by Nestor Ravilas
Jesus in the Book of Matthew underscores that it is impossible to enter the Kingdom of God apart from being righteous. He even qualifies it more by saying that it has to surpass the righteousness of the prominent religious leaders of his time – those who were culturally accorded with such pious signification. Some people might tend to pick other pertinent vocabulary within the economy of words of the gospel, but we could not do away with the word “righteousness” as it is inextricably associated with our entrance to eternal bliss. What does the word “righteousness” mean therefore is crucial in understanding the gospel.
The word came from the root word “right”.
This semantic analysis, however, might not help us as Richard Rorty insists that a word, standing by itself, has no intrinsic nature, no essence and therefore no meaning. The word’s meaning is dependent on its relationship to other words. The closest word we could grasp therefore to help us understand the word “right” is its contrast word, “wrong”. Although “wrong” provides us the negative side of the contrast, it gives us the idea however of what “right” is. To be “right” is to be out of the enclave of wrong, and vice versa. Since right and wrong are contrasting ideas, a splitter is needed to determine to which side one is suited. The teacher could not arbitrarily consign her students on the side of the “right” and the rest on the negative on mere whims, but a question must be posed first to determine the divide. The same thing goes with ethics. One could not be on either side peremptorily; a standard must be set first to say someone has impinged or observed it and thus gained her the ethical labeling of “righteous” or “unrighteous”.
Let us take then this ethical drift. The Decalogue of the Old Testament and the Beatitudes of Jesus could be the popular religious standards we know as determiner of this ethical split. In careful analysis, all the stipulations found in both sources were written and propagated solely to protect the “others” from any harm the “I” might inflict to them. I could even surmise that the first two stipulations in the Decalogue seemingly referring to humans’ relationship to the divine have an anthropological bearing too; but I rather save this in future discussion. I may say then that the rest of stipulations, both in the Decalogue and Beatitude, have the “others” as their objects to be protected from the possible excesses of the “I” for its drive for sovereignty or domination. Emmanuel Levinas puts this wisdom simply in saying, “The ‘other’ is the limit to the self.”
It is simply saying that one could not eliminate the “other” in purview of ethics, in determining whether one should be ascribed as “righteous” or “wicked”. None could be righteous apart from relationship to the “other” – apart from our responses, reactions, and behavior to the other who stands before us. The Samaritan gained the accolade of being a good neighbor not because Jesus whimsically conferred it to him. Rather, Jesus only confirmed it as the Samaritan did it to the beaten man. The rich man was condemned and punished as rotten wicked not because God arbitrarily decided it, but it was the dying Lazarus under his table that determined the rich man’s destiny. The “other” therefore is indispensable in our yearning to be approved as righteous; it is what we did to the least of Jesus’ brethren.
What will happen, on the other hand, if righteousness is conferred; if it is awarded peremptorily apart from this socialization with the “others”? What will happen if the “other” is subverted and removed from the picture, and righteousness therefore was concocted exclusively between the “I” and her own idol-god? What if the “I” is smothered by the illusion that an external agent arbitrarily given to her the privilege of becoming righteous apart from relating, behaving, and responding to the “other”? These questions caused me to shiver; fearing what would be coming to humanity in this elimination of the “other” as integral element in pursuing the path of righteousness. I am anxious as to where this ethical “short-cut” is leading us to; the thought that whatever we do to the “other” standing before us has nothing to do completely with our becoming righteous or wicked. I shudder more in remembering what Emanuel Levinas has warned us as a result of this theological ruse – “The other is the only being I wish to kill.”