The Gospel of Justice
An advertising company in Dallas and a Christian foundation in Kansas have teamed up on a nation-wide project. It is an public relations campaign called, “He Gets Us.” They are using billboards, 30-second videos, and catchy slogans to start a movement, to stir up interest, to talk about Jesus.
Have you seen any of these ads?
The videos have been viewed 300 million times. I have watched them. You can too at hegetsus.com. Give it a try.
Jon Lee is a chief architect of the effort. He said they want to start a movement of people to tell a better story about Jesus and motivate people to actually act like Jesus!
That would be nice, wouldn’t it?
At a time when organized religion is losing members and influence, here is a group that is by-passing the church altogether and going straight to the streets. I hope, on their way, they stop by Psalm 82. That’s where we are stopping today!
This psalm reveals something very important about our gospel, our good news, the good word of the justice of God.
Justice is setting things right, putting things in order, making things they way they need to be for people to sing for joy and live with hope. God is in the business of justice, of making things right, of doing good in the world, of being righteous in the world. God wants you to be righteous. God wants us to be righteous.
There are all kinds of brokenness in the world, all kinds of ways that are not right, not fair, not just, not righteous. In the last three weeks, two sports have been rocked by scandal, by accusations of unfair play, by efforts to break the rules and win by cheating. Those two sports? Chess and fishing! Surprised?
As to fishing, two men won a fishing competition. They caught the largest fish, by weight…until it was discovered they had inserted small steel balls, weights, into the fish.
The chess cheating situation is similar. An American grand champion was receiving signals from a co-conspirator during a game that was broadcast around the world. That co-conspirator was watching the grand champion playing the chess game and feeding the game info into a computer. The computer was calculating the best move, allowing the co-conspirator to send radio signals to the chess champion. How were those signals sent and received? By the use of small vibrating steel balls shoved up into the most unsavory crevice of the human body. Need I be any more graphic?
Breaking the rules, taking unfair advantage, disrespecting other people, other players, the game itself.
These are games, but many people do this in life.
We have all been hearing about the scandal in Mississippi. The former governor and an all-pro quarterback conspired with others to divert money designated for poor people to a pet project: building a volleyball arena on a university campus. These two men and others were wealthy themselves. But instead of using their own money in an act of charity and generosity, they schemed with others to take from the poor and give to the rich.
This is one way justice is denied, fairness perverted, righteousness suppressed.
This psalm, number 82, speaks into this situation:
“‘How long will you hand down unjust decisions by favoring the wicked? Give justice to the poor and the orphan. Uphold the rights of the oppressed and the destitute. Rescue the poor and helpless. Deliver them from the grasp of evil people.”
There is much about this psalm I do not understand. It is an ancient language reflecting an ancient culture. I am not surprised that some of it illudes us. It should not surprise any of us that some things about this psalm, about any psalm, about any portion of the Hebrew Bible should confound us, or even confuse us.
But some things are clear, and this declaration of the justice of God is one of them. It shines through the clouds of this confusing poem. “Give justice to the poor and the orphan. Uphold the rights of the oppressed and the destitute. Rescue the poor and helpless. Deliver them from the grasp of evil people.”
I understand these words. They sound the same in English as they do in Hebrew. They mean the same in the 21st century of the common era as they did in the 8th century before this common era.
This psalm echoes the demand of the prophet Amos, “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Or like Micah the prophet, “What does God require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.”
Some people don’t get a fair shake in life, and it is the business of God and God’s people to take up for them, to speak on their behalf, to address their needs, to seek justice for them. This is the good news of the kingdom of God.
The gospel of Luke describes Jesus standing in the pulpit of his home synagogue, in Nazareth and quoting another prophet, Isaiah. He read these words, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me for God has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor, to proclaim that captives are free, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be released, that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.”
That is gospel preaching. That is the gospel of justice.
Not everybody thinks this is gospel work.
Many divide the work of God in our hearts from the work of God through our hands. One is the gospel, and we call it salvation, they say; the other is not the gospel, but rather the righteous deeds of a redeemed life. One leads to salvation; the other flows from salvation.
This division is familiar to many of us. I confess that I was shaped as a believer and a disciple with this understanding of what the gospel is and what it is not. Repent and believe, I was taught, is the way of salvation; but learn and behave, I was taught, is the way a saved person lives.
But this split between what we do with heart and head—believe—and what we do with hands and feet—behave—is unbiblical, impractical, and deeply confusing in the living of our lives.
