August 13th, 2018

Act Justly

Justice says we are all deserving; Gospel Justice insists we are all undeserving.

Zechariah 7:9-10; James 1:26-2:13


Not them but me

I’m a little reluctant to begin a sermon this way, but I guess not too much so or I wouldn’t do it. Tell me about your “But.”

I began my sermon last week by acknowledging that this subject puts many of us in “But Mode.” That’s especially true of those raised in congregations where “justice” was not a part of the teaching. It’s true also of those who are politically conservative. And it’s true of those who are at least middle class, and believe they’ve made responsible choices. I understand all three categories, because they all fit me.

I received an email Monday from someone who shared his “But.” He wrote, “I want to have compassion and I try to help those with real need, but people abuse the system. Should I turn a deaf ear to the injustice of those seeking justice?”

I suspect he speaks for many. In response, I want to say today that I know the issues involved here are complex and layered. And perhaps it will set some of your minds at ease if I remind you that all my sermons, but especially this one, are not primarily about what the government should or should not do. I don’t know enough to have a well-formed opinion of what politicians should do.

What I’m trying to do in these sermons is to ask how the individual Christian should think and act, and what the church can do – specifically, our church. If you or I spend too much thought or too many words on government’s role, then in most cases we’re thinking about them – what someone else is doing, whether right or wrong. I want to focus on me, on my response to God’s Word. I ask you to do the same.

Like a mother

We began last week with arguably the most central Bible verse on justice, Micah 6:8. “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you?  To act justly (mishphat), and to love mercy (hesed), and to walk humbly with your God.” This week’s sermon focuses on the first requirement: to act justly.

Today’s reading from Zechariah 7, the next-to-last book in the Old Testament. Zechariah prophesied after the people returned home from exile. During their captivity the people had been fasting the fifth month of every year, the month their temple had been destroyed. Now that the temple was under reconstruction, the people wanted to know if they should continue their fasting ritual.

God’s answer is verses 9-10. “Actually, fasting wasn’t ever what I really wanted from you. Here’s what I want:  justice (mishphat), kindness (hesed), and compassions (racham).” The first two words parallel Micah 6:8. The third word comes from the word “womb.” It’s the kind of commitment a mother has for the child she carried for nine months. It’s a bond that never diminishes. The umbilical cord of compassion is lifelong.

God says, “That’s how I see every person I have made. They are all my babies.” The literal translation is, “Show compassions” (plural), followed by “every person to every other, treating them as family.” That’s the positive side.

What follows is the negative command:  “Do not oppress” (“squeeze”) four groups of people – widow, orphan, foreigner, or the poor. Widow, orphan, and poor are rather obvious terms. “Foreigner” is a word that literally means “guest” – it could be a traveler, a newcomer, or an immigrant – someone who’s “not from ‘round here.”

This ethical system in Israel was unique among ancient religions, most of whom sounded more like today’s prosperity gospel:  the gods favor and reward the rich and powerful. That’s how they became prosperous.

Widows, orphans, foreigners, and the poor are persons who are likely to be on a “But List.” In the context of most societies they are not the ones who are valued. This system is radical in any culture where men matter more (vs. widows), families matter (vs. orphans), our people matter (vs. foreigners), success matters (vs. poor).

The message all through the Old Testament is that Hebrew people must never forget their own slavery in Egypt. Cruelty turned too many women into widows, too many children into orphans. They were all foreigners for four centuries! And they were all poor, with no way to improve their lot. Moses, Job, the psalmists, the prophets – they all consistently declare God’s advocacy for widows, orphans, foreigners, and the poor – and God’s judgment on those who oppress them. Exodus 22:22 says, “Don’t mistreat widows or orphans. If you do and they cry out to me, you can be sure I’ll take them most seriously; I’ll come raging among you with the sword, and your wives will end up widows and your children orphans.”

Clean religion

Each week during August we will study both an Old Testament and a New Testament text. It was difficult to decide where to pick up and end our reading in James. I would love to have begun with 1:19 and read all the way through 2:26, but it was too long. James 1:19 begins a section about controlling your tongue by listening more and better – to others and to God’s Word. In verse 26, James says if you don’t control your tongue, your “religion is worthless.”

