“A Kingdom of God: A Heart for Justice“
Rev. Bruce Joffe
recorded on 11 Aug 2013
Here, in this space where we gather,
My hope is that each is touched by the Sacred — Not by my words,
But through the compassion shared.
May the Light of Life be yours.
As a professor of communication and a linguist, I find the words of Micah 6:8 to be intriguing. As a Christian pastor, I find them compelling! Listen: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?”
I find the translation and emphatic differences fascinating: We are to DO justice; LOVE mercy; and WALK humbly with God. I think I pretty much understand the requirement to walk humbly with God. Humility means acknowledging that we don’t have all the answers. We walk humbly with God because we know that we may well be wrong … even about the things we’re most surely convinced we’re right about. I’m not always good at it, but, conceptually at least, I guess I can understand humility, of walking respectfully with our God.
Similarly, I believe that many of our hearts are filled with compassion and love for the hurts of others. We want to help, to “give alms” to the poor, as the church used to call it … to feed the hungry … as well as to contribute our time and our resources to help others–especially those in causes that particularly touch us personally. While it’s our compassion and love of God that prompt us to mercy, being merciful is something we do more than we feel … like love.
Curious, isn’t it?
The Scripture doesn’t say to “do mercy,” which we all can understand; nor does it say to be merciful, something we also can comprehend.
Surely, it is a divine requirement to practice being merciful because, as someone once said, an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind in the end. Yet the prophet’s words very clearly command us to do justice.
Why? What’s the real difference – if any – between justice and mercy? Where does one end and the other begin? For me, that used to be an easy distinction: While the Old Testament (or Hebrew Scriptures), I suspected, was about God’s judgment and justice, the New Covenant focused instead on God’s love and mercy.
But I no longer believe it’s as simple or clear cut as that … especially because the Old Testament and New each give evidence of both God’s mercy and God’s justice.
Asked about the most important commandment, Jesus said that, when coupled with, “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, and soul, and mind, and might,” to “love your neighbor as yourself,” accurately summed up the message in all of the Law and the Prophets.
For me, loving God with all my heart and soul speaks of mercy … while loving God with all of my mind and my might cries out for justice.
Add loving your neighbor as yourself to this mix and we’ve got a potent formula for both mercy and justice.
Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh … but, again, what’s the difference between them? Someone much wiser than me said that, “Justice is getting what we deserve … mercy is not getting what we deserve … and grace is getting what we don’t deserve.” I like that!
You know, a really simple way of looking at the distinction is captured in an old proverb that’s more Shakespearian than Scriptural: “Give a man a fish and you’ve fed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you’ll feed him for a lifetime.” Give him a fish and you’re showing mercy; teach him to fish and you’re practicing justice.”
“Faith-based charity provides crumbs from the table,” said Bill Moyers, “while faith-based justice offers a place at the table.”
Unfortunately, we tend to substitute mercy for justice when justice is denied. Justice is what our world would be like if GOD were our ruler and the world’s kings, governors, and other principalities weren’t.
I believe that the New Covenant – or the Christian Testament, if you will – and the heart of Christianity, inherently, are about two primary changes: one personal, the other political. For Christians, being “born again” refers to the personal change or transformation in us when we become a living extension of God’s Spirit guiding us in all things. Here, I’d like to look briefly at the political changes that come about, as Jesus said, in the “Kingdom of God.” Not family of God; or people of God. Not churches of God, or pastors and priests, elders and laypersons of God. But the Kingdom of God! Jesus purposefully chooses a political analogy or allegory to which the people of His time could relate.
And we should, too!
God hates injustice, especially when it’s “systemic,” embedded in the system, against which we have little recourse but to find ourselves or others being victimized or marginalized.
–Our ancestors literally stole the land we’re living on from Native Americans, forcing the “Indians” into concentration camps we now call “reservations.” And to compensate them for these inequities, what do we give the Indian people? The right to make tax-free money from gambling and selling liquor on their premises!