A few years ago, a cohort of conservative ministers (all men!) gathered in Dallas and launched a process to write a public statement. They were concerned about race, gender, and sex, about social justice, about the threat of what is now called wokeness. They were fearful that private actions and public policies addressing these things were calling Christian people to an effort of justice that threatened the status quo in both church and state. They wanted to push back against social justice.
One piece of that 14-section document, reads, “We deny that works … performed or opinions … held, can be added to the gospel without perverting it into another gospel…. The obligation to live justly in the world … [is] not [a component] …of the gospel.”
This narrow, stingy version of our faith shuts down most of what Jesus taught, much of what the Hebrew prophets and poets wrote, and all that we know about faith, hope, and love, about being human in our world today.
The gospel of God is a two-sided coin: with one side, we hear the word of God, renounce our self-centered ways, and confess Jesus as Lord and Savior. One verse of the Bible reads, “If you will believe in your heart and confess with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord, you will be saved.”
But the other side of our gospel coin has a picture of the Good Samaritan with the words, “Go and do likewise.” It is a reference to the question the seeker put to Jesus: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” To answer that question, Jesus told of a man beaten, robbed, and left to die, until a stranger came along, had compassion, took action, and saved his life. Jesus concluded his famous story with these strong words: “You go and do the same!”
What must I do to have eternal life? is the question; and the answer is, help the weak who are dying in a ditch!
These are two versions of the one gospel word: in your heart and with your head, believe God, trust God, worship God, honor God, especially when it pushes you to confess your sin and change your ways; and with your hands, your feet, and your money, go feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, and welcome the stranger.
Our gospel is believing and behaving. It is justice for the sinner and justice for the sick. It is the righteousness of God on earth as it is in heaven. It is the mind of Christ and the life of Christ. “I want to know Christ,” we read this summer in the Epistle to the Philippians. “I want to know the power of his resurrection in life and in death, especially if it leads to service or suffering.” That is the Moody paraphrase!
I first learned these things as a teenager.
On my own, I read the 19th century novel, What Would Jesus Do? and then in a group setting at church, I was introduced to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his book, The Cost of Discipleship. They led me to the full-gospel, not about speaking in tongues but about speaking the truth, loving my neighbor, and following only Jesus as Lord and Savior.
This psalm number 82 is full of gospel, full of good news, full of the kingdom of God.
Now, I admit, there are some things in this psalm I don’t understand. Verse one, for instance, declares that God (Elohim) pronounces judgment on the heavenly beings (Elohim)! What does that mean? The Hebrew word “Elohim” is used to refer both to the Lord God and also to some gathering in heaven: a gathering of angels? of men? of gods? Who knows?
Fortunately, I don’t have to answer these questions. We at Providence have our own resident Hebrew scholar, and it is not me. He is sitting right here on the second pew next to Marcy his wife; and if this confusing sentence troubles you, bring your Bible to Dr. Mynatt after church today and tell him to explain it all!
I will tell you what I do understand: verses 3 and 4. “Give justice to the poor and the orphan. Uphold the rights of the oppressed and the destitute. Rescue the poor and helpless. Deliver them from the grasp of evil people.” And do these things with your personal efforts and also through our public policies.
When I read these words, I see in my mind’s eye the men and women, boys and girls of Ukraine who need to be delivered from the grasp of that evil man Putin. When I read these words, I see in my memory the extended families huddled along the Rio Grande seeking a promise land. When I read these words, I see in my imagination, hundreds of thousands of sick people all over the world, stricken with the COVID 19 and needing a hospital bed. When I read these words, I pull up pictures of men leaving prison, finally freed after serving a decade or two or three for a crime they did not commit.
I see what Jesus saw. Naked people needing clothes. Poor people needing jobs. Sick people needing doctors. Alone people needing friendship and community. Desperate people needing safety. Depressed people needing joy and hope. Old people (like me) needing somebody to stop, look them in the eye, and say, in the words of John Prine, “Hello in there!”
I see all of us looking into the face of Jesus and hearing him say to us, to me and to you, “Come. Follow me. Do what I do. Say what I say. Deny your self. Take up your own cross, a cross of service, of welcome, of trust in God and love for your neighbor. Take up that cross and follow me. Let’s make our way to the kingdom of God, to the new Jerusalem, to beloved community.”
I’m marching to Zion. Come, go with me!