In my little book, Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls), I share a story to draw a distinction between acts of mercy and acts of justice. They are not the same thing.
Once there was a town built just beyond the bend of a large river. One day some of the children from the town were playing beside the river when they noticed three bodies floating in the water. They ran for help and the townsfolk quickly pulled the bodies out of the river.
One person was dead, so they buried that one. One was alive, but very sick, so they put that person in the hospital. The third turned out to be a healthy child, who they placed with a family that cared for the child and took the child to school.
From that day forward, a number of bodies came floating down the river and every day, the good people of the town would pull them out and tend to them—taking the sick to the hospital, placing children with families, and burying those who were dead.
This went on for years. Each week brought its quota of bodies, and the townsfolk not only came to expect a number of bodies each week, but also developed more elaborate systems for picking them out of the river and tending to them. Some even gave up their jobs so they could devote themselves to this work full time. The townspeople began to even feel a certain healthy pride in their generosity and care for them.
However, during all those years and despite all their generosity, no one thought to go up the river, beyond the bend that hid from sight what was above them, and find out why all those bodies kept floating down the river.
Here, sisters and brothers, is the difference between acts of mercy and social justice. Mercy is about rescuing those who are drowning and tending to their immediate needs. Social justice is about changing the conditions responsible for sending all those people floating down the river in need of mercy. While mercy is about giving a hungry person some bread, social justice is about changing the system so that no one has excess bread while some have none. Mercy is about helping the poor; social justice is about eliminating poverty. See the difference. God’s kingdom calls for both.
This is the kind of justice the Psalmist and the prophet Isaiah are calling for in our sacred texts today. Our text in Isaiah is a proclamation of judgment against a people who were called to be an example of restorative justice to the world. Instead of being a light to the nations they had created a system of inequity and injustice like all the other nations around them. The prophet proclaims that God planted Israel as a vineyard among the nations to be a light reflecting the kind of world God wants – where all people are able to thrive. But Israel’s vineyard had become overgrown with the briars of injustice and the thorns of oppression that led to impoverishment and marginalization.
It is true that some of the pictures of God painted by the writers of our scriptures are at times puzzling and contradictory, especially when God is viewed as a champion of violence. But there is a strong tradition that sees the God of the Hebrews as a God of restorative justice. The Psalmist says that God loves justice (94:4) and Isaiah says that God’s rule or will is sustained by justice (9:7).
In the Book of Deuteronomy the writer proclaims that the great God who is the God of all gods is not partial and takes no bribes. The scripture says that God “executes justice for the orphan and the widow” and “loves the strangers (the aliens, undocumented), providing them with food and clothing.” Hence, the scripture says, “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:17-19). If the justice of God informed our immigration policy there would be no talk of a wall or mass deportations. We would be seeking compassionate solutions that would keep families together and provide refuge for those fleeing life threatening situations.
Unfortunately, we have been shaped by a very rampant individualism that dominates our society. We have been so influenced by this over emphasis on individual rights that many people think of justice almost completely in terms of criminality and litigation. Justice, they think, is someone getting what they deserve. Of course, this Americanized view of justice has little in common with the prophetic view of justice that pervades the biblical tradition.
One of the major problems in ancient Israel that created poverty and oppressive conditions for the most vulnerable such as the orphan, the widow, and the stranger or non-Israelite, had to do with the accumulation of wealth among the elite and the inequitable distribution of resources. Wealth was determined by possession of land. The poor did not own land. They worked for those who did, and were easily taken advantage of.
So to eliminate this concentration of land/wealth by a particular group the law required that every Sabbath year, every seventh year all debts throughout the land would be forgiven. This was across the board amnesty – the complete elimination of debt every seven years. Every fiftieth year, called the year of Jubilee, all land was to be returned to the original family. It didn’t matter how people had lost their land, it was all to be restored. Think about this. In Israel every fiftieth year a radical redistribution of land was to occur. The reason given for this redistribution according to Deut. 15:4 was this: “There shall be no poor among you.” They realized there can only be justice if poverty is eliminated. As long as there is poverty there is injustice in the land.
In Luke’s Gospel Jesus begins his ministry by defining his mission, his agenda in terms of Isaiah 61 (You can read this in Luke 4). Jesus declared his mission as one of proclaiming good news to the poor (now sisters and brothers good news to the poor is the elimination of poverty, that’s what the poor want to hear – a way out of their poverty, they know the system is rigged against them), the recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the captives (in other words, there would be no indentured servants tied to big land owners), and liberation of the oppressed. That’s how Jesus defines his ministry in Luke 4. Then he says, according to Luke, he is sent to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and that sisters and brothers is a clear allusion to the year of Jubilee, when land reverted back to the original family.
