In his fifth woe to the Pharisees, Jesus contrasts justice, mercy and faithfulness to a fastidious accounting of tithes, and assigns not just qualitative superiority but quantitative superiority as well. Weight is a measurable commodity. Jesus places more weight on justice, mercy and faithfulness than he does on tithing; though he is quick to add, before he finishes his discourse, that tithing should not be neglected. In thinking about all the sermons that I’ve ever heard on a variety of subjects, I’m sure that I’ve heard more on tithing than I’ve ever heard about justice, so maybe Jesus has a point! Why are we so much more easily drawn to paying tithe than we are to doing justice?
Justice is a foundational characteristic of who God is. It is mentioned more than 200 times in the Old Testament. Often it’s used together with the word righteousness, almost synonymously, when speaking of God’s character. In the Old Testament, justice is often called for in the treatment of three marginalized individual groups: The foreigner, the widow, and the orphan. These were the marginalized of that time, and are those spoken of in the laws concerning justice, which calls for an abundant and generous application of three things: Protection, provision, and exclusion. These Torah laws (scattered throughout the books of the prophets as well) were designated in order to protect, to provide and to include these disenfranchised groups: The foreigners, the widow, and the fatherless or the orphan.
When we think about injustice today, the question is, do these ancient laws still work? How does protection, provision and inclusion fit into our thinking on the subject of justice? Foreigners, by definition do not belong to the family, the clan or to the tribe—the community groups. Foreigners have a different culture, a different language, different customs and different worldviews. The natural tendency is to exclude, to isolate, and to marginalize. Is it possible that today, minorities who seek justice could be considered foreigners even in their native land?
Today, we don’t understand the status of the widow as it was in those days without a husband and without heirs. A widow was helpless, penniless and bereft. Justice called for her protection, provision, and inclusion. Similarly for the fatherless, for the orphan. This was a helpless, isolated human being without any social standing. The ancient law called for protection, provision, and inclusion.
People of faith, including us, are called to have an impact on society. We feel an obligation to display God’s love, God’s mercy, and God’s justice in our society. But how do we do that? And who decides which people need to be defended? What causes need to be championed and who are the disadvantaged among us? Trying to have an impact on society often brings confusion and conflict especially in the church.
Two stories from the Scriptures provide insight into doing justice and loving mercy and what it means to take individual action. First is the story of the Good Samaritan, a foreigner himself, and not a religious leader, who finds a man by the side of the road between Jerusalem and Jericho who has been beset by robbers. And he goes out of his way to help him.
The road from Jerusalem to Jericho is the metaphorical road of life. The irony is that each of us traveling on this road finds ourself in all the characters of the story. Sometimes we’re the Good Samaritan. Sometimes we are those who walked by on the other side. Sometimes we are the victim. And sometimes even we are the robbers. The parable is a call to action when we find people injured on the road of life. It’s a parable of the display of individual restorative justice on life’s journey: One injustice, one restoration—individual justice served.
In the book of Exodus, on the other hand, we see a different approach to justice:
Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Behold, the people of the sons of Israel are more and mightier than we. Come, let us deal wisely with them, or else they will multiply and in the event of war, they will also join themselves to those who hate us, and fight against us and depart from the land.” So they appointed taskmasters over them to afflict them with hard labor. And they built for Pharaoh storage cities, Pithom and Raamses. But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and the more they spread out, so that they were in dread of the sons of Israel. The Egyptians compelled the sons of Israel to labor rigorously; and they made their lives bitter with hard labor in mortar and bricks and at all kinds of labor in the field, all their labors which they rigorously imposed on them. Then the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other was named Puah; and he said, “When you are helping the Hebrew women to give birth and see them upon the birthstool, if it is a son, then you shall put him to death; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live.” (Exodus 1:8-16)
And afterward Moses and Aaron came and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let My people go that they may celebrate a feast to Me in the wilderness.’” (Exodus 5:1)
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh; for under compulsion he will let them go, and under compulsion he will drive them out of his land.” (Exodus 6:1)
And finally, we see the result:
And at the end of four hundred and thirty years, to the very day, all the hosts of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt. (Exodus 12-41)
They were of course, liberated. In this example, we see the extreme hardship imposed upon an entire nation. This is corporate, institutionalized, systemic injustice, not just individual injustice as we see on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. Moses is a leader who powerfully confronts the injustice done to his people, demanding freedom for them, bringing God’s power to bear on Pharaoh and ultimately winning justice for the Hebrew nation.
