What Does Dikaiosune Mean?
The Words We’ve Fudged: Righteousness
In this article, we look at the Greek word dikaiosune and explore how we’ve halved its meaning and cut the heart out of the word.
Clarifying the Objective
Words often get lost in translation as the translation process is fraught with many challenges. The goal of exegesis is to draw out the full meaning of the Biblical text accepting the limitations of the translation process. However, the Greek word translated “righteousness” (dikaiosune) is obscured more by religious indulgence than by translation error.
The objective is to discern in what way the original meaning of the word was lost and to then rediscover the term as it was intended.
The Meaning of Dikaiosune
Mentioned three times in the opening twenty verses of what is often called Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-20), it soon becomes clear that “righteousness”, and how we practise it, is an undercurrent to God’s Kingdom project.
Jesus summed up the first twenty verses with this telling statement:
For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the Kingdom of heaven.”
(Matthew 5:20, italics added)
The implication is clear: the religious establishment had obscured the meaning of righteousness and Jesus intended a new kind of believer, captured in the Beatitudes and the subsequent verses (vv. 1-19), to restore it.
So, how did the religious establishment view righteousness?
The Pharisees primarily equated “righteousness” with “piety”, one’s personal, moral, right-standing before God. And they taught that only a scrupulous adherence to personal holiness would beget God’s blessings.
Sound familiar? A little too close to how a lot of Christendom views it today?
Moreover, the Pharisees turned righteousness into a self-serving measure of personal piety, a yardstick with which to beat others.
So, for example, when Jesus taught, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6), it’s easy to assume He’s urging us to strive to become more upright, moral, virtuous. And when Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (Matthew 5:10), it’s easy to take this to mean that He’s encouraging us to stand firm when we are ridiculed for being upright, pure, pious.
However, equating “righteousness” with personal piety alone cuts the meaning in half and empties it of its heart.
The word “righteousness” (Greek: dikaiosune) is intrinsically associated with the concept of justice. It stems from the Greek word dikaios meaning “equity of character and action” where the stress on equity (impartiality, fairness) and action implies the concept of justice. It is also associated with the noun dikastes, the word meaning “a judge, arbitrator, umpire”.
In other words, the Biblical equation for righteousness is:
Righteousness = Character (Piety) + Action (Justice)
However, the Pharisees cut off the second part of the equation and turned piety inwards:
Righteousness = Piety
And without the justice element of the word, we lose the heart of our faith, as the Pharisees before us. Focusing solely on rightness before God, it’s too easy to assume that we’re absolved from our duty to others. Compassion becomes an optional extra because all that principally matters is personal piety.
Nothing irked Jesus more than this mutilation job the Pharisees pulled off. His confrontations with them were frequent. Later, in Matthew’s account, Jesus accused them of “neglecting the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matthew 23:23, italics added).
In other words, Jesus was not merely referring to one’s private and personal piety when He spoke of righteousness, but also to one’s public and societal responsibility to seek and stand for justice; that is, the wellbeing and good of others, especially the disenfranchised. And justice, of course, deals with the use or abuse of privilege and power (a core issue in Jesus’ teachings).
After all, what is the point of being upright if we don’t then, in His wisdom, right all the wrong we can?
Let’s take a dive into the Sermon on the Mount to get a feel for just how deeply Jesus tackled this matter.
A Different Kind of Faith
Personally, I think describing Jesus’ teaching in Matthew Chapters 5 to 7 as the Sermon on the Mount does it no justice at all (yes, justice being a core issue).
Jesus’ download from heaven was more like a bomb going off, a clarion call to a completely new way of living, one with a more grounded responsibility to others. Throughout His discourse, Jesus would say things like, “You have heard it said … but I say to you…”. In other words, He turned religion, as His audience knew it, on its head. He first exposed what had become a self-centred, self-serving religious system, and then reconnected His people to the Father-heart of God, calling them to pour themselves out for others.
Firstly, in speaking to a violently oppressed and harassed people, who above all, sought deliverance and justice (this context is crucial to keep in mind), Jesus highlights eight qualities God desires—often called the Beatitudes—that relate to the theme of justice (Matthew 5:3-12). Jesus refers to…
- the “poor in spirit” … and though some are quick to suggest that this may have nothing to do with the literal underprivileged, Luke’s account quotes Jesus saying precisely this: “Blessed are you poor” … full stop (see Luke 6:20). Not only are the poor more likely to embrace the message, not only are they key beneficiaries in Jesus’ otherworldly Kingdom; they’re invited to bring change, in a spirit of forgiveness and love, to the very systems that oppress them. [See What Does Ptochos Mean? for the meaning of the word “poor”.]
- “those who mourn,” as in those who suffer injustice and “weep” (see Luke 6:21), for they will enjoy comfort and freedom from resentment and hate, and cycles of the same.
- the “meek” who, exercising restraint and refusing to abuse power, will “inherit the earth.” Meekness is not weakness; rather, it’s power under control.
- those who hunger and thirst for righteous justice, for they will see true justice fulfilled.
- the “merciful” who, showing mercy in a cruel and corrupt world, will reap mercy.
