Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Blessings Along The Way: Understanding Righteousness

By James Strader

A priest once told me that one person’s righteousness is another person’s curse.

How regrettable if his statement is true. Righteousness, in a broad sense, is defined as the state of a person who is as she or he, ought to be. A condition acceptable to God. Matthew’s Jesus, as we’re (Re)learning in Lectionary Year A, more so than Jesus in any of the other gospels, focuses on righteousness.

The Greek work for Righteousness appears six times in Matthew. You can’t find it in Mark at all, only once in Luke, and twice in John. Matthew is all on it, this Righteousness theme; why?

It’s akin to reading any other piece of literature, to understand the text you have to understand the author’s context. We Anglicans, incorporate the gift of God-given reason to interpret scripture and consequently seek to live righteous, merciful, peace-loving Christian lives in a complex, and often evil, world.

Matthew’s frame of reference is vastly different than ours, but he’s got one, and the Gospel we have received from him expresses it. It is not a mistake that Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount takes place on a mountain much like the one that Moses came down from when he delivered the Ten Commandments to the Israelites.

Matthew’s goal is to recognize Jesus’ obedience to, and preservation of, Biblical law (Levine, 2001). Jews of Matthew’s context were bound to a covenant with God and by God they were supposed to live perfectly. If the Law of Moses was meant to provide divine guidance for the ancient Israelites then Jesus’ teachings are meant to provide divine guidance for his followers.

There’s one critical issue to keep at the center of our hearts in terms of righteous living. This Kingdom of Heaven of Matthew's Jesus has come near (Matthew 4:17). The Reign of God is a reference to God’s presence on Earth, a universal state of being that God provides, by overthrowing the forces of evil (Ehrman, 2000). It is our responsibility and mission to participate in the in-breaking of Christ’s presence of justice and compassion, today.

It is Jesus’ commandment for us to see his fulfillment of The Law as a means to move past prescriptive law; into living more fully in the state of grace that Christ provides for us.

For centuries, societies have used laws as a means for humans to respect and care for each other. The revolutionary events that we are witnessing in the Middle East, are examples of the  needs people yearn for when they are oppressed under political systems that set aside human dignity and freedom.

Christianity is not merely about social justice. It is not a community organizing effort. Christianity is about living into Jesus’ Life, Death and Resurrection in spiritual, pastoral, and prophetic ways. It’s about jumping right into messy human relationships and finding Christ there.

Instead of giving ourselves a grade on righteousness, how about we shift focus to what’s going on in the lives of the young or elderly who live in the neighborhoods around us.

How might we better spend our time evaluating the nature of our Christian lives, and gaze on the world through Jesus’ eyes of compassion and mercy? Striving to be dedicated co-creators of Jesus’ Reign here and now, is where and when, we can strive to claim Matthean Jesus righteousness.

There are innumerable opportunities for such Christian righteousness, including the (in)direct support of people close to our homes and around the world who need us to walk two miles, rather than one with them.

*  The Rev. Jim Strader ('03) presently serves as curate at St. George's by the River Episcopal Church in Rumson, NJ. He occasionally blogs at Christian Quandary - Faith for now

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