|“Justice – Strong and Tender”
February, 28 - 2010
Rev Peter Dennebaum, 1st Congregational Church Washington D.C.
In front of the stairs
Gods’ peace with u!
When u look to front of the bulletin cover u see the three for me most important Hebrew letters. I had chosen them already for the front cover of my ordination service in June 2008 and they will decorate the Stole, my Mum is working on @ this moment and which we hope will be ready for Easter. Does somebody recognize the word, which these letters form? …. Exactly: Tseh-dek. Like Arabic Hebrew reads from right to left. The 3 consonants [cónse-nents], which form here the word Tseh-dek is in our text translated as “righteousness”.
Let us read together from the bulletin our sermon text for today. It is from Paul’s epistle to the congregation in Rome and taken from the chapters 9 and 10. (Rom 9: 30-32a, 10: 2-4,10). Afterwards everybody is invited to speak out loud the sentence, phrase or word, which has become important to u. Let us read:
30 What then are we to say? Gentiles, who did not strive for righteousness, have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; 31 but Israel, who did strive for the righteousness that is based on the law, did not succeed in fulfilling that law.
32 Why not? Because they did not strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling-stone,
2 I can testify that they have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened. 3 For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they have not submitted to God’s righteousness.
4 For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.
10 For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.
U r now invited to speak out loud the sentence, phrase or word, which has become important to u. Don’t hesitate to do so, even somebody else has mentioned it before; it is always exciting to realize how others read a text.
… Thank u!
Going to the pulpit
Righteousness is an important, maybe THE important theological concept in Judaism and Christianity. It is an attribute that implies that a person's actions are justified, and can have the connotation that the person has been "judged" or "reckoned" as leading a life that is pleasing to God. Righteousness is also used as an attribute for God.
This is important, because it puts the righteous person in relation to God. Righteousness seems to reflect God’s character. Who ever is righteous echoes Gods Character and gets so in direct spiritual contact with God. Righteousness is a attitude, even more than this: Righteousness is a spiritual discipline.
I need to explain this a little bit. Whenever we hear the word righteousness there is the danger of self-righteousness. We know that. And as biblical trained people we might immediately think then of the Pharisees, the guys who get so often attacked in the Second Testament by Jesus. And we might remember the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Lk 18: 9-14: The Pharisee prayed “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” 13But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
It is important for us as First Church UCC to embrace people. We cannot pray like the Pharisee. But the problem is more difficult. The Second Testament polemicizes [polí-miceises] all the time against the Pharisee. The reality is that the Pharisee tried like all the other Jewish groups, yes I would say like everybody else in general to find the right way. The English word “righteousness” is the remodeling of the Old English word rihtwis [rít-wes], which would have yielded in Modern English rightwise or rightways. We look for the right way. This is what I mean with the spiritual character of righteousness. People have been always the same. The Pharisee were a lay movement – like we in the United Church of Christ. The Pharisee were convinced that succeeding life only can happen in the shelter of Gods commandments. Who wants to disagree with that? The problem appears in the way how u live it out. The Pharisee separated themselves strongly from all of those who didn’t follow God’s commandments. Pharisee means “the separated”. But this didn’t mean that they stayed away from people; the opposite was the case. They were everywhere and tried to realize God’s commandments in the world. As they did know so well the books of Moses people called them also “scribes”. So what was Jesus complaining about? What is wrong trying to stay clean from the dirt of the world? …
The answer is: That u try to stay clean! Jesus points to the world saying: Make yourself dirty! Go out and transform the world!
I will come back to this point in few moments. Jesus offends the Pharisee so hard , because they were from all groups probably the closest to him. With the Pharisee Jesus had in common the earnestness of living the faith, the godliness [gód-liness] and the love to the people. This commonness brought Jesus so often in conversation to and direct conflict with the Pharisee.