–African-Americans suffered horribly at the hands of their slave-driven masters and mistresses. The U.S. Constitution deemed black people to be worth just three-fifths of a white person! That battle for equal rights still hasn’t ended. Just listen to the whispers when certain “good, Christian folks” talk among themselves. Or when a jury acquits a white man for murdering a black one by “standing his ground.”
–Women, too, have been denied their rights. It wasn’t until 1920 that women were finally “granted” the right to vote … and let’s not forget that the Apostle Paul urged women to be quiet and submissive, to ask their husbands – or other men – when they needed or wanted to say something on their own behalf. Baloney…or, as I’d say online, “LOL!” Today, state governments – including ours – are increasingly dictating how women’s bodies can be treated (or not).
–The poor. Not even ten years ago in this country, our socioeconomics divided us according to our riches: we were upper class, middle class, and lower class … with derogatory implications about our social worth as well as our finances. Today, that’s no longer the case: We’re a two-class nation, the haves and the have-nots!
–Immigrants, those we used to welcome with outstretched hands and a beacon of liberty, arrived on our shores to be greeted by these words from “The New Colossus” a sonnet by Emma Lazarus written in 1883 and, in 1903, engraved on a bronze plaque and mounted inside the Statue of Liberty: “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she with silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
And today? Do we still believe and echo these words? Why has equitable immigration reform taken so long in arriving?
–Whether mentally or physically challenged, the handicapped also suffered grave injustices by an unwelcoming and unaccommodating system of physical barriers and unforgiving expectations. Thank God for the Americans with Disabilities Act!
–And then, of course, there are Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals, the Transgendered and other eunuchs: the last tolerable but still hateful bias and bigotry: scorned, punished, and damned by the religious establishment and civil authorities. Inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Yeah, right! Tell me about it.
Today, as the largest sovereign superpower, we employ our resources to strike, preemptively, against those we suppose would challenge us … while withholding food, humanitarian help, aid and justice to punish people and places that reject our vision or values in building their nations according to our self-serving goals or expectations.
Yet in our own homeland, people are starving, dying without roofs over their heads, and losing their last shreds of dignity as Atlas shrugs and looks beyond them, to fund pork for its favored sons and daughters … and wastes precious resources while denying truths and jockeying for more power. “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace,” said guitarist Jimi Hendrix.
The idea of justice isn’t about punishment; it’s about fairness. A just society is a society that treats all of its citizens alike. That’s why the civil rights and marriage equality movements are struggles for justice: We in the United States are treating one segment of our population differently than the majority … and that’s not fair; it’s social injustice.
What’s worse, we continue to do so. Look around you, my friends. The struggle for civil rights has become a quest for human rights, for a society that treats all of its members with the same degree of fairness.
God’s justice is also a fair treatment of all God’s creation—not just of humankind, but of the earth, and sea, and skies above, and everything that lives among us. “It is good,” said t
he Lord, when considering each and every act of creation. If only we could say and believe as well.
“Sometimes I would like to ask God why He allows poverty, suffering, and injustice, when He could do something about it. But I’m afraid that He would ask me the same question.”
I wish I knew the author of that statement about justice, so I could give credit where credit is due. But I don’t … so let me say this: The heart of God is involved in social issues. Many of the earliest prophets – Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Amos, among others – called loudly and often for the fair treatment of the disadvantaged.
Even today’s Gospel message implies that our Master is pleased when we treat Creation with tender, loving care … and that, when our actual walk matches our spiritual talk, the Lord is pleased to give us the Kingdom of God.
Among the Beatitudes which form the heart of Jesus’ powerful Sermon on the Mount, we find, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
That puts righteousness – an outrage and indignation over injustice – squarely in the center of Jesus’ enduring message.
So, what would Jesus say about the injustice that continues to surround us … even 2,000 years after his church was founded?
I’m not really sure.
But I suppose he would remind us of the powerful words he taught us: to earnestly beseech God when we pray: “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it already is [being done] in heaven!”
In the end, folks, what really matters is not what we’ve bought but what we’ve built … not what we’ve got but what we shared … not our competence but our character … not our success, but our significance … not our power to control, but our willingness to surrender.
So, let’s try to live a life that matters: a life full of love … and a life filled with hope.