7 Hebrew Words Every Christian Should Know: Tsedeqah
Genesis 1:26-27; Job 29:7-12
May 16, 2021
This week I finally solved the riddle to a conundrum I’ve been trying to figure out for a long time. I keep being told by people that jogging is good for me. It’ll make your body and your mind more healthy, they tell me. I’m not convinced though, because every time I try to go on a run I instantly hate myself. I’ve been trying to puzzle it out, as to why something that’s supposedly so good for me can make me wish I was rather dead. And I finally figured it out this week.
As I was reading my Bible I came across a passage in Proverbs that cleared it all up for me: “The wicked run though no one pursues them, but the righteous stand as bold as a lion.”
So, I’ve concluded that I must be incredibly righteous to feel no impulse whatsoever to run unless someone is pursuing me. As a righteous man, I’ll stand right where I am, thank you very much, as bold as a lion.
There’s a little Bible humor for you. Righteousness and wickedness are two extremes that appear together frequently throughout scripture. Like in the Proverb I just read and in Psalm 1:6, “For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.” Any person who has been in church at least a few times or has given scripture a cursory reading can tell you that as Christians we strive to live a life of righteousness and avoid the way of the wicked.
But what does righteousness actually mean and who uses that in normal conversation? Righteousness, I think, is one of those Christianese buzzwords we throw around in church to sound a little more saintlike and holy, but in reality we’re not quite sure what it means. To be righteous, we assume, is to be a good person. At least, that’s what I always thought. Simple enough. Just be a good person.
But again, I want to ask: what does that even mean, “being a good person”? I think we could all come up with definitions that overlap in some ways, and are different in others. The biblical Hebrew word for righteousness is more specific. In Hebrew, the word for righteousness is tsedeqah. Tsedeqah is an ethical standard that refers to right relationships between people. To live a righteous life in Hebrew literally means to live in right relationship with everyone and everything around you. Again, seems simple enough in theory, but we all know that’s much harder to live out in practice. So let’s pause and backtrack for a minute.
Now, did you know that if you were a praying mantis, it would be socially acceptable to devour your mate? And if you’re a panda with twins, it’s normal to abandon one to take care of the other. And of course, if you’re a honey badger, you have no regard for other animals; honey badger don’t care. But if humans do any of these things, we would call it wrong, unfair or unjust. If we saw someone trying to do any of these things, we’d start to feel a strong sense of anger or indignation at the injustice we’re observing. Why is that? Why do humans care so much about justice?
Well the Bible has a fascinating response to that question. On page one, when God is creating the heavens and the earth, humans are created and set apart from all other creatures as the image of God. As Tammy read for us in Genesis,
“Humankind was created as God’s reflection:
In the divine image God created them;
Female and male, God made them.”
As Christians this is one of the fundamental truths that we build our faith upon, and it is this identity that we are given, as image-bearers of God, that provides the bedrock for the Bible’s view of righteousness and justice. Because we all are created to reflect God, because we are all God’s craftsmanship and handiwork on display, this motivates us to live in right relationship with one another, treating each other with the respect and love that we each deserve.
And that would be nice if we all did that, but we know how the world really works. We know that the world and our society do not operate under the same assumption that everyone is God’s craftsmanship, worthy of equal love and attention. As much as our Constitution may declare that, “All men are created equal,” we know historically and at present how much a load of phooey that is.
The myth that our society subtly peddles in our media, our laws and structures, is that there are certain types of lives that are more valuable than others. Rich lives are certainly more valuable than poor lives. Young lives are more valuable than old lives. Beautiful and smart lives are more valuable to society than those lives that don’t fit into the boxed standard we use to measure intelligence and beauty. Of course, we also know that black and immigrant lives have historically and at-present been shown to matter less than white lives. Straight lives are more valuable than gay or trans- lives. And usually male lives tend to still be more important than female or gender neutral lives. Mentally healthy lives matter more than mentally ill lives. I could go on. I don’t need to prove any of this to you because we all know it’s true, and we know that we too are guilty of measuring a person’s life based on their success, money, intelligence, beauty or their usefulness to us.
After God creates humanity in God’s image, the Bible documents how quickly and how constantly humanity will redefine good and evil to our own advantage at the expense of others. The Bible tells the story of how individuals, families, communities and whole civilizations create hierarchies of human-worth, creating widespread injustice, especially towards the most vulnerable.
But the story doesn’t end there. Out of this whole mess, God chose a man named Abraham to start a new kind of family. Specifically, Abraham was to teach his family the way of the Lord, by doing righteousness and justice, as Genesis tells us. In other words, God calls Abraham to start a movement that strives to treat everyone with the God-given dignity they deserve. A life of righteousness is a life of living in right relationship with everyone, no matter what their status in society is.
And Abraham is called to a life not just of righteousness, but of justice. These are two words we don’t usually see together, but in Hebrew they’re intertwined so closely that you can’t have one without the other. This word justice, it’s the Hebrew word mishpat. It can refer to retributive justice; for example, if I steal something I pay the consequences. But actually most often in the Bible, mishpat refers to restorative justice. It means going a step further, actually seeking out vulnerable people who are being taken advantage of and helping them.
So in other words, righteousness, tsedeqah, is the ethical standard of right relationship between all people that we’re called to by God. And justice, mishpat, are the actions you do to create tsedeqah, right relationships. The reason we do this is not to be “good people”, or to pass some divine test to see if we can follow God’s rules, but we seek righteousness and justice because every person was made in God’s image and deserves to know that they are God’s handiwork. We remind people that they are God’s handiwork primarily through actions that seek to lift up, to humanize, to dismantle structures and perceptions that would say their life does not matter.
