Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:
With apologies to all the female types, I don’t know the current colloquial counterpart to “Dude.” Is she a “Dudess?” I hear the word “Chick” in similar connotations. The interesting part is that the word “righteous” has recently made a comeback in everyday language. It has been the parlance of religion forever.
In the jargon of youth, the word “dude” has retained few of its original connotations. It seems to mean little more than “guy.” On the other hand, if the dude is “righteous,” he has met certain group criteria qualifying him as a good guy. In Texas, I heard the phrase “Good Old Boy” from a slightly older crowd, and I suppose the meaning was similar. However, I’m sure you realize that a “Righteous Dude” among a group of punk rockers does not qualify as a “Good Old Boy” among a bunch of rednecks. The idea is that if something is “righteous” it has met the accepted standards of the person or group that is using the word. Unlike the current use of “Dude,” this use can be supported from the dictionary and from ancient usage.
The word causes trouble, in some ways, because the group defines it. For example, a righteous dude among a group of criminals is a person who holds to whatever code of honor exists among thieves. For the Pharisees, a righteous person was one who upheld the 613 commandments of the Talmud, plus the rather exacting interpretations of the group. The common or ordinary Jews of their day had much lower qualifications for righteousness. These would be inadequate when compared to the righteousness of the Pharisees. The “righteousness” of a clique of youth, a group of thieves, the punk rockers, the good old boys, the ordinary Jew, the Pharisees and the typical American Christian are all different — so is the righteousness of God.
Matthew does not mention it, but I would guess that a shudder or groan shot through the crowd when Jesus said, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Actually there are several ways to look at the statement. On the one hand, Jesus was very critical of the superficial righteousness of the Pharisees. It was hardly something that came from the goodness of the heart. Many of them were selfishly motivated. They put on a show in order to gain public approval or acclaim. Matters of love, peace, justice, goodwill, and mercy were not as important as following the rules.
The Pharisees were satisfied to meet the requirements of the law, without a second thought for the spirit or intent of the law. In other words, they didn’t mind being guilty as long as their law found them “not guilty” (like criminals in our present legal system who get off because they were not given their rights properly or against whom evidence was gained improperly). As with so many situations, some things were against the law — except under certain rules and conditions, so a good Pharisee would always make sure he followed the rules while breaking the law. It is safe to say that Jesus would want our righteousness to be better than that.
On the other hand, the righteousness of God is, as one of my friends likes to say, a whole nother ball game. More accurately, it is the Holy Other’s ball game. God makes the rules and the standard is perfection. He is not satisfied with our getting away with “not guilty by reason of….” He demands innocence. God is holy and expects nothing less from the citizens of His kingdom. His righteousness not only exceeds that of the Pharisees, it exceeds the wildest of human expectations. You cannot avoid the word “sinless.”
While discussing the matter, in Sunday’s lesson from Romans, St. Paul notes that we humans have a little problem living up to this righteousness. A Pharisee may have thought that he was a “Righteous Dude” and his wife a “Righteous Chick” in God’s sight, because he assumed God had the same standard as he. I have no doubt that at another time in his life, back when his name was still Saul — Paul would have thought he was righteous before God. Paul the Christian recognized that the righteousness of God requires us to be sinless, and therein is the problem. To make it clear, Paul wrote, “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”
Feddersen’s Fables has the story of “The Next King.” The king’s soldiers played a jumping game with a gold ring. In the courtyard stood a very tall pole that was notched from top to bottom. A crossbeam could be moved up or down and secured at each notch. At the end of one side of the crossbeam was a clip that held the gold ring. If a soldier could jump high enough to grasp it firmly, it would come free from the clip. The object of the game was to start at a level that could be reached by everyone, and then move it up one notch at a time. Each soldier only had one jump at each level. Once he missed, he was eliminated from the competition. You see, it was not just how high a person jumped, but being able to grasp the ring when you got there that would eventually determine the winner.
One day, the king announced that the next king would be determined by a game of “Gold Ring.” He also announced that the rules would be different. First of all, anyone could compete. Secondly, the beam would start at the top, and competitors could make as many attempts as they wanted. The edict of the king was that the first one to snatch the ring from its highest point would be declared the next king. He also added that the official copy of the rules was at the kingdom treasury for anyone to see.
When the day came, people gathered from all over the kingdom, both as spectators and participants. The king went out into the courtyard with a ladder, moved the beam to its highest notch, and placed a brand-new solid gold ring into the clip. Then he went back into the palace. The top of the pole was five or six feet higher than any soldier had ever jumped. Even though they and the other participants fell way short every time, they kept getting back in line again and again. It was near the end of the day before everyone finally gave up. They called out for the king to come and lower the beam to its next notch. He came, set up the ladder, picked up his young son, and climbed to the top. There, from the king’s arms, the young lad reached out and took the ring. Some of the participants began immediately to complain. The king replied that the rules were clear enough. The people had assumed it was a jumping game, but it was not. The rules had not suggested that the beam would ever be lowered, nor had they prevented anyone from climbing the pole or a ladder. The declaration was that the first one to snatch the ring from its highest point would be the next king. Since his son was the first and only one to snatch it, the kingdom would belong to his son.
We humans have a habit of assuming that God plays by our rules — that if we are righteous enough in our own eyes, we will be righteous in His. St. Paul points out that in human circles there is only one Righteous Dude, God’s Son. The Kingdom belongs to His Son. The only way in is His righteousness.
The most righteous of all of us falls way short of that. Paul quotes the Old Testament regarding all the rest of us: “There is no one righteous, no not one.” Yet, religions and philosophies have been urging people to count on their own righteousness ever since the first sinners realized there was such a thing.
To borrow Jesus’ illustration from the Gospel lesson, relying on our own righteousness is like building a house on sand. It looks just fine until the storm comes! It is like an alcoholic relying solely on his or her own self-control — that also looks fine until the storms of life hit.
Paul’s point is that the righteousness of God is not just His standard, but is also, through faith in Christ, His free gift to us. It is not something we can attain. It is a gift we receive by faith! God’s righteousness is ours apart from the law altogether. It is His free gift to us along with the forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness is a pardon in spite of the evidence. God declares us not guilty! The righteousness of God declares us innocent, because it replaces the evidence and the defendant — with the innocent life and death of Christ. The Judge looks at us and sees the one and only “Righteous Dude.”