Today’s epistle reading is from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 1:18-27.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened.
Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due.
St. Paul speaks clearly at the end of today’s reading, condemning homosexual acts. St. John Chrysostom comments, “This is clear proof of the ultimate degree of corruption when both sexes are abandoned. Both he who was called to be the leader of the woman and she who was told to become a helpmeet to the man now behave as enemies to one another.” Notice how deliberately Paul measures his words, for he does not say that they were enamored of one another, but that they were consumed by lust for one another. We see that the whole of desire comes from an excess which cannot contain itself within its proper limits. For everything which transgresses God’s appointed laws lusts after monstrous things which are not normal.
A normal desire for sexual intercourse united the sexes to one another, but by taking this away and turning it into something else, the devil divided the sexes from each other and forced what was one to become two, in opposition to the law of God. The devil was bent on destroying the human race, not only by preventing them from copulating lawfully, but by stirring them up to war and subversion against each other. Paul goes straight to the source of sexual evil: ungodliness which comes from twisted teaching and lawlessness which is its reward. For since it seemed that the ungodly would not believe him if he spoke of hell and punishment, but that they might even scorn him, Paul simply states that the punishment came from the lust itself, but if they still failed to perceive it, do not be surprised.
Today’s Gospel reading is from St. Matthew 5:20-26:
For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. You have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.” But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, “Raca!” shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, “You fool!” shall be in danger of hell fire.
Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny.
What does it mean that the righteousness of the believer in Christ must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees? St. John Chrysostom writes [that] Jesus speaks of righteousness here as a virtue in its fullness. In speaking of Job, Jesus said he was a blameless man, righteous. According to the same meaning of the word, Paul even called that person righteous for whom, as he said, no law is laid down. For the Law is not made for a righteous person.
One might find “righteous” in many other passages rendered as “virtuous” in general, but I urge you to observe how grace has abounded under the new covenant. Jesus desires to have his prospective disciples considered as greater than the teachers under the old covenant. For by “scribes and Pharisees” here, he meant the upright, not the lawbreakers. If they were not acting in a commendable fashion, he would not have spoken of them as “righteous,” nor would he have compared the unreal to the real.
Note how Jesus also in this passage commends the old Law. He does so by comparing it with the new, a comparison that implies that it is of the same family, so to speak. More or less, it does share many family resemblances. He does not find fault with the old Law, but in fact makes it more strict. Had it been evil, Jesus would not have accentuated it. Instead, he would have discarded it. If the Law is so commendable, how is it not adequate to bring us into the kingdom? After the coming of Christ, we are favored with a greater strength than Law as such. Those who are adopted as children are bound to strive for greater things.
As Christians, as believers in Christ, we are called to the very highest of standards. We are called to exceed the Law, to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees. Let us struggle against every sin, even to the last drop of our blood, so that we may be accounted worthy of the heavenly kingdom.
Now to him who is able to do exceedingly, abundantly, above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us. To him be glory in the Church by Christ Jesus, through all generations, forever and ever. Amen.—[Ephesians 3:20-21]