What do you think of when you hear someone use the word ‘righteous’? Does it bring with it any connotations?
For me, two things pop into my head: the word self, as in ‘self-righteous’ and the idea of being perfect or holy, which is unattainable. Righteousness for me was always something that either I didn’t want or thought I could never be. It was a sermon and discussion with a pastor of mine that changed my concept of what it meant to be righteous and began a year long fascination to discover what being righteous meant for me.
The conversation I had centered around the Hebrew word ‘tzadik’. Tzadik is the Hebrew word for righteous. In the conversation my friend Bruce took the definition and related it back to a group in ancient Jewish culture. There were actually people who earned the title Tzadik or ‘The Righteous’. How does someone or a group earn such a title, not given by themselves, but by those they lived with day by day? They were known in their culture for several things: feeding the poor, mending the sick, taking care of the widow and the orphan. They were given the name Righteous because of the way they cared for those around them.
Wow, that’s a whole lot different than being self-righteous, in fact it seems to be about the opposite. Since my early twenties I had never really strived for righteousness because I either thought it was impossible to achieve (I’d failed all my life) or it was linked to an attitude I loathed (self-righteousness). But this idea, the idea of giving yourself away for the sake of others, this was something I could embrace. I was excited, but being steeped in my Southern Baptist roots, I had fears that this was just the same old idea that being a ‘good person’ was enough.
Yet as I looked at what Jesus said while he walked beside us, I began to see some confirming themes. In Luke 17:33 Jesus is talking about how we should live while waiting for his return. He says “Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it.” (NET) I know the traditional interpretation, but what if there is more. What if he is telling us that our souls are wired to get life by living unselfishly. That by holding on to everything that we think will make us secure and happy, we actually slowly kills our souls with selfishness. He makes similar statements in Matthew 10:39. Is he suggesting that by letting go of it all, and living lives serving those around us, that our souls actually come alive. That by giving ourselves away we actually find what makes us whole? The Sermon on the Mount actually hints of this and I know that’s how it works with me.
So when Jesus talks about the Judgement in Matthew 25:31 he seperates the sheep from the goats in one of his wonderful sheparding metaphors. He speaks of the Righteous being brought into his fold because of the things that made them righteous. In this section he refers specifically to: Feeding the poor, giving a drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger and comforting those in hard times.
The characteristics of the righteous seem to flow from a heart that is generous, open and loving towards the world around them. The wicked seem to have their hears entirely focused on themselves and have lost all compassion for anyone but themselves.
Jesus directly equates the behavior of the righteous ‘sheep’ with welcoming them into eternal life. I personally believe that this not only involves life for eternity, but that the ‘life’ of Jesus is already welling up in them today. They are already experiencing life and life more abundantly. They are in effect helping being in the kinddom of God which Jesus refers to repeatedly. If we all behaved this way, wouldn’t it be heaven on earth?