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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj