Just What is “Righteousness”?
Text: Matthew 5:20: "...unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."
For reasons I cannot fully explain, I have a reflexive reaction to the word “righteous.” It would be more honest to say that I have an instant reaction of suspicion when I hear that word. I wonder whether you do, too.
I’m not sure just why this is. Maybe it’s because it’s a word that for us has become too often associated with the failure of institutions and leaders to live up to the principles they are all too eager to proclaim. Or maybe it’s because it’s a word that is often coopted by those who defend a narrow understanding of Christian morality on a wide range of issues while seeming to demonstrate little concern for the things Jesus actually talked about.
We’re probably more likely to use this word, if we use it at all, in a critical way. When we call someone self-righteous, we generally don’t mean it as a compliment. Otherwise, when we hear someone in public life talking about our need to follow a righteous path, we figure there’s an agenda somewhere.
But there’s a problem here. The scriptures stress the idea of righteousness, both as a virtue to aspire to and as a quality to be admired. Today, especially, the readings set righteousness before us as something we are supposed to be aiming for. And in the Gospel lesson we just heard, Jesus sets it up not just as a quality, but as a standard: disciples are supposed to be righteous, even more than the people who, at least in Jesus’s day, had a reputation for being the most righteous of all.
So where does that leave us?
If we put aside whatever your own hang-ups with righteousness might be for a moment and hit the books, what we find out pretty quickly is that there is something here we need to contend with. Just to give you one small example, the entry for the word “righteousness” in the Anchor Bible Dictionary extends to nearly fifty pages of double-column type. It examines the meaning of the word in the Old Testament, in early Judaism, in ancient Greco-Roman culture, and in the New Testament.
Now, because I love you I read that entire entry so you wouldn’t have to. What it teaches you, if you read it through, is that through the early history of our faith, from the earliest writings of the Hebrew scriptures to the later writings of Paul, the idea of righteousness goes through two important shifts.
The first is a shift from the external to the internal. A different way to say that is that when the first leaders of the chosen people of Israel try to explain to those people what righteousness means, they do it with reference to a set of rules that come from God—the covenant. That covenant is not just a code of behavior, it is a sign of the relationship between God and Israel. God’s people are called to be righteous, and being righteous means following the rules that make up the covenant—the commandments, the laws contained in the Torah, the body of regulations that both define and distinguish the Jewish people.
But laws are something that comes from outside to inside. Specifically, they come from God to us. To use an image from an event I understand is taking place later today, they are the lines on the field that are meant to limit our range of travel.
What happens in the world of the New Testament is that righteousness becomes an internal matter. Jesus teaches that righteousness isn’t so much a matter of following the rules as it is reflecting so deeply on God’s presence in our lives, and on the larger themes behind the laws, that our hearts and our wills move us in the right direction without the need of those boundary lines.
To take into the language of the Gospel we heard this morning, Jesus is actually making a somewhat sideways point about what righteousness really means. In order to appreciate what he’s up to, we have to start in an unfamiliar place—because Jesus lived in a culture in which righteousness was a thing to be admired and emulated.
In sort of the same way we have a kind of culture organized around levels of fame, the people of Jesus’ day had a strong sense of relative levels of righteousness. And at the very top of that list were Pharisees and scribes—the people who decided the cases that determined what following the law meant.
But Jesus is making a judgment here. He’s saying that a different kind of righteousness is actually more important. The good news is that it’s also more attainable—because it doesn’t involve a kind of slavish adherence to the law, and it doesn’t involve constantly being subjected to religious authorities with power over you to say whether or not you’ve been sufficiently righteous.
We have to be more righteous than the Pharisees and the scribes. We have to be more righteous than the evangelicals and the fundamentalists. Because the righteousness that God really expects of us is a disposition of the heart, and not a mindless—and heartless—adherence to a set of rules. Our claim to righteousness, if we have one to make at all, is based on whether or not our wills are aligned with God’s purpose of justice and mercy.
There’s a second shift that happens in what righteousness means. When the Old Testament writers first start speaking of it, they are describing it as a social matter; all of Israel is, or is not, righteous. But here, when Jesus is speaking of it, he’s speaking of each individual human heart. He’s talking about our relationship with God in personal, individual terms.
We are children of the Reformation, and one thing that means is that we are inheritors of a way of understanding Christianity that has taken this idea about our faith as a central organizing principle—perhaps to our cost.
Don’t get me wrong; there is a lot that is good about this. We get from this the amazing and radical idea that each individual human being is made in the image and likeness of God, and that each one of us deserves a fundamental dignity.
We even get out of that one of our most distinguishing founding ideas, an idea that right now we seem to be in some danger of forgetting; the essential equality of all people.
But if you take that idea to its extreme, which we have tended to do, what you lose is that original idea about righteousness—the idea that it is a quality not, or not just, about individuals; it is about communities, societies, nations. When you find this written over one of the gates that leads into Harvard Yard, you know you’re reading an Old Testament quote: “Open ye the gates, that the righteous nation which keepeth the truth may enter in.” In case you’re wondering, that’s from Isaiah 26.
So we do well to ask ourselves this question—on this day that we are confronted with the bible’s emphasis on righteousness: Are we a righteous nation? Is that a question we may even ask anymore? It may not feel as though that’s anything like an appropriate way to think anymore—but the bible has not changed, and the question still stands.
It is not asking whether we are a perfect nation, whether we are faultless or exceptional. It seems to me that we are none of those things. But perfection, or faultlessness, or exceptionalism have never been the way we measure or recognize righteousness in an individual way; and neither is it here, either.
To say it differently, maybe the question is not whether as a nation we follow all the rules with precision; but, as Jesus is teaching in Matthew’s gospel this morning, whether this nation’s heart is in the right place, whether we have taken on so deeply the quest for justice and mercy that it directs our path into the future.
If the arc of history bends toward justice, as Theodore Parker wrote and Dr. King and President Obama liked to quote, then what does the bending is not just the idea of justice but the lived quality of righteousness.
So are we today a righteous nation? And if we are not, does it matter?
If it does, how do we correct our path and become something more closely approaching that goal?
Do we do it by protesting? Do we do it by praying? Or do we do it by living out in our individual lives the qualities we want to see exemplified in our nation?
One thing we will not be able to avoid. If we are not now the nation we feel we are called to be, then the path to righteousness is one that will lead us through the hard road of resistance, because only by exerting moral force against our current direction of travel will we nudge our ship of state in a different direction. Amen.