THE BREASTPLATE OF RIGHTEOUSNESS
Chapter 2: The Religious View
As we begin this second step, let’s challenge ourselves to consider the true meaning of righteousness. What do you believe righteousness means?
Most people think of righteousness as being good or doing good. Perhaps you know of someone you might consider righteous. A member of the clergy or a humanitarian almost always comes to mind.
Our assumptions put righteousness right up there as something you do. Some consider righteousness akin to a level of achievement, a status to be worked for or attained through good behavior or good works. This is the religious interpretation of righteousness.
There is some merit to the religious view of righteousness, as it generally concludes that good people do good works. Very often, they do. However, false expectations arise when one determines that doing good works makes one righteous—and therein lies the problem with the religious view. In effect, the religious view of righteousness is usually founded on outward appearances.
The religious view is a perception of righteousness that is at odds with the words of Jesus when he chastised the religious elite of His day.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. — Matthew 23:27-28
The Pharisees were known for their excellent works. They gave to the poor and prayed a lot, and they made sure everybody knew it. They were religious.
Religion is about outward form. It’s about conduct, practice, and rituals—being good and doing good. Centuries of tradition have typically associated religion with righteousness.
However, Jesus defied tradition. As the embodiment and personification of all Truth, Jesus Christ defied tradition in the face of those who most boldly wore the badge of piety. Jesus said that righteousness is about the heart. It’s about the inside, not the outside. True righteousness is not a practice, a recitation, or a religious protocol—not about the way things look to the naked eye. Righteous works are wonderful, but righteousness is not something that we do. It’s not about religion at all!
We must concede, however, that there is nothing wrong with religion. Many churches practice rituals of ceremony and formality. There is a certain beauty in tradition and observance. Doing good works is splendid. However, to effectively substitute the requirement of the inner work with the more apparent outer work, simply because the outer work is visible, is to place the emphasis on appearances. And we know what Jesus had to say about that!
Jesus did not tell the Pharisees to cease their good works. He told them to clean up the inside and the outside—but to clean up the inside first. (Matthew 23)
Like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, it is possible to be beautiful and clean on the outside, yet corrupt and unclean on the inside. People often do the right things for all the wrong reasons.
We cannot grasp Righteousness with the hands or rope it down with good deeds. The religious view is based on outward appearances, but true Righteousness is a matter of the heart.
EXAMPLES OF RELATIONSHIP
Jesus often communicated great messages through parables. These were short stories that used allegations and illustrations to convey principles of truth to the listeners. Jesus used parables because they were easy for the people to understand.
In Luke 15:11-32, Jesus gave us a parable that has become a classic. Told and retold countless times, this particular tale has been used in sermons and articles and as a bedtime story to children. Many generations have heard of the adventures of The Prodigal Son.
In this story, a father lived with his two sons on the family estate. One day the younger son asked his father for his inheritance. He wanted to leave the estate and make his own way in the world. As the son requested, the father granted the early inheritance, and the son traveled into a far country.
At first, things seemed to go well for this younger son. He lived extravagantly and had a grand time. But he was wasteful, squandering his money on good times and riotous living. This boy had a penchant for life on the wild side.
Eventually his resources ran out. He lost everything he had—his entire inheritance, gone. Then a famine hit, and times got hard. The Prodigal son was broke and alone in a foreign land, totally unprepared for what was to follow. And the first thing that followed was: he had to get a job!
The Prodigal Son had never worked outside his father’s estate. But he did find employment, feeding pigs. Ugh! It was a demeaning and shameful job. But he was desperate. He became so destitute and hungry, he actually thought of eating the pigs’ food. All his fair-weather friends had left, and there was nowhere to turn.
In a moment of clarity, the young man looked around and realized what he had become. He realized how low he had fallen, and he began to think of home. He remembered that even the hired servants had enough to eat in his father’s house—and here he was starving! “I will arise,” he said, “and go to my father….”
The young man did not, however, take for granted that his father would receive him well. He wasn’t at all sure of what his father would say at his return. He had been so foolish! He knew that he had behaved badly, that he didn’t deserve to be called a son because he had not acted like one. He decided that if he could return as a mere servant in his father’s house, that would be enough. So he made the journey.
But the father had been watching for his son’s return. When he saw the boy approaching from a distance, he ran to meet him, embracing him and kissing him. Immediately the son confessed, “Father, I have sinned, and I’m not worthy…” But the father began giving orders to the servants. “Bring the best robe!” “Put a ring on his hand!” “Put shoes on his feet!” “Prepare a meal!”—and finally, “Celebrate!” The homecoming party had begun!
Later that evening, the older brother came in from the fields. When he saw what was happening, he was angry and bitter. He disapproved of the warm welcome shown his wayward little brother, and he refused to join the party. Instead, he confronted his father and accused him of favoritism. “You never gave me a party,” he said, “and I’ve been with you all these years.” But the father replied, “Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours.” He insisted that welcoming his younger son home was the right thing to do, and the cause for celebration was clear: His son was dead, and now he is alive. He was lost, but now he is found!
In the parable of the Prodigal Son, the master of the estate represents our Heavenly Father, and the younger son represents the believer. The older son represents the religious view. The family estate represents the Kingdom of God, and the inheritance represents the assurance of salvation to believers, or eternal life—the promise of life after death. The foreign land represents worldliness and sin. The whole context of this story pertains to Relationship and the condition of the heart.
