From the Lesson this morning:
And he [Abram] believed the Lord and he reckoned it to him as righteousness. (Gen. 15:6)
Righteous. Righteousness. How very many times do we come across these words in the Bible ! So and so was a righteous man. The Lord is a righteous judge. The Lord your God is a God of righteousness. Over and over again these words appear on the pages of Scripture.
But, you know, it’s a word which doesn’t appeal to many people nowadays. Indeed, it’s one of a nexus of related terms which have lost a great deal of their power and have taken on unpleasant, unattractive connotations. Words like judge, justify, virtue, upright, just, moral. And righteous, perhaps more than any, has become in fact rather unpalatable. For instance, most of us would be pleased to have someone declare that we were good people. “Allan Warren is a good man.” I’d like that. Say it again. But if someone pronounced me to be righteous, I’d wonder what they were getting at. I wouldn’t at all be sure that it was a compliment.
Righteous – the word is dressed in deepest black, so to speak, and never smiles. Straight-laced, holier-than-thou. That’s what it’s come to suggest and most of us don’t feel comfortable with it.
This is sad, because it’s a perfectly good word. And sadder still, because it means that when we come across this word in Scripture – and that we do quite a lot – when we come across it, all those unpleasant overtones obscure its real meaning. And there is to righteous / righteousness a rich and full meaning which we shouldn’t ignore.
So let’s see. Now, in the first place, it has to be admitted that – yes – righteous does indeed have the kind of moral and ethical tone with which we usually associate it. The word can point to a type of behavior, the observance of a moral code. But second – and this is what is really important, even crucial for our understanding – it is a term which refers to a relationship. The Hebrew word is used in a very specific sense, used not just to refer to behavior, but used in a context and the context is covenant. For example, a person, a group of people are righteous in the Old Testament sense, if they maintain the covenant which God established with his people. Israel was called to be a righteous nation, not because they were morally superior to any other nation – they weren’t – but because God had established a special relationship, a covenant, an agreement with that people. To keep the covenant, to maintain the relationship with God was to be righteous. To break the relationship was to be un-righteous. The word refers primarily, then, not to a code, not to a set of does and don’ts, but to a life. To a living relationship between a whole people or a single person with God.
So, again, the word is really much broader and richer than we would imagine at first glance. When it’s applied to God, it never suggests the kind of stern disapproval which often comes to mind. Rather, it points to God’s action to be related to his people, God’s movement to be with humanity. God establishes a covenant and God is always righteous in that covenant. A man, a woman is righteous when he or she keeps the covenant, continues to be with-God in covenant.
“And he (Abram) believed the Lord and he reckoned it to him as righteousness.” We heard that this morning in the lesson from the Book of Genesis, and – you know – it’s a very odd verse of Scripture. In fact, I would go so far as to say that unless we keep in mind the specific Old Testament meaning of righteous and righteousness, it makes no sense at all. But with this in mind, what it does mean is that God had established a covenant relationship with Abram and the means, the mode of that relationship was Abram’s faith. That, of course, is what the story is all about: God’s promise to Abram that his descendants would be innumerable and Abram’s faith and trust in God’s promise. It was reckoned as righteousness because through that faith and trust Abram maintained a relationship with God.
Some thousand years after it was written, this verse from Genesis and about Abram and his faith captured the imagination of a man who was very much concerned with righteousness – a man who had just found a new a new faith. That man was Paul. Paul was in fact, righteous in the conventional Jewish way of his time. Quite righteous. He was a devout, pious, scrupulous, exacting, a Jew who kept with precision all the ordinances of the Jewish law. But, more than that, Paul wanted real righteousness. The Law didn’t really satisfy him. It promised relationship with God on the basis of behavior – “works” as he would have it – but it didn’t deliver what it promised. There was within Paul a nagging, painful sense of his un-relatedness, his alienation from the God he yearned for. (He would call this sin.) His behavior was upright, he tells us. It was correct, but he found that all his striving to fulfill the Law, all his efforts to be righteous and related on the basis of the Law got him nowhere. Paul had the hunger of the mystic for union with God, but sin – separation, alienation – prevented the satisfaction of his desire, and the Law did nothing. But one day all that changed. He had been Saul, he became Paul. He had been a persecutor of Christians, he became an Apostle to the Gentiles, He had been a man of the Law, he became a man of faith.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul proclaims that a new righteousness has dawned from heaven. In Jesus, God has done away with the separation of sin, and has instituted a new righteousness for humankind through Christ. And it is a new covenant and a new righteousness based only on faith. The Law, works accomplish nothing and from his own life Paul knew they never could, for sin, apartness, an essential alienation remained in human being in spite of law. In Christ the alienation is abolished and the mystic’s yeaning is satisfied, for through the life, death, and rising of Jesus, there is established a new relationship with God for those who respond to God in faith. Faith only avails, because in fact, it is response. Man responds to God in faith to the new way of union which God has established in Christ. Faith makes possible, indeed it is, an openness in man to the openness of God. “Abram believed the Lord.” Paul also believed the Lord – in the Lord Christ and what God had done in Christ – and that faith he, like Abram, found reckoned to him as righteousness.
It may sound strange or exotic, but let’s make no bones about it, the business of the Christian is the business of the mystic. Union, personal knowledge of God, communion with God – that is what Christianity is all about. That is what seized St. Paul and turned his life around. That is what seemed, so new, so fresh, so unbelievable to the earliest Christians that they called it Gospel – Good News. And this is true, and it is possible because our God is a righteous God, a God of Covenant, the God who strives for relationship / union with his people.
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Right now, good people, we are in the season during which the Church directs us to look at those things which are awry in our own lives and directs us to consider, as well, the sorrows which afflicted the life of the one we call our Savior. His betrayal, his struggles and disappointments even with closest to him, his passion, his agony, his death. And if we do look closely enough, we will see clearly and overwhelmingly the righteousness of God. In Jesus, God related himself to and became one not only with the heights of humanity and its joys, but also with its depths, its sadness, and pains and sins. (These are real parts of what it is to be human. There are there. We don’t like them. We don’t like to admit them, but we know and experience them. So did God in Jesus.) In Christ, the righteous God related himself even to those things which were un-righteous. He made them his own. He knew their temptation, their pain, he experienced the power which they hold over mankind. God gathered them to himself in his incarnate life in Jesus. This is what Paul means when he tells us that God “made him to be sin who knew no sin” ( II Cor. 5:21 ) – that God took on even those things which opposed him. He embraced everything that was against him.
Why ? To strip them of their power and to bring mankind back to him in faith.
Why ? Because he is a righteous God and, you see, his righteousness is his love.