St. Luke’s UMC
August 16, 2020
Justice or Just-Us?
What Is Biblical Justice
Micah 6:8; Luke 12:57-58; Philippians 2:4
Rob: We appreciate Mayor Joe reading scripture for us this morning as we continue our series Justice or Just-Us. Today I am sharing the sermon with Pastor Nicole as we step back and widen the lens of our focus and consider this matter of racial justice in terms of biblical justice. I encourage you to get some paper and a pen and take some notes during the sermon today. We are going to dig into some important scriptures and some very important Hebrew and Greek words as we consider a central idea in scripture that is bound up in the understanding of the character of God.
The first Sunday after the death of George Floyd, I asked a number of people to join me for a panel discussion for the message that morning. It was hastily pulled together, but, Nicole, you and Jevon were a part of that, and you said something that morning that got a lot of positive response from people, that we need to frame this not in terms of social justice but biblical justice. Say more about that and what it means to talk about biblical justice…
Well Pastor Rob, I think it’s important to start conversations on justice with the Bible, because justice is a biblical concept. You cannot talk about the character of God without talking about justice.you cannot talk about the mission of the church without talking about justice. And when we examine scripture or the history of the church-there is a clear and indisputable call to justice.
A call so clear that that nearly every movement for justice in our country started in a pulpit, a fellowship hall or under a revival tent.
Whether it was abolitionists who criss-crossed the country telling the story of God’s deliverance of the slaves in exodus or the gospel promise that “who the son sets free is free indeed”
Women activists who challenged our country to consider that if women couldn’t be trusted in with the right to vote why did God trust them to be the first preachers to proclaim a crucified Jesus had been resurrected from the dead?
Not to mention the labor, prohibition or probably the most well-known movement for justice-the civil rights movement . All of these movements for justice have one thing in common: they were grounded in biblical scripture, connected to the church and many even led by people of faith.
And yet despite all of that scripture and history, overtime the relationship between, the Bible, justice and the church has broken down. Government programs and nonprofits began to share in the work that used to be the church’s. Until what was once a biblical mandate became a social responsibility rather than a spiritual responsibility.
And so you see Pastor Rob, that term “biblical justice” does two things: it restores our identity as those who have been called to seek justice and reclaims our responsibility as the church to build a community where justice “Rolls down like a river and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”
Rob: This is a good place to look at our first scripture lesson this morning, Micah 6:8 “…what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?” What does the Lord require of you? That question alone implies that the answer is a big deal to God? Whatever we think is important in our faith life, get ready, you’re about to hear what matters to God. Do justice!
There are two words in Hebrew often associated with justice. Mishpat which literally means law, but is really talking about equity. It is also often associated with peace. In Israel today the civil courts are called Courts of Mishpat ha-shalom. Courts for Making Peace. The goal is not to get your way, as much as making peace.
The other word often used for justice is Tsedekah, which literally translates righteousness. Again, this is not about rights. What I have the right to do or get, but rather, right relationship. So if we live in right relationship with God and we seek the well-being of other people that brings peace, we have justice. A value of Judaism is a justly ordered society.
What does God require? Do justice and love kindness. The Hebrew word for kindness is hesed. Faithfulness. These are acts of love and compassion shown to others.
When we put all this together we begin to form an understanding of what biblical justice it, but before we do that, let’s talk about what biblical justice is not.
First, biblical justice is not the same as fairness. At least fairness the way we typically think of it. Jesus told a parable about this—The Laborers in the Vineyard. Some worked all day, some half a day, some one hour, but at the end of the day they all got paid the same. This was outrageous to the all-day workers because it didn’t seem fair. But equity here was not about everyone getting what they deserve, but what they need. And when you read this story, you notice the owner says to the all-day workers, “Did I do you wrong? We made an agreement didn’t we?” In other words there is relationship involved. This story becomes a picture of God’s justice.