- the “pure in heart” who, unbiased, fair and free from prejudice, will experience God’s nature.
- the “peacemakers” who, seeking literal peace in a brutal, violent, prejudiced world, will be identified as God’s people.
- those who are persecuted for standing up for righteous justice (against oppression), for they’re a reflection of all Jesus came to do.
In terms of that final point, those who “are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” Jesus alluded to the “prophets who were persecuted before you” (vv. 10-12).
What were the prophets persecuted for? For personal piety? For maintaining a meticulous standard of holiness? No, the prophets were persecuted for confronting two issues: on the one hand, idolatry, and on the other hand, decrying the unjust systems of their day: those prevailing attitudes and structures responsible for the neglect and oppression of the poor and marginalised. Challenging the corruption and excesses of those in power in ancient Israel went down as well as it does today. (We’ll look at this in more detail below.)
As a young follower of Jesus, I struggled to understand the Beatitudes, mainly because it kicked off with those first two statements that appeared to extol the virtues of poverty and weakness. You’re poor? Bless you. You’re having a pity party? Bless you, too.
Of course, I was missing the magic of this passage.
Only when I understood the audience Jesus addressed, an oppressed people beaten and bullied not just by the Empire but a corrupt religious system, did I see the wonder in Jesus’ words. Not only did He restore their dignity but the true power of the Message of Jesus lay in the fact that He didn’t play to their obvious resentment. Nor did He manipulate their bitterness or twist it into anarchy and violent protest. Instead, Jesus inspired His oppressed audience to themselves become change agents of justice empowered by the Father’s love, forgiveness and grace.
Outrageous Good Deeds
Secondly, Jesus emphatically called His audience to do as much good as they possibly could. He envisioned them as salt and light (Matthew 5:13-15), and said,
Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”
And He was adamant that this was not about merely impressing others with shallow efforts and image management; in fact, He was crystal clear about this in the next chapter, saying,
Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”
In other words, righteousness is not just a personal matter between God and me. In right standing with my Father, and motivated by His love, I am to do as much good as I can in this world. And I’m to do so with a purity of motivation, bringing the Father pleasure rather than pursuing personal recognition or credit.
Jesus then provided some telling examples of what He meant. Let’s look at one.
Living under the oppressive thumb of Rome meant that even a snot-nosed, greenhorn Roman soldier could use his position, as one of the oppressors, to compel a high-ranking Jew to, among others things, carry his heavy weaponry (Matthew 5:41). Can you imagine a proud, elderly Jew forced to carry the very symbols of his oppression? Bitterness, anger and hate would have simmered palpably under the surface of Jesus’ audience in recalling such common injustices inflicted upon them, and the humiliation they suffered as a result.
What does Jesus tell them to do? Yes, to go the extra mile.
Now, He was not advocating some doormat mentality. He wasn’t saying, “Let them stand on you, and rub their dirty, smelly feet all over you.” No, He was pointing out that they were free. In fact, delivered from the oppressive system, they could act beyond it. He was urging them to go the first mile out of obedience, but not to stop there. Rather, He encouraged going the second mile out of empowered love and service. There was no need to wallow in bitterness as they “did their (enforced) duty”. Rather, they were to transcend the Empire’s oppressive demands in joy and power of spirit.
They were to transform this attempt to oppress them into an opportunity to serve, showing the world a new Kingdom that superseded the petty, prejudiced kingdom of Rome. In so doing, they’d expose the powerlessness of the Empire, and this act of love would confront the soldier in question with another beautiful, otherworldly Kingdom.
Like Father Like Child
Jesus anchored all He was teaching in the nature of God.
He reveals the Father’s heart of love, who—don’t miss this—“…makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” Jesus then calls His audience to “be perfect just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:45-48).
True-blue Pharisees seize a statement like this and cry, “Ha! God demands that we be perfect! Who dares not measure up?” and by doing so, act in just the opposite spirit to what Jesus taught here.
Jesus is calling us to “be perfect” in showing love without prejudice or bias; in a word, to show justice. He’d already explained, “if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?”
Luke quotes Jesus as saying, “be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful” (Luke 6:36). The issue is again clearly the justice of God and His desire that we, His people, seek and stand for justice—even as He gives rain to bless “the just and the unjust.”
A Front-footed Faith
It is fairly common knowledge that Jesus radically altered the traditional version of the Golden Rule. Most religions teach some version of this rule yet tend to state it in a negative, defensive way. The Jews, for instance, taught: “Don’t do unto others what you don’t want them to do to you.” If you don’t want others to defraud or harm you, don’t defraud or harm them. Great advice for sure, but really a basic expression of self-protective, ‘minimum standard,’ on-the-back-foot morality.
Jesus re-positioned the Golden Rule putting the onus on His followers to be radical doers of good. He taught: “whatever you want men to do for you, do also to them” (Matthew 7:12). In other words, get on the front foot.
How would you like to be treated? Treat men likewise. You want respect? Respect others. Do you deserve to be heard, your point of view considered, your contributions valued and your effort rewarded? Yes? Then do unto others. Create a better world by being a better person; ignite a chain reaction of good actions; set in motion a string of godly events. Pass good forward. (And recall again that Jesus spoke these words to a harshly oppressed people, who were seeking deliverance and justice above all things.)
