Biblical Justice: A Common Wealth

Mark 8: 27-9:1

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A question of being:  ‘What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?’ (Mk. 8:36) We will interpret this same passage again next week, then from a more theological and now from a more ethical perspective.

In the northeast, summer is the season for being.   For us of snow and ice, of cold and wind, of dark and deep, with winter around the bend, summer is the time when we bask in the sun, and in the light and in the warmth of life.   Summer opens up chances for communion with nature, with friends, with spirit, with family, with soul.  Summer brings a moment for meditation.

On the dock, after a swim, this August, nine of us, four generations together, sat together.  The prospects for the autumn did creep our way, including some serious issues of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  There are reasons why we tend to avoid art, politics and religion, in close company and conversation.  As in most families, ours, in extension, sports a variety of viewpoints, perspectives, and philosophies.   How the following interchange arose, I am not sure.  The immediate context has disappeared from memory.   But I did find myself saying, ‘Well, if it is the Bible we are talking about, there is no more central theme in the whole Scripture than the theme of economic justice.  Biblical teaching is never very far from social justice’.

A mother in a law voice piped up:  “prove it” (or something to that effect).  Don’t you love family gatherings?

“Well”, I replied, “we could read through 2 Corinthians chapters 8 and 9.  There, among other things stewardship related, the Apostle prays that ‘those who have much might not have too much, and those who have little might not have too little’”.  Whew.  That got me off the cliff, but only briefly.  Two nights later, the aforementioned relative, over pizza, plunked down a paper and pen.  “2 Corinthians was good.  But I need more.  Write.”  So, over pizza, while others savored, I wrote out a midterm exam essay outline on economic and social justice in the Bible. (Parenthetical humorous (?) sidebar: One pizza guest was a Syracuse University 1940’s alumnus, who remembered that once SU teams were the Saltine Warriors, and then the Orange, and now the ‘Cuse’.  Which, as he said, ‘as an elderly alumnus, makes me an ‘ex-cuse’”.)  Other happy moments also came and went, but I could not indulge, for I had no ex-cuse:  I had an exam to write.  I finished, and handed in my blue book, as dessert was served. “Thank you”, she said.

Behind every great man is a surprised mother in law.  And behind this supremely faithful mother in law is a lastingly grateful son in law.

Some days later, summer as we said providing ampler space for actual thought, I thought that she might not be the only person, coming toward this autumn, who had such a question.  Let us assume a love of Scripture, and a deep reverence for the authority of Scripture, in some fashion.   Your preacher has asserted that there is no more pervasive, prevalent, powerful, potent and repeated biblical theme, Genesis to Revelation, than that of justice.  When we pray, when we spend, when we give, when we choose, if we are hominae unius libri, people of one book, the Bible, we should then be hearing and heeding such teaching, should we not?  But is it true?  Does the Bible enjoin human, economic justice?  Is Paul’s epigram, ‘those who have much not too much, those who have little, not too little’, typical of and central to the Bible?

Your mind might revert to newscasts and newsprint, and let us confess it, sermons too, in which people who are ostensibly very biblical argue otherwise:  the poor you have always with you, let him who will not work not eat, consider the lilies of the field, be subject to the governing authorities…and so on. If the Bible is so pronouncedly in favor of justice, economic justice, the protection of the poor the maimed the halt and the lame, why, you might question, are so many biblical people happily content with 20 million unemployed?  Why then are so many biblical people comfortable with lack of health care for poor children?  Why are so many lovers of the Bible at ease with underperforming urban education?  Why are so many who with John Wesley would like to be ‘people of one book’ (the Bible) at home with neglect of the elderly, willing to accept surging inequality of wealth and income, with 1% of the population holding 20% of the income, with defunding and defanging the inherited protections of the common good, the common wealth?   If the Bible preaches a common wealth, why is affirmation of a common wealth so uncommon among supposedly biblical people?  If this is such a biblical nation, why have we so little comprehension of the Bible? Have we grown deaf to Mark 8?

I had a dear friend, a home builder, a great person and person of faith, who had only an 8th grade education, who once took me aside and said, quietly, ‘I am glad some of these people read the Bible, but I think some of these people who read the Bible read it wrong.’  You say you respect the Bible?  I do too.  Then let us try to read it right with regard to justice.

1. Let us read together the books of the Law, with which the Bible begins.  As anyone who has attended a Seder meal will know and remember, these books are redundantly attentive to the needs of the poor.  The general theme is this:  “Remember the widow and the orphan.  Leave your fields to be gleaned by the poor.  Welcome the stranger and foreigner.  FOR YOU ONCE WERE SLAVES IN EGYPT.”

Exodus 23:9: “You shall not oppress a stranger; you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt….For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat.”  The Hebrew Scripture, our Older Testament, was largely composed in the dark days of a later slavery, the bondage of Babylon.  In that moment of memory, the community of faith recalled keenly their earliest history of God’s love and power, the God who brought them up out of the land of slavery to the land of milk and honey.   We know what it means to be poor, to be oppressed, to be outcast, to be downtrodden.  Once we were ourselves.  THEREFORE, there will be justice in our land for the poor.  You and you all may need to search your extended family histories and memories for what happened to your people in the Great Depression.   We learned something, or were reminded of something, then, as were the Israelites dragged again in chains to Babylon.

