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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Isaiah 58:1-8a
June 9, 2013 - Third Sunday after Pentecost

         So you landed a great summer job. A friend of your family wanted you to work for her for three months, cleaning, repairing and painting an apartment building she bought as an investment. She makes you the following offer: “Cash flow,” she says, “is a little tight right now, but if you need to be paid weekly or monthly, I can give you $10 an hour. However, if you will wait till the end of the summer to be paid, I’ll make it $12 an hour.”

         You need your money for college in the fall, so it sounds like a great deal. That extra $2 an hour would mean nearly a $1,000 more toward your tuition in September. So you agree and get busy, pulling weeds, scraping eaves, washing walls, cleaning carpets—lots of hot, dirty, sweaty work. But you keep dreaming about that big payday.

         Your problem starts with the fact that there is an ethical theory which says the right thing to do is whatever will produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. It’s called utilitarianism, and at first glance it makes sense. Do whatever maximizes happiness in the world. It seems like a rule to live by.

         But when you come for your big paycheck, more than $5,000 at the end of August, your employer tells you she is a utilitarian. “So,” she explains, “I thought about giving you all that money, but then I thought of a better way to produce happiness in the world. I gave everything you earned to Covenant World Relief. Just think about all those children who will get clean water and medical care because of you! They must be thanking God.”

         You, of course, don’t feel particularly thankful. There’s a problem here utilitarianism cannot account for. You’ve been misled, mistreated. You were owed that money. She can’t just give it to other people because it would make them happier. This, to use the word in verse 6, is an injustice. It’s wrong.

         Isaiah has a list of injustices in our text, and oppression of workers is one he complains about in verse 3. Pretending to be righteous through a ritual like fasting is useless, he says, if you are committing injustice. Generously making hundreds of poor children happy is no good if you are mistreating someone who worked for you all summer.

         In the next chapter of Isaiah, 59, verse 9, he complains that “justice is far from us.” It’s a frequent theme in the Bible. Human beings behave unjustly to each other. God expects something else. He expects us to be just.

         The non-Christian world before Jesus also believed very much in justice. It’s a constant theme in ancient writers like Plato and Aristotle and others. In fact, justice, after prudence, was one of the four cardinal virtues. In some ways, it was the most important one, the virtue that capped and summed up all the others. The just person is a good person. In Biblical terms, the just person is a righteous person.

         In fact, in the Biblical languages, “justice” and “righteousness” are often the same word. We just translate it differently according to context. To be “just,” to have the virtue of justice, is to possess the highest and best moral character.

         So don’t be misled by the classical definition of justice, which is repeated by Thomas Aquinas and other Christian writers. They say justice is the regular habit of giving to each person whatever is due them. The core of being is responding to each and every human being according to what they deserve. In modern terms we would talk about honoring the rights of individuals.

         That basic definition of justice certainly takes care of the pay for your summer job. The just thing is to pay you, no matter what good the money might do elsewhere. You earned and are due those wages and that paycheck is your right. But in our modern world we’ve become almost entirely focused on justice for individuals. We think we can be just if we just honor the rights of each individual with whom we deal. Justice is just a matter of individuals dealing with each other fairly.

         But justice in both the Bible and the classical world was much larger than individual rights. Classical thinkers realized you couldn’t only give individuals what is due. Human beings are created to live in society with each other, and so justice also means giving your larger community, the society in which you live, what is due. Justice is not only about individual good, it’s about the common good.

         Isaiah has the common good in sight in verses 6 and 7. He’s picturing a society where injustice is undone, where the oppressed are set free, where the hungry are fed, where the homeless are housed, where the naked are clothed, where families are whole and care for each other. When our society is like that, says verse 8, “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.”

         God cares about justice. Jesus fed the hungry on at least three occasions. He healed the sick constantly. In our Gospel lesson this morning from Luke 17, Jesus raised the only son of a poor widow, restoring not only the child she loved, but her means of support in that society.

         Read the law of Moses. Read the prophets. Look at how often God speaks about how we treat each other, especially those who are at the bottom of economic society: the poor, the widows, the foreigners. The vision and promise of God’s kingdom is hope for a society where justice is done for everyone, where everyone receives a portion of the good things God has created.

         Psalm 101 this morning, one we don’t read very often, ends on a harsh note about destroying all the wicked in the land, about cutting off all evildoers. It’s harsh, but look where it begins, look what God is after. Verse 1 is “I will sing of loyalty and justice…” It’s the unjust who are being destroyed and cut off, those who slander neighbors and deceive others by their business practices. God is looking for justice.

         Don’t get confused, however. We can read that Psalm and get justice mixed up with our modern idea that justice is primarily dealing out fair punishment. So we watch movies and listen to news stories about vigilantes or prosecuting attorneys who imagine they are doing justice merely by punishing criminals. But God’s justice is bigger than that. Yes, if you give everyone what is due, then some are due punishment, but many more are due a measure of what makes for a decent and happy life.

         We also struggle with the idea of justice, because in our theology we’ve downplayed justice in favor of mercy. If God were just, we think, we would all get only the punishment we deserve for our sins. So we want God to be merciful rather than just. It’s complicated, but as we read in Romans two years ago, God didn’t quit being just in order to show us mercy. That’s part of why Jesus had to die. God’s justice required it.

         God is both just and merciful, and He wants the same of us. We may be tempted to think about the poor among us, the poor of our world, in terms of some sort of simple justice like, “I don’t owe them anything. Justice doesn’t require me to help them.” But God calls for justice combined with mercy. He asks us to go beyond the bare bones of what is due and required to give out of compassion and mercy, out of love.

