Righteousness, in its simplest form, is doing the “right”thing. It can be argued that observing the mitzvot is practicing righteousness, and it certainly does lead us into righteousness, but its more than simple observance. It’s about attitude when we do a mitzvah.
We meet many people who are self-righteous. They see themselves as paragons of virtue, and assume they are in the right when they are condemning the actions of others. The problem is not with their virtues, but with the attitude they bring to the table. When people compare themselves with others and find the other person coming up short, there is a level of arrogance present that doesn’t jive with the idea of righteousness.
In an earlier writing, I talked about humility not comparing ourselves with others but with what we should but don’t always do ourselves. True righteousness is practiced in humility, realizing God is our judge and we are accountable to Him. Paul said in Ephesians 4:1-2, “Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love.”
Righteousness is the way we treat one another. It involves kindness and gentleness. It’s easy to do that with people who don’t really bother us, but we are asked to do this with all people, regardless of whether they are our favorites or not. We are supposed to live our lives in such a way that people see Yeshua in us. He was righteous. He was kind toward people, and if anyone is going to see Yeshua in us, we need to have the kind of righteousness He had toward others. Paul said in Gal. 6:1, “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.” Even if something is not a sin, we need to be gentle with people around us. The world is a harsh place, and gentleness is healing. This is the effect we need to have on people.
Two people who had a great effect on my life, were Jean and Elmer Hiebert. When I was a young Yeshua follower in college, they ran a bookstore that didn’t make any money, but was dedicated to reach out to college students. I hung out at their store every day, mainly because of their kindness and warmth. They didn’t teach me theology, they taught me to see people with compassion and love. I had never seen love like that before. In short, I saw Yeshua in them, and it changed me forever.
In the parable of the Sheep and Goats, Yeshua speaks of the righteous, saying, “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink. I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me.” The righteous, in Yeshua’s view, were not the people who hold the right doctrines, but the people who act with kindness and love.
There is a story of a renowned rabbi who received a message from heaven that he would spend eternity with a local bartender. He was surprised and went to visit the bartender. He told him what was revealed to him and asked if he was a religious man. The bartender said he wasn’t very religious, but when anyone was hungry, he gave them a meal. If they had no place to sleep, he let them sleep in the bar. If he knew of a widow in need, he tried to send her some money. The rabbi told him he would be honored to spend eternity with him.
Genuine righteousness is kind towards others; it restores and builds up. Counterfeit righteousness judges others and condemns. It makes people feel like failures. It’s not a question about who is right and who is wrong, but about how we treat people especially those who need encouragement the most.
also posted in Riverton Mussar: A Wellspring For Ethical Change