Justice/ Righteousness and the Sermon on the Mount


May 24, 2013 by jmar198013

“Righteousness” is an all-pervasive word in the Sermon on the Mount, and one which seems to engage in a rather chameleon-like shift-of-shading as one reads along:

  • Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. (Matt. 5.6)
  • Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5.10)
  • For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5.20)
  • Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them . . .  (Matt. 6.1)
  • But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness . . . (Matt. 6.33)

Obviously, righteousness is a crucial term for Matthew’s Jesus; we will have a difficult time interpreting the Sermon without a firm grasp on what the word means in Matthew’s symbolic world. Sadly, this noble and powerful word is often given anemic or anachronistic glosses in popular studies of the Sermon. Sometimes it is thought to convey a general sense of personal piety or moral cleanness, as if righteous were merely a synonym for what we Southerners refer to as a “pretty good old boy.” Certain evangelical readings are also prone to find the doctrine of imputed righteousness–the idea that God somehow mystically imparts his righteousness to our account–in Matt. 5.6. Neither of these glosses for “righteousness” is appropriate for the Sermon on the Mount, nor for the broader biblical universe. The study that follows demonstrates that back of Jesus’ fondness for righteousness-language is a rich and profound tradition for speaking about God’s character and the character of his people when they behave in conformity to God’s character. In the Sermon on the Mount, righteousness should be read as peacemaking, restorative activity that breaks in God’s reign by modeling his care of us. The embodiment of God’s care signaled by the use of righteousness-language in the Sermon on the Mount is historically situated, rooted in the presence of a people (Israel and the church) who experience God’s care for them in tangible ways.

Virtues: Hesed Mishpat Tzadakah - Kindness Structure Charity

Larry Chouinard observes that “Even though Jesus’ ministry is emphatically linked to God’s chosen Servant, who enacts ‘justice among the nations’ and ‘brings justice to victory’ (Matt. 12:18-23; cf. Isa. 42. 1-4), few have reflected on Jesus’ messianic mission as the embodiment of God’s justice” (229).[i] Yet κρίσις—the word translated “justice” in Matt. 12.18-23—regularly occurs in the LXX as a translation of the Hebrew מִשְׁפָּט. Granted, מִשְׁפָּט carries a broad range of meaning[ii], so that the word lends itself to a wide array of translations depending on context, and on the translation technique of the section of the LXX. The equally-broad semantic range of the English term “justice” perhaps best captures the connotations attendant to מִשְׁפָּט (Chouinard 229-30). Problems arise, however, when interpreters assign a primarily—even exclusively—retributive or punitive sense to the matter of justice. The word מִשְׁפָּט, depending on its context, can mean anything from a legal decree of Yahweh (Deut. 4.8); to a lawsuit or other sort of court case (Ezek. 7.23); to a set of building plans (Exod. 26.30) (HALOT 1: 651). The general sense of מִשְׁפָּט is one’s due—the appropriate response in light of one’s particular situation (Shultz 838).

Though there may be retributive or punitive aspects in divine justice these turn out to be means and not ends (Powell 118). Mafico stresses that מִשְׁפָּט “referred to the restoration of a situation or environment which promoted equity and harmony (šālôm) in a community” (1128). Any adequate concept of justice is rooted in God’s character (Deut. 32.4; Ps. 97.2; Isa. 5.16). Thus Beaton notes that the term מִשְׁפָּט “may be defined either morally, as a quality of just conduct or dealing, or judicially, in which the maintenance of the right and the assignment of reward and punishment are in view” (11). Often, the discussion of divine justice is primarily used in conjunction with some concept of eschatological judgment, i.e., we stand guilty before God because of our sins, so he will judge us and cast us into hell. This view of divine justice is too limited because it fails to take into account the semantic distinction between being just and dispensing justice, i.e., assigning rewards and punishments. מִשְׁפָּט then should not be limited to its forensic sense. In its Biblical usage, justice is most often related to God’s loving kindness, salvation, mercy, and covenant faithfulness. “Thus justice is not to be contrasted with God’s love and mercy nor understood primarily in punitive terms (cf. Hos. 10:12; Jer. 9:24; Mic. 6:8; Isa. 1.11-20)” (Chouinard 231).

