A Righteous Musing
I do not know if you know this or not, but we have an election coming up in less than a week. Frankly, I am ready to be done with unsolicited calls about candidates and return to unsolicited calls about extended car warranties. I am also ready for less junk mail.
One flyer I got recently was nearly poster size. It actually stuck out of my mailbox.
It listed a bunch of issues, from taxes to immigration to healthcare to education, and proclaimed that their party and candidates were right on each of these issues and the other party was wrong on these issues and that these people were wrong for America – in fact it said they were anti-American.
After the harshness of the advertisement, what struck me first was that I wish my life was so simple as to know exactly when something was right and wrong with such certainty. Because my life is full of uncertainty. I am not even always sure I picked the right entrée when ordering from a menu.
Next it occurred to me that not even folks in their own party agree on the single right solution to each of those issues. That all of our political parties and organizations and nonprofits and even churches have folks who see things in different ways. That life is far more nuanced than a binary yes/no, black/white answer.
Later that evening as the flyer was now sticking slightly out of the trash can in our home office/craft/junk room, it occurred to me that Jesus was never really as interested in being right as he was in folks working on righteousness.
In fact, the Bible is not really a book about right and wrong as people sometimes claim it is. It is really a book about righteousness. So, you know in case it comes up in a trivia contest sometime—the word we translate in the Bible as righteous appears over 700 times. First the word we translate as righteous is found in the Old Testament where the Hebrew root צדקים (TzDYQ), tzedek, is used and this word is found over five hundred times. Later in the New Testament the Greek word we translate as righteous is δίκαιος (dikaios) and it appears more than 200 times.
However, the Biblical understanding of the word we translate as righteousness has a far deeper meaning than we in the modern world—and especially we in the western hemisphere—understand.
The Biblical word used for righteous in Jesus’s time had a cultural significance that was meant to explain an idea of being in a right relationship with another. Righteousness was the creation of a just, kind and fair or “right” relationship between two persons far more than it was the fulfillment of a legalistic code. And the calling or goal of every Jew was to be in such a relationship with persons from every part of society.
As one scholar noted, if you were to “think like an Old Testament Jew, even two thieves could be considered ‘righteous’ in their relationship to one another if it were characterized by sharing, fairness, camaraderie and loyalty.”
So, in the Beatitudes when Jesus says, “Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness's sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” he is saying you are blessed when you reach out to others – others who are different from you – others who think differently, act differently and even sin differently than you. From the teachings of Jesus, we are blessed when we engage in grace-filled relationships with others. And the blessing isn’t just a reward in heaven but also in the here and now as we often find friendship with those who, if we simply looked at their beliefs on politics or theology, we would dismiss.
Now this does not mean we will always agree. I am sure Jesus did not agree with the prostitute’s profession, but that did not keep him from befriending her. And Jesus did not see Zacchaeus as the rare morally upright tax collector. He knew who and what Zacchaeus was, and Jesus still wished to get to know him over a meal. And Jesus knows you and me with all our faults and still chooses to love us.
Our call then as disciples of Christ is to build healthy righteous relationships with everyone, regardless of whether or not they agree with our beliefs on tax policy.
Folks, we don’t have to agree; we simply have to love. And we are called to love even when folks do us wrong. That is what we say every time we recite the Lord’s Prayer.
As the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber says in her book Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, “Jesus taught us to pray, ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,’ not forgive us and smite those bastards who hurt us.”
And yet the latter sentiment seems to be where our world is today. But this is antithetical to the Gospel.
I guess the ability to forgive and seek to engage in relationships with even those who disagree with us is
why I am so inspired by the late John Lewis. As Rev. Jill Duffield wrote recently in an article for Presbyterian Outlook:
This Sunday, this All Saints’ Day just days before our presidential election in the year of a global pandemic, I need to worship the Lamb who died that we might live, the Messiah who ate with sinners and told us to love the unlovable and the unlovely in order that the world would know that we are his followers. I need to remember the great cloud of witnesses and the members of every tribe and nation over the vast expanse of time who refused to succumb to the lesser (but so appealing) gods of vengeance, hate and cynicism. When I picture that glorious heavenly worship, I see some of the saints who entered the Church Triumphant this year. Saints like John Lewis who said at Montreat in 2015, “Never, ever let someone pull you down so low you hate them.” The saint who said to all of us in words published in the New York Times the day of his funeral: “Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.”
Friends, we have not only John Lewis as an example but so many other saints (some of whom are known to us only individually) who have shown us how to live in the way of righteousness.
Of course, our best example is Jesus, who truly lived a righteous life and was willing to be in relationships with all.
In this season and the season that follows, may we be a people who can agree to disagree when necessary but still hold on to one another as infinitely valuable because we are all children of God.
A blog I read often ends with questions to consider. I am modifying one that I have been struggling with over the last few days and with which I invite you wrestle as well:
What does it mean to you to be called a child of God? What difference would it make if you understood everyone to be a child of God? What difference would it make if everyone on the planet understood everyone on the planet to be a child of God?
Have a blessed week.