Righteousness Redefined

Righteousness, properly defined by Thayer, is about adherence to the rules of God as well as rules of human origin.  The concept of “powers ordained by God” has deep roots, well beyond even Judeo-Christian history.  Within our own Scriptural narrative, we have evidence of all kinds of leaders who were believed to be “ordained by God.”  Chief Priests, Judges, Kings, throughout history, those who believe in God have trusted the Spirit to put leaders in charge who would seek the will of God and what is best for the people.  (I’ll let the reader decide if we still believe this.) The result of such belief is this understanding that the laws made by human beings should be followed because they are inherently just.  Martin Luther King, Jr., among many others, have taught us that this isn’t always the case.

In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, we get a very early example of one who can be considered righteous even though they do not fully adhere to the laws of the land.  Joseph, having heard that Mary was pregnant even though they had not yet known each other, is described by Matthew as “righteous,” but this title brings with it goods in conflict.  As a righteous man, Joseph was well within his rights to divorce her very publicly, ruining her life and the life of her child for ever.  He could even have her executed for bringing such disgrace upon him and his family.  Either of these options would have been considered righteous, yet, for Joseph, they weren’t right.  Rather, he planned to release her from her betrothal quietly.  She’d still be considered damaged goods and would likely never find a husband to take care of her and her child, but at least, maybe, she could return to her own family.

Joseph the righteous one, who was willing to choose what he thought was the best possible outcome for Mary, was in tune, it would seem, with the will of God.  The dream that he has invites him to ignore the laws of the land and to risk everything to take Mary as his wife.  His righteousness wasn’t defined by dual allegiance to the laws of God and the laws of humans, but solely on the will of God.  His calling was higher than the expectations of human government.  His was to welcome the reign of God on earth.  As such, Joseph redefines righteousness.  While we might not have to make the same exact decision Joseph did, our calling is also to welcome the kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven.  This means, sometimes, maybe even most times, we are called to seek the will of God – to love our neighbors, care for the poor, feed the hungry, and proclaim release to the captives – over the expectations of social convention or even the law of the land might have us do.

Mutually Exclusive Behaviors

It has been a good long while since I’ve had the pleasure of engaging in some blogging banter with my good friend Evan Garner, but he went to the Greek in his post yesterday, and that’s just an invitation for me to nerd out for a minute.  In his post, “Rather Than or Alongside?” which I encourage you to read in its entirety, Evan played with an idea posited by the Rev. Dr. Bill Brosend, Professor of Homiletics and New Testament at the University of the South, that the Greek phrase that is translated in Sunday’s Gospel as “rather than” in the sentence “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” could just as easily been translated “alongside” as in, “This man [the tax collector] went down to his dome justified alongside the [Pharisee].”  The argument, for those who might care about the Greek, is that the preposition para plus the accusative case “can mean ‘rather than’ but far more often means ‘alongside.'”

With all due respect to Dr. Brosend, “can mean” and “far more often means” does not an ironclad argument make.  While I am certain that this phrase could be translated as “alongside,” I’m also certain that it should be rendered “rather than” because of two very important factors: math and context.

First, the math.  In the study of probabilities and statistics, we find the idea of mutually exclusive events.  That is to say, there are things which can not overlap; they simply cannot happen at the same time.  Take, for a very simplified example, flipping a coin.  It can land on heads or tails, but never both.  These are mutually exclusive events.


Now we turn to context.  Luke tells us that Jesus told the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector to a group of people who trusted in themselves “that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”  These two things are mutually exclusive.  To be righteous is to be in perfect relationship with God and neighbor.  One cannot treat others with contempt and be righteous.  It is impossible.

Jesus has taught this parable in order to make the point that righteousness does not belong to those who treat others with contempt, and as long as we engage in such behavior, we remain outside of the perfect relationship that God longs for.  Sure, God could forgive the sins of the Pharisee, but it seems far more likely that God would demand some sort of repentance from him.  To be unrighteous in one’s prayers may be the most damning unrighteousness of all.

I agree with Dr. Brosend that it could be that the both the Pharisee and the Tax Collector went home justified, i.e. made righteous, but math and context seem to argue that only one was made righteous.

Jesus’ Humanity – Monday in Holy Week

Audio of this evening’s sermon can be found on the Saint Paul’s Website.