A truly biblical account of God’s justice is one that sees its defining aspect as restorative. God’s justice seeks to restore order, meaning that its ends are reconciliation and the restoration of shalom to all facets of creation (Rom. 8.18-23; 2 Cor. 5.17-21; Col. 1.15-20). Perry Yoder explains it thus: “God’s justice is a response to the lack of shalom in order to create the conditions of shalom” (34). A pragmatic extension of this concept of restorative justice is a recognition that it does not refer merely to the moral norm (as do accounts of God’s justice as fundamentally retributive or distributive), but to basic human rights (Mafico 1128). Says David Hill: “The righteousness which Yahweh has demonstrated is a righteousness bent on salvation” (Greek 92 n.3). This assertion is strongly supported by passages such as Ps. 10.17-18; 82.1-8; 109.16; 119.153-159; 139.23-24; 146.7-9; Jer. 5.28; Amos 2.6-7. This is because justice is rooted in God’s character, and is woven into the fabric of creation itself (Ps. 99.1-4). Thus, God desires that we reflect his image by practicing justice towards others in all of our affairs (Amos 5.21-24; Micah 6.6-8), and himself administers justice to those who do not (Ps. 9.7-9; 92.2-4). This idea is thrust even further into the fore in the matter of proper Christian self-understanding, as we are being re-created in God’s image in order that we may be all that God intended humans to be (Eph. 2.8-10). “God always pursues the restoration of all things to their original purpose” (Chouinard 231).

Chouinard also points to Matthew’s use of δικαιοσύνη (3.15; 5.6, 10, 20; 6.1, 33; 21.32), which most often translates צְדָקָה (“righteousness”) in the LXX[iii], as an indication of Jesus’ understanding that his ministry was inaugurating a new age marked by a visible manifestation of God’s restorative justice (231-32). Like צְדָקָה ,מִשְׁפָּט embodies a wide range of nuance, including loyalty to a community or covenant, acts of liberation, eleemosynary behavior, and legal entitlements (HALOT 2: 1006-07). The common conceptual thrust shared by all these uses of צְדָקָה is that of a general disposition of character which exhibits itself in “social duties . . . related in conformity to some norm” (Olley 13; cf. 41).

Although צְדָקָה may be used in a forensic manner, when paired with מִשְׁפָּט  (as in Ps. 33.5; 89.15; 97.2; Jer. 9.23; Isa. 16.5; Prov. 20.28), a hendiadys is formed which communicates a concept not unlike our phrase “social justice” (Shultz 839). Olley describes the situation implied by the combination of צְדָקָה  with מִשְׁפָּט  as one of “just and harmonious society” (112).  This idea obviously transcends the simple forensic concept. Rather, when we encounter the צְדָקָה  and מִשְׁפָּט pairing—as in Ps. 33.5: אֹהֵב, צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט;    חֶסֶד יְהוָה, מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ (“He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the LORD”)—we may recognize that God’s social concern is highlighted. God’s restorative justice seeks to rectify oppression and inequity and restore shalom upon the earth (Isa. 1.10-17; 10.1-2; 3.13-15; Micah 3.9-12; Amos 2.6; 5.14-15; 6.4-7; Hosea 12.7-9; Jer. 7.3-7; 21.11-12; 22.3-5). This restorative justice “works on behalf of those less fortunate to restore worth, dignity, and productivity to the life of the community” (Chouinard 232). While God’s justice must defeat the tactics of the unrepentant wicked, its main thrust is positive, in that it seeks to create and preserve healthy social situations.[iv]

The Hebrew prophetic tradition tells of a time when a royal messianic figure of the Davidic line would come to establish God’s restorative justice. Note the following visions.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness[v] from this time forth and for evermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. (Isa. 9.6-7)

Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not fail or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law. (Isa. 42.1-4)

In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring forth for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will dwell securely. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.” (Jer. 33.15-16)

Matthew was certainly quite familiar with this visionary hope for a Messiah who would come forth from the Davidic line and restore justice and righteousness, and he makes a point of that by showing that Jesus was indeed a descendant of David (Matt. 1.1, 6, 17, 20) and by associating Jesus with David’s hometown of Bethlehem (Matt. 2; cf. Micah 5.2). The title “Son of David” is applied to Jesus in Matthew with much more frequency than it is in any other NT writing (Chouinard 234; cf. 1.1, 6, 17, 20; 9.27; 12.23; 15.22; 20.30-31; 21.9). Often this phrase is found in the formula “Have mercy on us, Son of David” (9.27; 15.22; 20.30‑31), which issues from the mouths of marginalized persons (the blind in 9.27 and 20.30‑31; a foreign woman in 15.22). It is clear, then, that one of the ways in which Matthew intended his readers to understand Jesus is the fulfillment of the expectations concerning the promised Davidic ruler who would establish God’s restorative justice on the earth. As we have seen, this entails an understanding of divine justice which manifests itself as a concern for social equity.