Whenever I walk or drive by someone who is homeless, I always try to give them a box of granola bars we keep in the car. If I don’t have a box of granola bars I try to give them money. To be honest, I don’t care what they do with it. I know we’re told not to give money because they’ll spend in on drugs or alcohol, but I don’t really care if they do. That’s their choice. I know enough about addictions to know that without real help, which they surely don’t have access to, an addiction won’t safely go away and needs to be fed.
But that’s a topic for another time. What I’m trying to say is that giving someone money or a box of granola bars in itself is not the main point. I have no illusion that that will change their life in a meaningful way. The main point is that in that very act of stopping and giving something to them, of asking their name and shaking their hand, I acknowledge their humanity. I acknowledge that they too are made in God’s image. By that small, simple, insignificant act I hope to restore their sense of identity as God’s beloved that is most assuredly stripped from them by each passing person who goes on their way pretending they don’t even exist.
And here’s the catch: just when I start to feel smug about myself for my selfless act of charity, Dr. MLK’s words pierce me: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. [True compassion] comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
True righteousness and justice do not stop at simple acts of charity. True tsedeqah and mishpat involve way more. They mean taking steps to actually advocate for the vulnerable and changing social structures, dismantling systems that cause injustice. In the book of Proverbs, bringing about just righteousness means advocating for people who can’t speak for themselves (Prov. 31:8-9). In the prophets, like Jeremiah, just righteousness doesn’t tolerate oppression against the immigrant, orphan and widow. In the book of Job that Tammy read for us today, Job makes his case for living a righteous life by stating that he cared for the poor and the fatherless, that he was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame, he took up the case of the stranger and worked to break down the wicked systems that oppressed them.
Righteousness is not some abstract concept, some general sense of “being a good person.” It requires so much more of us than that. It requires concrete steps towards justice for those whose lives are not treated with the worth that an image-bearer of God deserves.
As I preached on last week, striving to live righteously and justly must always begin in prayer, in slowness, in attentiveness to the present. When we start in a place of prayer, we begin to notice people and systems we didn’t before. When we slow down and keep an eye out for where God is calling us, we begin to notice God’s image in people we previously ignored or overlooked. We notice the injustice in systems and social structures that we previously took for granted. Just action always starts from a place of prayer; prayer must always lead to action. As a college student in our ELM campus ministry program told a group of us earlier this week, “Thoughts and prayers are nice, but what are you actually doing to seek change?” As Christians, we say we’re all about love for our neighbor and right relationship, but how do our lives reflect our prayers and our theology?
Theologian, Tim Keller, tells that story of a man he knew who was the head of a set of car dealerships in the South. “The way in which things were done at these dealerships was you could come in and negotiate, and the salesman had a pretty big window of what they could give you the car for. They would negotiate, you would negotiate, and it was a lot of horse-trading going on except there was car-trading I guess. The salesman couldn’t go lower than this, but they could get this high and so it was a tradition to negotiate.
Somebody did some research and found out that men always were better negotiators with the salesmen than women and white men and black men were better negotiators than African American women.
When somebody actually looked at what was going on, African-American women were regularly paying far more for their cars and were actually subsidizing the price of what white men were paying for cars in that particular town. They realized that even though nobody thought they were doing something wrong; even though nobody was in there who originally said let’s do it this way because that way we will really hurt African American women, they realized that if the result was unjust, it was unjust.
There were two things the owner could do. On the one hand, he could say because we’re not deliberately trying to hurt African-American women, we make better profits this way, we have no responsibility.
But the owner, a Christian man, said we do in fact have responsibility and he changed the model. He changed the whole approach. His own profits have gone down, but he says it’s the only way to be just” (Tim Keller, from “Race and the Christian”).
Seeking to live in right relationship with all people means taking concrete steps to treat people with their God-given dignity and to correct systems that function otherwise. Sometimes this may come at great expense to our own privileges, our own wallets, our own time, our own sense of comfort. Justice rarely comes easily and will often require more of us than we want to give.
Friends, this morning I want to remind you that each and every one of you are beautifully and wonderfully made in God’s image. You are God’s craftsmanship. You are worth more than all the money and success in the world. Don’t ever forget this; because our world might tell you otherwise.
Our world sees worth based on merits, wealth, status and success. God sees you as worthy because you are exactly you. We need to be reminded of this truth at least as often as once a week, which is part of why we gather on Sunday mornings: to be reminded that the image of God resides in us and in our neighbors. If we can’t recognize God’s image in us, then how will we see it in other people?
In God’s kingdom everyone belongs. We have been invited into God’s kingdom even though we know we are guilty of treating others as unimportant or worth-less, and even though we know we are guilty of permitting injustices to exist because we are too comfortable, too busy, too tired or too lazy. Yet we are still invited into God’s kingdom, because God finds us worthy and God still finds us to be beautifully and wonderfully made, flaws and all. Such incredible love and such unconditional grace is what inspires us and motivates us to make sure everyone else knows how much they are loved by God. God’s love is never more tangibly known than through the love of another human being.
In God’s kingdom everyone belongs. Let us live lives of righteousness—tsedeqah—that reflect this glorious truth. And let us take up actions of justice—mishpat—that seek to restore, to lift up and to remind people that they too are God’s masterpiece. Amen.