When Righteousness is Wrong

In previous blog posts, especially those dealing with sin and forgiveness, I have called attention to the fact that the sins Jesus condemned most frequently and most frankly were the sins of the spirit rather than sins of the flesh. Although he certainly did not minimize the latter, it was the former that caused him the greatest concern. Sins such as greed, pride, jealousy, an unforgiving spirit, and self-righteousness. It was the self-righteous who thought they were qualified to judge others, especially the religious leaders who, because they were so proud of the righteousness they had achieved (i.e., by keeping the law), believed they were justified in judging so harshly those who did not live up to their standards. Actually, so many of those scribes and Pharisees were not living up to their own standards themselves, and Jesus wanted his disciples to understand that their kind of righteousness was wrong! In fact, he told them, “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). Wow! The disciples must have wondered how their own righteousness could ever exceed that of the Pharisees, who were expected to be the most righteous of all people in Jewish society. Of course, Jesus was simply contrasting a righteousness “gained” by self-effort and strict adherence to the requirements of the Law, which could cause some to boast, with a righteousness “given,” or a righteousness bestowed by God on sinners. As the Apostle Paul puts it, this “given” righteousness is achieved “by grace alone through faith alone” (Ephesians 2:4-8), which means forgiven sinners have absolutely no reason to boast (vs 9-10).

Jesus was not merely concerned for one’s acceptance of God’s requirements for ritual observance according to the Law and “the traditions of the elders,” but for one’s acceptance by God for righteous conduct, for doing justly, showing mercy, and walking humbly with God as sinners saved by grace alone. Not only saved “from” something (i.e., from the power and penalty of sin) but saved “for” something (i.e., for righteous conduct – Micah 6:8). Jesus told a parable to some who loved to boast of their own righteousness, who were always seeking the approval of others rather than God’s acceptance (Matthew 6:1-8 as well as the Parable of the Pharisee and Publican in Luke 18:9-14): “…to some who trusted in themselves and regarded others with contempt….Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves and adulterers, or even like that tax collector. I fast twice a week (Mondays and Thursdays), I give a tenth of all my income (i.e., the biblical “tithe”). But the tax collector, standing far off (for he did not consider himself worthy to be near the Pharisee, a righteous man, or worthy to approach the “holy place,” the place of sacrifice), would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified (accepted by God) rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” 

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Jesus told several parables to illustrate the peril of pride and the sin of self-righteousness, which is the kind of righteousness that is wrong. This includes the parable of The Unforgiving Servant (which I referred to in my last blog post on the theme of forgiveness), the parable of The Widow and the Unjust Judge, and the parable of the Good Samaritan. He warned his disciples, “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, that is their hypocrisy (Luke 12:1). Once again, I call to your remembrance the Apostle Peter’s question regarding the extent of forgiveness, when he asked Rabbi Jesus how many times one should forgive since the Law said “Seven times seven” (the biblical number that symbolizes completion and perfection)? Jesus replied, “No, seventy times seven.”  In other words, we must be willing to forgive others their sins against us to the same extent we want God to forgive our trespasses (also translated “debts” in one of the petitions we offer in the Lord’s Prayer, or the “disciple’s prayer,” for it is the model prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray in Luke 11, including “…forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”). We may miss Peter’s own hypocrisy and self-righteousness (Matthew 18:21-22), for the Big Fisherman wanted to limit the number of times he should be expected to forgive. The answer was, the same number of times you expect God to forgive your sins! Of course, the questions for us is do we want God to actually forgive us our sins against him to the same degree we have forgiven those who have sinned against us? Do we want God to put a limit on the number of times he is willing to forgive our transgressions? In Peter’s case, reading between the lines, we can see that he was sure his brother was going to sin against him again and again, but not he against his brother! Peter was always overconfident when it came to his own conduct, character, and courage, but his greatest mistake was in hoping Jesus would set limits and measures with regard to forgiveness. Where there is unconditional love (like God’s love) there can be no limits. As I have often said before, our faith has been set to music in the great hymns of the Church: “O love of God, how rich and pure; how measureless and strong” and “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.” How thankful we should be that we have a loving, merciful, forgiving, and gracious God!

