The Heart of Christianity: The Heart of Justice

October 30, 2016


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
Oct. 30, 2016

“The Heart of Christianity – The Heart of Justice”
Matt. 6:9-13

“The Bible is political…” says Marcus Borg, “It combines sharp political criticism and passionate political advocacy: radical criticism of systems of domination and impassioned advocacy of an alternative social vision.”

I thought that might make all of us sit up in our seats! I’m sure the last thing you wanted when you came to church this morning was more politics. Don’t worry. As we go through Marcus Borg’s book The Heart of Christianity in the coming weeks, we will hit on many topics that he describes as essential for following Jesus. Today’s topic is not politics – but it is justice.

We are continuing to look together at Marcus Borg’s book The Heart of Christianity and today’s topic is “the Heart of Justice”. Let’s explore for a moment what Biblical justice is. Borg says that we often misunderstand what God’s justice is about, because we see God’s mercy as the opposite. The idea is that we sin and deserve punishment for our sin; but God is merciful and forgives us. But God’s mercy is not the opposite of God’s justice. The opposite of God’s justice is human injustice. It is the way we shape our societies, policies, and treatment of others.

Borg notes that in the United States in particular, there is an ethos of individualism. It isn’t that he is against the idea that individuals have rights, choice and opportunity. Rather, it is putting individualism as a core value that affects our ideas about justice. The idea that we are primarily the product of our own initiative and hard work is sometimes used to legitimate a social system that does not provide a safety net for those who cannot succeed. This stands in contrast to how the Bible understands justice for all of God’s creation.

Here are some examples of Biblical justice:
• God sends Moses to free the Hebrew slaves in Egypt from an oppressive Egyptian Pharaoh. The liberation they experienced was political, economic and religious.
• The Bible is clear about the injustice of the Babylonian exile. Loudly voicing God’s judgment against the monarchies and kingdoms were prophets Amos, Isaiah, Micah, and Jeremiah.
• The Hebrew law provided that farmers left grain in the fields for the less fortunate; Ruth & Naomi were able to eat because of this law.
• Repeating the Hebrew Bible stories of injustice, oppression and liberation, Jesus repeatedly advocated for the disabled, for widows, orphans, the poor and the marginalized.

Jesus spoke about God’s justice by using the well known phrase “Kingdom of God”. Many of Jesus’ parable and short sayings included a teaching about the Kingdom of God. The center of what we know as The Lord’s Prayer includes “thy kingdom come.”

The word kingdom describes a form of government. The people to whom Jesus spoke lived in a world where there were real kingdoms. This wasn’t a Cinderella story with a kingdom – this was real life. This was not “once upon a time” or a “magic kingdom”. In Jesus time, kingdom referred to the ancient system of domination by powerful and wealthy elites.

Jesus used the Kingdom of God to contrast what the people were experiencing to what life would be like on earth if God were the monarch and the rulers they knew were not. Make no mistake, for Jesus, the Kingdom of God was something for the earth – not for heaven. In the Lord’s Prayer, for example, Jesus taught us to say “thy kingdom com, they will be done, on earth, as it already is in heaven”. Or to quip as John Dominic Crossan did, “Heaven’s in great shape; earth is where the problems are.”

The Lord’s Prayer is our traditional word for today, and I would encourage you to look at the bulletin where it is printed as I talk about it. Jesus’ audience when he taught the prayer was the peasant class. The powerful and wealthy elites, along with their support class, lived mostly in cities. The peasant underclass – most of the population – lived in rural areas. Jesus avoided the cities except for Jerusalem. Instead, he spoke in small towns, villages, and the countryside.

After the phrase “thy kingdom come on earth”, the next petition is “give us this day our daily bread.” Daily food – even bread – was always an issue in the peasant class. God’s Kingdom (in contrast to the other kingdoms they knew) is about enough bread.

After bread, the prayer highlights debt forgiveness “forgive us our debts”. We have spiritualized the word debt to mean sin. Debt, along with bread, was the primary survival issue in peasant life in the 1st century. Indebtedness could lead to the loss of one’s land (if one still owned any), and the descent into the even more precarious world of the tenant farmer or day laborer.

Bring to mind the movies and pictures you’ve likely seen about living through the American depression — workers standing at fences begging to work just a day in order to feed their families.

Jesus’ prayer names the 2 central and material concerns of peasant life: bread and debt forgiveness. Look again at the prayer. In the early part – God’s name is called holy. Look at the imperative… the hallowing of God’s name involves the coming of the Kingdom, bread for all, and debt forgiveness. So the coming of God’s Kingdom means blessing and happiness for the poor. It means food for the hungry. This is a prayer about our lives on this earth.

I realize that the issue of wealth is a sensitive point for many people, including myself. If you compare most of us to the rest of the world – we are living much more comfortably than a good percent of the world. It is important to emphasize that wealthy or comfortable people can be very good individuals, just as those with less can be. That is not the issue.

The issue is a systems issue: the structuring of the economic system and whose interests it serves. For those of us who have enough (or more than enough) the question is: How are we going to use our resources and/or influence? Will we use it to bring about change or to support the narrow self-interest of a few?

There were those around Jesus who supported his ministry with their money. Imagine what it would have taken to support the crowds of those who followed him! Joanna, Susanna, Phoebe, Nicodemus, and Joseph of Arimathea were all named as role models for those who are comfortable or wealthy. These were people who opened their homes to Jesus and his friends. They offered what they had – hospitality, food, money, encouragement, and even a personal tomb for Jesus’ burial.

The Bible – both testaments – calls us to enact the Kingdom of God in our own time and place. Jesus challenges us to bring about fairness and equality to those we meet. The Christian faith motivates us to an engaged spirituality that affects our attitudes and actions.

As Fredrick Buechner said, “Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” So, let us leave with Jesus’ prayer on our lips

Our God in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.

May it be so. Amen.