The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

SPIRITUAL EXCELLENCE: RIGHTEOUSNESS

Delivered 7/20/97
Text: Eph. 6:10-17 (Luke 18:9-14)
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In the office one day I got a call from someone who wanted me to commit matrimony for them...that day. North Carolina law allows it...no blood tests anymore, no waiting period, just a license. I said, "Thanks, but no thanks." I do not marry folks on a moment's notice. I generally insist on spending time in serious conversation with the couple prior to any exchange of vows. I do not require that simply to help me decide whether or not these people should be married - if they are convinced that this is what they are going to do, they will do it whether I perform the wedding or not. No, the conversations we have are designed to help a man and woman prepare for their new life together, to identify potential problems, and to seek ways to knock down molehills before they become mountains.

A fair amount of that pre-marital conversation deals with expectations. Problems arise when the expectations of the man and the expectations of the woman do not match. For example, if the bride figures that her new husband will help with the cooking and cleaning and other household chores but he figures, "Not on your life - that's WOMAN's work," there will be problems. If she figures that Christmas will be spent with her parents in Michigan and he figures on their spending Christmas fishing in the Florida Keys, there will be problems. If he expects to spend Friday nights playing poker with the boys but she expects Friday evenings to be spent at the ballet, there will be "trouble in River City." You get the idea. Expectations.

I bring that up this morning because of this summer search for spiritual excellence we began last week and our focus on the Apostle Paul's metaphor about the equipment Christians need for faithful discipleship, the "whole armor of God." Last week we talked about the belt of truth; this week we consider the breastplate of righteousness. Of the half dozen pieces of armor Paul mentions, this is the one that most rattles my cage. I hear that word "righteousness" and suddenly my whole body puckers up. I think "Uh oh. I get off at this stop. There are expectations here that I cannot fulfill. Perhaps this is one wedding that ought not take place."

All right, put yourself in the preacher's chair and listen as the bride (you and me) and the groom (Paul and the rest of scripture) try to hammer this out. Just as with any two folks about to get married, the problems of expectations are not insoluble. The solution comes in communicating and clarifying those expectations, reaching reasonable compromise, if necessary, then getting on with the business of living. Let's talk.

Ladies first...us. What are our expectations when we hear the R word? To be honest, much of the teaching and preaching has been confusing. On the one hand, pulpits thunder the words of scripture, "There is none righteous, no not one." Yeah, we can buy that. We have heard all our righteousness is as "filthy rags" in the sight of God. OK. But then a lesson or sermon on the breastplate of righteousness would come along and most likely say that we should BE righteous (which let me out right away), and if we were, we would be PROTECTED (after all, a breastplate IS for protection) from the slander of enemies, we would avoid wrongdoing, and keep unruly passions in check (that is the one we heard in Senior Hi youth). In essence, we should lead an upright life, a blameless life, RIGHTEOUS.

That is why there is confusion. Which is it? What is the expectation? That we cannot be righteous, no matter what we do? Or that we should be righteous, or at least give it the old college try?

The bride is close to tears as she shares her distress. She wants this marriage to work. She has been joyfully anticipating her new spiritually excellent life. She hates the feeling that this righteousness issue will throw a monkey wrench into the works before the honeymoon can get started.

The pastor wants to hear more from her. He interrupts her distress with a question: What do you think righteousness is?

We, the bride, sit there for a moment in silence. To be honest, we would probably have to say we do not think about it very much. Most of the time, the word only enters conversation prefixed by "self." On TV the only time we hear the word "righteous" is when a cop is defending gunning down a bad guy...a righteous shoot. The dictionary is not much help. The handy dandy American Heritage defines righteousness as something "Morally upright; without guilt or sin...conforming to a standard of right."(1) Gee. The thesaurus is better...it lists synonyms like godliness, uprightness, good, moral, puritanical. Those are what come to mind when we think of righteousness.

Do we expect that of anybody? We try to apply that as a standard for politicians and preachers, and profess great outrage when the expectation is not met (ask Jimmy Swaggart or Jim Bakker or Gary Hart, or perhaps Paula Jones), but the truth is we do not really expect it. In fact, we would look at someone that "righteous" as a goody-two-shoes and not someone to invite to dinner.

The couple sits silently for a moment. The preacher has heard the bride, now he looks to the groom (Paul and the rest of the Bible) to find out the expectation there. He asks, "What does scripture mean when it uses the word righteousness?"

Paul speaks. To get a handle on that, we go back to the far reaches of language. The ancient root of the Hebrew and Greek words that come to us in English as "righteous" or "righteousness" means "to be in order." As the centuries moved on to Bible times, it came to be thought of in terms fulfilling the demands of a relationship. Despite what modern minds think, Biblical righteousness had nothing to do with godliness or uprightness or being good or even being moral. Was the relationship "in order" or not? Was it RIGHT? If it was, as far as the Bible was concerned, you were righteous.