Most of us have heard all our lives that Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship. Well, yes and no. It just depends on how you define “religion.” If by “religion” you mean a way to get to God, then the point is that we see our faith differently. We’re not trying to ascend to God; he has already come to us in Jesus.

But if by “religion” you mean a set of beliefs and practices, then yes, we are religious. If you believe in the Apostles’ Creed, come to church, contribute money, take communion, read your Bible, serve the world, that’s all part of your religion. James is not using the word negatively here. To James, being “religious” is being committed with your heart and your actions to what you say you believe. It’s the opposite of hypocrisy.

“Well,” James says, “if you think you’re religious but you don’t control your tongue, your religion is useless.” A kid might say, “It’s just stupid.”

“OK, James, what kind of religion is not stupid?” James picks up on Zechariah 7:9-10. “Religion that is clean and uncontaminated before God the Father (don’t you want that kind?) is this:  to visit orphans and widows in their trial, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (27). This is James’ twist on Zechariah. It’s not just about a handout. It’s about relationship (“visit”) with those who are vulnerable, marginalized, needy. James is reaffirming what Moses and the prophets said. This practical concern and investment in the vulnerable demonstrates the reality of your faith.

Later in chapter 2, he will say that without these good deeds, your so-called faith is a sham. It’s not a second-class faith; it’s not faith at all. If your faith doesn’t clothe the naked or feed the hungry, “What good is it?” (2:16). It’s dead (2:17), and simply mimics the demons who “believe” but are unchanged (2:18). Without concern for the poor, James says, your false faith comes from hell. Remember, this is the New Testament!


This talk of clean religion prompts James to address a parallel problem that apparently existed among his readers. “My brothers and sisters,” he writes in verse 1, “believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism.”

The word “favoritism” in Greek is a compound word joining the word “face” and “accept.” In other words, to show favoritism or partiality is to decide whether to accept someone based only on the face. It could be the color of the face, the age of the face, the smile or frown on the face, whether the face is male or female, clean-shaven or bearded, tattooed and pierced or not. And, of course, accepting or rejecting someone “at face value” is only a metaphor for the whole body – whether there is disability, what the person is wearing, whether the person is well-shaped, and so on.

The illustration James gives in verses 2-4 is probably hypothetical, but real. You’re having a church service, and two strangers arrive. One appears well-dressed and wealthy, and the other is obviously not only poor but dirty and smelly. Which one will be seated more favorably and honorably? If you make that decision based on face value, James says, “Have you not discriminated” (the word means “make a distinction”) and haven’t you “become judges with evil thoughts?” (4) Notice it is not just what you say or do, but how you’re thinking about the relative value or these two persons.

In the next paragraph, James implies several things about the community he’s addressing. First, he knows them, and they know him. They have a special bond. He’s writing to “my dear brothers and sisters” (5). Second, they are most likely a Jewish Christian community, meaning they know the Old Testament but James has also taught them Jesus’ teachings such as “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” And third, most of them are not only poor, but they themselves are victims of the greedy rich who are exploiting them and even dragging them into court.

Historically, the Christian gospel often connects first and best with lower socio-economic classes. Jesus himself said it’s hard for the self-sufficient wealthy to be converted. They (falsely) think they have no needs. That’s also true of those of us in the so-called middle class who believe we have gotten where we are by hard work and perseverance. Tim Keller says most of us are “middle class in spirit” – meaning that we tend to think we deserve most of God’s blessings. Most of us who are middle class and up are second- or third- or tenth-generation Christians.

James is writing to a poor community, pointing out the irony of favoring the rich who are likely the ones oppressing them, while disfavoring the poor, who are far more likely to respond to the Gospel.

In verses 8-11, James adds another rationale that is particularly targeted to Jewish Christians, who still very much value the Old Testament law. Paying attention to God’s laws, James says, can’t be selective. Just because you don’t murder and don’t commit adultery doesn’t get you off the hook. If you show favoritism, that’s sin too, because God’s law says to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Then, in verses 12-13, James offers a summary of his version of New Testament theology. Mercy has permanently replaced judgment. Under the old system, you were judged by how well you kept the law. Now, in Jesus the “law” is mercy, and it gives freedom. “Mercy” is the New Testament equivalent of hesed, that same word that pervades the Old Testament. But nothing in the Old Covenant really freed you to be treated mercifully all the time for every sin.

