Monday, 26 November 2007

Ezekiel 18 - what does "righteous" mean?

What does it mean to be "righteous"? It's obviously a massive word in the Bible and heavily used. And it's one of those words which we use and have some ideas about, but which seems to have a certain amount of vagueness about it as well. "Righteous" is like "nice" or "good" - a word we use without always defining its meaning very closely. Perhaps, a common definition we have in our minds is something like "conforming to a standard" or "avoiding sin". Of course, to get what the word is on about we need to read it in context. This is much better (and more interesting) than trying to to uncover its etymology. Now, the context of Ezekiel 18 is a very interesting one because it is so explicit about what a "righteous" life is. we're not trying to infer what it means, but rather we get a rare explicit definition.

"5 If a man is righteous and does what is just and right— 6 if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman in her time of menstrual impurity, does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, 8 does not lend at interest or take any profit, withholds his hand from injustice, executes true justice between man and man, 9 walks in my statutes, and keeps my rules by acting faithfully—he is righteous; he shall surely live, declares the Lord GOD.

10 If he fathers a son who is violent, a shedder of blood, who does any of these things 11 (though he himself did none of these things), who even eats upon the mountains, defiles his neighbor’s wife, 12 oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery, does not restore the pledge, lifts up his eyes to the idols, commits abomination, 13 lends at interest, and takes profit; shall he then live? He shall not live. He has done all these abominations; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself."

Notice how many of the elements of righteousness mentioned concern social justice of some kind (all in italics) ! Righteousness is not defined in purely individual terms but socially. It is profoundly relational - how I treat the marginalized is a vital elements of righteousness. And it's not just that these elements are mentioned, but they take up a lot of place in the definition. A lot of the focus is upon this social righteousness. How much do we put this focus on how we treat the poor? How much do we see it as a necessary part of sanctification? Further, notice the reward and threats involved in performing this kind of righteousness - life and death. It is not just an optional extra but demonstrates the reality of my status before God. It is a necessary fruit of the Christian life. To not do justice is to commit an abomination on the same level as idolatry and adultery (v.10-12). RIghteousness now looks a little different to how it did for me yesterday....