Our traditional Orthodox Christianity has led us to believe that righteousness is first and foremost a matter of right status and acceptability in the eyes of God. To be righteous in this sense, we are taught that we must accept the right dogma and participate in the right institution and its rituals and practices. Thus our salvation has come to depend on a proper ritualistic act which conveys to us God’s gift of salvation. Supposedly the unrighteous are either ignorant of the proper salvation process or willfully negligent of their responsibility to God.
With this overarching emphasis on being righteous by addressing one’s attention to God and our need to appease Him, the church has largely ignored what the Bible clearly shows is the real measure of righteousness and virtue, namely our relationship to and treatment of other human beings. In effect we have committed the same mistake as the Old Testament Israelites who obsessed over ritual compliance with Sabbath Day laws and ethnic purity and segregation while ignoring the issue of personal virtue in their interpersonal relationships.
When the Bible notes over and over that Israel tended to mislabel evil and good, it is always in the context of an admonition to treat the most lowly of people with due respect and support. And the context often illustrates how Israel came to call good evil and evil good in its obsession with rigid religious practice instead of legitimate virtue. Every such note included a call for introspection and re-evaluation of what Judaism was all about.
Isaiah 1:11-14 To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats. When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts? Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them. Verses 17-18 Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.
Christianity has much to learn from the Israelite experience as recorded in the Bible. Those lessons should point us away from the Israelites’ mistaken notion of righteousness by ritual piety. The clear Old Testament lesson of Israel is that actual righteousness requires our full commitment to the lowliest and most needy of humanity. All else in religion should be a means to that end.