Reading the Sermon on the Mount is clarified in light of Matthew’s broader agenda of portraying Jesus as a Davidic messianic figure who comes to establish justice and righteousness. Jesus not only embodies this justice and righteousness (Matt. 5.17-20), he teaches his followers to do likewise. Chouinard offers several suggestions for how understanding of the Sermon on the Mount in such a context will affect our reading of the text (238-42). The “righteousness” hungered and thirsted after by the figures of 5.6 is a longing for “God’s liberating intervention” (239). The righteousness of God to be sought-after as a primary concern in 6.33 “is not primarily an exhortation to personal piety, but a lifestyle that makes the agenda of God’s reign the supreme concern of one’s life” (238). The injunctions against anger, lust, divorce, and retributive violence, as well as the positive initiative of loving enemies in imitation of God’s perfection, in 5.21-48 arise from the gracious economy of divine restorative justice (239-42). The goal of God’s justice is restoration, reconciliation, and the maintenance of shalom, rather than retribution. As Perry Yoder observes, “God’s action for justice is not based on the merit of individuals, but on their need . . . . Shalom justice is not based on calculating what people deserve, but rather on making an unright situation a right one” (34). Jesus’ teaching about public piety in Matt. 6.1-8, 16-18 is conditioned by his concern for an embodiment of God’s justice/righteousness as expressed in the prophetic tradition. “Beware of practicing your piety [δικαιοσύνην] before men in order to be seen by them,” he says, “for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 6.1). The prophetic tradition condemned all forms of piety practiced by those who had no concern for social justice (Isa. 1.11-17; 66.3; Jer. 6.20; Amos 5.21-22; Micah 6.6-7). Jesus likewise condemned piety devoid of a concern for justice amongst the religious elite of his day (Matt. 23; cf. Luke 20.45-47), and told his disciples, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5.20). A reading of Matt. 6.5-8 (cf. Luke 20.45-47) in concert with Isa. 11.15 (“even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood”) could certainly prove instructive in this matter.

As proposed at the outset, then, in the Sermon on the Mount, righteousness should be read as peacemaking, restorative activity that breaks in God’s reign by modeling his care of us. What might this mean for our reading of the righteousness verses in the Sermon?

  • Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. (Matt. 5.6)

Probably this passage should be read in light of God’s righteousness as a deliverer of his people. Back of this beatitude is the acknowledgement that there are those in the world who are literally hungry and thirsty, and their lack leads them to yearn for a just and peaceable order to be established–one in which the hungry are fed and the thirsty are watered. This beatitude not only welcomes those who so yearn for justice to be restored, it also ought to act as a goad for God’s people to work for such a just and peaceable world. After all, to the extent that the Beatitudes are God’s welcome, they at least suggest that the church ought to welcome those God welcomes.

  • Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5.10)

Think of what happened to Clarence Jordan and the Koinonia farm members in the 1950s, or John Perkins in Mississippi in the late 1960s. They were persecuted–harassed, beaten, economically and socially blackballed–because of their commitments to establishing God’s peace in a racially divided South and calling local and national leaders to account for their injustices.

  • For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5.20)

Stanley Hauerwas puts it beautifully when he writes: “The righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, their rightful desire to remain holy, was their attempt to be God’s faithful people even when they were in exile or occupied by a foreign power. Yet too often Israel sought to be faithful in a manner that would not challenge the powers, and in particular the power of Rome.” (In Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible [Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006], 67). The righteousness to which Jesus calls us in the Sermon models God’s own righteousness, and God’s sense of justice surely challenges and judges “the powers that be” in our world. Matt. 5.21-48 in particular is a righteousness greater than that of scribes and Pharisees.

  • Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them . . .  (Matt. 6.1)

The point of our just activity in the world is not to for us to be honored on account of it by other people, but for other people to honor God on account of it: let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven(Matt. 5.16). That the righteousness we do is modeled on God’s righteous character means that we cannot take credit for it, since it has been given us as a gift.

  • But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness . . . (Matt. 6.33)

It is precisely in our imitation of God’s righteousness by being disicipled to Jesus that cracks are made in the substance of the world that allow God’s reign to break in.

[i] Notable examples of those who have include John Haughey (Faith 264-290); Richard B. Hays (Moral 112-137, and the pragmatic aims which follow 313-460); N. T. Wright (New Testament 396-403; Jesus and Victory 125-133; 477ff); J. H. Yoder (Politics 1-59).

[ii] R. D. Culver lists thirteen nuances for מִשְׁפָּט, some quite subtle, including the process of litigation (Job 22.4); a sentence issuing from a magistrate’s court (Jer 26.11, 16); sovereignty (Deut 1.17); and legal rights (Deut 18.3). This word is often associated with צְדָקָה (righteousness) (948-49; cf. Shultz 839-40).

[iii] δίκαιος-words translate צָדַק-words 462 out of 476 usages in the LXX (Hill 104).

[iv] James Dunn argues along similar lines in his discussion of the Hebraic background of δικαιοσύνην in Paul. He stresses that the biblical concept of righteousness is relational, denoting “the meeting of obligations laid upon the individual by the relationship of which he or she is part.” God’s righteousness speaks of “the obligations he took upon himself in creating humankind” (341-42). To speak of God’s righteousness, then, is really to speak of his faithfulness toward his creation. His social concern for equity (justice) would obviously fall under this rubric.

[v] To the extent that we see Isa. 9.6-7 as a Messianic prophecy, we must recognize that בְּמִשְׁפָּט וּבִצְדָקָה   in that context indicates a concern for social justice by highlighting the well-being of those under the Messianic reign and integrity in social relationships (Olley 66-67).


Works Cited

Beaton, Richard. “Messiah and Justice: A Key to Matthew’s Use of Isaiah 42.1-4.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 75 (1999): 5-23.

Chouinard, Larry. “The Kingdom of God and the Pursuit of Justice in Matthew.” Restoration Quarterly 45.4 (2003) 229-42.

Culver, Robert D. “Mishpāt.Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Vol. 2. Ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason Archer, and Bruce K. Waltke. Chicago: Moody, 1980. 948-949.

Dunn, James D. G. The Theology of Paul the Apostle. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.

(HALOT) Koehler, Ludwig and Walter Baumgartner. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. 2 vols. Trans. M. E. J. Richardson. Leiden: Brill, 2001.

Haughey, John C. The Faith That Does Justice. New York: Paulist, 1977.

Hays, Richard B. The Moral Vision of the New Testament: a Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996.

Hill, David. Greek Words and Hebrew Meanings: Studies in the Semantics of Soteriological Terms. Cambridge: Cambridge, 1967.

Mafico, Temba J. “Just, Justice.” Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 3. Ed. David Noel Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992. 1127-29.

Olley, John W. “Righteousness” in the Septuagint of Isaiah: A Contextual Study. Septuagint and Cognate Studies. Vol. 8. Missoula: Scholars, 1979.

Powell, Mark Allan. God With Us: A Pastoral Theology of Matthew’s Gospel. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995.

Shultz, Richard. “Justice.” New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. Vol. 4. Ed. Willem VanGemeren. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997.

Wright, N. T. Jesus and the Victory of God. Christian Origins and the Question of God Vol. 2. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996.

—. The New Testament and the People of God. Christian Origins and the Question of God. Vol. 1. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992.

Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.

Yoder, Perry B. Shalom: The Bible’s Word for Salvation. Nappanee, IN: Evangel, 1987


3 thoughts on “Justice/ Righteousness and the Sermon on the Mount

  1. […] by loving and praying for them (143-44). While such a restorative emphasis is in keeping with the overall tone of Matt. 5-7, these words are not primarily about cause and effect. Rather, loving enemies and interceding on […]

  2. […] and this simply will not work in terms of the biblical witness. For more on that, see my thoughts here. But even more critical is the failure of those who champion penal substitution to acknowledge […]

  3. […] like to dig deeper into the biblical concepts of justice and righteousness, see my “Justice and righteousness in the Sermon on the Mount.” This is an excerpt from my 2007 Master’s […]

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