For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. -Matthew 5:20
For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” -Romans 1:17
Righteousness has fallen on hard times. We live in an anything-goes-culture, more Kardashian than Christlike. We buy what we want to buy, we cut corners where we can, we sleep with whoever we want to. The “just say no” slogan of previous decades has given way to moral permissiveness. Conservative Christians who used to call themselves the Religious Right and the Moral Majority, are among the most vocal and committed supporters of Donald Trump, a serial adulterer who’s boasts about sexual assault and harassment are well known (along with other moral quagmires and questionable things).
There is still morality, but it is more and more an enigma to the wider culture. Vice President Mike Pence was recently lambasted by the media for refusing to dine alone with any woman other than his wife. Whatever we think of the Billy Graham Rule, and I think it is problematic for a number of reasons, we have come to a point where attempts at righteous living are inexplicable to the culture at large. John Stackhouse observes, “Fifty years into the Sexual Revolution, it appears that consenting adults can do anything they want with each other—except adopt lifestyles that are more conservative than their critics would approve.”
In Jesus’s day, the Scribes, Pharisees and the teachers of the Law were the moral leaders. The theological project of the Pharisees and Scribes was to bring about Israel’s return from exile through morality. Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The first Jews carried into captivity returned 70 years later to rebuild the city. However, many Jews didn’t regard this as a full return from exile because their land was under the thumb of empires. Babylon. Persia. Alexandria. Rome. There was a brief respite from foreign rule with the Maccabean revolt and the Hasmonean dynasty (110-63 BCE), but for centuries, this was Israel’s lived experience. Many thought that the return from exile, the future blessing promised by the prophets, had not yet happened.
So a program to enact righteousness was born. Pharisees advocated a strict adherence to dietary laws, purity in marriage, and the striving for personal morality. It was designed to show God that the heart of the nation had turned back to Him so that God would act and restore Israel to her former glory.
Jesus didn’t condemn the Pharisees for their desire to be righteous. He didn’t denounce their works righteousness. He said the problem with them is that they didn’t go far enough, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” The Pharisees had turned righteousness into a personal moral code and attention to Jewish Identity markers (i.e. marital purity, Torah, keeping Kosher, etc). But this is a truncated view of righteousness.
Righteousness is less about right living and more about right relationship. It means being in right relationship with God, with others, with ourselves and all of creation. Yes, this implies particular behaviors. Living in right relationship with my wife presupposes I live in marital fidelity and that I strive to be personally attentive to her needs. However, if I make marriage about its identity markers, like not having dinner alone with other women or always wearing my wedding ring (which I lost in our move from Florida), I have a failed to understand what a righteous marriage looks like. It isn’t about checking off boxes on some moral list. It is about loving my partner well. When I do that, my behavior aligns with righteous living because my heart is right.
δικαιοσύνη, the Greek word for righteousness implies more than a moral code, but an active caring. The righteous are those who have mercy, love justice and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). The righteous are those who care for the poor, the widowed, the orphaned and immigrants (Deut. 24:20-21; Zechariah 7:10). They are those who name systemic injustice and lay down privilege to better care for a hurting world. But this isn’t a list to check off. Becoming righteous is the struggle to love well.
The righteousness of God revealed to us through the gospel, goes beyond the righteousness of the Pharisees. It is Christ and a cross—a life well lived, a love freely given. Jesus on the cross shows us what the love of God looks like, his arms ever open to embrace and restore a hurting world.