A Fast of Righteousness

I am often puzzled by the things theologians say about “righteousness.” First, there are a striking number of different treatments. That alone should tell anyone that we are standing on the ground of “theory” rather than knowledge when we hear pronouncements about the word. It is, of course, an important word. “Seek first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness…,” Christ commands in the Sermon on the Mount. I think I know what that means to a Lutheran or an Evangelical. I know what it means to NT Wright. But, none of what I see in them really makes a lot of sense in the context of the Sermon on the Mount. I am going to suggest something different. You may, of course, consider this just one more theory. So be it.

There is a great theme of righteousness in the Old Testament. To a certain extent, it can be described as a “proper balance,” or “things being in their right place, order and amount.” Most of the judgments that concerned normal people in their daily lives (apart from matters of ritual) were oriented around property, income, debt, and daily needs. The great “engine” of the Israelite economy (according to the Law) was the Law of the Sabbath and the Jubilee Year.

If we look at a simple rule we can see this in play. “Do not muzzle an ox who is treading out the grain.” It means, if your ox is being used to drive the mill wheel that is grinding the wheat, you may not prevent them from having some opportunity to munch the wheat that is falling at their feet. Why? It’s quite simple. You have a lot of wheat, and you shouldn’t begrudge an animal a small share. After all, it’s that animal’s sweat that is making your grain palatable. To greedily prevent the animal from its share is unrighteous. It is an improper balance and exploitation of a beast.

This, of course, is an example that involves only an animal. But the principle is constant throughout the Law and the Prophets. The Jubilee cancels debts and restores the land to its proper owner (and this is a “righteous” judgment).

When we come to the New Testament, Jesus repeatedly speaks of debts being canceled, of the deliverance of the poor, of the rich being in danger. When He offers a parable about the Judgment, it is about sharing: food, clothing, care, and concern. The one who shares with the one who is in need is counted “righteous.”

This, I think, points to a proper (and rather simple) meaning of the term. It is not just some form of “social justice.” There is something more cosmic and eschatological about it. Wherever the Kingdom comes, its “righteousness” is made manifest. What does that look like? Christ described it to the disciples of John:

Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and tell John the things you have seen and heard: that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the gospel preached to them. (Lk. 7:22)

These are all cases of people who live in a deficit (while others live in a surfeit). When the Kingdom is made manifest, things are set right: its righteousness is made manifest. But its coming is of a supernatural character. There is a moral component: we are taught to behave in a manner towards others that “sets things right.” We are told to do to others what we would want to be done to us. And then, because of the abundance of the Kingdom, we are told to do more than that. We give even to those who will not give in return. This is righteousness.

There is an inner righteousness. For the Kingdom of God is not a mere set of moral actions. It is also an inner transformation, where we not only “do” righteousness, but “become” righteous. That inner work is also the “setting right” of things. We were created in the image and likeness of God, but have become debtors to sin. Spiritually, we have become poor and are unable to overcome our hateful sin-master. God’s gift to us becomes an abiding Jubilee, abolishing the debt of sin and restoring us to our right place before Him.

However we might think of righteousness (perhaps as the Divine Energies), it has this characteristic of “setting right,” of putting things back in their proper place. Human beings were created to be the very image of God, but became enslaved to sin. In the pattern of our salvation, the Rich became poor, that we (the poor) might become rich. God became what we are that we might become what He is. His righteousness is His love.

A further thought can help us see that righteousness is written into the very fabric of creation itself. Nature abhors an imbalance. Things that become imbalanced have a tendency to collapse. In the Old Testament, Israel was warned that failing to give the land its rest every seven years (the land was supposed to lie fallow in the seventh year, and thus take a rest) would cause the land itself to expel them! This was later given as the reason for the Babylonian Captivity. Nature groans and travails not just for the liberty of the sons of God (Romans 8), but for righteousness as well. To abuse creation has consequences that cannot be ignored.

As you fast during this season, add righteousness to your life. Set at liberty those whom you hold captive. Forgive their debts, loose their sins, share what you have.

