Who Leads Me in the Paths of Righteousness for His Name's Sake
All paths lead to prayer. This morning, as we continue our look at the 23rd Psalm, we find the shepherd leading us down the paths of…righteousness. Hmm…That’s not incorrect, but other translations render it differently. Let’s try...
"paths of justice."
That’s also correct, but when we change it, it seems to be missing something…Maybe we need a new English word that means both justice and righteousness:
"paths of justeousness!"
No…not really. How about the Hebrew?
"paths of צֶדֶק"
Clearer? The word is Tzedek, and it encompasses both righteousness and justice in its meaning. Is that too disorienting, going right to left? Well, the same is true in Greek:
"paths of δικαιοσύνη"
So both of the original Biblical languages have words that mean both righteousness and justice. In English, we think of those as very separate ideas. We tend to associate righteousness with individuals. Someone who is righteous puts a priority on personal morality, making sure that they do what is good, correct, right. And justice, well, we think of communities, nations. A society that is just treats everyone fairly. Both ideas are ideals. They’re more aspirational than anything else, in that they are perfections for which we strive. Martin Luther King, Jr., put it best when he said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
We can aim for righteousness and justice, and we will fall short. But at least it gives us a goal. It’s fair to reflect on these at this time of year, when we pause and remember the many gifts of the nation in which we live. We are fortunate, no doubt. But are we righteous? Are we just?
And while we’ve been at this for a couple of hundred years, we can appreciate the complexity of the questions when we look to the birthing of new democracies. I’m sure that many in Egypt are wrestling with the meaning of righteousness and justice. There is a struggle for what is right and just in the midst of the imperfections of the moment, a struggle that lays bear pain and agony for all the world to see. The easier thing to do, when looking at righteousness and justice, is to compare ourselves to others. I’m not sure that’s the correct thing, though. It’s one thing to say that we are more righteous than others, more just; it’s another thing to look at the absolutes of righteousness and justice, and ask ourselves, how do we measure up?
All right. That’s enough amateur linguistics and politics for today. Let's go with a compromise:
"paths of righteousness and justice."
The bigger point, I hope, is what we come away with: in Scripture, in the vision of God, there is an absolute connection between personal righteousness and communal justice. One needs the other not just to thrive, but to exist. It is not that one comes first; it’s that they feed off of each other.
We can see that relationship in our lessons that morning. In Deuteronomy, we find the people of God getting ready to cross over the Jordan and into the land of promise. And before they do, their moral lives begin to take shape. Even here, though, even in the rugged wilderness, we are reminded of the connection that the individual has to the community. “Do not take bribes,” they are told, because even then, temptation had a strong attraction. Why not take bribes? “Because it blinds the vision of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous.” The corruption of the individual keeps the society from being noble, and so their goal is nothing short of justice, righteousness. These are not things they simply aim for; they are to pursue them. There’s a relentlessness to the call, to chase after these moving targets, with single-minded focus.
And when we turn to Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ parable points out many of the same things. The selfishness of the unjust judge is meant as a counterpoint to the mercy of God, and the point seems to be that, if even a loathsome jerk like the judge will give the widow what she deserves out of impure motives, how much more likely is it that a loving God would answer us when we call out for what is fair?
All of this is laid out before Jesus even begins speaking, as the author tells us that the purpose of the parable was to teach the disciples about “their need to pray continually and not be discouraged.” So while the story Jesus tells is related to righteousness and justice and all of that good stuff, the meaning behind it has more to do with the importance of persistence in all things, especially in prayer.
All paths lead to prayer.
Even in Deuteronomy, where we have the beginnings of a justice system being shaped, even there, we see the emphasis on prayer, on worship. No sooner have the people been reminded that the pursuit of justice and righteousness is their part of keeping up this covenant with God than they are also warned against worshiping trees or sacred poles or stone pillars. Justice, righteousness, lead back to worship; and worship, like all paths, leads back to prayer.
All of this is right there in our phrase from Psalm 23 this morning. The shepherd isn’t leading the sheep in these paths for the sake of the sheep, though that’s probably a good consequence. The sheep are led there for the sake of the shepherd. Or as the psalmist puts it, “for his name’s sake.” It’s a reminder of the divine name, Yahweh, the one first revealed to Moses, calling to him out of the burning bush. It’s the name that means something as vast as being itself, a reminder that this God whom we worship, not through rocks and stones, but through prayer, is at the very center of everything that was, is, and will be. And we also remember that this same immeasurable God is the one we know in the person of Jesus Christ.
So what about prayer, then?
Prayer is, at its root, conversation. We cry out to God, yes; and as we do, we know that God hears us. That’s the promise of the parable. And we also make space to listen to God. There’s no such thing as a one-way conversation, just as there’s no such thing as a one-way covenant. And when we listen, then we give God the chance to recalibrate us for righteousness and justice, correcting and loving and gracing us.
So here’s your homework today. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s two things I’ve assigned you this summer: one is rest, and here’s the second. Pray. And pray persistently. Prayer is a discipline, and disciplines take practice. Start with five minutes a day for a month. Begin in gratitude and praise, then end in silence and listening. And then give yourself a moment to journal what you sense. One month.
All paths lead to prayer. And prayer leads to God. And God leads us into justice and righteousness for the sake of the kingdom.