Sunday, September 16, 2007

“Do This and Live”
Psalm 82; Luke 10:24-37[1]
I think that most people in our society are obsessed with the pursuit of happiness. It’s almost as if the Founding Fathers have convinced us that we have a fundamental right to pursue happiness. And if we’re not happy, we are relentless and even ruthless in seeking happiness—whether by changing our bodies or by changing our jobs or by changing our spouses.
But the consistent witness of the Scriptures is that the only way to find happiness in this life is to live in an authentic relationship with God. So far so good—we seem obsessed with that too, at times. But I think we have missed a vital aspect of what it means to live in friendship with God. We find it spelled out pretty clearly in our Psalm text for today—throughout the biblical witness, the one characteristic of what it means to be truly related to God is to practice justice.[2] Although that word sounds strange as a definition of what it means to be a Christian, it shouldn’t. From Deuteronomy to Amos to Jesus, it is the defining quality of those who want to know God!
For some reason, we just cannot get past the notion that “justice” equals “judgment,” which equals condemnation. God’s “justice” really has little to do with condemnation. God’s justice enhances the quality of life. God’s justice sets out to rescue the helpless and the hurting.[3] Even when it comes to those who may be guilty of wrong-doing, God’s justice comes to them as grace and mercy rather than condemnation![4]
Rather than setting up some sort of means of sorting out the good from the bad and assigning guilt and punishment, God’s justice is about living the life we were meant to live. It’s about the peace and mercy and love and kindness that make for “life abundant.”[5] In the Psalms, God’s justice means that the hungry are fed, the prisoners are set free, the blind receive their sight, those who are bowed down are lifted up, the “strangers” or resident immigrants have someone to watch over them, and the widows and orphans are supported.
That’s what Jesus was talking about when he preached about the kingdom of God. One contemporary preacher puts it this way: “There are only two ways you can enter the kingdom and experience its joy. One is to be among the poor, oppressed, bruised, blind, and brokenhearted; those to whom God comes as healing, comfort, justice, and freedom. The other way is to be among God’s people who are going to the poor, oppressed, bruised, blind, and brokenhearted and bringing God’s healing, comfort, justice, and freedom.”[6]
Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook when it comes to our pursuit of happiness. In our Gospel lesson a Jewish scribe, who was an expert in God’s torah, correctly answers Jesus’ question about what scripture teaches is the way to find life—to love God and to love another. But then I think Jesus shocked him and everybody else by saying, “Do this and you will live.” Can you believe it—Jesus says that if we want to find life, then we should actually do what God’s truth teaches us! Jesus doesn’t make our quest for happiness easier, he makes it harder!
Think about it: what’s easier—to check of a list of rules, or to truly love God and truly love your neighbor? But according to Jesus, that’s what it means to “find life”![7] Living the life that is truly life is living in relationship with God, and that means “to commit oneself wholly to God and to God’s way.”[8]
One of the best definitions of justice is to recognize “the intrinsic claim of every person to be considered a person.”[9] As the parable of the Good Samaritan shows us, we can only do that when we see ourselves in others, and see them in us.[10] We have to understand that there was no such thing as a “good” Samaritan for the Jewish people of Jesus’ day. Talking about a “good” Samaritan would be about like an “honest” liar. It’s an oxymoron: Samaritans were the “despised” Samaritans.
The “religious” people might have expected Jesus to tell them that they should love their neighbors, including the “hated” Samaritans. But Jesus turned the tables on them. The parable of the Good Samaritan doesn’t teach us to go out and help the outcasts! The hated Samaritan in Jesus’ parable is not the one in need of help. The despised one truly practices the justice that has always defined what it means to be rightly related to God!
Putting the justice of God’s kingdom into practice means more than just feeling sorry for the disenfranchised or giving money to causes that support the marginalized. It means becoming a fellowship that goes out to seek the Kingdom of God where Jesus said it would be—among the hungry and the homeless, among the aliens and the convicts. It means that we welcome and embrace the Christ who dwells among the outcasts.[11]

[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/15/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.
[2] J. Clinton McCann, Jr., A Theological Introduction to the Book of Psalms, 122-124.
[3] Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, 139: “God cares about justice because the God of the Bible cares about suffering.”
[4] Borg, 127: “The opposite of God’s justice is not God’s mercy, but human injustice.”
[5] J. Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 121; Nicholas Wolferstorff, “Justice as a Condition of Authentic Liturgy,” Theology Today 48 (April, 1991) 16.
[6] Stephen Shoemaker, GodStories, 217–18; cf. Isaiah 1:16-17; James 1:27-28.
[7] Perry Yoder, “Liberated by Law,” Sojourners Magazine, September-October 1999 (Vol. 28, No. 5), 46.
[8] Patrick Miller, Deuteronomy, 213.
[9] Paul Tillich, Love, Power and Justice, 25, 36, 60.
[10] Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, reprinted in Ministry and Spirituality, 134.
[11] Moltmann, Church in the Power of the Spirit, 355; J. David Pleins, The Psalms: Songs of Tragedy, Hope and Justice, 180.

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