While fasting with the body, brethren, let us also fast in spirit. Let us loose every bond of iniquity; let us undo the knots of every contract made by violence; let us tear up all unjust agreements; let us give bread to the hungry and welcome to our house the poor who have no roof to cover them, that we may receive great mercy from Christ our God.

Stichera on “Lord, I Call”

 

 

30 comments:

  1. For what it’s worth I’m Lutheran clergy, and in Seminary we were taught that righteousness is living in a way that is ‘right with God’.

  2. The verses from Isaiah that we proclaim in the Great Compline of the Christmas Eve Vigil come to mind: “Understand this all ye nations and submit yourselves for God is with us!” … and the eruption of joy that is the following hymn.

  3. Father,
    I don’t know about Lutheran or Evangelical understandings of righteousness, but the accepted understanding of that word in Greek, as used on the Sermon on the Mount, is simply: all-inclusive virtue. (Which absolutely includes what you say above regarding the sense of balance).
    So whenever we have the adjective used, as in ‘James the just’, I think we would generally tend to understand it as, James the “virtuous” (as in, he had all virtues).
    What great advice it is to add righteousness to our life forgiving, and sharing in preparation for Christmas!

  4. Thank you for these wonderful words Father!
    I want to share something I heard Fr. Meletios Webber say years ago about the theme of righteousness, these words have stayed with me since then. I will paraphrase a little, since I don’t remember them exactly.
    “When Jesus told us to be righteous, He didn’t mean that we should be ‘right’, but that we should be ‘good’.”

  5. Father, thank you for this message! I have struggled for years to forgive people who in their greed stole money that was to be inherited by myself and my family. I see the way is to forgive the debt, and forgive their greed and dishonesty. Instead of hurting over the injustice and all that the money could have done, I need to let go of it all and forgive all debt they owe me. God will provide for me and my family. Forgiveness can be my generosity to others. Instead of seeing it as all the debts I owe could have been paid with it, I am freeing myself from all expectations and pain- by forgiving their debt to me. Once again, prayers answered thru your words to all of us.

  6. Randall, Dino, et al
    A weakness in the definition of righteousness (dikaiosyne) as “right with God” or even “virtuous” is the possibility of treating it in a “moral” manner that too easily overlooks this Biblical theme of righteousness as described in the Sabbath laws (debt cancellation, etc.). The preaching of the Fathers (I think particularly of St. John Chrysostom) strongly remembered this proper sense of righteousness as justice – proper balance, etc.- in terms that would make a modern Socialist blush.

    I wanted to “raise the ante” in this article by noting that this Biblical understanding of righteousness is more than a moral position – it is ontological as well – in that God’s righteousness (justice) permeates all of creation.

    Of course, this meaning could be encompassed by the phrase “right with God” or by “virtue.” It’s just that in my experience, people rarely seem to think of it in that way. I find very few Christians who fear being rich – when they should. Just as we should fear holding debts, etc. The deep injustices created by our system of credit and interest charging (which violates traditional Christian teaching) is so commonplace that suggesting that it is immoral is usually met with strong defenses of our present economic system.

    In the Bibilical understanding, our entire system should live with deep fear and trembling with regard to God. So many would lose so much should His righteousness come flowing down.

    Forgive my St. John Chrysostom moment. 🙂

  7. Fr. Stephen,
    Thank you for this article on righteousness. One of Dr. Martin Luther King’s favorite verses was, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”
    Amos 5:24.
    The prophet Amos railed against the rich and powerful of Israel and their treatment of the poor. “They sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes…they trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and turn aside the way of the afflicted….” Chap. 2
    One thing that has long bothered me is that the memorial at the Southern Poverty Law Center quotes this verse from Amos but attributes it to Dr. King. I love that this was one of his favorite verses. I just wish the proper citation were given.

  8. Father, in Sunday’s Gospel of the rich young man the futility of morality alone was quite evident to me this year for some reason.
    The story of the Merchant of Venice was the first place that I encountered the moral hypocrisy of going to the Jews for money in medieval Europe. It is a complex story when considered in historical context as well as the cost for refusing mercy.

    Then there is Matthew 5:20. “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you shall in no case enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

    A hard saying even now. But as Portia says to the Court of Venice: ” We do pray for mercy and that same prayer teaches us to do the deeds of mercy.”