Surveying the events of this story, we can suspect that the younger son had an issue with his heart early on. Living and working on his father’s estate, he enjoyed a life of privilege. Very possibly, the father might have been a community leader—a man of influence, a wealthy and good man. Home was a safe place, a place of plenty, even a place of opportunity. We must believe that if the father was willing to grant the younger son his wish to claim his inheritance early, he would have helped him in any endeavor the boy desired to pursue. The opportunities were there, but the younger son either could not or would not see that.
The early inheritance the younger son received was part of his benefit package as a son. It was intended to be a guarantee of sustenance, or livelihood, after the father’s death at a future time. Although the father had more to offer his sons than simply a promise of life “in the sweet bye and bye,” the younger son made the mistake of concluding that the inheritance was all the father had to offer that was of value. In other words, he was only interested in what he could get.
The younger son was not happy with his situation at home. He took for granted way too much, and he simply did not realize what he had or who he was. Growing up with the security and provision his father offered, the younger son became unappreciative of his blessings. He began to think it was all about him.
Perhaps the Prodigal Son’s dissatisfaction had something to do with his station in the family. In Jewish society, the oldest son held a position of honor and received a greater inheritance than younger sons. With that in mind, one can almost taste the sibling rivalry in this story. Or maybe the younger son felt he didn’t fit in. And of course, maybe he was just a foolish boy.
Whatever his reasoning, the younger son obviously felt he no longer needed his family. He didn’t like the father’s way of doing things. He didn’t want anyone to tell him what do. He didn’t like living by the rules of the house, and he refused to accept authority. He though the restrictions of estate life crimped his style, and he didn’t want to contribute to it or comply with it. He was rebellious. All he wanted was the promise—his inheritance—so he could go about living life his way.
In the Jewish culture this story is placed, the demand for an early inheritance would have been a dreadful disgrace to the father. Such a demand was as though the younger son had told his father he wished he was dead. Irregardless of his father’s feelings, the son promptly sold his newly acquired inheritance and, with money in hand, merrily went his way.
There is not so much as a suggestion of concern or remorse with this young man. No mention that he ever sent a single letter home. No texts or emails, either. He lived life in the fast lane, with no thought of tomorrow—and he had a blast. He thought, This is the life! But the Prodigal Son had not managed his spending, and soon he ran out of cash. Then the unexpected happened—at the most inopportune time, of course—and a famine struck. It was a disaster! The party was over.
It had never occurred to this foolish boy that this kind of thing could ever happen. (In fact, he never even thought that far ahead.) More likely than not, he sought for ways to stay engaged in the social life he had come to love, but no one was interested. Maybe he kept thinking he could get back in the game, but it seemed his luck had run out. Obviously his friends had run out, too. This is not the way things were supposed to be!
When the Prodigal Son was forced to search for employment, he found he was not suited for any decent jobs. He didn’t fit into the foreign society very well, and there were no job openings for “estate sons.” No one here seemed to appreciate his position of privilege. No one here recognized his name or that of his father. (He tried using his father’s name as a reference a few times.) Day by day, he became more desperate, and he finally took the only thing he could find—a disgusting job feeding pigs. He was ashamed, but he told himself it would only be for a little while.
Soon he saw there was no way out. The young man acknowledged that his life had spiraled out of control, and he was helpless to stop it. He realized he wasn’t going to be able to get out of this pigpen on his own. He had held on to the hope that he would be able to make a comeback, or perhaps his friends would come bail him out—but now he had to admit those things weren’t going to happen. In desperation, he saw just how alone he really was.
The Prodigal looked at his facts, and they were many. His money was gone, his friends were gone, and not only was he in a mess, he was a mess. Sin had changed him. Living with the pigs, hungry and dirty, he was disgraced in every way. On his own, he had no hope. Facts.
This young man was forced to get real with himself. Nothing was going to change unless he did some things differently. He gave up whatever excuses and he had for leaving home. He shut off the denial about the way things were going, and he stopped whatever rationalizing he had used to justify his contemptible behavior. His inheritance package simply wasn’t enough—he needed more. In that moment he abjectly succumbed to how badly he needed his father and all that his father’s covering would offer him. He opened his eyes to the Truth.
He hadn’t wanted to be needy. He hadn’t wanted to be weak! Oh how badly he had wanted to prove—yes, even to himself—that he could do it himself, make his own way, make his own rules! He’d never liked the structure of his father’s estate, never wanted to “do this, not that.” He’d felt that too many “do’s” and “don’ts” stifled him; it crimped his style. But now, looking at the mud and muck of the pigpen, and viewing what he had become in the process of making his own way, he considered for the first time that perhaps there was a reason—and yes, a benefit—to the rules.
The son got up out of the pigpen and turned his face toward home. He made the journey stinking, dirty, broke, and broken. He’d lost more than just his inheritance; he’d lost his dignity. This boy had been changed. He’d left home arrogant and confident, but he returned humbled and ashamed.
He’d left home ready to stand on his own, convinced that he didn’t need anyone, but he returned prepared to be a servant.
He’d left home with the best intentions of living the good life, his desires set on the things of this world—but he returned lost and confused, with no direction, the sting of failure painfully proclaiming that his own plans and dreams had all been wrong somehow.
This wasn’t the same young man who had left his father’s estate not so long ago.
As the Prodigal Son made his way toward home, he was a pitiful figure. All around this family was blessing, abundance and opportunity, but he—rebellious and blinded by his selfishness—had not seen any of that. He had not seen the Truth. His inclination to self-gratification had set his heart on fulfilling the lusts of his flesh, the temporary satisfactions which eventually cost him everything and brought him to this wretched place. Whatever the specifics of his reasoning, the younger son’s desires had controlled him and led him to destruction, because the desires of his heart were evil.
The Prodigal Son had a heart problem.