These stories are contrasting opposites to injustice. And the choice between justice and mercy here can be seen time and time again in the crises that beset us today. These stories contrast how we might respond to injustice today. The personal, individual approach does not seek to address systemic problems. The Good Samaritan does not study the causes, or the frequency or the conditions of robbery on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. There is no analysis of the scale of the problem. A man is wounded, injustice has occurred. The Good Samaritan is there to help.
Moses on the other hand does not deal with individual victims of Pharaoh’s tyrannical rule. He instead confronts the perpetrator of the injustice. The good Samaritan’s problem is the injured robbery victim. Moses’ problem is an institutional suppression. What should the sons and daughters of God today do when they face injustice? Should they work with the individual or should they address the systemic illness? Should we teach the inner city child to read or should we address the educational system that is failing the children? What are your thoughts on individual injustice as opposed to corporate justice? Are we as Christians called to address one more than the other? Do we have a choice? Is it one or the other? is one better than the other?
Donald: A foreigner by definition would recognize that they are not of the main unit. So let’s not use the word foreigner. Let’s use the word guest. So if you had a guest show up at Oakwood Church, walk into the vestibule, and say “I’m not an Adventist. Tell me tell me about Adventism,” who would take it upon themselves to define what Adventism is? There’s a corporate answer. You ask everyone in the vestibule what they think Adventism is. They would not consider themselves to be foreigners.
Is the problem really admitting that I’m the foreigner or I’m the guest? Because if I think I’m part of the ownership, and the person next to me doesn’t accept me, then I become the minority, the foreigner. But then there are some circumstances that we find ourselves where we’re very willing to say: “I’m not in the predominant group here. When I enter a Maasai village in Africa, I am certainly not predominent, I come there only to understand. Maybe that helps us a little bit trying to define this. Because it seems to me the foreigner just means the person outside of the inside group. Well, who’s the inside group? The majority?
David: Islam has a very strong tradition of hospitality to strangers. I’ve read biographies of Brits who have walked alone for months around the hinterland of Afghanistan and were welcomed as white, Caucasian Christians into Afghanistan villages and treated as honored guests wherever they went. Islam calls for people to be treated that way. But I can’t help but wonder whether a Sunni Moslem village would be as hospitable to a Shia Moslem traveler.
The Bible says we should treat others as we would have them treat us. The Golden Rule applies in all religions. In individual cases, like the traveler in Afghanistan, the corporate (in my example, the Sunni) response can be deadly. It’s the corporate Sunni response applied to an individual Shia. it’s the corporate Protestant response to the individual Catholic. But at the individual level, the call to treat others as your honored guest—the Golden Rule—is very much an individual response. It’s not a corporate response. I think that the individual response is really what God is looking for.
Donald: Anybody can give the corporate response. It’s easy. If you don’t know it, just Google it. The individual response is quite different from that. And it’s a little bit scary because who allows me to speak on behalf of someone else? If I speak up and give my individual response, somebody with authority can overrule me. Individual responses are based on understanding what the foreigner/guest is about. They take time to to investigate why the stranger is here, what s/he is looking for. They go beyond the corporate response.
Don: But the Black Lives Matter demonstrations happening throughout the US right now is a corporate response, isn’t it? I mean, there is a corporate response to an individual injustice or a series of individual injustices. Is that something that the Christian should be involved in? Is that something that God would expect his children to be involved in? Or is that something that’s really best left for those of a political stripe, as opposed to a religious stripe?
Jeff : Is it not possible that both are important? I think throughout history, we see that big changes in the historical narrative were pushed by corporate response or leaders of large groups, while at the same time our individual responsibility is towards individuals. I think, at least in my experience, what we’re seeing today in the country that’s so concerning is the breakdown of the individual response towards other individuals that think differently than us. It doesn’t really affect me on a granular level, what is going on necessarily at the corporate level, but it definitely affects my thinking. And then if I let that thinking get in the way of how I react to other individuals who may think differently than me, that’s where the the breakdown continues and is so worrisome.