There’s a modern picture like this…the kids trying to see over a fence to watch a game. On the left is what it looks like when you just give everyone the same—one still gets left out. But when the focus is on everyone getting what they need, they don’t all receive the same. Justice, at least in God’s terms.
Second, biblical justice is not just about obeying the law. It’s like the old adage, “we can do things right or we can do the right things. Sometimes doing things right, doesn’t equate with right things. This was Jesus’ criticism of the religious establishment in his day. Listen to his blistering critique: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” (Matthew 23:23-24)
As Martin Luther King Jr said, “We have a moral responsibility to obey just laws and a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
Nicole:, biblical justice is not just what we do. Justice that is biblical- is not only an outward expression but an inward transformation. I learned this very painfully when I was 14 years old and I had my first boyfriend. I had fallen deeply in love with a boy who was a senior and I was a freshman and until this day my father only refers to him as the 18-year-old. I’m pretty sure he’s around 38 now but, to my father he was and will always be the 18-year-old. Aside from really liking him, I really liked his family and I thought his family would really liked me. His mother was a doctor at the hospital where my father also was a surgeon and while she and her husband had immigrated from South India, she had a family practice that primarily served black families and actively fought to provide healthcare to underserved communities.
So it came as a big surprise to the 18-year-old and I, when his mother took him aside after meeting me and said “Never. Never with someone black. End it. End it now”. For both of us it was shocking thinking of how many black friends he had over to his home or how many patients of hers looked just like me. But you see that’s the difference: when justice is just something you do with your hands and not something that has transformed your heart. She could advocate for equal access to healthcare for black patients but she could never ever have a black person sit at her table, dating her son. But biblical justice doesn’t just want our hands, it wants our hearts, our minds, our souls.
So with this in mind, and what was shared about the biblical words for justice, let’s try this as a definition for biblical justice: actively pursuing God’s will for a peaceful, equitable community for all.
And if we apply this concept of justice to racism, we should also define what racism is. Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourner’s, offers a helpful definition in his book, America’s Original Sin makes the point that racism is not just prejudice. It is about the system of power that gets created that favors one race over others. So racism is about power structures. As he says “racism is prejudice plus power.”
This means that racial justice is the dismantling of racism in pursuit of biblical justice.
So let’s go back to Micah. What does the Lord require of you? Do justice. What does that look like? Let’s think about two things:
Doing biblical justice means focusing on the needs of the community. For this series I pulled a book off my shelf I read 20 years ago Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. It makes the point that Christian evangelicalism in the United States put a focus on personal religion, that the purpose of faith is for individuals to get right with God and live a good life. They make the point that this is why many white Christians in a conversation about race will quickly go to personal behaviors that are or aren’t racist.
But in the Bible God doesn’t just judge individuals. God judges entire societies and nations. An important faith distinction in biblical justice is not just a concern for our personal lives, but for our community and the systems by which it operates.
Look at this verse from the book of Amos in the OT. This is the The Message translation:
“I can’t stand your religious meetings. I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals…” Pause there for a moment. What is God saying through the prophet? I’m tired of your self-interested religion. That’s it. I’m tired of all the services that are just about your own piety. So look at how it continues: “Do you know what I want? I want justice—oceans of it. I want fairness—rivers of it. That’s what I want. That’s all I want.” (Amos 5:21-24 The Message)
To practice justice we have to think about the needs of others who don’t share our same needs—people who may be in a very different place in life. People who have to live with a threat of violence we don’t, who don’t have the same access to food or healthcare, who might not have a chance for their kids to get the same kind of education.
Here’s a question I believe the Bible presents us: what if the condition of our soul will be at least partly judged by the condition of our community? If that’s true, then what does it mean to ask, “how is it with your soul?”
