Saturday, September 30, 2006

“An American Story”

James 2:1-10; Mk. 7:24-37[1]

In the 1997 movie, “The Devil’s Own,” Brad Pitt plays an Irish terrorist named Frankie McGuire who comes to the US to buy missiles for the IRA. He’s provided a cover identity and hooked up with an honest, Irish-American cop named Tom O’Meara, played by Harrison Ford. When the cop begins to put the pieces together and figures out who McGuire really is, he decides to bring McGuire in alive. At the tragic ending, McGuire tells him, “Don’t look for a happy ending. It’s not an American Story, it’s an Irish Story.”

It’s not an American story. We like happy endings, where the good guys win and the bad guys lose. We like it when the underdog rises up to succeed against all odds. What that means, I think, is we assume that poverty is not a truly American story. We assume that anyone can pull themselves up with enough hard work, and that anyone who is poor just hasn’t tried hard enough. That may have worked at one time, but the reality of urban life in the new millennium is that it doesn’t any more. There are millions of hard-working people who live in poverty.

Unfortunately, our visions of what God is doing in our world tend to be utopian rather than concrete. In part, focusing on those “other worldly” dimensions of God’s Kingdom lets us off the hook. When we keep our thoughts on streets of gold we don’t have to worry about the streets of asphalt around us. Jesus didn’t take that approach to the Kingdom of God. He proclaimed God’s reign—here and now, not just in the sweet by and by. And he made the Kingdom scandalously concrete—it means justice for the oppressed, mercy for the poor, and release for the captives.

Why this emphasis on the poor, on mercy, and on justice? One of the major points of Jesus’ ministry was to call the people of Israel back to God’s design for living life. That’s what justice is about in the Bible. Justice is not about making laws, keeping laws, and enforcing laws. It’s about living life the way it ought to be lived in relationship with God. Over and over again, the Bible insists that those who love God and will love others, and they will show it by practicing justice and mercy toward the destitute.[2]

Jesus’ expectations for those who claimed to have experienced the blessings of God’s kingdom were no different. What was new was that Jesus said God had begun to establish his reign once and for all, which means that God had begun to do something restore life to the way it ought to be—right here and right now.

The crowds who followed Jesus were mostly made up of common people. They didn’t know where their daily bread was coming from today, let alone tomorrow or next week. They literally had one set of clothes—an inner and an outer garment. They crammed an entire family into a room the size of my bedroom at home. They were disenfranchised and disempowered and hopeless. They were beaten down and constantly deprived of basic human dignity.

The disenfranchised and disempowered are still with us. 80% of the world’s population lives at a level below $2000 per year. Most of own something we don’t absolutely need that costs that much! In the US, the census bureau says that a family of 4 living on less than $20,000 is living in poverty. By their measures, there are about 40 million people living in poverty in this country. Who are they? Seniors who cannot work and only receive a meager income from social security. Children living in households run by single mothers. Couples who work but only make minimum wage (2 people working full time at minimum wage of $5.15/hour would not bring home $20,000 a year!).

Why should we care? The Bible says we should care because God cares for them. It says we should care because God has shown his care to us. It says we should care because Jesus made it clear that the poor and the destitute are the ones whom God intends to redeem. Jesus offers no theoretical basis for practicing mercy and justice. He doesn’t talk about social contracts or categorical imperatives. The basis for Jesus’ demand for justice is not “fairness.” Fairness presupposes that everyone is on equal footing socially and economically. It tends toward an ethics of “let me take care of myself and you take care of yourself.” I don’t think Jesus would have been satisfied with that.

The basis for the kind of justice Jesus demanded was own life. He set a concrete example of that kind of life by living it out for us. Why should we try to follow his example? There are all kinds of reasons, but ultimately it’s because that’s the way God intended for human life to be.

Part of the problem is that we’re essentially selfish people, interested in our own welfare. We even practice our piety for our own sakes, so we can feel good about ourselves. At root, we have to make a fundamental change to orient our lives toward the welfare of others. Only then will justice become a heart-felt passion for us.

Then we can see the poor as human beings and not look down on them. Then we can see how the tragedy of homelessness is such an affront to God’s justice. Then we can see how our luxuries may mean others are deprived of basic necessities. Then we can see the suffering of those who are oppressed by the power structures that give us preferential treatment. Once our eyes are opened, and we see things from a biblical perspective, it becomes like a “fire in our bones” that cannot be put out unless we do something about it.

[1] A Sermon preached 9/9/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 451.

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