David: In the Good Samaritan Jesus focused on the individual response. He pointed out that a priest saw what was happening and crossed to the other side of the street. Would the priest have had a corporate reason for stepping in to help? I think the Bible at that time recognized the Golden Rule, so the answer would be yes. But I think Jesus was saying that the corporate response is irrelevant. It’s what’s in the individual heart, not what’s in the corporate catechism.
I can see that both responses could be helpful. The corporate response could be one of indignation and a realization that things are getting so out of hand that something needs to be done about it. If it gets people to look inside their individual hearts and admit they have been ignoring something or were wrong about something and that they need to change, then it’s a good thing. But the problem is that the corporate response can also go the other way. It can foment hatred and distrust and dislike of one’s neighbor.
Jeff: But without without having corporate actions or corporate responses you don’t get major shifts or changes in history. You don’t get the founding of our country. You don’t get the succession of world superpowers. You don’t get the Romans taking over the Jews. Those are all corporate things. As individuals we’re definitely called to to treat other individuals in terms of our relationship with Christ and our Christian walk. That indeed is probably the most important one. But Moses’ response to Israel’s leaving Egypt was indeed a corporate one.
The interesting thing is in today’s society, where individuals have the ability to communicate on a large scale through social media, they can put out a more corporate type of opinion or response. In some ways, a corporate action or corporate response is somewhat anonymous, maybe somebody is giving it, but the individuals behind it are often not apparent. I think that has led to pseudo corporate responses, whereby any of us can seem to be speaking for a larger group.
David: All three examples of corporate responses just given were bloody, vicious, merciless, and unjust.
Jeff: Was Moses’ bringing the Israelites out of Egypt bloody and unjust?
Don: It certainly was bloody for Pharaoh.
David: Not just the Pharaoh! In fact he was probably OK behind his palace walls with an army of servants to swat away the flies. It was his people who suffered from the plagues.
Jeff: Was Martin Luther King leading the civil rights movement unjust and bloody? Was Gandhi leading India away from British rule unjust?
David: They were individuals, not corporate.
Jeff: They were leading a group of people that were that coalesced behind a corporate goal.
Donald: Everybody now has a corporate response to their world. I post everything. And now you know about me and my opinions, if I have a lot of “likes” then people are buying into my world but if not my world is pretty small. We build an image for ourselves and around ourselves. We weren’t able to do that before. We didn’t know where we fit into everybody else’s thought. And as we all know, there are people on social media that really are “out there” in their opinion about things. If we agree, we “like” them, but if not we may “unfriend” them, which seems rather a strong statement.
Don: I’ve even seen people referred to as Internet “influencers” as if it were a job. They count thousands of people, maybe even tens of thousands, in their sphere. I don’t even have three friends. I don’t know how I could be an influencer.
Jeff: When you sit and talk with these people, they are often very likable, yet when you read what they write, they seem to be the antithesis of what you believe or you know, with no way to reconcile the differences. So the individual response is really the key to this whole thing, I think what it boils down to is that God is calling different people for different things. Moses was called to do what Moses did. I think all of us are called to treat our fellow man like we would wish to be treated. I think the major portion of this breakdown is that we’re unable to see each other as individuals because of the lens that we’re looking at people through today.
Cynthia: Mary Magdalene was brought to Jesus by the leaders of that time and the public. They said: “We caught her breaking the law, and what do you say we should do with her?” Well, Jesus made them look at themselves. He joined the political and the common man together to look at Mary as they would look at themselves. We are responsible to hold our leaders and those we have appointed to uphold justice to do what’s right. We all have a hand in it. We all are responsible. That’s why they all dropped their rocks and walked away because they finally saw her as themselves and saw that she should get the justice that was due to her. And God is the one that is capable of teaching us. He is the only one that can hold justice before us and allow us to seize it.
