Monday, February 06, 2023

The Meaning of Righteousness

 Sermon preached on February 5, 2023, the 5th Sunday after Epiphany, at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY:  Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 112, Matthew 5:13-20

Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

           What are we to make of this proclamation of Jesus?  It comes down to what the biblical witness means by righteousness.  What does it mean to be righteous?

           Luckily, both Isaiah and the psalmist give us clues.  Let’s start with Psalm 112.

           We might call Psalm 112 a “lifestyle psalm.”  It begins with a beatitude, “Happy [or Blessed] are they who fear the Lord.”

           That phrase—fear the Lord—is used frequently in the Old Testament.  It is often misunderstood.  “Fear of the Lord” doesn’t have anything to do with being afraid or living in terror. God does not want us to be intimidated by him.

           “Fear of the Lord” has to do with what the second half of that first verse says. Happy are they who “have great delight in God’s commandments.” “fear” and “delight” may sound like two very different things, but in the biblical way of thinking they are not.

           Biblical fear has to do with putting God first, holding God in reverence and awe, knowing that God is greater than me, and, therefore, I am accountable to God.

           The rest of Psalm 112 lays out what this lifestyle entails.  It drops the word “fear” and uses the term “righteous” or “righteousness.”  And what does the psalm tell us about righteousness:

 The righteous are merciful and full of compassion.

·       They are generous and just.

·       They trust God.

·       They have a certain stability about them.

·       They give freely to the poor.

           To be fair, the psalm also claims the righteous will be rich. It is not clear that the psalmist means the righteous will have loads of money.  It is clear that they will have a certain contentment about them, know that life is a gift, and are committed to share that gift with others.

           Righteousness in Psalm 112 has nothing to do with being sinless, which is how the word “righteous” first rings in our ears.  No, the righteous person knows they are in a community of responsibility. In other words, they seek to live out the commandment to love their neighbors.  They seek to make a difference for good.

           On to Isaiah 58. The context of this passage is the return from the exile in Babylon and the re-building of Jerusalem and indeed the entire society.  Questions were being asked about worship, perhaps even arguments occurring. Imagine fighting over worship!

           God speaks through the prophet what must have been an astounding word.  I don’t care about how you worship. I care about how your worship changes your life.

 Is this the fast that I choose [asks God]:

          to loose the bonds of injustice,

          to undo the thongs of the yoke,

          to let the oppressed go free,

          and to break every yoke?

           Here is how you practice righteousness, God says:  share your bread with those who do not have enough, find homes for those without them, clothe those who are naked.  It is a thoroughly social and economic message:  it is about bread, and clothing, and housing.

           If round about now, we (and I do mean we) feel some resistance to this text, that is actually a good thing.  It means God is getting our attention.  God does not want us to stop worshipping, but he doesn’t want our worship to end when we leave the building.  Worship begets righteousness or it is meaningless.

           To use words form the prophet Micah from last week, God expects our worship to result in our walking humbly with God, doing justice in God’s world and loving the way of neighborly kindness.

           So, what does Jesus mean by righteousness?  I believe he meant just what Isaiah said, and I partly say that because the latter part of Isaiah seems to have been a rich resource for Jesus in his understanding of both who God is and what God means for our life.

           To live a righteous life is to live in the covenant of loving God and loving neighbor, a covenant which seeks always the common good.

           Back to the word “fear.”  Too much we are taught, encouraged, not to love our neighbors but to fear them, and not to trust them, because their need may be their own fault, and their attempt to take from us what is ours.

           The Bible dares us to leave behind, to turn our backs on any fear we have of one another and instead fear only God, to take delight in God’s commandments and to seek to live a life that is part of the common good.

           It isn’t easy to make this turn. It is, in fact, hard to do so.  But if we want a fulfilling life, it is what we have to do.

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