In the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:23-35), Jesus introduces us to a servant who had been stealing from his master. When the books were audited, his crime was discovered. He owed his master a huge debt, “Ten thousand talents.” One talent equaled about 6000 denarii, and one denarii was a day’s wage for the average laborer. Therefore, the debt that servant owed was the equivalent of 6000 work days or about equal to wages for nineteen years – a debt he could probably never pay in full, for what would he have left to live on? We can also safely assume he was not only dishonest but arrogant since he thought he could repay the debt if he was given enough time, if his master was only willing to be merciful. Read the parable for yourself, and form your own conclusions about that servant, whose master was exceedingly merciful, not only forgiving his servant for his dishonesty but also forgiving his enormous debt. However, that same servant had loaned a fellow servant a very small amount, which he had been unable to repay, and that wicked servant refused to forgive his debt. In fact, he wanted him thrown into prison, and to remain imprisoned until he had paid his debt in full. The man who received mercy was then unwilling to be merciful. He who had been forgiven still harbored an unforgiving spirit himself. Instead of sharing the joy of his own good fortune, he wanted justice. He was clinging to a grudge against his fellow servant. When the master heard what had happened, he exercised justice. The king said in effect, “You want justice? Then you will receive justice! I will do to you what you wanted to do to your fellow servant.” Once again, read the entire parable for yourself, and you will better understand the meaning of our Lord’s parable how it applies to each of us, for the lessons of all the parables of Jesus are designed for practical application.

Here is a question for us to ponder: “Who among us wants justice?” I certainly don’t want justice from my Master. I want mercy! I want pardon! I want grace! Do you understand the difference? Justice is when a person receives what he or she deserves. Mercy is when anyone among us does not receive what he or she deserves. But grace is when we receive what we could never deserve, just like that wicked servant was forgiven and pardoned until he refused to show mercy and share his good fortune. Then, because of his unforgiving spirit and hardness of heart, he was severely punished. We need to understand that there is a spiritual law that is just as sure as any natural law: the law of sowing and reaping. We will eventually reap what we have sown, rewards or punishment (Galatians 6:7-8). However, we also need to understand why we need to forgive those who have hurt us, those who have betrayed us. It is in order to be set free from our bondage to the desire for revenge, the desire to get even, the desire to see those who have wounded us punished. If we are guilty of clinging to age-old grudges and nursing wounds inflicted long ago (or even more recently), we are only hurting ourselves. We are crippling ourselves mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Someone has said, “The world’s worst prison is an unforgiving spirit.”

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Forgiveness does not mean that we excuse any sin committed against us. It does not mean that we will automatically forget what happened, as in the case of abuse. It means we are not going to allow anyone who has hurt us to turn us into a bitter, angry, vengeful person. We are not going to allow anyone to have that kind of power and control over us! Furthermore, if we are a victim of abuse, and the person who abused us is supposed to be a righteous person, such as a leader in the church, we are not going to remain silent. For that kind of righteousness is wrong! Let me get even more specific: if you are a woman who has been abused by a man who is in a leadership position in any faith community, that person needs to be held accountable by his superiors, for it is also an abuse of one’s spiritual power and authority, and in far too many instances an abuse of holy scripture. Many of us have seen and can testify that there are far too many men who pray on their knees on the Sabbath, and prey on their wives or girlfriends the rest of the time. Like so many in the time of Jesus, we are witnessing in our time the exposure of a shockingly large number of pastors, priests, and lay leaders in our faith communities who seem outwardly religious and respectable – they worship with other believers, they join in the singing of hymns or spiritual songs, they pray long prayers, they are generous in their giving, because they want to appear spiritual and righteous, for they crave the approval of others – but they do not have God’s approval, for their kind of righteousness is wrong and an abomination to a righteous God. True righteousness, according to scripture, refers to the moral character of God. We are told in both the Old and New Testaments to live in faithful obedience to God’s commandments, to be disciplined toward godliness, to be holy as God is holy, to pursue Christlikeness, to love one another as God in Christ has loved us, to forgive as we have been forgiven. That is the kind of righteousness that pleases God! (Matthew 6:1-21)

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