Righteousness

On Sunday 10/2/11 our class discussion touched on Phil 3, ‘righteousness’ ‘from the law ‘or ‘through faith in Christ’, and we took ‘righteousness’ to be a matter of virtue and good behavior.
Marcus J. Borg in his book Speaking Christian treats of this conventional meaning of righteousness and then offers the following.

This meaning is frequent in the Bible. In Psalms and Proverbs, as well as elsewhere, the “righteous” and the “wicked”-those who do what is right and those who do the opposite-are often contrasted. In Proverbs especially, the righteous are promised rewards: they will prosper (e.g., 15:6). (The books of Job and Ecclesiastes challenge this claim. Sometimes the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. Doing “what is right” does not guarantee a nice comfortable life. The prosperity gospel is wrong.) In contexts like the above,righteousness is a quality of individuals or groups who do the right thing.

Righteousness and Justice

Very importantly, there is another primary meaning of words commonly translated into English as righteousness and righteous. This meaning is social and political, not just individual. It refers to the way a society is put together-its political and economic structure, its distribution of power and wealth and their effects on society, from the microcosm of the family to the macrocosm of nations and empires.

In these contexts, righteousness would be better translated justice. Righteousness and justice are so closely related in the Bible that they are often synonyms. Consider a passage from the prophet Amos in the 700s BCE, two centuries after the establishment of a monarchy and aristocracy in Israel. The domination system Israel’s ancestors had known in Egypt now operated within Israel itself. The rich and powerful had created a social system that benefited themselves, and the result was a huge gulf between rich and poor, powerful and powerless. The poor and powerless-most of the population-were virtually a slave class.

Speaking in the name of God and addressing the rich and powerful, Amos contrasts their worship of God with what God really wants.

I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;

and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.

Take away from me the noise of your songs;
will not listen to the melody of your harps.

But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (5:21-24)

Note the last two lines. What God wants, what God is passionate about, is justice and righteousness. These lines illustrate a frequent feature of biblical language known as synonymous parallelism, in which a second line repeats in slightly different language what the first line says. “Let justice roll down like waters” and “righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” are synonymous phrases. Justice and righteousness are not two different things, but the same thing. Justice is righteousness, and righteousness is justice.

Marcus J. Borg, Speaking Christian, HarperCollins 2011, pp. 134-136

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