Jesus asked this in a different way. Look at his question in the reading from Luke: Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right?” The word “right” is the word for justice in the New Testament. That’s a powerful question, isn’t it? Instead of determining what others have done or what is allowable, what if we just asked, “What do we believe is right?” Jesus puts this in the context of a lawsuit. If someone brings a charge against you, go work it out with them. Otherwise, what if you lose the case. You may be right, but you’ll end up wrong. In other words, right, justice, becomes trying to understand another person’s perspective and see things from their point of view. Not just asking what do I have the right to do.
Nicole: And then a second is this: biblical justice means also focusing on each others’ shared divinity. Social justice is grounded in the idea of our shared humanity and that’s fine and good but biblical justice compels us to deeper and further. We see this in the second chapter of Paul’s letter To the Philippians where he says in verses 3 and 4, “in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others”.
It not only acknowledges our shared humanity that we were all created in the image and the likeness of God but it does something else, it acknowledges our shared divinity. It’s one thing to say were all created by God it’s quite another claim to say that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.
Paul is not just saying look out for each other but But actually look out for others ahead of your self! Why? Not just because were all human but, because we are all children of God.
No Rob I don’t think anything makes this point more clear than that Lincoln story. Do you know the one that you mentioned and I and I can’t tell it because I can’t do the voice so you got to tell it and you got to tell it with the voice!
4. Personal story
We spent our time today defining biblical justice, What is what is it and what it isn’t. What is means in Hebrew what it means in Greek. But where Pastor Rob and I got a little stuck is what it looks like today. We know that it’s connected to the work that we’re doing here at St. Luke’s to become an anti-racist church: and one of those things is coming up in just a few days. We’re hosting a poverty simulation that’s taking place next Sunday and Wednesday where we as church we will sit and learn together the ways that the cycle of poverty traps generations of families and with the church can do to advocate for our justice for our neighbors.
And that’s not all. When we’re able to be together again in a safe way we’ll host racial dialogue circles and build relationships across racial lines seeing the shared divinity in one another while actively pursuing God’s will for a peaceful, equitable community for all.
and yet if you want to help usher in biblical justice there is something that you can do right here, right now: you can talk to your children and your grandchildren. I say this because just a few days ago my children were riding bikes around our new neighborhood where we built a home in Noblesville.
We r have been grateful for the warm welcome we received from most of the people that we live around. So much so that we are pretty excited when a little blond haired, bright eyed girl in our neighborhood asked to ride bikes with Joshua And Olivia. Olivia would kill me if she knew that I was telling you this but she just got her training wheels off about six months ago so she’s still a little shaky sometimes steering. And at one point she got a little too close to her new friend and bumped into her. The Little girl was upset and immediately said “ Nigger don’t bump into me!” .
Olivia was very upset and scared and rode straight home to and told us what happened. Joshua followed several minutes later and confirmed that indeed this neighbor used this word. I was hurt, deeply concerned but also surprised because the next day she showed up at our front door again asking if they could ride bikes again. But before I would answer, we had a conversation. I asked her did she say that word and she admitted she had.
Then I shared with her how hurtful and hateful that word was and how no one who played with my children could ever, ever use that word with them or to anyone else. She immediately apologized and has shown up nearly every single day since asking to ride bikes with Joshua and Olivia.
Here’s what I know for sure, a seven-year-old girl doesn’t learn that word on her own she’s heard it from some other adult probably an adult in her household. And yet my heart tells me that when she hears that word again ,another thought has been planted one that says it’s unkind, one that says it’s hurtful, one that says it’s not one you use ever.
And yet that seed is this big and won’t grow unless some other trusted adults come along and water it, plant other seeds, plant other words, and plant other thoughts until what grows up inside of her is a a compassion, a justice and awareness for other people.
So if you want to do justice today: You should be volunteering, you should be giving, you should be voting, you should be reading your Bible and the newspaper but you should also be planting seeds. Seeds of conversation that grow compassion, justice and love with the children, grandchildren and neighbors in your midst- so that the next generation will be ready to continue the work of biblical justice. The work of Jesus Christ.
Now pastor Rob, that’s how I am leaning into biblical justice today what is it mean for you right now?