A question for you: What are some of the things we do that we consider righteous things to do? Can you list them?
There are certainly things in this life that we consider to be righteous things to do. Worshiping, justice issues, caring for the poor, advocating for peace, morality and purity issues, ethics of life and nation, love of neighbor, etc., are all things that we consider righteous. I categorize them into three categories.
First, we have those things that are things of ritualistic practice, things that we do that are part our ritualistic practice of our religion. These include church attendance, ordinances and sacraments (e.g., baptism, footwashing, communion), liturgy or the pattern of life or worship, scripture study, and other such things.
Then there are the justice issues, and these are things that in our Mennonite denomination and other Anabaptist groups that we stress as important. The peace issue and avoidance of conflict and non-violent mediation. There is care for the poor and disadvantaged that is considered a justice issue. There is justice for the oppressed and marginalized such as human trafficking victims, immigration issues, etc. The sanctity of life is also, in some cases, considered a justice issue.
The third category, issues of morality, may also include some of this sanctity of life issues. Things that are right and wrong, or things that mark out purity and impurity. Sexuality, personal health, and pretty much anything in the ten commandments would be morality issues.
The thing about all these things is that they ARE good things. It is very good to consider all of these items. Any of these things could be referenced in the Scriptures as things that we should consider when we are aiming for righteousness. It is good to follow a rhythm of life and a pattern that re-centers yourself. This is a very good thing. It is good to be aware of and work towards justice for others. This is a very good thing. It is good to live purely and morally and even be passionate about that. This is a good thing. No where in scripture does it say any of these things are things that are to be avoided in our conversations and in our lives.
But then we have Paul, in his letter to the Philippians. He had something to say about all that.
There are stronger words which could be used to translate the word from the original language but, for politeness sake, I won’t use them. But it’s just all trash.
We all know that works won’t save us. We know that by grace we are saved. We know it’s not the works that save us. But Paul is going one step further here in saying that even these acts, as good as they are, are not righteous acts. At least, they are not righteous if they are missing one thing. The hints to this one thing goes back to the Old Testament. If we look at the first commandment, it’s there within the first few words.
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” Exodus 20:2
The 10 commandments start, not with something we do, they start with something that he did. We have all these commandments about these things we should do. We should worship God alone. We should keep the Sabbath holy. We should not have graven images. We shouldn’t steal, we should not lie, we should not kill, etc. But God, in his words to Moses, started off, with what he did. This is the history of God’s interaction with the people of Israel.
If you think about the people of Israel, they really weren’t very important people, weren’t that special. But God chose them. God got this group of strangers and set them aside and said, “I’m going to make you a righteous people”. Not something that they did, but something that God did.
If you think about the stories of the good people of the Old Testament, it started with what God did, not with what they did. If we go back to Noah, we only know that Noah was a righteous person because God said he was. God declared it. Whether or not Noah was doing good things or what good things, it doesn’t matter because it was God who said he was. With Abram, if we look at his geneological history, they weren’t the best of people. They weren’t the greatest folks in the world. But yet God told Abram he was going to make him someone special, a great nation.
It is the act of God choosing people that makes them righteous. And then when he starts working with them, then they really become righteous. Abraham started as a nobody out of Mesopotamia but became a great figure. Isaac started out not so good but God changed him as well. Jacob was no winner, and yet God made something good there. And Jacob’s sons were also not the greatest and yet God did something good there.
Our Isaiah passage continues with that. The writer invokes the story of the crossing of the Red Sea and God bringing the people of Israel out of Egypt. “There were all these armies coming after you. I made the dry land. You crossed to safety and they all got left behind because I chose you.” (my paraphrase). He formed them for himself. He picked these people and made them his own. He transformed and changed them. God is the one who chose and decided to make them righteous. It’s not part of the focus passage, but in verse 25 of Isaiah 43, we hear about what God did.
“I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.” Isaiah 43:25
God is the one who makes people sinless and makes them righteous… his sovereignty, his choice.
In our John passage, in the midst of Jesus ministry, Jesus recognizes the importance of this relationship. We have a woman. In other re-tellings of the story in the gospels, she is actually given a name. This is Mary, the sister of Lazarus. We know this Mary as the Mary who chose to sit and learn at Jesus feet while her sister, Martha, was in the kitchen doing good things. She was being hospitable and being a good host. These are good things according to the law. And there’s her sister Mary being a lazy bum sitting at Jesus feet.
In this story, though, Mary is doing something even more. Lazarus has been raised from the dead and Mary is realizing that this man Jesus, whom they call their friend, there’s something much more going on here than what I know. It’s more than just sitting at his feet and learning. There’s something special happening here. I have to do something about this.
