Whose Righteousness?

Matthew 5:6
David A. Davis
February 23, 2020
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It would be so much easier if Jesus would have said “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for their own righteousness.” If the righteousness Jesus was talking about was more about one’s devotional life, or prayer time. A qualitative assessment of one’s spiritual journey. If by “righteousness” Jesus intended to refer to a quality of religiousness, a kind of holiness. If with this one line Jesus was attempting to point to that great aunt of yours who always knew scripture and kept her prayer list in her bible and radiated a certain God-centeredness. If “righteousness” is all about “right relationship”, “just you and me God”, then this particular beatitude would be a whole lot easier.

It would be much easier if Jesus would have said “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for goodness.” If the righteousness Jesus was talking about had to do with living a good life. If it had to do with honesty and fairness and business ethics and treating others well and loving your family and caring for your parents and hugging your kids and being an upstanding citizen and going to church on Sunday and volunteering at the hospital and coaching softball and serving a few non-profits. “Righteousness”, as in “he was a good man. She was a good soul” When it comes to this beatitude, at least we would understand it.

Our own righteousness. Our own right relationship with God. Our own goodness. My hunch is that somewhere along the line, somewhere down deep, we’ve been convinced by John Calvin and others about the hopelessness of our own goodness. We’ve absorbed something of this Presbyterian Reformed tradition that recognizes any effort toward our own perfection this side of glory is ultimately fruitless. We shall forever be grateful to the Apostle Paul and we cling to his proclamation that “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph 2). Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for their own righteousness? That take on Matthew 5:6 is easy to pass over when you believe that at the end of the day your saved by grace alone.

The word for “righteousness” doesn’t cross Jesus’ lips all that often in the four gospels. A few times he refers to the righteousness of God, the righteousness of the kingdom, a kind of righteousness with a capital “R”.  When John the Baptist was appropriately hesitant about baptizing the Messiah, Jesus said to him “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” (Mt 3) Those words from the introit we have been singing this month,  “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given unto to you,” the words come from the lips of Jesus later in Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 6) And then few other times Jesus refers to righteousness on the human side. “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your father in heaven” (Mt 6).

The Greek word Matthew uses there for piety is the same word as the word Matthew uses for righteousness. Beware of practicing your righteousness before others. Another time Jesus warns his listeners “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5). When Jesus speaks about our righteousness, our piety, our attempt at religious behavior, it always seems to come with a warning, a word of caution. When it comes to your own piety, your own doing, your own religiosity, your own preoccupation with the state of your spiritual self, when it comes to your own self-righteousness, Jesus says, yeah, not so much!  It’s not about hungering and thirsting after your own righteousness. It is about hungering and thirsting after God’s righteousness! And hungering and thirsting after God’s righteousness is not so easy to understand and certainly not so easy to do. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.”

Fifteen years or so ago the rock star Bono was the main speaker at the Annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC. The lead singer of the Irish band U2 has always been a strong voice and advocate in the fight against global poverty, the fight for global health, and debt relief for suffering nations around the world. When my dear friend Dave Prince was the interim pastor at Rutgers Presbyterian Church in New York City, he told me Bono would often slip in and sit in the back for worship. That morning at the National Prayer Breakfast he referred to his keynote address as his homily.  At one point he was offering praise and thanks for the response that had come from America, doubling aid to Africa and tripling funding for global health. He specifically thanked President George W. Bush who was sitting right next to him for his leadership and support of the funding. Bono went on to describe the magnitude of the suffering, the scale of the emergency. Then the singer said “It’s not about charity after all, is it? It’s about justice…It’s not about charity, it’s about justice. And that’s too bad, because you’re really good at charity…but justice is a higher standard.” Bono was talking about righteousness., the righteousness of God.

When you and I hear Jesus say the word “righteousness”, our first move is to look within. It’s easier. But those listeners there on the mountain, the crowds gathered around, along with the disciples who had come near and sat down as he began to teach them? The first move for those hearers of the Word, the first thought when it came to “righteousness” would have been the words of the prophets and the songs of the psalmist. It would have been their yearning for the messiah that came to mind. The messiah, that shoot that shall come forth from the branch of Jesse, the one “who shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” (Is 11) It would have been the prophet’s lament they remembered. “Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands at a distance; for truth stumbles in the public square.” (Is 59) It would have been the prophet’s divine rebuke that echoed in their ears, a rebuke that came from the shouts of Amos. “Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5) It would have been God’s promise that leapt in their hearts. The promise spoken by the psalmist in Psalm 85. Words I read just a moment ago in the psalter. “Surely God’s salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that God’s glory may dwell in our land. Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet, righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground and righteousness will look down from the sky.” (Ps 85) When the people of God heard Jesus use the word “righteousness” they wouldn’t have looked within focused on their own piety, they would have stood up and looked around determined to see some evidence of the very reign of God!

It would be much easier if Jesus would have said “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for their own righteousness.” But the promise comes to those who hunger and thirst for…those who set their minds on… those who fast and pray for….those who count it the most profound of spiritual disciplines to cry out for and work toward God’s righteousness, God’s justice, God’s kingdom to come here on earth as it is in heaven. Those who crave a world where the hungry are fed and the thirsty receive drink, where strangers are welcomed and the naked are clothed, and the sick are cared for and the prisoners are visited, where the injured man in the ditch is helped along by the most surprising of neighbors, where the poor are invited to a feast of seismic proportions. God’s righteousness, where the people God of know and live what the Apostle Paul called “the more excellent way.’ The way of love. Where there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for all are one in Christ Jesus. God’s righteousness, where the first shall be last, the last shall be first, where those who seek to be great know they must first be the servant of all. That desire, that yearning, for God’s righteousness, it will be filled, if not in this world, then in the kingdom to come.

One Saturday in January I was preaching at the closing worship service of a conference of pastors who had come together from all over. During the sermon, behind me to my right, there was an artist painting on a canvas. I was preaching about Jesus and his long walk to Jerusalem in Luke’s gospel. In those 15 or so minutes, she painted Jesus sitting on the Mount of Olives looking over, across the valley, to the city of Jerusalem. I had never experienced someone painting during one of my sermons and I will admit that it was a bit disconcerting to have the listeners not watching me but watching the painting come to fruition. But it was beautiful and appropriate to behold his last stop along that way.

If someone behind me was painting “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled”, I think it would be harder. Because hungering and thirsting after God’s righteousness is not so easy to understand and certainly not so easy to do and not easy to see either. Maybe it could be an historical portrait of the church working for God’s righteousness. The Barmen Declaration; Germany, 1934. The Letter from the Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr, 1963. The Confession of Belhar, South Africa. 1986. Ordination of women in the Presbyterian Church (USA). 61 years. The combined Men’s groups of Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church and then First Presbyterian Church working together to establish fair and integrated housing in Princeton some 50 years ago. Crisis Ministry, now Arm In Arm, feeding hungry people in our community. 35 years. Centurion Ministries, working to free the wrongly imprisoned. 33 years. Nassau Church, speaking for, working for, living the full inclusion of members of the LBGTQ community. More than 25 years. Some kind of historical landscape of the people of God hungering and thirsting for righteousness. That could be the painting of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. God’s righteousness. Because you can actually see it.

Every time you hear Jesus use the word righteousness, don’t look within. But stand up with me and look around, and roll up your sleeves, and clear your voice. Because in due time our children and grandchildren will be telling our great grandchildren about what the church said and did when they were young. What the church said and did now. And by the mercy and grace of God, I hope and pray they will be telling something of what it means to live into and to hunger and thirst for the very righteousness of God.