This morning I want to speak to you about another of the Wonderful Words of Life: Righteousness.
The ultimate definition of the word can be deduced from the story of Judah and his daughter in law, Tamar. Judah is one of the twelve sons of Jacob, who was the son of Isaac, the Son of Abraham.
The story goes like this. Judah had three sons. And the eldest, Er, married a girl named Tamar, but Er died, leaving Tamar without a child. After his death, following a custom that was observed even in the time of Jesus (Matt. 22:23-28), Judah gave Tamar his second son, Onan, so that Onan could give her the home and children his brother could no longer give her; but Onan died, too. Now Judah had a third son, Shelah, but Judah had started to think that Tamar was the human equivalent of the Black Widow Spider, which always kills her mate. So he said to her, “My son Shelah is young. Live as a widow with your father—don’t remarry, until Shelah grows up, and then you can have him for a husband.”
Tamar did as he said, but the years passed, and she remained alone. So, one day, she decided to do something about it. Tamar heard that Judah was traveling, so she set up a tent by the side of a road. And she put on a veil, and some fancy clothes, and waited for him. And when Judah came down the road, he saw Tamar, and her fancy clothes, and her tent, and he mistook her for a lady of the evening. He said, “Can I go into your tent with you?” And she said, “What will you give me for that privilege?” And Judah said, “I will give you a kid from my flock.” Tamar agreed to the price, and since Judah did not have a kid in his pocket, she took his staff, belt, and signet as security. They did what people do, and Judah went on his way. When Judah arrived at home, he sent a messenger to the woman in the tent beside the road with a kid from his flock, but the woman and her tent were gone.
Three months later, one of Judah’s servants came to him and said, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar has played the harlot, and she is pregnant.” And Judah said, “Bring her to me, and burn her before me.” And Judah’s men went and took Tamar, but she had another hand to play. Tamar sent a messenger to Judah. The messenger carried a staff, and a belt, and a signet. The messenger said, “Tamar says, ‘The one who owns this staff, and belt, and signet is the father of my child.’” And when Judah heard it, he hung his head in shame and said, “She is more righteous than I because I did not give her my son Shelah to be her husband.”
Now this story is not in the Bible to celebrate prostitution and incest. It is there to make the point that righteousness is nothing more and nothing less than the fulfillment of the demands of a relationship. Tamar was more righteous than Judah because she fulfilled her role as daughter-in-law, but he did not fulfill his role as father-in-law. Righteousness is the fulfillment of the demands of a relationship. (Click on the Next Page Below).
Let’s flesh that out a little. Children are righteous with regard to their parents when they obey their parents, and parents are righteous with regard to their children when they care for them. Husbands and wives are righteous with regard to one another when they keep the vows they made when they were married and remain faithful, one to the other. Neighbors are righteous with regard to one another when they love one another like they love themselves. A ruler is righteous with regard to his (or her) people when he puts the needs of his people ahead of his own. Human beings are righteous with regard to their descendants when they endeavor to leave the world a better place. The Human Race is righteous with regard to our planet when we tend it and care for it, as God told us to do in the Garden of Eden, “when all the world was young.”
And what about God? The Bible teaches that God is always righteous. God is righteous because God keeps the promises that God makes. In God’s covenant with Israel, God promised the nation that if they did what was right, and kept the covenant he made with them, and obeyed the Laws he laid down for them, he would reward them with the rain and with his blessing and their land would flourish. And God promised the nation of Israel that if they did what was wrong and broke the covenant, he made with them, and disobeyed the laws he laid down for them, he would withhold the rain and his blessing, and their land would wither. In short, God has promised that to punish sin, and reward righteousness, and in order for God to be righteous, God must do both.
Now here is the problem. God loves us all, and God wants to do great things for each of us. God has plans for us, plans for good and not for evil to give us a future and a hope. However, we have broken faith with God. Both the Psalmist and the apostle agree, “None is righteous, no not one. No one understands. No one seeks for God. All have turned aside. Together we have gone wrong.”
Do you know the most difficult question in all the Bible? Here it is: How can a righteous God punish sin and spare the sinner? In Romans 3, St. Paul answers that question. He writes:
3 Since all (of us) have sinned and fall(en) short of the glory of God, 24 (we) are (made righteous) by (God’s) grace as a gift, through …Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward … to be received by faith. This was …to prove…that (God) himself is righteous (because God punishes sin) and that (God) makes righteous all who have faith in Jesus.
That is my translation. I have left altered it to make Paul’s meaning clear, but I will guarantee you that my alteration is absolutely correct, and if you study the text long enough, you will agree.
Of course, the point is not that we understand the text. The point is that we accept the gift. God hates sin because sin hurts people, including the sinner; but God loves the sinner, and wants to save the sinner from sin and death. In Christ, God has made provision to save sinners from sin and death, that we might have new and abundant life. It is when we accept God’s offer of righteousness that God put forward in Christ that all God’s goodness is made available to us, and we can say with the prophet Jeremiah, “The LORD is our Righteousness.”