Judas points out in our passage that the money could be used to feed the poor. The gospel of John ascribes a motivation to Judas about his crooked nature. But all the gospels do mention the idea of “Why didn’t you sell it? There’s poor people that need to be taken care of. We gotta take care of the poor people.”
But Jesus says, “No… that’s good, but there’s something more important going on right now. We need to recognize who it is that is sitting before you. Do you realize who I am? She does. She has hold of something that you guys need to grasp.”
Mary knew what was more important. She knew it was more important to get in contact with this guy and start relating to him than it is to go and do good things. In other words, how are you supposed to know what it is you are called to do if you aren’t in a relationship with the guy sending you to do it?
Paul was a good Jew, doing all the right things. He gives his entire pedigree in our Philippians passage here. He was a great Pharisee. The Pharisees get a bad rap in the Bible stories. These evil, conniving Pharisees like the old movie villains. But if you take a look at your Jewish history and at who the Pharisees were, they were trying to do their best. They thought, “Israel is so messed up. We have to figure out what we’ve been doing wrong and start doing it right again.” They thought it had do with doing the right things like keeping proper Sabbath, keeping the proper separation between clean and unclean, we need to keep the outsiders at arms length because there may be bad influence there. They are trying to do it right.
And Paul was one of the best at that. He was REALLY good at being a Pharisee. “Hebrew among Hebrews”. He knew all the right rituals, all the right Jewish things. He was really good at being just because, according to the law, that is what you do. You give your alms to the poor. Paul knew all this stuff. He tithed his cumin, mint, and thyme. He was doing everything he knew what to do to be a good, just Jew. He was morally pure. He knew all the codes about how to keep himself ritually and morally pure. He knew all the commandments about morality. His writings to Corinthians, Ephesians, Galatians, Colossians are full of calls to moral purity. He was a stickler for keeping within a particular moral line: no lying, no gossip, no slander, no impurity, no immorality. There’s at least 3 or 4 passages where he lists out all these things. But Paul considers it all rubbish.
“That I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ-the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.” Philippians 3:8b-9
All the actions, all the deeds, all the purity, all the rituals, as good as they are, they are nothing. What is most important, what is most critical, what is the absolute goal of every God-fearing person is to grab ahold of the righteousness that is in Jesus. Connect to Jesus first, become one with him, take on his character, his purpose, his power. And how are you going to do that if you don’t spend time with him, if you don’t connect with him, if you don’t sit at his feet and learn from him, if you don’t take the time to pour out the perfume at his feet and say “Jesus you are more important than a year’s wages, I’m just going to pour it all out to you”. That is the priority in our lives.
If we want to do all these other righteous things, we need to first connect to the source of righteousness. This is the goal that Paul was pressing on to. He is aiming towards the end of the journey. There is an end that he’s trying to get to. The end of the road is to become like Jesus. Doing the good things is part of the walk. The end is being Jesus, being so connected to the righteousness that that Jesus already gained for him that it would be simply natural for him to do the right things. Everything must start, first, with connecting to Jesus.
This is not a concern just for us. There are other churches around the world studying these same passages. Perhaps not all of them are taking the same approach I am. There is more than one way, perhaps, to connect the dots of scripture. But in our world today there are a lot of people doing good things. There are all sorts of charities and organizations doing ritualistic, justice, and purity things. They are a dime a dozen. If you want to do good things there are plenty of opportunities out there to do good things. But doing good things do not make you righteous. They may be doing good, but their foundation is shaky and the good they do will crumble, like a house built on sand.
When we hunger for nothing more than ‘doing things right” and not for the justice of God, we are in danger of becoming legalistic and trumpeting goodness and rightness over holiness and grace.
Justin is saying it is the righteousness of God we need to grab hold of, not our “good deeds”.
Now, I have a relationship with Justin so I trust him but you guys probably can’t take that step. But there is a more important person than Justin who said something similar recently.
“When we walk without the cross, when we build without the cross, and when we confess without the cross, we are not disciples of Christ. We are mundane; we are all but disciples of our Lord” – Pope Francis, homily at the Sistine Chapel, March 14, 2013
If the Catholic church thinks that doing right things is not enough, I wonder what we are doing? This, I believe, is something that the church needs to focus on. We need to focus on getting back to who Jesus is and the righteousness that is found only in Jesus. We need to get back to the basics of Christianity. We can do all these right things, all our arguments over how we do things, but we really don’t need that anymore. We need to get back to being followers of Jesus. It is Jesus who makes us righteous. And we will only get to that when we grab ahold of what Jesus has already provided for us. In our season of lent, as we prepare for the season of Easter, perhaps it’s time to get back to what is important. Everything else is just rubbish.