    Are not ” the deeds of mercy” also Cruciform?

  9. This is so beautiful, Father.

    Whenever teaching catechumens or Sunday School about the Scriptural/godly meaning of justice and righteousness, I find it helpful to point to Matthew’s testimony of Joseph the Betrothed.

    “Then Joseph her husband, BEING A JUST MAN, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly.”

  10. Fr Stephen

    I wonder why the English translation of the Lord’s Prayer refers to “trespasses”. This word sounds to me , as a non-native English speaker, as something relatively less grievous. In Greek we have the word “debts” (οφειλήματα) and Fr Ephrem Lash’s translation is:

    Our Farther in heaven,
    may your name be hallowed,
    your kingdom come,
    your will be done on earth as in heaven.
    Give us today our daily bread,
    and forgive us our debts,
    as we forgive our debtors.
    And do not lead us into temptation,
    But deliver us from the evil one.

  11. Nikolaos,
    It’s an interesting question, and it has a bit of history behind it. Thomas Cranmer, the author of the English Book of Common Prayer (1549, 1552) which became as standard for English speakers as Shakespeare, followed the lead of William Tyndale, who, some 20 years or so earlier had used “trespasses” to translate the Lukan version of the prayer (where Luke had “forgive us our sins” (hamartia). “Trespass” was a very good English word meaning, “sins,” at that time. That version became the rather standard English usage until fairly recently.

    I think the Orthodox in England follow Ephrem Lash’s translation, which uses “debts.” Here in the US, some jurisdictions use the standard “trespass” translation, while others follow the “debts”. In the OCA (my jurisdiction) you can find both, depending on the guidance of the local bishop. My parish, and most of the South, uses “debts.”

    Also, “evil one,” rather than “evil” is becoming more common. You’d think there would be one single, standard translation for Orthodoxy in English, but there’s not. It’s sort of symptomatic of life under overlapping jurisdictions.

  12. Fr Stephen

    “Evil one” correctly translates from Greek where it denotes a person (Satan), not “evil” as a general noun, like in the expression “the lesser of two evils”.

  13. Nikolaos,
    You are absolutely correct. It has the definite article (tou) before it, so that it has to mean an evil person, not evil in general. My late Archbishop was always adamant that the Lord’s Prayer should be debts and debtors and evil one.

  14. Fr. Stephen; anyone here,
    I was reading Leviticus chapter 19, earlier today and in verse 31, in the Orthodox Study Bible and it says, ‘You shall not follow ventriloquists, nor attach yourself to enchanters.’

    It was quite jarring in in funny way to read this 😀. I know what a ventriloquist is in our time, but haven’t a clue what one is in the context of Leviticus.

    I would be grateful for any explanation?
    I apologise for being off topic with this.

  15. Fr. Stephen,

    You write: “In the pattern of our salvation, the Rich became poor, that we (the poor) might become rich. God became what we are that we might become what He is. His righteousness is His love.”

    What I so often hear in sermons on the gospel of the sorrowful rich man is that God isn’t telling us to give away everything we possess, but is rather telling us to be detached from all that we possess. I know this cannot be right, and, in fact, it’s pretty obvious that if we are truly detached, we won’t care if we have our possessions or if they are taken from us—so we might as well give them away! And then I read what St. Diodochus tells us, that we have to give away all that we possess *in order* to become detached.

    However, I also realize that I cannot bring myself to give away all that I possess. So I’m at an impasse. I cannot do what I am commanded to do. I have come to the conclusion that even if we cannot do it, this is the labor that is demanded of us, that we make ourselves poor (in order that we might become rich with God). It seems that it is a lifelong labor, at least for me. “For man it is impossible, but for God, all things are possible.” Those are comforting words!

    By the way, I would like to thank you for your recent blog entry on chaos and the Cross. It has stayed with me, and I have read and re-read it. I don’t begin grasp it, but your pointing to the centrality of the Cross seems “spot on.” God’s love as self-emptying and our response as self-emptying (giving away all that we possess, including our attachment to our ideologies and to the fulfillment of even our worthy goals).

