The Meaning and Importance of Righteousness

by Michael Wood
(Matt. 5:20-) is one of those parts of the New Testament that requires our fairly careful attention, for it includes a number of matters which are frequent cause for questions. Accordingly I would like to proceed through it seriatim. Beginning with verse 20, we come to the word “righteousness” in the context of contrast with the righteousness of a particular group of the society in which Jesus’ Disciples lived. The Pharisees advocated a behaviour which they termed righteousness and which consisted of “proper” behaviour – proper within the letter of the Law. There was in fact little or no room for love or compassion within their concept of righteousness. Certainly they worked very hard to maintain the letter of the Law – to a degree which we would find incredible.
The righteousness that Jesus is talking about, on His own authority (“But I say unto you…”) begins with the relationship of the individual with God. It is a “right relationship” with God, one that must begin with Him. Through the Incarnation of the Son, God has made possible our reception of God’s own righteousness directly from Christ. His righteousness – which is the righteousness that we must acquire, is summed up by Him in His great summary of the Law: “Hear O Israel, the Lord thy God is One Lord; and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, namely this: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” What He means is of course, that if one follows this rule, then as a matter of course, and with care, one fulfils the whole purpose of the myriad of legalisms that were incorporated into the Mosaic Law. It is the righteousness of the rule of love that Christ teaches, not the righteousness of cold legal conformity.
The remainder of the chapter – up to verse 48 is actually a series of practical situational illustrations of what this love-righteousness means. Sinful, unrighteous anger is equated with murder – a fact which should sober us considerably. This is one of those sayings which we tend to think of as just sayings – yet this one is awfully important. Literally it means that every single one of us is just as guilty in God’s eyes as those who are in prison for murder. It means that we have no business considering ourselves as “ordinary, decent people” for we are not that at all.
We tend nowadays to deprecate any tendency to wallow in guilt for our sins and it is something which a “healthy Christianity” deprecates – but not to the exclusion of a genuine recognition of the totality of what we have done wrong – our responsibility, individually and corporately and the absolute necessity of our seeking formal forgiveness.
The very next admonition shows that up: The fact that we ought not come to receive Communion at the Liturgy if we know someone to have something against us. Incidentally, it was for this reason that the ancient Liturgies and our own Saint John and Sarum Liturgies have a Kiss of Peace at the beginning – as a reminder that we ought to be reconciled in advance of approaching the Altar.
Verse 25 (which is put in Saint Luke’s Gospel in the context of the end of this age) tells us that it is urgent for us to clear up all our disagreements and quarrels, for whether it be the Second Coming, our individual repose, or the reception of Holy Communion, we cannot allow matters to drag on in dispute and anger. All of this is Christ’s own illustration of the requirement that we adopt a righteousness that is not based on the letter of the Law, but upon the whole spirit of the Law. The terms Law and Righteousness always being synonymous with the relationship between us and God. Our relationship with God must be one of humility, obedience and a love received, reciprocated and disbursed by us.

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