Now, before anyone starts heading for the exits, let me plead my case to you that every one of you sitting here this morning wants a just world. Every one of you. The concept of justice is embedded into the very fabric of creation, and you share in that fabric whether you think so or not. Two points will hopefully illustrate this.
First, I wish I had video screens to show you a video that is on YouTube that highlights justice in the animal kingdom. There is an experiment that is being done with monkeys. The monkeys are trained so that when they give the person leading the experiment a rock, they are rewarded with a cucumber. The guy giving the talk on the video says, “They will do this all day long.” But then a wrinkle is introduced. The person conducting the experiment goes to a neighboring cage. The monkey in that particular cage gives the scientist a rock, and the scientist gives this monkey a grape. Grapes are considered higher currency for these monkeys. The first monkey, who received the cucumber, sees the other monkey get the grape. The scientist then returns to the first monkey and receives a rock. But the scientist does not give this monkey a grape, the scientist gives the monkey the standard cucumber. The monkey looks at the cucumber, throws it at the scientist and starts shaking the cage. He wants his grape! This is a real, live experiment showing that justice is not simply a human thing. It’s a creation thing.
Second point: a few years ago, I was in confirmation class talking about justice and fairness. I asked the kids, “Is the world fair?” They all responded, “No.” They knew it. I think asked, “Do you expect the world to be fair?” They all said, “No.” I confess to you all this morning, this answer took me by surprise. I expected that the kids wanted the world to be fair, but they seemingly denied that they wanted this. And so I hit them with the following: “So, what you are telling me is that if I tell Kiera here that she doesn’t have to do any more confirmation homework or come to class anymore and I will still confirm her, but the rest of you will have to do all the work or you will not be confirmed, you are okay with that?” Every single student said, “NO! That’s not fair.” And I replied, “So, you do want the world to be fair, huh?” I think it opened their eyes a little bit. We want a just world even though we do not have one.
Now, we actually encounter another problem as we continue this foray into justice and peace–because even though just about everyone wants peace and justice, do you think that everyone agrees on what it means to have peace and justice? Do you think everyone agrees on what justice entails? Again, I think the answer on that one is no. This is why we have great difficulty in having conversations regarding justice in our society today. Some folks believe that justice entails having equal opportunity for all people. Some folks think that justice entails creating a society which has no bias or preference in its structures. Some people think justice entails current generations paying for the sins of previous generations. Some people think justice entails an equal distribution of wealth across all people. Some people think justice entails equal rights across the board for everyone; while others believe justice means equal rights for those who are citizens of our nation. I could actually keep going and listing several more ideas, but I think you get the point. And, of course, my definition of justice trumps your definition of justice any day. (That was sarcasm, by the way.)
So, how can we work towards justice if we cannot agree on what justice is? How can we work towards a just society if we have all of these competing visions and ideas and we actually come into conflict over those definitions? And how can we work for justice and peace when we spend more time fighting about our definitions–oftentimes without even realizing it?
This is why I believe we need something outside of ourselves to help us understand what justice truly entails. This is why I believe we need a transcendent source telling us what justice is so that we do not get caught up in our own self-driven ideals. This is what Christianity brings to the table when we say that we do not base our ideals of justice on our own understanding, but we base our ideals of justice on what the Bible reveals to us regarding God. Because God is a God of justice.
Now, at first glance, for those who long for justice, this might seem like a very good thing. This might seem like a moment to stand up and yell out “Hallelujah!” But be careful. Be very, very careful. You might not like the path that this will travel. Not at first, at least. For you see, the Scriptures are very clear that not only is God a God of justice, but God is just. This means, God is righteous. God is right. God can be counted on to ensure that what is fair takes place. God can be counted on to ensure that when boundaries are crossed, justice is meted out. God can be counted on to right the wrongs that have taken place. God can be counted on to make sure that every time a law is broken, punishment is served. God would not be good; God would not be just if He didn’t ensure that such things would happen. God wouldn’t be just if He just let things slide and did not care about such matters.
Are you becoming a bit uneasy yet? Are you starting to think about those times when you didn’t follow the rules? Are you starting to think about all those times where you laughed at the speed limit thinking that it was just a suggestion? Are you becoming a bit queasy when you realize that you’ve walked right by homeless people and haven’t given them a second thought? Are you beginning to be a bit uncomfortable knowing that if you’ve even had a thought about a member of the opposite sex who isn’t your spouse, you’ve committed adultery? Are you starting to sweat knowing that you have not only listened to gossip, but you have passed it on? God is just. God will ensure that justice is meted out. He will be uncompromising. He will be severe. No transgression will be left unpunished. Do you want justice? Do you really want God’s justice?
If we understand God, and if we understand ourselves, we would begging not for justice but for mercy. We would be pleading our case. We would be begging God not to punish us because we know that if He were to unleash justice on us, we would be in despair. This is why St. Paul wrote in the book of Romans, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. None of us is just. None of us is righteous. None can stand before the holiness of God and claim to be worthy to do so. Ah, but we are justified by grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus whom God set forward as a sacrifice of atonement effective through faith.
What that means is this: when God could have unleashed His punishment upon us–and He would have been just to do so; Jesus stepped in a pleaded our case. Jesus asked for mercy on our behalf. “But there must be payment for the transgression,” God said. “Crimes cannot go unpunished, or justice is not truly served.” And Jesus said, “I will take the punishment on their behalf. Justice will be served, but let it be served on me and not upon them.”
