Concerning the Epistle:
In Romans 6:3--11, our first reading today, Paul was grappling with a hard question which might not be obvious if the passage is read out of context. At Romans 6:1, he brought up an argument his opponents had hurled at him, "Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?"
In the first five chapters of this monumental epistle (Paul's longest and deepest by far), he had set forth the Gospel of Justification by Faith, God's free pardon of hell-deserving sinners, a pardon totally irrespective of our legal status, rather a pardon grounded exclusively in His mercy and love. Such a Gospel quickly makes nonsense of all conventional religion, now as well as then. No wonder that the rich young ruler went away sorrowful. Not only was he told to sell all that he had, but moreover, all his legal righteousness was worthless in God's sight.
Such a radical Gospel (in sinful ears, downright insulting!) in what Paul termed a "reprobate mind" (a mind corrupted by wickedness) seemed to constitute a temptation in itself. If God is willing to forgive sin freely, then why not continue to sin freely? This is almost like the Prodigal Son who expects his Father to send him a regular allowance, as he continues to reside in the "far country" of depraved living.
As warped as such a viewpoint is, it has an evil sort of logic about it. In ancient times this was known as the Antinomian heresy. In the 20th century this re-emerged under the name of "situation ethics."
Paul refuted this with a two-stage argument. In the first place, we Christians are baptized. This sacrament for Paul makes a real difference in the life of a Christian, a mile-stone which divides our lives into "before" and "after," as surely as the Incarnation divided all time into "before Christ" and "in the year of our Lord." It is illogical for a person to live after Baptism as he lived before it. Baptism in the New Testament was so radical a change that it was the sign of regeneration---new birth into a new life and new life-style.
Secondly, Baptism is the sign, the beginning, and the down-payment of our resurrection. Did you notice that some today's Epistle is quoted in the Easter Canticle? "Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more..." Paul clinches his argument, however, in these words: "As Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life." The Resurrection itself is therefore the ultimate argument for moral living! Christians cannot continue to live comfortably with sin. We have a risen Saviour who shares His resurrection life with us. Death has no dominion over Him and sin has no more dominion over us.
Concerning the Gospel:
If one asks the average church-goer, "What is your favorite Scripture passage," the answer will be either the 23rd Psalm or the Sermon on the Mount. The second answer will be somewhat fuzzy. Many people imagine that the Sermon on the Mount consists only of a few verses at the beginning of Matthew 5 commonly called the Beatitudes, beginning "Blessed are the poor in spirit." The Sermon on the Mount actually is a much longer passage in St. Matthew's Gospel, consisting of chapters 5, 6 and 7 in their entirety.
Today's Gospel lesson (Matt. 5:20--26) is a small portion of the whole discourse. (It hardly seems small when we begin to chew on it!) As the the Prayer Book gives it to us, this reading combines the final verse of one section with the opening verses of the next. This was no mistake, but an artful way of showing the link between two thought units.
Our reading begins with a striking text which makes us uncomfortable: "Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven." This is truly scary: Our blessed Lord Himself is clearly talking about the real possibility of being excluded, shut out, eternally lost. His demand here seems overwhelming. The scribes and Pharisees, whatever their faults may have been, were truly righteous people, at least as the word is used here.
They fasted twice in the week. Are we asked to fast three times or more? They gave tithes of all that they had. Does Jesus require 15 or 20%? This is one of those texts known as a "hard saying," since it is hard to understand and once understood even harder to live with.
The following verses clear things up somewhat. It is not the quantity of our righteousness but its quality. As impressive as the old righteousness was (and God forbid that we ever belittle a kind of righteousness which Jesus praised), it was all based on "how much is really required of me? how little can I get by with?" The new Gospel righteousness which Jesus demands is a righteousness proportional to God's love and mercy exhibited in the Cross. Jesus Himself went on to say, "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt 5:48). As the old Gospel hymn states it, "I gave my life for thee; what hast thou given for me?"
Not that this new righteousness is a price we must pay; not that we buy our way into the kingdom with any righteousness of our own! As the Beatitudes should have taught us, the kingdom is purely God's gift. As one commentator has written, "Entrance into the kingdom is God's gift; but to belong to the kingdom means to follow Jesus' teaching."