From Hypocrisy to Holiness
Pastor Peter Metzger
First Lutheran Church
Lake Geneva, WI
February 12, 2017
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder,’ and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
“Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.”
From Hypocrite to Holy: The Proper Approach to God’s Law
Do you know any “old wives’ tales”? Even if you can’t think of any off the top of your head, I’m sure you’ve heard plenty. I’ll give you one example: An apple a day keeps the doctor away.
While there is an element of truth to that – apples are good for you – you can still get sick and have to see a doctor even if you eat one every day. Is it going to hurt you to eat an apple every day? Probably not. It might actually do you good, but it’s not a cure-all and it’s flat out false.
That’s the way it is with most old wives’ tales, i.e. they’re not exactly true but they don’t hurt to do… until they do. Until you hear an old wives’ tale that actually puts you in harm’s way.
Have you heard the one for soothing a teething baby? Just dip your finger in some whiskey or, since we’re in Wisconsin, some brandy and rub it on your child’s gums. The problem is that any amount of alcohol for a child that small is dangerous.
Many old wives’ tales are completely harmless, but some can end up doing more harm than good.
The Hypocrisy of Self-Righteousness
In Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, he takes issue with what the Pharisees were teaching the people, and in this portion of his sermon Jesus begins a pattern. He starts by saying, “You’ve heard that it was said,” and then he follows up with the “old Pharisee’s tale” that they would teach the people. Then after exposing the danger of that doctrine, Jesus would say, “I tell you the truth,” to set the record straight.
You see, in this case the Pharisees were deceiving the people about God’s Law. They were making it seem like the 10 Commandments are simple and able to be kept, and if you do keep them, you’ll win heaven for yourself. The problem with that is that it’s 100% false. Not only are the Commandments far from simple to keep, they’re impossible to keep.
And so Jesus explains, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus says that the teachers of the law can’t even keep it, and he provides several examples to prove it.
The first example is the 5th Commandment, which is arguably the most obvious if it’s broken and some might say that it’s the easiest to keep. That’s certainly what the Pharisees would have said, but Jesus goes on to explain that the 5th Commandment isn’t just about taking someone’s life. It goes much deeper than that; it’s about abusive language and even anger in someone’s heart.
The Pharisees thought that simply because they hadn’t murdered anyone or used any illegal language, they had kept the 5th Commandment, but their self-righteous attitude only thinly veiled their sin-filled hearts. Friends, this isn’t a problem that was exclusive to the Pharisees. It’s not relegated to ancient history. It’s our problem too. We can look at the 10 Commandments and think that we’ve kept them too.
I haven’t killed anybody. I haven’t cheated on my wife. I haven’t robbed any banks lately. But Jesus would still be careful to tell me that I have broken the 5th, 6th and 7th Commandments, if nowhere else than in my heart. I may not be subject to judgment, I may not have to pay any fine for the sins that I have committed; there are plenty of things that I’ve done that demand no earthly punishment – partly because no one will ever know that I did them, and partly because few would care if they did know – but Jesus warns us here that our sinful attitudes and desires still put us “in danger of the fire of hell.”
That’s why Jesus so fervently urges us to repent instead of being self-righteous, instead of thinking that we haven’t done anything wrong. He even goes so far as to say that you should get up and get out of church right now if you’ve sinned against someone else and haven’t asked for forgiveness yet. Repentance is so important because you can’t worship God if you persist in your sin (note the use of persist, that is, continue in your sin without being sorry for it). That’s the definition of hypocrisy, i.e. saying one thing and doing another, i.e. pretending to confess our sins to God, which we did at the beginning of our service, without reconciling with the people whom we’ve sinned against. That not only puts up a barrier between us and other people; it alienates us also from God.
That’s not good, and in this short section of Scripture, Jesus makes it clear that there are severe consequences for our hypocrisy, our lies, our lust, our hatred. He warns that the price for our sin must be paid, and no pretend righteousness is good enough to escape that punishment. Anyone who has been angry at someone else, anyone who has desired someone else, anyone who has broken a promise has broken God’s Law and is subject to the fires of Hell.
The teaching of these Pharisees was much worse than an old wives’ tale, because it went beyond simply being false, it created a false sense of security while at the same time exposing those who listened to them to the righteous anger of God. And after listening to Jesus’ systematic dismantling of the Pharisees hypocritical self-righteousness, and our own, it’s enough to make us wonder as the disciples did, “Who then can be saved?” If even my thoughts condemn me, then how do I stand a chance at salvation?
The answer to that question only comes from a proper understanding of God’s Law and the holiness of Jesus.
The Holiness of Jesus in Us
Unlike many preachers today, Jesus didn’t offer hope for heaven that was based on a denial of Hell, he didn’t downplay the severity of sin. Instead, he gives us hope for salvation because of his very real righteousness, his holiness and perfection, as he says in Matthew 5:17 – “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’ righteousness was no façade or pretense; he was not a hypocrite pretending to be something he wasn’t. He really was perfect and obeyed not only the letter but the spirit of the law as well. Never once did he sin by hating someone else or desiring another person or what they had. He never broke his word. He never took revenge. He always loved his neighbor and even showed compassion to his enemies. Jesus was the real deal, and did what not even the Pharisees could accomplish – he obeyed the Law perfectly.
But he didn’t stop there. He took his perfection, all his hard work, and he traded it for your sin, knowing full well what would happen to him if he did, knowing all along that he would have to pay for sins he did not commit and suffer the consequences of your greed and lust and hatred. He would face loss of life so that you could be released from the judgment that you deserve. Jesus loved you enough to die for you so that you could not only live with him forever in heaven, but so you could live a holy life here and now out of thankfulness and love for his selfless act of love.
So I say to you what Jesus said to the Samaritan woman, “Now go and sin no more.” Yeah, right. As if that’s possible. But seriously, do it. Jesus’ forgiveness not only motivates us to respond in love for him, it also enables us to do it, which is just what we heard from the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians, when he said, “Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. And in fact, you do love all the brothers throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers, to do so more and more.”
There’s always room for improvement and in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus provides us with a menu of righteousness to choose from. Don’t murder anyone, physically, mentally, emotionally, verbally. Instead love your neighbor, even your enemy, just as Christ loved you.
Don’t commit adultery, not in act or in thought, but love your spouse (or your future spouse) by being committed to him and loving her as you love yourself and as Christ loved the Church.
Tell the truth, not only when you make a promise but also when you share the promise of Jesus. Don’t gloss over sin, as if it were insignificant. It was significant enough for Jesus to give up his life. Honor his sacrifice for you by honoring his Word and understanding his Law as he intends – not as a way to achieve salvation, but as the way Jesus won heaven for you.
Jesus gives you a menu of righteousness and this is only the beginning. Take your pick and live a holy life.
There is an imperceptible difference between hypocrisy and holiness; it is entirely internal and relies completely on your attitude toward God’s Law. Don’t deceive yourself into thinking that you can keep and earn God’s love. Instead, give thanks to God that he loved you enough to send Jesus to keep his Law perfectly for you. Now go and keep it for him. Amen.