Yesterday afternoon, I had to make a trip up Juniper Street.  I turned right out of my neighborhood and found myself behind a car travelling about 10 miles per hour below the speed limit.  As we approached the intersection with Michigan Avenue, the car began to slow even more, until we were creeping up to the stop sign, and then the driver just crept right on through.  I stopped, waited my turn, and continued north to find myself still behind that car driving 10 miles per hour below the speed limit.  We came to Azalea Avenue, and the same thing happened, they just rolled right on through.  The replayed the whole thing again at the stop sign at Orange Avenue, and by then my blood pressure was through the roof.  I’m all for obeying traffic laws, but the haphazard application of hyper-safety and lazy driving is one thing that really, really steams me.  I confessed my sin on Facebook later in the afternoon saying, “For Holy Week this year, I’m asking Jesus to help me not hate people who drive 10mph below the speed limit and yet roll through stop signs.”

I think this is specifically appropriate for Holy Week because of just how human Jesus seems to be on Monday in Mark’s Gospel.  You’ll recall that yesterday we heard of Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem.  He came in to town, riding on a Donkey, as the crowd shouted “Hosanna!” and laid palm branches along his path.  As he arrived in town, Jesus made a quick stop by the Temple where Mark tells us “he looked around at everything, [and] as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.”[1]  I imagine that night was a long one for Jesus.  The day rattled around in his head.  The crowds, their cry for salvation, and the things he saw in the Temple Court: money changers offering terrible exchange rates, turtle doves at ten-times the mark-up, and the Temple authorities lining their pockets; it all must have weighed heavily upon Jesus as he tossed and turned all night long.

As the sun rose Monday morning, a tired and hungry Jesus set out with his disciples for Jerusalem.  Along the way the happened upon a fig tree, and even though Jesus knew it wasn’t the season for figs, he really wanted one anyway.  When he found none, a very human, very tired, very hungry Jesus cursed the fig tree and his disciples heard it.  Monday in Holy Week presents us with a Jesus with whom I can very much relate.  In the heat of the moment, we’ve all done things that we later regretted.  We’ve all misplaced our anger over something upon someone or something else.  The fig tree wasn’t what Jesus was upset about.  He was upset about what he saw in the Temple the night before.  He was frustrated that it really was going to come down to him dying on a cross.  Fig trees are fig trees and human beings are going to be human beings, and Jesus was angry about it.

Mark goes on, and Jesus and his crew made their way to the Temple.  In an instant, all the fear, the anger, the frustration, the exhaustion – it all came pouring out as Jesus flipped the tables and ran everybody out.  What was supposed to be a house of prayer for all people had become a den of robbers; a place where people made money off the backs of the faithful.  The system was created to keep the poor, poor and to make the rich, richer.  Jesus’ anger at the fig tree may have been misplaced, but his anger in the Temple was right and righteous indignation.  His actions still seem very human, but his motivation was the very will of God.  God’s will was that all of humanity might come to know him through the Temple as a beacon on the hill.  Instead, it was just another symbol of human beings oppressing fellow human beings.  It had become a source of pain and frustration and it had to be stopped.  Jesus was right to do what he did and the chief priests and the scribes knew it, which is precisely why he had to be stopped.  The very human actions of Jesus will cause other human beings to act predictably.  There will be quarrels and bribes; treason and lies, but that is for later in the week.  In the meantime, I’m left to wonder about my motivations.  My frustrations with the world around me are, more often than not, the result of my own selfishness.  My very human reactions are part of what brought Jesus to the cross.  My own need for forgiveness is what led him to lash out on Holy Monday.  In due time, it’ll all be forgiven, but for now, we walk the way of the cross in search of the promise of life and peace for all people, even me.  Amen.

[1] Mark 11:11b

Following Directions

Sometimes I feel like a broken record with my ongoing praise of the Collects of the Church Year.  I know that I often say that some are better than others, but I honestly can’t recall finding one I didn’t like.  So it is that again this week you’re reading me say, “I love the Collect for this Sunday,” which I do, but I like it even more because yesterday’s post actually garnered a comment.

The Rev. Adam Trambley, raised an interesting question in regards to the story of Abram’s leaving.

“Here’s the question that jumped into my mind as I read the Genesis passage this morning. God says “Go. Leave your family…” Then it ends saying, “Lot went with him.” Over the coming chapters, very little good seems to come of Lot going with him. Did Abraham disobey here? What say you?”