The Psalmist in our text today sees God holding judgment in the divine court. God says to the rulers, the elite, the wealthy: “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?” Now, don’t you think God could ask us that same question?
Let me read you a story shared by Rev. David Jordan in an article he wrote recently for Baptist News Global:
Two stories. Two young men. One white. One black. It was a number of years ago now. I was a pastor in the suburbs of Washington, in a multi-ethnic congregation of people from the very poor to the quite wealthy.
The first story began with a call I received from the wife of a young, 35-year-old father and husband, a rising and seemingly successful stock broker in our church. “Sam has been arrested,” she said. Embarrassed, heartbroken and desperate, she wondered if I could go to him. Sam was charged with fraud and cocaine possession. He had confessed and was pleading for rehab and mercy. He had two young girls in school; he had been their soccer and softball coach; he still had so much to live for and so much yet to do. He also had a good lawyer.
I visited Sam — as his pastor, his advocate and his friend. He sat on a nice bed with a colorful quilt while pastel paint tones and comfortable furniture offered a calming ambiance to his room in the rehab center. It was expensive he said, but necessary for his full recovery.
We prayed together and were very hopeful that all would work out for the best. He was getting the help he needed, the judge appeared to be open to leniency, and this lovely facility gave every indication that he would get his life back and could start over with a second chance.
I got another call not long after that one. “Leo is in prison. He would like to see you.” Leo was 15, big smile, sweet spirit and a very hard life. He never knew his father; his mother had serious learning disabilities and the grandmother he lived with openly spoke of the money she got from a couple of sources to raise him as her only income. She never hid her ambivalent feelings about Leo’s presence in her life. Nevertheless, Leo remained resilient, caring and positive.
I went to the prison where he was being held. In stark contrast to the fine rehab facility of the previous story, I had to sit on one side of thick plexiglass with a phone on my side and a phone on his side. Leo was ushered in from the jail cell where he was being kept. Wearing an orange jump suit and hands chained together in front of him, he shuffled sadly across the dreary gray space that led to the plexiglass barrier between us. His expression was filled with shame. He slumped with resignation in the cheap plastic chair on the other side of the window.
He had been a passenger in a car that a friend had taken for a joy ride. He didn’t realize that the vehicle was stolen. “Dave, I thought he bought it with the money he had been making from working at Wendy’s. That’s what he told me, and I believed him.”
Two stories. Two young men. One convicted of fraud and cocaine possession. The other a passenger in a car he didn’t realize was stolen. The first was given a gentle slap on the wrist. The other, harsh treatment in difficult conditions for any age, but Leo was 15. He was also African-American and at the mercy of a system he didn’t understand and had no advocates in. Sam was white and well-connected.
Can you hear the God of the Psalmist saying to us: “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality.” Can you hear the thunder of God’s voice as he says to all of us: Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.”
And why must we give ourselves to the restorative justice of God? Because, says the Lord of the Psalmist, “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you.” We are made in God’s image. We are God’s daughters and sons. We are called to be God’s representatives and image bearers in the world. We are called to stand for what is good and right and just and merciful.
Our symbol for justice in this land is a blindfolded woman holding a balance scale. I don’t think that image would set well with God’s prophets. They would say, “Take the blindfold off and open your eyes. Look and see all the injustice and inequity in the land.”
This is not easy work. It is challenging and difficult. Injustice gets deeply embedded within the systems and structures of society. Calling it out can get you in trouble. It got Jesus crucified.
The prophet Micah asks the question: What does God require? Then he answers it: To love mercy, to do justice, and walk humbly with God. Sisters and brothers, loving mercy is not enough. It’s a good thing, but it’s not enough. We must do justice. We must stand with and speak out for all the victims of injustice. And if we can’t, if we won’t, if we don’t, let’s not pretend to be the body of Christ in the world.
Our good God, Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful.” You have called us to be agents of mercy in a tit-for-tat world that can be hard and cruel. And when we feed the hungry and care for the sick and share in the grief of your hurting children we know we are doing your will. But we also know, that is not enough. For Jesus also said, “Blessed are those who hunger after justice.” Give us the courage to stand with and speak out for those who have been given no voice. Give us hearts of compassion, but also give us the courage to confront the injustice in our government, in massive corporations, in local systems and structures in which we live our lives. Give us the honesty to admit our own omplicity in injustice. And as we come now to eat the bread and drink the cup we are reminded that Jesus was crucified by the powers that be because he was not afraid to confront and critique the religious and political leaders of his day. May we find that same courage. Amen.