Stewardship and the Righteousness of God

December 20, 2019 by Rev. Dr. David A. Davis

Editor's note: Rev. Dr. David Davis provided this lectionary preview for February. It focuses on the gospel reading for February 2, 2020.

There are plenty of possibilities for preaching stewardship in the Sermon on the Mount. Most preachers would not ordinarily think that comes with the Beatitudes of Jesus in the fifth chapter. However, if part of the theologically robust message on stewardship is the church’s call to bear witness to, support, and work for God’s justice in the world, then it is a fine pairing indeed. The key to that combination can be found in v.6: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

It would be so much easier if Jesus had said: “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for their own righteousness,” if the righteousness Jesus was talking about was more about one’s devotional life or prayer time, a qualitative assessment of one’s spiritual journey. If by “righteousness,” Jesus intended to refer to a quality of religiousness, a kind of holiness. If “righteousness” is all about “right relationship,” “just you and me God,” then this particular beatitude would be a whole lot easier.

It would be much easier if Jesus had said: “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for goodness,” if the righteousness Jesus was talking about had to do with living a good life. If it had to do with honesty and fairness and business ethics and treating others well and loving your family and caring for your parents and hugging your kids and being an upstanding citizen and going to church on Sunday and volunteering at the hospital and coaching soccer and serving a few non-profits. “Righteousness,” as in “he was a good man. She was a good soul.” When it comes to this beatitude, at least we would understand it.

The word for “righteousness” doesn’t cross Jesus’ lips very often in the four gospels. A few times he refers to the righteousness of God, the righteousness of the kingdom, a kind of righteousness with a capital “R.” When John the Baptist was appropriately hesitant about baptizing the Messiah, Jesus said to him, “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” (3:15) There are those familiar words from Jesus: “Strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given unto you.” (6:33) And then a few other times the Lord refers to righteousness on the human side, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (6:1) The Greek word for piety is the same as righteousness. Beware of practicing your righteousness before others. Another time Jesus warns his listeners: “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (5:20). A righteousness that was, of course, in terms of religious behavior, rather unattainable.

When Jesus speaks about our righteousness, our piety, our attempt at religious behavior, it always seems to come with a warning – a word of caution. When it comes to your own piety, your own doing, your own religiosity, your own preoccupation with the state of your spiritual self, when it comes to your own self-righteousness, Jesus says, yeah, not so much!  It’s about hungering and thirsting after God’s righteousness! That’s not so easy; to do or to understand. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.”

Years ago, the rock star Bono was the main speaker at the Annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. The lead singer of the Irish band U2 had been very visible and vocal in his campaign to fight against global poverty and debt relief for suffering nations around the world. With his homily, as he called it, he had those in that banquet hall in the palm of his hand. At one point he was offering praise and thanks for the response that has come from America, doubling aid to Africa and tripling funding for global health. But then he cited the magnitude of the suffering, and the scale of the emergency. “It’s not about charity after all, is it?” the rock singer continued. “It about justice … It’s not about charity, it’s about justice. And that’s too bad, because you’re good at charity … but justice is a higher standard.” Bono was contrasting charity with righteousness of God.

When someone in the pews hear the preacher citing Jesus and his use of the word “righteousness,” the first move is typically to look within. It’s easier. But what about those listeners there on the mountain in Matthew, the crowds gathered around behind, along with the disciples who had come near and sat down as he began to teach them? The first move for those hearers of the Word, the first thought when it came to “righteousness,” would have been the words of the prophets and the songs of the psalmist. It would have been their yearning for the Messiah that came to mind. The Messiah, that shoot that shall come forth from the branch of Jesse; the one “who shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” (Isaiah11:4) It would have been the prophet’s lament they remembered. “Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands at a distance; for truth stumbles in the public square.” (Is. 59:14) It would have been the Lord’s rebuke that echoed in their ears, a rebuke that came from the shouts of Amos. “Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:23-24) It would have been God’s promise that leapt in their hearts. “Surely God’s salvation is at hand for those who fear God, that God’s glory may dwell in our land. Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet, righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground and righteousness will look down from the sky.” (Ps 85:10-11) When the people of God heard Jesus use the word “righteousness” they wouldn’t have looked within focused on their own piety, they would have stood up and looked around determined to see some evidence of the very reign of God!

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” The promise comes to those who hunger and thirst for and those who set their minds on God’s righteousness. Those who fast and pray for, those who count it the most profound of spiritual disciplines to cry out for God’s righteousness and God’s justice. Those who bear witness to, support, give to, and work for God’s justice in the world.

To be faithful in stewardship is to be part of God’s kingdom coming here on earth as it is in heaven. It is to crave a world where the hungry are fed and the thirsty receive drink, where strangers are welcomed and the naked are clothed, and the sick are cared for and the prisoners are visited, where the injured man in the ditch is helped along by the most surprising of neighbors, and the poor are invited to a feast of seismic proportions. desire, that yearning, for God’s righteousness, it will be filled, if not in this world, then in the kingdom to come.

At the end of day, maybe it is not a bad definition of stewardship: hungering and thirsting for the righteousness of God. For God’s promise is desire, that yearning, for God’s righteousness, it will be filled, if not in this world, then in the kingdom to come.

Rev. Dr. David A. Davis

Rev. Dr. David A. Davis is the senior pastor of Nassau Presbyterian Church. He has served the congregation since 2000. David earned his Ph.D. in Homiletics from Princeton Theological Seminary, where he continues to teach as a visiting lecturer. His academic work has focused on preaching as a corporate act and the active role of the listener in the preaching event. Before arriving in Princeton, he served for 14 years as the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, Blackwood, New Jersey. He has published two sermon collections, A Kingdom We Can Taste and Lord, Teach Us to Pray, and served on the Board of Trustees of the Presbyterian Foundation and the local Princeton YMCA. In addition to preaching in Presbyterian congregations around the country, David has preached to congregations in South Africa, Scotland, the Samuel Proctor Child Advocacy Conference of the Children’s Defense Fund, the Calvin Symposium for Worship, and on the campuses of Harvard and Duke University.

David grew up in Pittsburgh and did his undergraduate work at Harvard University where he was a member of the University Choir, singing weekly in Memorial Church and listening to the preaching of Professor Peter Gomes. David is married to Cathy Cook, a Presbyterian Minister who is Associate Dean of Students and Director of Senior Placement at Princeton Seminary. They have two children, Hannah and Ben.