They don’t play a role here, but for completeness. The other three important Jewish groups didn’t fit well cultural wise with Jesus: The Sadducee [Sǣ-desi] were very open to the Greek-Roman culture, went into theatres, didn’t like progressive theology and didn’t believe in resurrection, a life after death or the existence of the angels and spirits. This really doesn’t sound like Jesus, does it? But don’t we all know people, who represent like them a very cultural, philosophical Christianity? The Essenes [Ȅssins] followed an ascetic lifestyle: No sexuality, community of goods, no swearing, but no slaves and very hospitable – this kind of devoutness [devoutness] we have also in our Christian tradition, the fraternities. The forth and youngest of the 4 Jewish groups in Jesus times were the Zealots [Sǣ-lets]. They were nationalists, fought against the Romans for example in Massada and didn’t hesitate to kill own people, they suspected to collaborate with the Romans. One of Jesus own 12 apostles must have been at a minimum a former Zealot; this is what his name let us assume, when Luke ” (6:15) and Acts (1:13) introduce him to us as “Simon, the Zealot”. Whoever has seen the movie “Kingdom of the heavens” knows that we Christians were also pretty good in violent try to get a shortcut to the promised kingdom of the heavens….And I haven’t seen not one modern war, started from a Western country, which was not justified with Christian values.
U see now the reason for this short retrospect – nothing is new, righteousness has still -like in these old days 2000 years ago- several ways of expression.
Paul oversimplifies, when he accuses whole Israel, but this is what he needs: a clear opposing position. I quote: 31 “Israel, who did strive for the righteousness that is based on the law, did not succeed in fulfilling that law.” And now the new Christian position: “For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. 10 For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.”
Jesus liberates us FROM the law, but FOR the heart. The anal following of laws doesn’t get us closer to God - but the openness of our hearts to the Spirit. Antoine de Saint-Exupery says it in his “Little Prince” in his own words: “You can only see well with your heart.”
Righteousness is an attitude, which gets formed in permanent dialogue with God. Righteousness is a spiritual discipline. Righteousness is the permanent search for the right way.
Let me get now to my last point. When u look @ the front cover, u see that the title is not “Righteousness – Strong and Tender”. The title is “Justice – Strong and Tender”.
Each clergy here in this worship knows this book, which I hold here in my hands. We all have learned to fear and appreciate it @ the same time; it is the Standard Hebrew Dictionary Gesenius [Gesĭnius]. Gesinius offers us as translation for Tseh-dek not only “righteousness”, but also JUSTICE, LAW and CLAIM.
And now it becomes interesting. Because in this composition Tseh-dek becomes very political. “Righteousness” alone may let assume a non-political interpretation in terms of an individual attitude. But Paul, the missionary to the Gentiles makes clear that Jesus has blasted the bounds of the Jewish religion and nation – to say it very clear: Jesus and Paul globalized the new religion – with the result that now a third of the world population belongs to this religion of the heart. With righteousness alone you cannot file a suit, but if each human being has a claim for Tseh-dek then we are called to fight for a world, in which EVERYBODY can live under the conditions of a constitutional state. The powerful and wealthy may don’t need a protection – they have enough money and connections. It is the weak and poor who need the constitutional state. Only a constitutional state can guarantee the sanctity of human dignity. In a globalized world we need a global constitution.
Tseh-dek, this Hebrew word in the meaning of RIGHTEOUSNESS, JUSTICE, LAW AND CLAIM doesn’t know ANYTHING about national, ethnic or racial limitations. Tseh-dek calls for forming and designing of the global village. Not capitalism is the founder of globalization, it was Jesus. We Christians should be in the tradition of the Hebrew-Christian Tseh-dek the true designers of this world. The current foreclosure of our Western markets, holding less developed countries as hostages and in dependency is as unchristian as it gets.
Justice means to give each human being worldwide the same enforceable rights to get to our living standard as we approve for our selves. If we realize in this process (and we will) that the earthly resources don’t allow EVERYBODY in this global village the same living standards we are called to work on a sharing system.
In opposite to the Pharisee, Jesus points us to the world saying: Make yourself dirty! Tseh-dek gives us therefore the tool - with RIGHTEOUSNESS as spiritual discipline on one side and with JUSTICE for EACH member of the human family as objective on the other side.
So then - Let us make ourselves dirty!