Donald: I used to look to the media to be able to tell me, from a neutral perspective, what’s going on. My dilemma now is my opinion is being formed by something that’s already filtered. So I really don’t even know what the corporate viewpoint is. How do you come to understand what the predominant group really is thinking, if you’ve got a filter for the media and we all think we’re important enough to be our own corporate opinion?
Kiran: There is a problem with both corporate and individual responses. The corporate response can be a cop-out, because government is doing something, so we can just chill out. But at the same time, even though the government is doing something, we each have a personal responsibility to do what we should do. The second thing is, if every individual is trying to do something that is the opposite of the corporate response, then the government has to cave in. Some social justice groups are trying hard to do that, for example, to solve the housing crisis for African Americans. But they’re struggling. So you do need to change the corporate response to a positive, welcoming experience. These are like the two wings of a bird: It won’t fly with just one. If a grassroots movement is strong, perhaps it can grow two wings.
Janelin: As an individual and a Christian (which is how I define myself) I feel I am obligated in my daily interactions, my individual interactions. I’m not so much into social media. I know it’s a big platform but I do feel an obligation to represent a loving message if someone—perhaps a patient—says something to me. It’s not like I have all the time in the world, but I do try to respond and express support for what’s going on and the [Black Lives Matter] movement. I just feel a big, big obligation.
David: Do you think you would not feel that obligation if you were not a Christian?
Janelin: I feel that Christianity in general is represented sometimes in a negative, unloving manner. That’s just how I feel. I can tell by the way people speak sometimes. I feel like Christianity is misrepresented sometimes.
Donald: My neighbor came to check out that our house was OK when he saw not the usual car in the driveway. He was just being neighborly, he didn’t attach it to Christianity. You don’t have to be a Christian just to be human.
Don: Is that the solution for injustice?
David: That was the solution Jesus suggested in the story of the Good Samaritan. “You don’t have to be an orthodox Jew to be good to anybody.”
Kiran: The priest and the Levite were so concerned about their relationship with God that they didn’t help the injured man. And by doing so, they broke the law of God, to love their neighbor as they love themselves. Secondly, they missed an opportunity to serve Jesus. In the Judgment scene, Jesus says, “I was naked and you clothed me and I was hungry and you fed me.” So they missed both of them by trying to be very close to God. On the other hand, the Samaritan—a rejected outcast—is supposed not to care about his relationship with God. But by taking care of the victim (he didn’t ask whether he was a Jew or a Gentile) he put himself at risk, he exposed himself to the robbers by staying there for a long time, he spent his money and so on. But by taking care of this man he kept God’s law and served Jesus Himself. So it’s true, you don’t have to be a Christian, but anybody who serves others is being Christian.
Carolyn: I think sometimes around us, as I observe it, we need the scales taken from our eyes, because we are blinded by our upbringing. The little mores that were taught, the inuendos about the person who is unusual in our crowd, the stranger that we almost are afraid of. So we immediately put up bars and we put them all in a certain area that isn’t always loving. It’s out of fear of what we have learned growing up from watching how our uncles and our aunts treated people. They weren’t aware of this melting pot of the United States. As a Christian, I just think our blindness has to dissolve and we need to be human. We need to be human before Christian even. We need to love our fellow man as God has loved us. And sometimes this blindness to our fellow man who has a different skin or a different culture can go all the way back to childhood. When does it start? Where does it start? You see four-year-olds at the playground, black, yellow, and white, enjoying having other children to play with. When does the dissension start?
Donald: So, so put this in the context of the corporate church. We have the large corporate churches in America right now, but where is Christianity actually growing?—in the local church, in the congregational church. In some ways is that saying: “I don’t really want a corporate church to define my way of thinking about my faith. I want this community of people that I buy into… it’s very small and I can look people in the eye. That’s the way it seems to be going.
Don: Next week we want to talk about Job and justice. One of the strong themes of justice is that it is, in major part, getting what you deserve; not getting what you don’t deserve, but getting what you deserve. The story of Job teaches a different phase of justice, which is that you don’t get what you deserve. It’s puzzling. We’ve talked about it before, but not talked about it in the context of justice.
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Transcribed by https://otter.ai; edited by David