The first thing I say, something that I should probably say more often, and something that Adam knows well, is that I’m not an expert on this stuff.  I hadn’t even noticed the Lot issue before Adam raised it, but it did invite me to do a bit of digging.  My gut reaction was to say no, Abram didn’t disobey God because we’ll hear several times throughout scripture that Abraham believed and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.  Abraham is known for his repeated acts of faith: answering God’s call here in chapter 12; his welcoming of God by the Oaks of Mamre in chapter 18; and the sacrifice of Isaac in chapter 22. Of course, there moments where he wasn’t quite so perfect too: see especially the story of Hagar and Ismael in chapter 16, so I dug a little deeper.  My HarperCollins Study Bible has a note on verse 4a that says, “Abram’s obedience is immediate and unquestioning,” which is a pretty strong argument, but I decided to dig a little deeper.

Matthew Henry’s Commentary deals with issue of who went with Abram after God said, “leave your kindred.”  “He took his wife, and his nephew Lot, with him; not by force and against their wills, but by persuasion. Sarai, his wife, would be sure to go with him; God had joined them together, and nothing should put them asunder. If Abram leave all, to follow God, Sarai will leave all, to follow Abram, though neither of them knew whither. And it was a mercy to Abram to have such a companion in his travels, a help meet for him. Note, It is very comfortable when husband and wife agree to go together in the way to heaven. Lot also, his kinsman, was influenced by Abram’s good example, who was perhaps his guardian after the death of his father, and he was willing to go along with him too.

I’d prefer to eliminate the “perhaps” in Matthew Henry.  As chapter 11 comes to a close, Lot’s father, Abram’s brother, has died and is being cared for by his grandfather, Terah, who in turn dies.  It seems clear that ultimately the childless Abram and Sarai became the guardians of Lot and so his inclusion in their leaving is a logical one.  Abram will have plenty of time to disobey the LORD, just not yet.

To Fulfill All Righteousness

As I noted yesterday, the baptismal back and forth between Jesus and JBap in Matthew is well worth studying.  Clearly, John has some issues about his doing the baptizing of his Lord and Savior, but Jesus is quick to allay his fears.  “Let is be so now,” Jesus says to John, “for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”  What a peculiar response.  If it has to be this way for “now,” then what will it look like later?  And how is it that John’s baptism, the one that is expressly for the washing away of sins, will “fulfill all righteousness”?

My handy-dandy HarperCollins Annotated Bible defines righteousness as “right conduce in accord with God’s will as revealed in scripture” (Note of Mt. 3.15, p. 1863).  It then references several verses:

  • Mt. 1.19 – [Mary’s] husband, Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.
  • 5.10 – Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
  • 5.17-20 – Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not on stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.  Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceed that of the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Aside from taking solace in the fact that even sinners and teachers of sin will have a place in the Kingdom (a post for another day), I’m having a difficult time wrapping my mind around how the righteousness of Joseph, of those who are blessed, righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees has anything to do with why John had to baptize Jesus “now.”  My equally handy and equally dandy, HarperCollins Single Volume Bible Commentary, notes that this phrase, “to fulfill all righteousness” is “an adjective that not only applies to this baptismal scene, but will govern his ministry as a whole:” pointing the reader again to Mt 5.17 (p. 873).

So this scene sets the stage for all that is to come.  Jesus is following the rules in order to be able to speak from under the law.  He’s living into his full humanity, in order to restore every bit of our fallen nature.  He’s got a plan, to fulfill all righteousness, and that plan isn’t going to fail here on the first day of his public ministry.

It’s a Justice Issue

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard an Episcopalian say, “It’s a justice issue,” I’d be swimming in cash like Scrooge McDuck.  I’m sure it’ll come up over and over again this week as preachers, especially former mainliners who still carry the guilt of the 1960s on their shoulders, struggle to gather up the gumption to talk about justice from the pulpit this Sunday.  Meanwhile, snarky Xer’s and Millenials will just post meme’s on their Facebook pages.

It seems inevitable that one must deal with the question of justice this week.  The word is used four times in Sunday’s Gospel lesson, and appears a fifth time in describing the judge in Jesus’ parable as “unjust.”  The well worn meme above shows a modern, 21st century ideal of what justice means, but when you look into the Greek in this Lucan parable, unsettling things begin to happen.  Words begin creeping up like: punish, revenge, retribution, and vengeance.  This isn’t the quaint image of the shortest guy getting two boxes to stand on, this feels more like the tall guy getting cut off at the knees for standing on a crate in the left hand image.

So, what’s a preacher to do?  How do we define justice?  Better yet, how does God define justice?  In 1st Thessalonians 1:6, God is described as “just,” and it appears to share a similar root of “dik” but its meaning is very different.  This definition of justice is more of what we’d like to think about God: ethical, moral, and righteous.  How do these things differ?  How are they the same?

It is another tough lesson this week, dear reader.  You’ll be in my prayers.