  16. Renée,
    I has always seemed to me that we “pull the punch” too quickly on giving away our possessions, substituting a very weak “Sure I’m rich, but I’m detached” sort of approach. Such sermons leave everyone going home just as rich as ever, only feeling slightly guilty about it. I’ve long said that we tend to be too literal about things the Scriptures intend as figurative, and far too figurative where the Scriptures are quite literal.

    If one is married, or has children, etc., then there are obvious material needs that preclude giving away everything. However, it does not preclude a serious level of generosity. My father-in-law was a strong literalist about tithing (giving a tenth of income) and held that that was a minimum that we should exceed (in that, he agreed with the Tradition). My late beloved Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas taught the same thing.

    A few months into my marriage my wife came to me one day and said, “I can’t live like this anymore!” I went into a panic, wondering what I was doing wrong such that it seemed my whole marriage was a stake. I asked what the problem was and she said, “We’re not tithing!” We were quite poor at the time, but I quickly got the checkbook, wrote out our tithe for the month and I’ve never questioned it. Indeed, for most years in our lives we were able to exceed that.

    I encourage people to set that Biblical “minimum” as a goal (if they’re not there yet), and then to give above that as they can. Questions such as, “Should I give it all to the Church?” are sort of beside the point. We have not been given instructions on that. Nonetheless, a constant remembrance and generosity towards the poor is important and never to be neglected.

    Above all, give yourself to God and He will make all things possible.

  17. Father, an issue for me in terms of giving is the high level of societal shame and manipulation being promoted in all aspects of living. It makes it difficult for me to commit at all to a pattern of giving (and other interactions too). Anything I do, or don’t do seems to be shameful in some way or another. Shame is sometimes used as a motivational tool even in the Church. Fortunately, my wife has a much more generous spirit but I can’t just continue ride on her coattails. Any suggestions?

  18. Father Freeman,

    I want to thank you so very much for being an open door allowing me to see beyond what I have seen, your labour in the Lord has, is, and will continue to bare abundant fruit now and forever.
    Much love to you my Brother,
    Richard in Canada 🙂

  19. We are most poor on our death bed. It is inevitable that we will give all things away and entrust our lives completely to God. We have no other choice. Jesus looked on the rich man with compassion for this reason I think. It is so much better to cling to God and his mercy throughout our lives. I think often about a painless and blameless death, how those two words are related and maybe refer more to our inner condition at the time of death than our physical pain.

  20. The more you stop thinking about what you give away, the more you stop thinking about what you give away. If this Life is rivers of water, then it flows from high to low. It is this in accord with Reality, or Right(eous)

  21. Fr. Freeman,
    Thinking about your response to Michele on fasting…
    Isaiah 58:6 ff always comes to mind. There the fast acceptable to God is sharing food with the poor, clothing the naked, seeking justice for the oppressed, etc. We can be lost in the fine print, label reading, etc. True fasting begins and issues forth from the heart. My wife and I are both in our mid-seventies. She has suffered twice from lymphoma. So our fasting is somewhat relaxed. Yet fasting from the heart can continue on to our last breath, as Michele and Barbara note. I once had a Punjabi aide when I taught English as a second language.
    I happened to offer her a candy bar. First thing, she read the label. It contained egg yoke, so she returned it to me. We can get lost in the minutiae. As with so much in our walk with Christ, soberness and balance are needed. Fast… without forgetting love, mercy, etc.

  22. Whether we feel anger, compassion, coldness, indifference, or whatever else towards evil and suffering, they will still persist. A mystery beyond our limited understanding. At the end of the day we can only deal with, the evil within ourselves and by God’s good grace be converted and stop causing suffering to others.

  23. I can begin to comprehend righteousness a little. What I have never gotten is the spirit of fasting. As a rote act “following the rules” I get. I have done it that way frequently in my life but I just do not understand what it is, really. I have seen people make it into almost an idol, or as a means to something else (like using money saved to give to the poor), etc.

    It has always seemed to me that fasting, like prayer ought to be a virtue, like prayer, in and of itself.

    But, that has always eluded me. God forgive me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.