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Some Musings on Righteousness

Phil Mayhew, 21st October 2016

Stick drawing of the Saint TV character

What is it to be righteous? If you look up the definition of ‘righteousness’ the dictionary will say something like ‘to behave in a way that is morally correct’ and that is where the fun starts. What does it mean to be ‘morally correct’? Literally speaking for something to be moral it has to be in accordance with God’s laws.

Can we ever be righteous enough to deserve heaven? No, a Christian is a person who recognises that being righteous is a state of being where we are in right standing before the Father through the sacrificial death of his son Jesus. In other words we can’t hope to be righteous enough on our own to merit eternal life. We need Jesus and that is the most important point. Nevertheless, Jesus said that “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20). Jesus was particularly critical of the Scribes and Pharisees. They probably thought themselves righteous in that they obeyed the law but clearly they were getting something wrong. What is the kind of righteousness that Jesus wants?

'we can’t hope to be righteous enough'

Jesus also said, “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners’ Matt 9:13. Furthermore, we hear that we should love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and love our neighbour as ourselves (Luke 10:27), without love I am a clanging cymbal (1 Cor 13:1), faith, hope and love and the greatest of these is love (1 Cor 13:13), for God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten son (John 3:16), love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8), God is Love (1 John 4:8) and ‘My commandment is this: love one another, just as I love you (John 15:12)’. To me this indicates that mercy and love are quite important in God’s eyes.

Sometimes when we talk of God’s justice we might think of punishment for sins – maybe true but that is for God to decide, Rom 9:15 ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ For us God’s justice should be the bringing about of mercy, fairness and love. Interestingly, in Hebrew, the word for charity, mercy, fairness and justice is the same. We may, on occasion, be keen to point out Gods laws and to emphasise that God is a God of justice and where justice needs to be upheld but at that time we should remember that the kind of justice that God is keen on us showing may be more along the lines of fairness, love and mercy.

Micah 6:8 ‘He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God’.

So, it seems that we should look with generous eyes and be slow to criticise or judge. We should be merciful, kind and fair. In the practical sense it means thinking well of our fellow man. If someone does something that is a bit off it may just have been an honest mistake. We should not assume that they were acting with malice rather we should think that perhaps they did not understand what they were doing. Luke 23:34, ‘Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”’

'If someone does something that is a bit off it may just have been an honest mistake'

An example from my own experience is from many years ago when I was visiting my brother. Parking was difficult around his house. It was hard to find a space. As I was searching around an old fellow had seen me go by and waved me over. He enquired of my business and I said that I was visiting my brother so he waved me into a space in front of his house. I thanked him and went to see my brother. I stayed overnight and the next day I went back to my car and as I approached it the old man came out of his house shouting and screaming at me. It seems that he had assumed that I would only be parking for a couple of hours. It turns out that his disabled wife had come back later and had needed to park some distance off. I didn’t know. He obviously hadn’t thought about the possibility that I might be staying longer. He hadn’t explained anything. Clearly, he had been stewing about this all night and I expect if murder were legal I would now be a dead man. A small example, I know, but I wonder how many feuds have started due to a misunderstanding or an assumption of selfish intent.

So, I think if we want to be righteous in God’s eyes we should think about putting love into action, not judging others, attending as best we can to the needs of others, looking with generous eyes and not assuming selfish intent, being slow to take offense. We should try to be merciful and kind.