In it’s simplest form, righteous is “right living” or “living rightly.”
Today’s society encourages us to decide for ourselves what is right and wrong. Therefore, each person has his or her own definition of what it is to be righteous. This view is not biblically supported.
The Bible‘s view of righteous is more defined. In a literal sense, no one is truly and completely righteous. Jesus is the exception, as he was the personification of righteousness (1 John 2:1). When we follow Jesus, we, however, are viewed by God as being righteous (1 Corinthians 1:30).
The Amplified Bible explains righteous as “upright and in right standing with God.”
Compare to holy.
The book of Ecclesiastes is an example of wisdom literature, and it makes for an interesting read. At one point the author says, “Do not be overrighteous.”
Overrighteous is a curious word. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it before, and I certainly don’t remember seeing it in the Bible. In fact, it only appears in this one verse in the Bible.
What does it mean to be overrighteous?
Since righteous means to be morally upright or virtuous, it seems overrighteous is just more of the same, that we can’t be too righteous.
Apparently, we can.
The dictionary says overrighteous means to be “Excessively righteous; usually implying hypocrisy.” Ouch! No one wants that.
Continuing on, the verse asks, “Why destroy yourself?”
So, overrighteous implies hypocrisy and causes personal destruction.
Being righteous is worth pursuing; being overrighteous should be avoided.
The Bible includes the account of Abraham discussing the future of Sodom with God. Abraham is torn, he knows the city is corrupt and warrants punishment, but he also carries concern for his nephew Lot who lives there.
In a series of bold moves, Abraham asks God if he’ll spare the town because of the righteous people who live there, each time wondering if a smaller and smaller number is sufficient. Finally Abraham gets down to ten – and God agrees. If only ten righteous people live in Sodom, he’ll spare the city because of those ten.
How encouraging, a minority of good people allowing a majority of bad people to be spared. We may find ourselves in a minority situation, but what if we’re one of ten righteous people implicitly protecting everyone around us?
Being a righteous minority for God can make a difference.
In the accounts of Jesus’ life, there’s a curious exchange he has with the religious leaders. Although he has many such interactions, this is perhaps the most perplexing.
He tells them sick people don’t need a doctor. True. Then he makes a parallel assertion that his purpose isn’t to help good people (the “righteous”) but bad people (the “sinners”).
What does this mean?
1. Is he implying the religious leaders are healthy and in no need of his help, that they’re doing fine by adhering to their traditions? While it’s true that following their laws could be sufficient, they would need to do so perfectly. This is humanly impossible.
2. This could be a sarcastic statement, calling them good (righteous) when everyone — including themselves — knew it wasn’t true, that they fell short of God’s standard as well.
3. Jesus could have meant, that since the religious leaders considered themselves to be healthy, there was nothing he could do for them. Although they were really sick, he couldn’t be their doctor until they admitted they were ill.
We all need a doctor, but are we willing to admit it?
[Mark 2:17, Luke 5:31-32]
Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Jesus came for the sick. (Since he came to heal and to save, we may be able to comprehend this both literally and figuratively, that is, the physically sick and the spiritually sick.) Jesus came for sinners — those who miss the mark.
Conversely, Jesus did not come for the healthy, the righteous. What exactly does that mean? Perhaps:
- People who are righteous (good and law-abiding) don’t need Jesus. (Is Jesus implying their path is through the Old Testament covenant and following the Law of Moses?)
- People who think they are on the right track will never know they need Jesus, so he is dismissing them.
- Everyone needs Jesus, but some people delude themselves, thinking they are the exception.
None of these ideas is an adequate explanation for me of what this text means. Although the first one seems heretical, it is also the most direct understanding of Jesus’ actual words. The other two responses require an interjection of ideas, some assumptions to be made — of basically reading the text through our own theological glasses.
Fortunately, I don’t need to understand this text completely. What I do know is I need a doctor — and his name is Jesus.
[Mark 2:17, Matthew 9:12-13, and Luke 5:31-32]