         In one of Charles Dicken’s lesser known novels, Martin Chuzzlewit, a character named Tigg says, “Charity begins at home, and justice begins next door.” He’s a crooked financier complaining about how the law keeps interest rates down. But his point is that while we want charity, that is, mercy, for ourselves and those we love, we’re happy to see only justice done next door, for anyone else.

         So Tigg is quite happy, within the boundaries of law, within what he thinks is justice, to charge his customer interest, and a premium, and a bond, and for inquiries about his account, and for secretarial time, and “in short… we stick it into [him], up hill and down dale, and make a devilish comfortable property out of him.” But that’s not the justice the Bible talks about. And that’s not the virtue of justice.

         The virtue of justice is the regular and constant habit of giving everyone, and giving one’s society, what is due. The just woman pays her debts. The just man pays taxes. The just man takes care of his family. The just woman supports measures that care for the poor. The just person has both individual integrity in discharging all obligations and a public concern for the common good of everyone.

         In verse 3 Isaiah pictures people who call to God that they’ve done the right thing, they are fasting, but God is not answering. It doesn’t seem fair to them. It doesn’t seem just. God’s answer is the same as in Ezekiel 33:17, “your people say ‘The way of the Lord is not just,’ when their own way is not just!” God wants His people to be just, to share their food and house the homeless and clothe the needy and take care of their own families.

         Becoming just begins by admitting we are not just. That’s a strong theme in Scripture. You might miss it because, as we said, “righteous” and “just” are often the same word in the Bible. But try putting in “just” for “righteous” in a couple of verses. Romans 3:10, “There is no one just, not even one,” which is a quote from Psalm 14, or Ecclesiastes 7:20, “Surely there is no one on earth who is just…”

         Then turn over to I Peter 3:18 where we read, “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order to bring you to God.” The one Just Man died to forgive our injustice. We are unjust, but God justified us in Jesus Christ. By the grace of what Jesus did, He wants to make us into new, just people.

         Once the grace of Jesus Christ removes the impediment of our inherent injustice, then we can begin to grow into the virtues God wants us to have. Confessing our sins, we see how much room we have to improve. Then we can start becoming more just.

         Like all the cardinal virtues, you grow into it by practice. The way to become just is by doing justice. Our call to worship from Micah 6:8 said it’s what God expects, “do justice” Part of it, as we said, is to do justice to other individuals. If you make a promise, keep it. If you owe a debt, pay it. If someone has authority over you, respect it. If someone works for you, pay them a fair wage. Give to each person you deal with what is due that person.

         The other part of doing justice is to the community in which you live, to the common good. Over and over, as the early Christians felt themselves alienated from the people around them, the apostles reminded them to treat all people justly, to obey the governing authorities, to pray for and care about the common good.

         That’s why we do justice by sharing food and a warm place to sleep with the poor around us, and by working and voting for better ways to permanently meet needs in our community and in our country. In our system of government we do justice by voting for candidates who will do justice. When we vote, God ask us to consider not just our own concerns and interests, but what is good for everyone in our town and state and nation.

         Isaiah was not just talking to individuals as he talked about sharing food or housing the homeless. If you read on in this chapter, you find him in verse 9 speaking about “removing the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil.” Then verse 10 asks again for the sharing of bread, the satisfying of “the needs of the afflicted.” And the promise is that “then your light shall rise in the darkness.” That’s a promise to the Jewish people together, as a society.

         Isaiah goes on to talk about God guiding such a people, watering them like a garden, restoring their streets to live in. That’s a vision of just people creating a just society. That’s what the virtue of justice is ultimately about.

         Recently, people in the Covenant Church have been fond of remembering a woman named Maria. In an autobiography, David Nyvall the founder of North Park College remembers his grandmother, Maria Nilsdotter. In the mid-1840s in Sweden she was married to an abusive, alcoholic man. She lived in the little rural community of Vall. As she turned to her church for help, her drunken husband once tied a rope around her waist and fastened it to the kitchen stove so she couldn’t go off to ask the pastor’s advice.

         The pastor’s advice wasn’t all that profound anyway. He told Maria and her friend Brigitta to read, to read the Bible, to read Luther’s sermons, to read a new magazine called The Pietist. So those two read and prayed. A few other women joined them. People in their town began to spread vicious lies and rumors about what these women were up to away from their homes. But together they began to learn about God’s love for them and God’s love for those in need, God’s heart for justice.

         Then Maria’s abusive husband died and she was left a poor widow with six children. She experienced injustice both to herself and to others. But it moved her not to anger or despair, but to compassion. Nyvall says, “it was not Grandmother’s nature, however, merely to feel compassion. She was accustomed to action.”

         In those days it was common for orphaned, parentless children to be auctioned off as laborers. It was a way supposedly to care for the children, but they were frequently abused. Maria and her friend Brigitta pooled a little money and bought some of these children. But instead of putting them to work they brought them into Maria’s home and began to educate them. Eventually it became a school and an orphanage. They and other women raised money to support the children by knitting and sewing.

         Maria Nilsotter was called the “Mother of Vall” for her work with these children. Finding injustice in her own life and in society around her, she turned around and did justice. Her school and orphanage became known, became an example, throughout Sweden. Maria’s story is what happens when people sit down and read and study God’s Word and the Christian faith and then get up to act. They do justice and they become just. God changes their lives and through them He changes other lives.

         As we sit here listening to the Word and pondering what it means for us, my hope and prayer is that we will also get up from here to do justice, to be just people. It means helping and caring for those around us who need, who deserve a share in God’s good gifts. It means fair and just treatment of people of different nationalities or races. It means praying and working for a better community in which people don’t go hungry or homeless. It means opposing human trafficking here and around the world. It means catching a vision of and aiming toward that just Kingdom of God which Christ came to bring us.

         By His own just mercy, may our Lord help us all to do justice and to become just.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Last updated June 9, 2013