2. Let us read together the books of the Prophets, the very heart of the Old Testament.  In all of religious literature, in all human history, there is nothing quite as sobering, as piercingly and stingingly direct, with regard to justice, as these 16 voices, four the louder and twelve the lesser.   Malachi teaches tithing.  Isaiah affirms holiness.  Hosea preaches love.  Micah shouts, ‘do justice, love mercy, walk humbly’.   Together the prophets consistently rail against human greed, human selfishness, human covetousness, human apathy.  The harvest here for our theme is so plentiful it is difficult to select an exemplar, there are so many.

Perhaps Amos will do best. In the eighth century BCE, a shepherd boy from Tekoa went down to the gates of the big city, Jerusalem, and cried out against it.  He pilloried the shallow religion of his day.  He assaulted the reliance, the naïve overreliance of his government on weapons of war, he bitterly chastised the amoral, post moral practices of human sexuality of his day.  But he saved his real anger for justice.   The Bible trumpets justice, economic justice, justice for the poor, and for all!  If all we had were the poetry of that shepherd boy from Tekoa, Amos would be sufficient:

“I will not revoke the punishment, because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes—they that trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and turn aside the way of the afflicted” (Amos 2:6-7).  “Hear this you cows of Bashan…who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, ‘bring that we may drink’, the Lord God has sworn by his holiness that behold the days are coming upon you, when they will take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks” (Amos 4:1-3).  “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen.  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness as an ever flowing stream” (Amos 5: 21-24).   Remember Martin Luther King reciting these verses, down in the sweltering little jail house of Birmingham Alabama.

3. Let us read together the books of Wisdom.  Love is for the wise, and justice is the skeleton of love.

“When the just are in authority, the people rejoice, but when the wicked rule, the people groan…The just man knows the rights of the poor; a wicked man does not understand such knowledge…If a King judges the poor with equity his throne will be established forever” (Proverbs 29 passim.)

‘Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now arise’, says the Lord; “I will place him in the safety for which he longs’ (Psalm 11: 5).    “You would confound the plans of the poor, but the Lord is his refuge’ (Psalm 14:6).

In an odd way, the most sobering judgment about justice is offered by Ecclesiastes, who speaks least directly to the theme.  But his philosophy is clear.  I look at all the toil of the sons of men, and I see—vanity.  That for which you strive will not last, that for which you suffer will not endure.  “What has a man for all the toil and strain with which he toils beneath the sun?  For all his days are full of pain, and his work is a vexation; even in the night his mind does not rest’ (Ecc 2;23).  As an Indian proverb puts it:  ‘In his lifetime the goose lords it over the mushroom.   But in the end, they are both served up on the same platter’.   I have officiated at 800 funerals or memorials.  Each a reminder:  Justice lasts, not acquisition.

4. Let us read together the familiar passages of the Gospels.

4a. Matthew:  Give to him who begs from you and do not refuse him…Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you…Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes, nor thieves break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also…No one can serve two masters…You cannot serve God and mammon…Not every one who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven…Sell what you have, and give to the poor, and come and follow me…Do you begrudge my generosity?  The last shall be first, and the first last…You shall love your neighbor as yourself…Woe to you…You tithe mint and cumin and ill, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law—justice and mercy and faith…

4b.Luke: He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree, he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away…The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor…Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God…What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?…Sell your possessions and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old…When you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame and the blind…You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just…Said Zacchaeus, ‘behold Lord the half of my goods I give to the poor’…They contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty…

4c. My old superintendent, Bill Swales, stood in the basement of a little church in Ithaca, NY, as our congregation struggled with the budget.   He commended the debate by saying, “Jesus spoke more about money than about anything else”.  You think not?  Think on the parables.  Sowing and reaping.  A poor man left in a Jericho ditch.  A lost and precious coin.  A son gone to the pigs, if not the dogs.  A wiley dishonest steward.  Workers and vineyards and paystubs.  Someone whose debt is forgiven not forgiving others.  Talents used and wasted.  A rich man with many possessions.   For reasons earthly and heavenly Jesus preached against abuse of riches, against the injury of the poor, against the love of money for its own sake, against the accumulation of needless treasure.

5. Let us read together the warning of the apocalypse: And I heard a great voice from the throne saying, behold the dwelling of God is with me…he will wipe away every tear from their eyes (Rev. 21:1ff)

6. And the admonition of the epistles:  One who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen (1 John 4:9).  And, as we began, so we end, with the advice and teaching of the Apostle to the Gentiles in 2 Corinthians 8:  Hear the Gospel:  “He who gathered much had nothing over, and he who gathered little had no lack” (2 Cor 8:15).  And an invitation:  those listening may respond (what surprises you?  What question do you raise?  What observation do you make?) to this week’s sermon or in anticipation of next week’s by email to rahill@ub.edu.

Mark Twain was a realist.  He pointed to the ‘serene confidence a Christian feels in four aces.’. He quipped, ‘nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits’.  He advised:  ‘put all your eggs in one basket—and WATCH THAT BASKET’. And: ‘a classic is a book which people praise but do not read’. But he also said: ‘it is not the things in the Bible I do not understand that bother me, it is the things I do understand that bother me’.   We understand this:  “there is no more central theme in the whole Scripture than the theme of economic justice.  Biblical teaching is never very far from social justice” (Robert Allan Hill, Bradley Brook NY, August 2012).  Let him who has not much not have too much, and him who has little not have too little.

 

~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill,

Dean of Marsh Chapel

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