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January 17, 2015

Right vs Righteous

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Written by: Duane Covrig
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He was the paragon of perfection. He was the epitome of the Jewish lifestyle well lived. He honored his parents, managed his money well, worked hard six days a week and rested the Seventh. He controlled his anger and was a generous civic leader. He was what discipline could build if it was allowed full control. He was Mr. Right.

The rich young ruler was what the 10 commandments could accomplish.

When he approached Jesus about going to the next moral and spiritual level–eternal life stuff–Jesus was ready to take him there.

Mark 10:17-27 reviews the man’s impressive accomplishments in his young life. If I was there, my first thought would be, finally a disciple worthy of the master’s true calling as a teacher. This young man didn’t have the anger issues that John and James had, or the uncontrollable mouth like Peter.

Jesus detected a problem and was quick to do some physician-like questioning to diagnosis. It was Jesus’ equivalence to: “how is your sleeping,” “how is your exercise,” “are you eating well?” “how are your relationships?”

“Good,” “great,” “wonderful,”  “couldn’t be better!” Came the rapid-fire response. Been keeping those 10 commands since a kid.

That’s when it became obvious. This guy had a problem. His problem was he didn’t have a problem, which is the worse problem possible.

What morality do law-abiding, industrious, tax-paying and community-minded young leaders miss?

It is the “hard for the rich man to enter the kingdom” morality. The morality of helplessness and dependence and interdependence.

This man needed to go to the next level of morality.

Discipline is a great teacher. Success is a powerful motivator. Making money and staying fit are fabulous.

But there is nothing like failure, bad luck, and tough times, or a few heart-wretching betrayals to unearth a new type of moral framework or reference point.

Don’t get me wrong. Moral discipline and obedience to the 10 commandments is right on. Micah 6:8 reconfigures the 10 to three–do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God. The rich young ruler was working those three fairly well. His eagerness–some translations said he ran to Jesus–shows a desire to learn from others. That is the first step toward humility. But humility is a long journey–that is why you have to walk. You can’t rush the morality that comes from that walk.

That is why Micah 7:9 has become my go to passage for morality, at least for those who get some practice with Micah 6:8.

I will bear the indignation of the Lord
Because I have sinned against Him,
Until He pleads my case and executes justice for me.
He will bring me out to the light,
And I will see His righteousness. [please reread this until you see the deeper pattern]

This shows us that even after disobedience, even when we fail, there is a moral being in the universe who operates in creatively redemptive ways of justice to lead us to a deeper view of His character. Paul captures it also:

“But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ … whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus..” Romans 3: 21-26

What Justice can sinners hope for? It depends on if you have the rich young ruler view of the world or God’s.

God loves sinners. Morality doesn’t really have that capacity apart from God. Morality won’t and can’t process at that level. Morality is just too rigid, narrow, or truncated a collection of human or even divine ideals to foster a justice that redeems the guilty. Only God can figure that out.

Right has a hard time seeing Righteousness. [I know that first hand]

There is moral good and then there is moral great and then there is “I can’t believe there is a God like this in the university” righteousness.

Yes to being right: follow your exercise routine, manage your diet, take effective risks and leverage those into a huge income and super great jobs, but for God’s sake, remember how poor we are in this stuff.

Here is the demarcation between typical morality (Lewis Smede’s Mere Morality or C.S. Lewis Mere Christianity) and the outrageous moral ideal of Christianity: which requires nothing short of a dependence on God breaking into our low level moral frame to give us a richer view of His amazing justice.

This moral juxtaposing is everywhere in scripture:

“Sell all and give to the poor and follow me” is repeated in the call to the Laodicean church in Revelation 3 to see how utterly poor and blind and naked they are and to buy of God’s richness.

We see this moral contrast everywhere in the gospels: The Prodigal Son and His self-righteous brother in Luke 15 and the radical Father. We see the moral contrast in the woman caught in adultery vs the men who thought they had their life together (John 8). Or we see it in the man (Simon, the leper, Matt 26) who helped get others into a miserable life, only to finally find themselves there as well

“Yes, your life seems squeaky clean. Your morality is right but can it find righteousness.”

Right Righteousness
Eat well Feed others or help them feed themselves better
Dress well (modest and high quality) Cloth others or Help them have money to buy their own clothes and dress with dignity
Fight for what is right Turn the other check to help show what is righteous
Avoid enemies Love, pray for and help them grow
Love your family and friends Love the loveless
Maintain a clean and orderly house Help others build and live in homes
Avoid the poor Serve the poor
Make your own decisions Walk with God and serve the decisions of others

 

Doing right can be built into doing Righteousness, but rarely the other way around. Seek the higher and the lower will come. God is right not merely as a statement that He knows all and makes good decisions. That is a good right. It is a technical, game show, test question type of right. But God is right in that he in TOTALLY acting for the well being of others, especially the poor.

Christian ethics, Adventist ethics, must ultimately be about that justice, that judgment hour morality.



About the Author

Duane Covrig

I teach leadership and ethics at Andrews University. I am a Seventh-day Adventist eager for the Second Coming of Christ and positive about His judgment hour work (Rev 14:6-12). I use that reality to understand morality and ethics.






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  1. […] story’s demonstration of the scandalous love of the father  and used it in many blogs (e.g. to compare right and righteousness,  or about Jeremiah’s understand of grace in judgment), I saw a new connection about the […]


  2. […] As I noted in another blog, living a good moral life is right but the inclusion of grace in judgment ke… […]



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