Again, however, recalling the teaching of Jesus, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy,” James gives the test for whether you “get” mercy. When you advocate justice and show mercy to someone undeserving, you demonstrate that you have embraced this new system of mercy-based freedom. When you act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God, that is the best evidence that you have responded in faith to the Gospel of Jesus. If you, however, show favoritism toward those you think have the capacity to give something back to you, while discriminating against the needy and vulnerable, then it’s quite likely Jesus has never claimed and changed your heart.

You may say, “Pastor Bob, aren’t you reading too much into this text? After all, James is known for not being very Christ-centered.” And I will answer by pointing you back to verse 1. James was the biological younger brother of Jesus who was a skeptic during Jesus’ public ministry but later became one of Jesus’ followers and advocates.

Can you imagine growing up with an older brother and coming to the place where you referred to him as “our glorious Lord Jesus Christ”? “Christ” means Messiah. “Jesus” means Savior. “Lord” is the New Testament equivalent of Yahweh, the name reserved exclusively for God. James adds a fourth word, “glorious,” in case you missed the other three. The whole Gospel is in that title.

The entire argument of this passage is that if you claim to be a believer in Jesus, a fully human flesh-and-blood man who is also fully God who became our Savior, then his teachings and his way of life changes everything. Specifically, it transforms you into a person who rejects favoritism (treating people based on what you think they deserve) to a person of mercy (treating people without regard to what they deserve).

Act Justly

I am indebted for some of my train of thought today to Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. His book, Generous Justice, is one we have recommended to you already, and this week Pastor Paul sent me a link to one of his teachings on justice.

What does it mean to “act justly”? Remember that the word mishphat carries a range of legal meanings – the judge, the attorneys, the system, the law, the courtroom – it’s all about what’s fair and right. The problem, of course, is that people see the implications of justice very differently. And that’s okay, in my book. When I say my expertise is not in government, I am not saying that Christians shouldn’t take their passion for justice into the public square. We just shouldn’t be surprised if other Christians see the political solutions differently. And it’s quite possible that the varying responses are all needed to make a difference.

Ultimately, though, and this is important, it’s not about visible results, measuring how much difference it makes. It can’t be. Jesus himself said, “The poor you will always have with you.” It’s where liberals and conservatives point the finger at each other and say, “Your philosophy doesn’t work because there are still poor people.” Justice is about doing the right thing because it’s the right thing, and Gospel Justice is about why we do it.

Gospel Justice is about changed hearts. One key difference between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant is that the old works primarily on the exterior. These are the rules you need to keep. The New works from the inside – hearts must be changed. That’s why we share the Good News of Jesus, because we believe that only by a full embrace of the Gospel can a life be transformed.

“Ah,” you may say, “That’s it! You’re saying we can’t solve these problems by working for equality. We have to preach the Gospel more, evangelize more.”

No, that’s not what I’m saying at all. It’s true that we need to share the Gospel, but when the Bible – and this is true of Old and New Testament – talks about the hearts that need changing, it’s not the widows and poor and orphans and foreigners who need radical transformation. It’s the “Haves” whose hearts must be changed. I can’t think of anywhere in the Bible that speaks of rich and poor where it says the poor need to mimic the hearts and minds of the rich to improve their lot.

We have to realize how broken and undeserving we are, because only then will we stop talking about what “they” deserve or don’t deserve. I deserve nothing, and all I have is a gift. That’s not just my salvation – it’s my financial security. As Tim Keller says, even the century you were born in is God’s gift to you – much more so what part of the country, what genetics, what parents, what environment, what gifts and skills.

Justice says everyone is deserving, that we need to pull others up where we are. That can lead to guilt about what I have or responding to a sense of duty, and it doesn’t last. By contrast, Gospel Justice says no one is deserving. When we get grace, we never ask whether the poor deserve compassion, mercy, or justice. No one does. Gospel Justice doesn’t try to convince us that “they” are as good as we are. Gospel Justice reminds us there is no “they” or “we.” We are all in deep need.

If God accepted people only by first impression, where would any of us be? If he rated us on our worthiness, what blessings would he give us? And yet he, though he was rich, for our sakes became poor. That’s so beautiful, so amazing, so life-transforming. Because I have been given much, I too must give. Amen.

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