The Breastplate of Righteousness

Joshua 5: 9-12  Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32             March 31, 2019

“Stand therefore… and put on the breastplate of righteousness”

Prayer:  O God, as we worship you, may our hearts be rich and full with you and your love and grace.  Amen.

It’s an interesting phrase. Put on the breastplate of righteousness.  Who says that anymore?  It’s not part of or common language.  The word ‘righteous’ means something different than what it used to mean.  But today, ‘righteous’ means the ultimate of anything, especially when bordering on perfection.  As when something is awesome, amazing, cool, exciting, containing the best possible qualities.  The urban dictionary says the term is often associated with surfers, as in “Dude!  That wave was totally righteous!”  I don’t know.  I only heard it on TV.

Webster defines ‘righteous’ as conforming to a standard or a norm.  In Washington D.C. there is a building called the “National Institute of Standards and Technology.”  This facility is responsible for storing perfect, authoritative samples of weights and measurements.  They have what they call “prototypes” of pound weights and kilograms, and measuring rods for feet, yards, and metric measurements like the meters. All other examples are to conform to these authoritative standards. 

When it comes to understanding  biblical ‘righteousness,’ the authoritative standard is God. It’s not the Bible.  And Christians believe it’s God mostly shown in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  To be righteous means choosing to live a life that is approved by God and conforms to God’s holy character exemplified in Christ (https://www.sermoncentral.com/sermon-illustrations/69432/righteousness-by-sermoncentral?ref=TextIllustrationSerp retrieved March 29, 2019).

But, that’s where the bug-a-boo is… no one can live consistently in ways that are approved by God, conforming to God’s holy character found in Christ.  All of us fall short of that glory.  Sometimes we get selfish like the younger son in the parable who says to his dad that he wants his inheritance early.  He’s tired of hanging around the boring ol’ homestead and can’t wait to get out of town with the money to go spend it as he likes.  No one to tell him what to do.  No one to be  accountable to… no one to be concerned about except himself.

Don’t we sometimes get way out of balance with selfish stuff like that?  Don’t we sometimes get caught up in blowing our money on material things?  Sometimes we get reckless with things that are precious to us.  At times we could care less about being sensitive to other’s circumstances or feelings.  Sometimes we just get plain ol’ burned out, and tired, and we lose interest in conforming to God’s holy character.  At times, I don’t want to stop and help the person broken down by the side of the road.  Sometimes, I don’t feel like being gracious.  Someone else, I figure, will come and help the person. There, I said it. Sometimes I don’t want to recycle. Sometimes I don’t want to wash dishes. I’d rather throw away disposable ones. I laughed the other day when I heard the phrase, “It’s too much for the baby Jesus!”  But, it’s true sometimes, isn’t it?

But then, a day later, or an hour later, whenever, like the younger son who came to himself and remembered his loving father and the goodness of that life and its benefits, something from the embedded depths of our souls comes to our consciousness—and the true meaning of righteousness tugs on our spirit.

And we have a choice—we either remain in the vicious circle of rock bottom living, or put on the breastplate of righteousness, and we stand against the impotency of total selfishness. Some selfishness is OK, I think.  It’s part of the balancing act of life.  But total irresponsible selfishness is out of balance.

To stand therefore, and put on the breastplate of righteousness I think is really listening to and acting on what our inner spiritual lives say.  What our moral and ethical conscience says.  It enables us to stand against the culture’s sins of excessive materialism and consumerism.  It enables us to stand against government’s overblown emphasis on exceptionalism and nationalism.  It enables us to oppose and defy society’s rampant bent on violence and destruction.  The breastplate of righteousness helps us respond to the needs of our planet.

On the religious front, it enables us to come to our senses and turn from the “I have the correct religion,” mentality.  And, “if you don’t believe the way I do, you’re condemned to the eternal  hot place” mentality.  Like the attitude of some Pharisees in Jesus’ day.  Like the perspective of some modern day Christians. Fact is, no one religion has the corner on the market of all of God’s grace-filled and loving ways.  The breastplate of righteousness that we put on enable us to conform to God’s standard and bring the spiritual well being of all others back into that perspective.  To bring the values of God back online and our actions inline with God.  To bring God’s profound sense of inclusivity to the forefront and turn from exclusivity in our religious practices.

I like what Raimon Pannikar, a renowned scholar of religion had to say.  He used the analogy of the world’s great rivers.  The Jordan, the Tiber, and the Ganges all nourish the lives of those who live near their banks.  One flows through Israel, nourishing the Jews and Muslims, one through Rome for Christians, one through India for Hindus.  None of these rivers meet on earth, but evaporated waters from each meet in the heavens, he said, and form into clouds that rain down over all the earth.  In the same way, religions of the world remain distinct on earth, but they meet in God.  They morphed into the Spirit, which is then poured out into innumerable lives all over the world (Taylor, Barbara Brown, “My Holy Envy,” Christian Century, March 13, 2019, p. 29).  Great analogy. I think of God’s inclusive ways for people of difficult religions. 

What about the older son, though?  He was obedient to his father all those years.  The pharisees were deeply religious and very concerned with obeying God’s religious law given to them by Moses.  From the older son and the Pharisee’s perspective, it was the tax collectors and sinners, and the younger son who were lost.  Certainly not them.

So, perhaps putting on the breastplate of righteousness sometimes means staying the course, like the older son did.  He continued to do what was right.  He worked hard and was obedient to his father.  Any wonder why it was shocking to see his lost younger brother welcomed with open arms?

There is goodness and value from this older son’s point of view, don’t you think?.  Obedience to God’s ways means God’s will gets done, doesn’t it?  Obediently standing up against the oppressive sins of this world helps push us to new places of justice, which I believe is God’s will getting done.  In truth, don’t we hope that the younger son’s return would move him more toward the obedient way the older son lived?

A few years ago, the UCC leadership put the pressure on Taco Bell and Campbell Foods by organizing a boycott  because both companies had unfair labor practices for their workers.  The boycott pushed the companies to change their policies reflecting fairer treatment of their field workers. When that took place people went back to taco Bell and started to buying Cream of Tomato soup again. I believe that our UCC was obedient to God’s will and ways and helped to ensure justice was done.

The truth of the parable is that God welcomes everyone with open arms and forgiving grace.  The parable should perhaps be called “Parable of the Loving Father” and not “Parable of the Prodigal Son.”  It’s largely about God.  So, let us find strength in our loving God who seeks us no matter how far we have strayed—whether squandering the gifts God gives us, or being bogged down in resentment when we think our obedience allow only us to benefit.  Why don’t we  share in other’s happiness when God rolls away the sins of the past for them and for me?  All this helps us conform to God’s standard, helping us to embody the true meaning of putting on the breastplate of righteousness.  May we find strength in God when we do this.  Amen.