What Is ‘righteousness’?

In the culture Jesus was born, marriage was a legal contract, not just a promise between couples. If a woman was found to be pregnant before marriage, it was assumed she was an adulteress. Her betrothed had a right to break off the engagement and leave her to a life of shame.

This was the custom of Joseph’s time, the time in which he found his fiancée, Mary, with child—child that wasn’t his. The Gospel of Matthew tells their story. Verse 19 says, “Her husband, Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” Dismissing Mary would have been the righteous thing to do.

The conclusion was obvious to outsiders—Mary is an adulteress, the appropriate response for Joseph would have been to dismiss Mary in disgrace. In more ancient times this would have resulted in public disgrace and possibly even Mary’s death. But Joseph didn’t act on his right. He chose to act generously and with love. In fact, by not dismissing Mary, but choosing to accept her and to live a loving life together with her, Joseph modeled God’s love for us.

The biblical understanding of righteousness is not a single clear definition. The Hebrew word translated as “righteous” is sadiq, the baseline meaning something or someone being proven true. The word was often used in legal discussions; to be found righteous was to be found innocent if accused of a crime. Human righteousness would be situational. A ruler would need to govern with true judgment, while an ordinary person would need to treat one’s neighbor in accordance to the law to live a righteous life. God’s righteousness in this understanding depicts in a God as reliable and just judge who fulfills covenants unfailingly. This seems to be a limiting definition. Not only is human understanding severely limited, but our concept of God is as well.

The Hebrew understanding of righteousness is more diverse. In rabbinic literature righteousness is described in terms of generosity and almsgiving in particular. So, righteousness is not just being truthful to God and your fellow man; generosity and aid are also expected. The righteous Hebrew man would therefore need to be truthful with others and act according to the law but these actions are to be governed by a principle generosity of love.

See Also

In the New Testament, the majority of Jesus’ teachings were about treating one another will love, respect, and of course, generosity. Both in the Gospel of Matthew and the Pauline writings in particular, righteousness is a frequent topic. Matthew’s gospel suggests that righteousness is not only divine requirement, but also a divine gift. Paul’s letters often refer to the “righteousness of God.” Unlike the earlier understanding of God’s righteousness that views God as a just judge, Paul’s definition rests squarely on the shoulders of God’s justification of human beings through their faith. This is an act of generosity. Yes, God lives up to the covenants of old. Yes, God expects our behavior to model religious understanding and generosity for the world, but as is expected of us, God governs His use of the law with an overlying sense of generosity and love. In the same way, Joseph’s reaction to Mary’s unplanned pregnancy with grace and support is what truly made him a righteous man.

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