To some of us, using the word that way might sound irreverent. But the slang usage of “righteous” might actually do a better job of communicating the breadth of meaning that we find in the Bible.
On one hand the Apostle Paul wrote that no one is righteous (Rom 3:10). In the context of his letter to the Romans he seems to be using the word to mean that, on our own, none of us lives up to the perfect standards of God.
On the other hand, Elizabeth and Zechariah, the parents of John the Baptist were both described as being righteous (Luke 1:6). So are Abel, Noah, and Lot. Together with many other very imperfect people, they are described that way by the Bible.
Then there’s Jesus. He too used the word “righteous” to refer to what we might consider very unlikely and undeserving people (Luke 18:9-14). On one occasion, it happened as he told the story of two men who went up to the temple to pray. The first man, a religious Pharisee, thanked God that, by contrast with more unworthy people, he lived by the law of Moses. A second man, despised by the Jewish community as moral rubbish, was also there to pray. But he wouldn’t even lift his eyes to heaven. Instead he said, “God be merciful to me the sinner”.
Interestingly, the religious man noticed that sinner standing nearby and actually mentioned him in his prayer. He thanked God that he wasn’t like him.
Yet as, by now, we all know, Jesus said it was the man who saw himself as “the sinner” who went home justified (literally declared righteous).
According to Luke, Jesus told the story because of those who consider themselves righteous— while despising others.
The wonderful truth is that, in God’s eyes, “righteousness” is a gift of his approval. It is a characterization– not of perfect people–but one that expresses God’s own personal enthusiasm for those who have received the gift of a right relationship with him because they see how much they desperately need his mercy.
In this sense, some might feel that the Bible itself uses “righteous” in a slang and unbecoming way. But how thankful we can be that it does!