness that causes us to hide behind the different clothes or layers that we put on. But God’s righteousness is given to us not because we are worthy or deserving, but simply because God loves us. That is grace. Can you believe that God truly loves who you are?
With the Righteousness God Gives Us
Because who we are will always seem far from God’s righteousness, but God has declared us to be righteous. That’s the amazing thing. And God leads us on this journey of becoming more and more like God. That is the spiritual journey and path. So we enter the kingdom of heaven, this new way of life, not with our own righteousness, but with the righteousness that God gives to us. The kingdom of heaven is one where we come without pretense, without having to play roles. We come just humbly recognizing that we all fall short of God’s righteousness, but that somehow by God’s grace, we want to grow in it.
I mentioned earlier about salt and light, but to have the righteousness of God is what it means to be salt of the earth and light of the world. In other words, being salt and light is a result of living out God’s righteousness. It’s not something we try to be from the beginning. You see what I’m saying? It’s a result of God’s righteousness in us. Right before today’s passage, Jesus preached his famous sermon on the Mount and one of the things he said is this, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled.” Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled.
Little By Little, Every Day
God’s righteousness is what we should strive for with all of our hearts and to yearn for. This righteousness that reflects love, graciousness, mercy and passion for justice. Then we will be filled. And out of that filled self, the love will pour out of us. And then we will be salt and light. The path to God’s righteousness is a lifelong journey. And as you probably saw on the slide, there’s a song that we used to sing as kids. I think it captures our journey so well. It’s called little by little. I thought we’d try something a little different. Let’s sing this together if you know it because it really captures our journey towards righteousness. It goes, “Little by little every day. Little by little in every way. My Jesus, he’s changing me. He’s changing me. Since I made a turn about face I’ve been growing in His grace. My Jesus, he’s changing me. He’s changing me. My precious Jesus, I’m not the same person that I used to be. Sometimes it’s slow-going but there’s a knowing that some day perfect I will be.”
Amen, right? That’s the journey, you know. Little by little every day and little by little in every way God’s righteousness will grow in us. With the righteousness that God gives us, we enter into this new life in the kingdom of heaven. So let us all be fellow citizens of this kingdom of heaven here on earth with God’s righteousness.