Abraham is one of the Old Testament characters called righteous. Why? Because he did everything right? Of course not. Abraham was just as much a sinner as any of us. The Bible says Abraham was considered righteous because of his faith. His relationship with God was right. It was in order. He had enough faith to pull up stakes and move to a foreign land because God told him to. He had enough faith to trust God to give him a son and heir even though he was an old man. He even had enough faith to be willing to sacrifice that heir simply because God asked him to do it. The relationship between Abraham and God was one of master and servant, and Abraham kept that in order. Thus, Abraham was called righteous.

Suddenly, we who are the blushing bride interrupt, a smile playing across the face. We can buy that concept even if we do not use the R word.

An example from politics is helpful. For the past five years, Al Gore has been like a dutiful child...seen and not heard. He has been respectful, deferential, made no waves, rocked no boats, in short, exactly what we have come to expect of a Vice President. In an obvious over-simplification, he is the servant, Bill Clinton the master. Biblically, Al Gore is fulfilling the demands of his office "in all righteousness." And come the next presidential election, Al Gore will no doubt count on President Clinton's whole-hearted support in exchange for that (which, according to those who are supposed to know these things, Mr. Gore will get).

Paul and the rest of Scripture smile. "You are getting there."

The bride continues. Now things change. Come election time, Mr. Gore's relationship to the American people will still call him to be respectful, but will demand that he not be so deferential. He will be EXPECTED to make waves, rock boats. Should he be fortunate enough to be elected (or perhaps UNfortunate enough), if he handles his presidency in the same way as he did the Vice Presidency, we will not be satisfied. He will not have met the expectations of the relationship we established at the ballot box. Unrighteous.

With a smile, the groom talks again and says that Jesus understood righteousness that way. Do you remember his story about the Pharisee and the tax collector at prayer in the temple? The Pharisee stood up with arms outstretched and eyes toward heaven and said, "'God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector." The tax collector stood off in a corner with eyes down toward the ground and whispered, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner." Now, given the culture of the day, there is no question that the Pharisee would have been the more moral, the more ethical, the more law-abiding, the goody-two-shoes of the pair. But Jesus' conclusion was that the tax collector was the more righteous. Why? His prayer was that of powerless servant to all-powerful master - the way it should have been; the Pharisee's prayer was a conversation between the executive vice president and the chairman of the board. That was not the proper relationship...not right...not righteous.

Hmmm, says the bride. The more I get into the REAL expectations of righteousness, the less intimidating it seems. Right relationships, not saints and haloes. Perhaps the bride and groom can get back to the issue that caused all this in the first place, the breastplate of righteousness.

The Apostle Paul speaks again, glad that some light is finally beginning to break through. After all, he is the one who coined the phrase, and to be honest, was very much into righteousness all his life. A quick count of the root word we translate into English as "righteous" or "righteousness" appears in his epistles some 115 times. Like the rest of the Bible, it signified for Paul a relationship in which the parties did what was expected of them...a place for everything and everything in its place. The relationship was "right." Any moral or ethical or legal considerations were incidental.

But one thing should be noted here. In all the teaching and preaching and rattling around in this Christian armory through the years, one fact tends to get overlooked more than any other. Whose armor is it? Thank you. It is not our armor. It is not our righteousness that protects us. The breastplate that protects our often very faint heart is GOD's righteousness.

What IS God's righteousness? The same as any other righteousness in the Bible. God is called righteous because God fulfills the expectations of the master/servant relationship with people in delivering and preserving them. God delivered the covenant people from slavery in Egypt and preserved them from extinction despite centuries of powerlessness. God delivers and preserves the people of the NEW Covenant, you and me, from sin and death through the saving work of Jesus Christ. God can be counted on. God upholds the divine part of the relationship. God does right by us. God is righteous.

Suddenly the bride and groom are all smiles again. They kiss and hug. She apologizes for jumping to conclusions, and adds that, these days, that is often the only exercise she gets. They thank the pastor, and walk out hand in hand. The expectations are realistic, not threatening, actually comforting. Righteousness was not a problem; it was a solution. After all, a breastplate is designed to help us...to protect. All it took was a little conversation to understand it and clear the air.

If we want lives that are spiritually excellent, we will do everything in our power to make all our relationships RIGHT. We will do what is expected of us, and we will do it when we should and the way we should. That is basic discipleship. And just as it will get life off on the right foot for newlyweds, it will make life good for any of us. The truth, of course, is that, despite all our high hopes and remarkable resolve, we will sometimes mess up...BIG time. The good news is that this protective breastplate comes from the God who NEVER messes up. This is one relationship that will never let us down. The breastplate of righteousness. The R word can become OUR word because it is God's word.

Let us pray.

Lord, we confess that too much of our reluctance in pursuing a proper relationship with you comes from misunderstanding. Help us to commit ourselves to overcoming our own confusion so that we might share your good news with a world that is even more confused. We pray it in Jesus' name. Amen!


1. American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 3rd Edition, (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1992)

The Presbyterian Pulpit Sermon Library

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