While Jesus was speaking, a Pharisee asked him to dine with him, so he went in and reclined at table. The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash before dinner. And the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also? But give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you.
“But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. (Luke 11:37-42)
What does righteousness look like?
Think of a person in your life that you think embodies righteousness. What about them makes them righteous in your eyes? Is it their prayer life? The frequency with which they attend church and participate in church-related activities? Their knowledge of Scripture, theology, maybe even church history? The purity of their actions with respect to social moral pressures? The wisdom with which they conduct their lives and instruct others?
Or is it their sincere concern for others, particularly the most vulnerable in society, and their commitment to give of their time and possessions to help them?
You see, most of us think of righteousness in terms of one’s knowledge of and participation in those things that that are most widely regarded as holy—reading Scripture, praying, attending and participating in church, leading pure lives, etc—and, of course, it entails all of these things. But this is only part of the story, and left as such, leads to an understanding of righteousness that more closely resembles the actions of the Pharisees in the passage above, than it does the life which God has called us to lead.
Look closely and you will see that Jesus rebukes the Pharisees in the passage above on two accounts: first that they don’t give as alms “those things that are within” and second that they neglect justice and the love of God. Their focus on purity and tithing is not, in itself, problematic. Rather, it is the fact that, in focusing so extensively on these more conspicuous expressions of holiness—that is, the ones obvious to themselves and those around them—they have come to neglect that which is nearest to the heart of God: care for the most vulnerable in society, justice and love.
This, perhaps, is challenging to the way that many of us have been taught to understand righteousness. For most of us, righteousness is about our condition before God and is primarily a grace bestowed us on us through the merits of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. It is reflected in the life of the one transformed by this grace, but the emphasis is primarily on one’s relationship with God. Caring for the most vulnerable in society, justice, etc, on the other hand, while commendable, are not expressions of righteousness; rather they are acts of charity and mercy. And the very word ‘charity’ connotes in English an activity that is good, but ultimately optional.
This, however, is not how Scripture treats caring for the most vulnerable in society or pursuing justice; nor is it how Scripture treats righteousness in general. To the contrary, over and over again we find justice (which is understood simply as “giving people their rights, whether punishment, protection or care,” Tim Keller) and righteousness pared together as essential not only to the character of God, but also to character of those who claim to serve him. We even find in Matthew 6:1-2 that gifts to the poor are called ‘acts of righteousness’.
How are we to understand this in such a way that does not devolve into works righteousness, that is the assumption that anything we do makes us righteous?
First we must have a solid understanding of righteousness. According to Alec Motyer, righteousness means to be “right with God and therefore committed to putting right all other relationships in life.” The one necessarily flows from the other as a reflection of our participation in God’s work of redemption and restoration, which we have experienced in our own lives. The very fact that, by grace we are made right with God is not a stopping point; rather it impels us to reflect his heart to the world around us through our relationships and our active participation in making his kingdom come here on earth.
And this we can only do if we accurately understand his heart.
Countless verses in scripture reveal to us a God who not only cares passionately for the plight of the most vulnerable, but who also acts on their behalf and calls his people to do likewise. None more clearly than the two below:
He executes justice for the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, he lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves those who live justly. The Lord watches over the immigrant and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked. (Psalm 146:7-9)
He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
This is who God is and this is who he has called us to be. True righteousness must reflect God’s heart in the lives of those who have been the recipients of his grace.
The flip side to this, of course, is considerably more challenging and controversial. The undeniable fact is, however, if this is the heart of God and this is what he has called us to, then we cannot ultimately be right with him if we do not reflect that heart in our lives and in our relationships. Not caring for the vulnerable, not pursuing justice and actively reflecting the love of God to those around us is not omitting to perform good but optional actions; rather it is not performing justice, and therefore ultimately sinful.
Is righteousness a grace? Is it primarily about our status before God? Undeniably. But it is not a stopping point. It is the very means by which we draw closer to the heart of God through, prayer, praise, tithing, study of Scripture and, in so doing, learn to reflect his heart to the world around us through alms-giving, justice, and the love of God.
“If you are trying to live a life in accordance with the Bible, the concept and call to justice are inescapable. We do justice when we give all human beings their due as creations of God. Doing justice includes not only the righting of wrongs, but generosity and social concern, especially toward the poor and vulnerable. This kind of life reflects the character of God.” (Tim Keller, Generous Justice pg. 18)
Kathleen Durham is the Vice President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author and speaker.
 This is exactly what we find in the book of Job where he calls every failure to help the poor a sin, offensive to God’s splendor (31:23) and deserving of judgment and punishment (v. 28). In the words of Tim Keller, “To not ‘share his bread’ and his assets with the poor would be unrighteous, a sin against God, and therefore by definition a violation of God’s justice.” (pg. 16)