Tuesday, February 18, 2014

THE RIGHTEOUS ONE


Reading this morning in Matthew's account of Jesus' trial before Pilate, my attention was called to the brief account (found only in Matthew) of the note Pilate received from his wife.  It read, "Have nothing to do with that Righteous One, for I suffered many things in a dream today because of him" (Matthew 27:19).

A reference in the margin of my Bible pointed me to Luke 23:47, where immediately after Jesus expired on the cross, the centurion who was in charge, "... glorified God saying, 'Certainly this was a Righteous Man!"

Matthew and Mark give it a little differently.  In their accounts the centurion says, "Truly this was God's son.'"  (Matthew 27:54; Mark 15:3)  Most likely he said both.

The question was raised in my mind as to whether "The Righteous Man" is a title for Jesus which was recognized by the New Testament writers.  Certainly they had an Old Testament basis for this.  Isaiah the prophet in his well-known passage concerning the Messiah's suffering says, "My Righteous Servant will justify many" (Isaiah 53:11).

Sure enough, Jesus is frequently referred to this way in the New Testament, but especially in regard to His suffering unjustly.  Luke mentions this usage twice in the Book of Acts, both times in an accusation against the Jewish leaders.  Peter accuses them in Acts 3:14, "... but you denied the Holy and Righteous One and asked for a murderer to be granted to you!"  Steven at his trial, just before his martyrdom said to probably the same people, "Which of the prophets didn't your fathers persecute?  And you killed those who proclaimed beforehand concerning the coming of the Righteous One of whom you now have become the murderers ..." (7:52).

[We should notice that in both of these accusations there is forgiveness offered (3:16ff; 7:60).]

Peter carries this thought forward in his First Epistle, "For Christ also suffered once for sins, the Righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring you to God ..." (1 Peter 3:18a).

Of course, all these things have been noticed before, but what especially intrigued me was the same title as it was used by James in his epistle.  James berates the wealthy for three offenses, the first that they have gained or at least increased their wealth by the mistreatment of their workers by defrauding them of their wages (James 5:4).  Their second offense is that they have "lived luxuriously and ... indulgently" (5:5a) apparently at the expense of those they'd defrauded.

But the third offense seems to stand out.  "You have condemned, you have murdered the Righteous One.  He does not resist you" (5:6).

Who is the one James refers to as "the Righteous One"?  Students of the Scriptures have puzzled over this question.  Is this simply some generic reference?  Is James referring to the workers mentioned in verse 4?  If so, why does he use the singular and mark it off with the definite article?  Is he referring to Jesus?  The language sounds like that of Peter and Steven in the Book of Acts, but Jesus had been condemned and put to death years before James wrote.  Besides those who had done this were in Judea and James was writing "... to the twelve tribes of the Diaspora" as he says in 1:1.  So how could he be holding these persons accountable?

Well, this thought came to mind:  perhaps James is thinking of the Judgment of the Sheep and Goats that Jesus speaks of in Matthew 25:31-46.  James' tirade appears to have eschatological thoughts running through it.  He speaks of "the last days" (James 5:3), "a day of slaughter" (verse 5) of "the harvesters" and "the Lord of Hosts" (verse 4).

If this is the case, then the reference to their killing of "the Righteous One" may be in the same vein as that of Jesus' statement that "in that you did (or didn't do) to one of these least ones, you did it to Me" (Matthew 25:40, 45).  So James would be applying Jesus' words directly to the wealthy oppressors of his own day and location.  They were as guilty of Jesus' murder as the ones who had personally committed the act.

So where does that put us?

Just a thought.

1 comment:

Sherry Ball Schoenfeldt said...

Couldn't James actually be speaking of our having killed Jesus in the sense that all our sins were laid on him? Peter's speech in Acts seems to put everyone in the role of killing the Righteous One.