On Righteousness

The Old Testament word for righteousness is tsedeq, which means basically ‘fair’, ‘just’ as in right weights and measures. It is interesting that in French Bibles, the word for righteousness is translated ‘la justice’ – justice. The classical figure of Justice is a blindfold woman with a sword and a pair of scales in her hand, and the idea of just balance is among those associated with our word.

In the Old Testament, righteousness is ascribed to God’s action, hence to his character. Much is made, in both the Law and the Prophets, of God’s desire that the poor and underprivileged in society be treated fairly and with justice. The word tsedeq or righteousness has another form, tsedaqah, which means ‘act of justice’, which is what Bible righteousness is all about, God’s right action in the world, action of justice, restoring spiritual, social and economic balance.

In the New Testament the righteousness of God is revealed in Christ Jesus. We can consider the righteousness which Jesus forged on the Cross in two ways: as that which is making us right spiritually, and as the concrete actions of God in Christ Jesus through us, which Mary sings about in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). One might see righteousness as ‘setting things aright’ both in our relationships, where we are being set aright by Jesus in salvation, and in our lives of action, where we carry out those prophetic actions of justice described by Mary, scattering the proud, lifting up the humble, and filling the hungry with good things (see also Psalm 149).

The New Testament Greek word for righteousness is closely related to its words for justify, justification. In Christ’s justification, right legal balance is restored, so that God brings us personally into subjection to his Kingdom, which results in righteous acts, where we do our part in establishing the justice of God’s rule.

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