“But they are still unclean. They are still unrighteous,” God said.
“Then make them a son; make them a daughter, like me. I will give them my status. I will give them my sinlessness. I will give them my blamelessness. Therefore, they can stand before you. Holy. Righteous. Redeemed.” And God agreed. This is the sacrifice of atonement so that the demands of justice might be met. But instead of falling on us, it fell on Jesus. Because of what Jesus did on the cross, we received mercy.
And because we received mercy; because we received something we did not earn; because we received Christ’s righteousness; our hearts are changed, and they burst with love of Jesus. They overflow with love for Jesus. They long to love like Jesus loved and live like Jesus lived. We begin to see with Jesus’ eyes, and we begin to look at the world with compassion towards those who are in need.
When our hearts are right with God; when we have been moved by God’s undeserved love; when we have been moved by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross; our hearts have a special place for the poor; the oppressed; the widow; the orphan; the refugee; the one who is in need. We understand that God has a special place in His heart for those in need–not just those who are in our tribe or in our circle, but for anyone who is created in the image of God.
Do you realize how radical this teaching of the Bible is? Probably not. For many today, this is just second nature, but when God set these decrees down, it was completely and totally radical. In every culture of the time, there was one set of rules for insiders, and there was another set of rules for outsiders. You were responsible for treating members of your tribe with justice, but if you were outside the tribe; if you were outside the culture, no such rules governed. The Judeo-Christian tradition brought universal justice to the table.
And what is that universal justice? According to my readings and research this past week, there are three areas that make up Christian justice. There are three areas that emerge from God and filter into the hearts of those who love Him because of what has been done in Jesus Christ:
1) Treating people equally.
2) The widows, orphans, and people who are oppressed are objects of special concern.
Treating people equally means that if you are a coach and you have a rule that states that if you get caught cheating, you will be benched for a game, then if the star quarterback and the worst lineman get caught cheating, they are both benched for the game. You don’t sit the star quarterback for a quarter and then have him come in and play while the other guy sits out. You implement the rules equally across the board, no exceptions.
Secondly, the Bible is full, and I mean chalk full of God’s special concern for the widow, orphan, and those who are oppressed. Our first lesson from the book of Amos lifts this up unequivocally. 11 Therefore, because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. 12 For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate. 13 Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time. 14 Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said.
And there is little different in the New Testament. We read the Beatitudes earlier with its concern for those who are poor, meek, and peacemakers. Now, for a quote from the book of James chapter 2. My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’, 4have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? I could list many others, but the point is this: God has a special place in His heart for the poor and oppressed and needy. As recipients of God’s grace, our hearts share God’s heart.
And finally: generosity. We become generous in giving–not simply to the church, but to those in need. As John the Baptist showed when folks were coming to him in the desert in Luke chapter 3: ‘What then should we do?’ 11In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’
But the question now arises: how does this play out in a church? How does this play out in a congregation? How does this concern for justice hit the road right here at worship? At fellowship? In our activities?
A few weeks ago, I was listening to a sermon where the pastor was preaching on Jesus’ teaching regarding banquets. Jesus said, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” The pastor asked this question: “when is the last time your church threw a banquet and did like Jesus said?”
And I was struck hard. When was the last time a church that I was a part of actually did this? I asked whether or not this congregation had ever done this. I was surprised to find out: it had!!! During Lent one year, free meals were offered to people in the community. Folks came out, and some were overheard to say, “What a great deal. Free food. All you can eat. What a great deal.” And they didn’t stay for worship. They came and ate, and the meals were stopped because the church was being taken advantage of. And here’s the kicker to that: we are. But here’s the other point: so what?
The point Jesus is making is not that we receive anything from what we do in the world–the point is God gets the glory and those who may not have opportunity to be fed or those who do not have an opportunity to be a part of a community get a chance to. I mean, let’s face it, we are not going to be able to really influence the structures of society. We are not going to change the world and the way it works in some grand way. But we can truly make a difference in the lives of the poor and marginalized who are our neighbors.
How so? When you throw a banquet, Jesus says. Invite them to come and eat. Why? In my reading this week the authors of the book Total Church managed to really get me thinking when they said the following: At a poverty hearing organized by Church Action on Poverty, Mrs. Jones, a mother who has lived in poverty all her life, described the experience of poverty like this: “In part, it is about having no money, but there is more to poverty than that. It is about being isolated, unsupported, uneducated, and unwanted. Poor people want to be included and not just judged and ‘rescued’ at times of crisis.”
What does this mean? A final quote: A woman told me, “I know people do a lot to help me. But what I want is someone to be my friend.” People do not want to be projects. The poor need a welcome to replace their marginalization; they need inclusion to replace their exclusion; to replace their powerlessness they need a place where they matter. They need a community. They need the Christian community. They need the church.
What a wonderful opportunity we have to share the heart of God. What a wonderful opportunity we have to help others lessen their marginalization and oppression. What a wonderful opportunity we have to help them know that there is a place where they matter: where the structures of oppression have no power or influence. What a wonderful opportunity we have to share and live the gospel. It’s one of the reasons we are here: to work for peace and justice. Amen.