Bethany Lutheran Church - Ishpeming Michigan
The words “righteous” and “righteousness” pop up all over today’s scripture readings, in the first reading from Isaiah, in the Psalm and in the gospel. The First Corinthians passage doesn’t use those words but St. Paul does raise the issue of what it is to be “truly human” and you would think that might have something to do with being righteous.
The trouble is, righteous and righteousness are words that get thrown around as if we knew what they meant when in reality maybe the best we can do is to simply say they have something to do with being good, whatever that means. Put a “self” in front of righteous and make it self-righteous and we get that; you know what that means as you think of someone who comes across as holier than thou, someone you probably find annoying. But even then, exactly what is it about such people that we find annoying. It’s one of those things, you know it when you see it, but when asked to explain it, it’s not so easy, at least not without winding up sounding self righteous yourself.
In some ways though, we know better what righteousness isn’t than what it is. It’s ironic that we get these readings on Super Bowl Sunday, a day and an event that I’m pretty sure has nothing to do with righteousness, although I know that some of you think that if the Packers were in it, it would have to do with righteousness. Now at its best the Super Bowl is entertaining, a harmless diversion and a pleasant break from the real news; I’d rather talk about the Super Bowl than have Donald Trump be the subject of every conversation which seems to happen a lot these days.
At its worst though, the Super Bowl is emblematic of the ridiculously out of proportion place that sports at all levels has in our world. It also highlights rampant commercialism and capitalism, the real religions of our nation, a 30 second commercial costing between 5 and 5 1/2 million dollars and there will be lots of them, helping to cause the game to drag on interminably, although tedious replay reviews and challenges along with an even longer than usual halftime spectacle featuring Lady Gaga will also contribute to that. Don’t mind me, enjoy the game, I’m just getting grumpier and more cynical as I get older, the point however being that while it isn’t evil, I don’t think anyone would describe any of this as being righteous in any fashion. We do know what righteous isn’t.
Now that I’ve got that off my chest…just what does it mean to be righteous, what does it mean to be truly human? What does Jesus mean when he says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees (in other words those who the world viewed as being righteous) unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” That’s a tough assignment.
The Isaiah reading today, along with Psalm 112, do provide some direction on what it means to be righteous. If we start with Isaiah, in my Bible, today’s section bears the heading True and False Worship. In other words we come in on a discussion of what constitutes authentic and proper worship evidence that such discussions have been going on for a long time. Nowadays it’s about traditional vs. contemporary worship, liturgical vs. non-liturgical, organs vs. drums and guitars, things like that. Back then the questions were about who was observing the proper fast or performing the proper ritual as a way to demonstrate appropriate humility and repentance. That’s what they thought the way of the Lord and righteousness were all about.
Done for the right reasons, things like fasting and observing certain rituals can be useful spiritual practices, perhaps part of being righteous, but Isaiah chooses not to take sides in this discussion. Instead, speaking the words of the Lord, he offers a different way to think about righteousness. “Is this not the fast that I choose, to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke. Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, to care for the homeless, to clothe the naked?” Righteousness as described here isn’t about who gets worship and ritual right; for Isaiah, that’s a different discussion.
Righteousness is about concern for the other, especially neighbors and strangers for whom the system is not working. Righteousness involves an ethical component and there’s no escaping it. To be truly human is to recognize the other as truly human as well, because they too are part of the community described in Isaiah…and the community described by Jesus.
Verses like these give you an idea of where Jesus was coming from in the Sermon on the Mount. He knew what the prophets had written so what he says adds yet another layer of interpretation on top of theirs, an interpretation that gets at what he means by righteousness and again there’s no getting around the fact that what he means involves action. Last week Jesus didn’t give us a “to do” list with the Beatitudes, but that is what he is leading to here. Righteousness for him and the prophets is about action and serving others.
Then there is Psalm 112 and it’s more of the same. Here the righteous are those said to be merciful and gracious, words often used to describe God so that’s significant. They also delight in God’s commandments, they are generous in lending, they manage their affairs with justice and give freely to the poor. Again, it’s about action, being aware of the needs of others and acting in whatever ways you can. In all of these cases, righteousness includes a call to action.
Jesus calls it being the salt of the earth and the light of the world, letting your light shine before others and it’s another way he gets at what he means by observing the law. Jesus is very much playing the role of a Jewish rabbi here as he interprets the scripture of his time which was the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament. He was also using Luther’s technique of letting scripture interpret scripture, drawing from prophets like Isaiah and psalms like Psalm 112 in his interpretation of the law.
In Matthew’s gospel, the Sermon on the Mount represents another Moses/Jesus parallel. There are a few such parallels in Matthew, the first being the story of Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt to escape the wrath of King Herod paralleling Moses being hidden in the bulrushes to escape the wrath of Pharaoh.
In Jewish tradition though, Moses is probably best known as the one who receives the law from the Lord on Mt. Sinai. The Sermon on the Mount then parallels that as Jesus also goes up on the mountain not to receive the law, but to offer his interpretation of it and…not to abolish the law but to fulfill it.
In the next couple of weeks we’ll see that Jesus doesn’t lower the bar on the law, instead he raises it, making it even harder to fulfill. Even today, hearing what Isaiah says about righteousness, hearing what the psalmist says about righteousness and hearing Jesus say our righteousness must be greater than that of the scribes and the Pharisees, we realize that righteousness based on the law isn’t going to happen. The law reveals that we are sinners, that we’ll always come up short in this ethical demand, but rather than drive us to despair, that realization makes known the grace of God. As Martin Luther did, we discover that we don’t make ourselves righteous, we are made righteous by the grace of God through faith in what Jesus has done for us.
By grace we are already righteous, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore the ethical demands of these lessons. In all of today’s readings and throughout the entire Bible, the law is focused on challenging injustice, economic and otherwise, defending the oppressed, being generous in providing food, clothing and shelter to those in need; it’s pretty clear. What tends to happen when we hear these kinds of things though, is we immediately think of all the things we can’t do and it’s true; there is much that we can’t do. We do better however, to focus on what we can do as insignificant as it may seem. Our seemingly insignificant efforts do add up.
What’s unfortunate these days in the ill tempered political climate in which we live, is that questions about what we can do, what we should do, what we should stand against immediately become divisive, but they don’t have to. What we are talking about here is not about politics, it’s not about republicans and democrats, it’s about righteousness. It’s a biblical ethic, hence a Christian ethic that isn’t about anyone’s political agenda. It’s Jesus’ agenda; it’s about what He calls us to do. It’s about being the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
Whatever we do, whatever we don’t do, Jesus, not a political party or agenda is our guide. His words and his life define righteousness for us. Through him we are made righteous. Guided by him we continue to grow in righteousness.
Rev. Warren Geier