Gary Haugen, President and founder of International Justice Mission, suggests three reasons why the church is reluctant to preach justice.
We’re reluctant to preach justice because it’s perceived to bring politics into the pulpit. Partisan politics, we all know, have no place in the pulpit.
Second, justice is not always the felt needs of those in the pew. For largely middle class congregations like mine, injustice is the subject we read about in the news, not live daily.
Third, talking about justice opens the door of so much despair in our world. The overwhelming quantity and depth of the world’s problems leaves us feeling fatigue and paralyzed.
And so we’re reluctant, if not downright resistant, to talk about justice in church.
But here’s the rub: God seems to really like justice. Throughout scripture God’s character is defined by justice, like when God says “I the Lord love justice (Isaiah 61:8)” or the Psalmist sings “The Lord loves justice and righteousness (Psalm 33:5).” And it doesn’t seem right to interpret these passages as meaning that God loves when people “get what they deserve.” Instead, as I’ve said before, “justice” seems to be a beautiful word that really means something akin to God’s intent for all of creation, or, the way things are meant to be. And that typically has little to do with giving people what they deserve.
A great example of “the way things are meant to be” is Leviticus 19:9-20 where farmers are commanded not to harvest all their crops so the poor can harvest it for themselves. Richard Foster says, “There seemed in this law to be an almost holy indifference as to whether the poor deserved their poverty; the simple fact of need was sufficient reason to provide for them.” Giving people what they need, not what they deserve, is God’s definition of justice.
We see this in Jesus’ parable from Matthew 20:1-16, where the protagonist acts with profound unfairness, paying workers the same whether they work a full day, or only one hour. Why such unfairness? Because he’s paying them what is “right (20:4),” not paying what they deserve or have earned. The latecomers (where they also lazy?) deserved less, but needed exactly what they got.
This is Christianity 101, and it’s called “grace.” Rob Bell celebrates this, saying “Grace and generosity aren’t fair, that’s their very essence.” Praise God, we are “now justified by his grace as a gift (Romans 3:24)”! In other words, God treats us according to Jesus character, not ours.
Reminds me of a teacher who tells her students on the first day of every school year:
I’ve been thinking about you all summer and I love you already. You may not believe this, but there is nothing you can do to earn my love. You can have straight A’s and perfect behavior all year, or get detention 3 days a week and I’m going to love you the same.
And then she spends the rest of the year proving it. Why? Because with God, people get what they don’t deserve! This is the way things are meant to be.
Aha! We’ve now arrived at a fourth, and perhaps most important reason the church doesn’t preach justice: it absolutely outrages us! Are you kidding me, we ask ourselves, people getting what they don’t deserve? How un-American!
We have a vested interest in the merit system of God, “You reap what you sow;” after all, we’ve worked hard. We’re workers, doers- people who define discipleship as doing things for Jesus; or, more specifically, doing things for church. We’ve “borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”
And Jesus wants equality, to give the same to them as to us? No way!
As the parable comes to a close we realize it’s not about grace, it’s about the anger that God’s grace stirs in us. We are bitter Jonah, we are the eldest son in the parable of the Prodigal Sons, and we are the hard workers: all of whom grumble at God’s generosity. His story unmasks our outrage when grace is applied to someone else. Why? Because our sense of worth depends on us being better-than someone, anyone else. Better than the poor, better than the lazy, better than sinners, better than homosexuals, better than the non-Christian, better than anyone who doesn’t see it like we do. Better-than.
And so, as William Bausch says, “If money makes us lovable, then we must keep others poor. If goodness makes us lovable, then we have a vested interest in others evil.” As I’ve explored before, “We can make ourselves more valuable (by becoming good, athletic, rich, pretty, popular, or by becoming a blogger!) or make someone else less valuable (through put downs, racism, discrimination, labeling).”
In one simple story Jesus unmasks my frustration with God’s policy of grace and justice. He unmasks my desire to be better-than. He unmasks my habitual disobedience of not gracing others as he has graced me. He unmasks my reluctance to preach justice and desires for social inequality. God, it seems, treats us all with profound unfairness. And demands we do the same. This is justice.
And yet here I sit, grabbing for grace and grumbling when it’s given to others.
Lord have mercy. AMEN