Imagine a world in which God’s Kingdom has come, a society in which His will is actively being done. What kind of blessedness do you expect citizens of such a society to enjoy?
Then … serve others towards those noble aims.
The Full Equation
Remember, the Biblical equation for righteousness is:
Righteousness = Character (Piety) + Action (Justice)
Whenever you read the word “righteousness” remember to associate both aspects of the word. Don’t shave off the justice implications of the concept.
With open eyes, you’ll catch the many places we tend to view Scripture through the narrow lens of personal piety alone. Let’s share one more example from the New Testament.
James called us to “keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27). Surely that’s a call to shun worldly vices; you know, to not drink and chew or run with those who do?
Actually, James exhorted believers to a “pure and undefiled” faith, a practical faith that specifically included the care of the most marginalised people of first century society: “orphans and widows in their trouble” (James 1:27).
In the very next breath, he confronted our human tendency towards prejudice (James 2:1ff)—the very virus from which injustice goes airborne—before calling us to an exemplary faith backed up by works of justice and service (James 2:14ff).
In other words, the call to a pure, undefiled and unspotted faith isn’t a fixation on personal piety; rather, it has everything to do with a heart free from prejudice, corruption and self-seeking.
Ancient Israel’s Crimes
What were the two things that most grieved God about His people throughout the Old Testament? Idolatry is the obvious one, yes. Their propensity to worship other gods and adopt pagan practices was definitely issue number one. And the second?
People are often surprised to hear that the second thing that most grieved God was the neglect of the poor; specifically, their nonchalance towards the issue of justice.
Consider Isaiah, known more for His Messianic prophecies, as one example.
Isaiah began his ministry by delivering a scathing rebuke (not exactly the way to raise your popularity stakes):
‘To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to Me?’ says the Lord. ‘I have had enough of burnt offerings … I do not delight in the blood of bulls … Bring no more futile sacrifices … Your appointed feasts My soul hates; they are a trouble to Me, I am weary of bearing them … Even though you make many prayers, I will not hear…’”
Ouch! Talk about wasted worship!
Why did God detest their worship, even though He had prescribed it? Because it was a smokescreen behind which injustice ran rampant. God cut through the facade:
Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean … Learn to do good; seek justice. Rebuke the oppressor; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.”
(Isaiah 1:16, 17, italics added)
Learn to do good; seek justice! Champion the underprivileged of society.
Through Isaiah, God rebuked Judah’s greedy urbanisation—“Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left”—while “cries of distress” went unheard (Isaiah 5:7, 8 NIV). He chided their excessive pleasure-seeking while they neglected to stand up for “justice to the innocent” (Isaiah 5:22, 23 NIV).
Unsurprisingly Isaiah then revealed God as “a God of justice” (Isaiah 30:18) who will, through the Messiah, “bring forth justice to the Gentiles … and establish justice in the earth” (Isaiah 42:1-4). And one of God’s core indictments against the people was that “no one calls for justice” (Isaiah 59:4); that is, the nation had become inundated with injustice, deceit and oppression and no one seemed to care. He laments:
Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands afar off; for truth is fallen in the street and equity cannot enter.”
Notice how justice and righteousness (and truth and equity, for that matter) are used here as two sides of the same coin.
Stressing “I, the Lord, love justice” (Isaiah 61:8), God promised through the Messiah and His legacy, to “build the old waste places … raise up the foundation of many generations” being a testimony as a “Repairer of the Breach, the Restorer of Streets to Dwell in” (Isaiah 58:12). Of course, these all have to do with establishing justice. Not merely spiritualised, theoretical justice. Substantial, practical justice in a real time and space location.
Then in declaring “the Spirit of the Lord God upon” the Messiah—the exact passage Jesus chose to launch His ministry from (Luke 4:18,19)—God made it clear the anointing of the Spirit is, in large part, to establish justice: “good tidings to the poor,” healing to “the broken-hearted,” “liberty to the captives” and freedom to the indebted, the implication of proclaiming “the acceptable year” or year of Jubilee (Isaiah 61:1, 2).
God continued to unveil His intention to establish justice through the Messiah’s rule: “And they shall rebuild the old ruins, they shall raise up the former desolations, and they shall repair the ruined cities, the desolations of many generations” (Isaiah 61:4).
The link to righteous justice and the Messiah’s reign is unmistakable.
“For I, the LORD, love justice.”
As a summary, this brilliant video on the subject of righteousness and justice from the BibleProject is worth watching.
Revealing God’s nature was central to the Message of Jesus. He restored humanity to God’s loving fatherhood, restoring our identity as children of God and our destiny as custodians of all creation.
Restoring humanity to the Father, the Message of Jesus heals our broken identity, restoring us as children of God. Loved by the Father, we are both secure and significant.
Restored to the Father as His children, the Message of Jesus restores humanity’s destiny as custodians of creation. We’re commissioned to partner with Jesus in His restoration plan for the earth.