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Jesus & Justice: The Eclipse of Justice
Matthew 23:1 - 23:24
January 23, 2022
Reverend Jason Harris
In this sermon, we delve deeper into the topic of justice as we explore the relationship between upholding the gospel and social responsibility.
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Albert Raboteau was one of my college professors and an early pioneer in African American religious history. He literally wrote the book on Slave Religion. Sadly, he passed away this fall, but he has had an enduring influence. He was a remarkable man. His father was murdered by a white man, three months before he was ever born. The man was never even prosecuted. Despite the fact that Raboteau never knew his father, somehow he found a way to forgive his dad's killer, and became a powerful voice for racial reconciliation. He was born a Roman Catholic in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, although he eventually converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. He tells a story of when he was seven-years-old. It was the summer of 1951. His family overslept, so they were late for the church that they would normally go to. So that particular Sunday they attended the white church. When they arrived, they were told to sit in the back. They had to squeeze into half a pew, and when it was time for communion, seven-year-old Albert Raboteau went forward and knelt at the rail. The priest who was carrying the host, the body of Christ, passed him by not just once, not just twice, but three times and did not serve him communion until all the white people in the congregation had received it. He describes this moment, and his later reflections upon it, in his memoir, A Sorrowful Joy. He says, after this occurred,
“I stumble back from communion, hot-faced with shame, a blur of numbness. Afterward, we drive away. I remain silent. Forty years later, on a research trip to Charleston, I went to Mass in the cathedral in the old, historic district downtown. Late, I sit in the back. At communion time, I rise to stand in line in a sea of white faces. I stand, and I can’t go. I can’t go. I talk to myself, and turn to leave. I talk to myself and turn back to the line. I can’t make myself go to the communion rail. I stumble out into the streets and I cry. A grown man with tears streaming down his face, tears that didn’t fall that summer.”
Justice is all about relationships. Relationships first and foremost with God and secondarily with one another. To do justice means to treat each and every person in accordance with their inherent worth. If that's what justice is, then that means that what happened to Albert Raboteau was not just a classic case of religious hypocrisy, but of gross injustice, and oftentimes, the two are interrelated. We are in the midst of a series focused on the topic of justice. Though justice is inherently complicated, and potentially contentious, and personally challenging, it remains a central aspect of the Christian hope, and therefore it's critical for us to understand it, specifically from a Biblical point of view. Over the next several weeks, we're taking a closer look at what Jesus specifically had to say about justice in the gospels. If religious hypocrisy makes you sick to your stomach, you might find some small comfort in knowing that Jesus despised religious hypocrisy even more. In this sermon, we turn to Matthew 23, where Jesus utters perhaps one of the harshest denunciations of religious hypocrisy that you are likely to find. I'd like to invite you to open up a Bible to Matthew 23. I'll be reading v.1-4, 23-24.
1Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, 3so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. 4They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.
23“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 24You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!
This is God's word. It's trustworthy, and it's true, and it's given to us in love.
Here, Jesus specifically calls out the leaders of his day for their failure to do justice. As we consider our own day, I'd like us to tackle a couple questions: What exactly is the problem? How did this happen? What do we do about it now?
What’s The Problem?
First, what is the problem? Matthew sets the scene here by telling us that Jesus spoke to the crowds and his disciples about the scribes and the Pharisees. The scribes were professional copiers and teachers of the Hebrew Scriptures, collectively often referred to as the law—the law of Moses. Most of the scribes were also Pharisees, and the word Pharisee simply means "separated ones." The Pharisees often get a bad rap, but they were widely respected in the ancient world. Why? Because unlike the opportunistic Sadducees, they didn't collaborate with the powers that be in order to elevate their own status and position in society. And unlike the revolutionary zealots, they didn't resort to violent means in order to overthrow their enemies. No, the Pharisees were the good guys. They were the ones who were committed to living their life for God. They were willing to follow even the most scrupulous details in the Scriptures in order to avoid anything that was even potentially corrupting or defiling.
What's the closest parallel to a Pharisee today? I would say the answer is your typical American, Bible believing Christian. I say that not only to be provocative, but also because it's true. That should make you sit back a little straighter in your chair and listen up because Jesus reserved his sharpest criticisms not for the "sinners," but for the so-called “saints.” Here, he speaks to the scribes and the Pharisees, and he says that they sit in Moses' seat, meaning that they claim to be the authorized interpreters of Moses' writings. But he counsels his listeners to follow their instructions, but not their example, because they don't practice what they preach. He criticizes them for creating these backbreaking burdens that they lay on other people's shoulders, but they are unwilling to even lift a finger to help carry the load. Then Jesus proceeds to offer seven woes in chapter 23,—seven woes in order to express his deep concern about religious hypocrisy—and we're going to focus on the fourth woe, which begins at v.23. “‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.’”
What is Jesus talking about? According to Deuteronomy 14:22, the people of Israel were expected to give one-tenth of everything that their fields produced in order to support the priests who served in the temple. That meant you were supposed to give a tithe of the grain in your field and the fruit of your trees. But the Pharisees were so scrupulous, so fastidious, that they not only tithed their grain and their fruit, but even the herbs and spices that they grew in their little garden. You can just picture the scene, right? Nine little mint leaves for me. One mint leaf for you. Nine cumin seeds for me and one cumin seed for you. It's a little ridiculous! How does Jesus respond? He doesn't have any problem with their tithing. He says, “These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” They missed the forest for the trees. They were obsessed with the minute little details of the Scriptures that they lost sight of the more central issues that were infinitely more important. Here, Jesus seems to be alluding to the prophet Micah. Micah asked, “What does the Lord require of you?” The response is, “To do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly [or faithfully] with your God.” What was the problem? The problem was that justice had been eclipsed. Despite everything that God had said in the Scriptures, justice had been eclipsed in Jesus' day. Just like a solar eclipse, where the moon blocks the rays of the sun and casts a dark shadow, something had blocked the people from being able to see, to experience, and to pursue God's justice. I would suggest that something similar has happened in much of modern day Christianity. God's justice has been eclipsed.
How Did This Happen?
How did this happen? That's my second question. I'd like to tell the story in terms of three chapters, the Great Legacy, the Great Betrayal, and the Great Reversal. We begin with the Great Legacy. If you look down the long corridor of Christian history, you realize that Christians have an amazing legacy when it comes to both proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ and caring about social issues. They didn't drive a wedge between these two things. No, they held them together. Early Christians created the first social order that brought people together across differences of race and class and gender. Why? Because the Christians did not base their identity on any of those factors, but rather they base their identity on their relationship with Jesus. That's why the New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado, has said that the trans-local and the trans-ethnic identity of Christians created the first multi-ethnic society in the whole history of the world, a society that spans the geography of the Mediterranean world.
What have Christians historically believed? Christians believe that every human being, without distinction, is created in the image of God, and imbued with inestimable dignity, and therefore, every human being possesses an inherent right to be treated in accordance with their worth. Given the equal dignity of all human beings, Christians understood that they have a duty, they have a responsibility to not only care, but to advocate for the poor, the weak, the vulnerable, the oppressed. Early Christians became famous for their care for the poor, when the rest of the Greco-Roman society couldn’t care less. Christians believe that life is sacred, and therefore they are concerned about any and all situations where human life is threatened, diminished, or destroyed. That means that the early Christians were concerned about infanticide as well as racism. Christians are concerned about euthanasia, as well as sex trafficking and slavery. That's why the earliest Christians would scour the Roman countryside and the local garbage dumps, looking for babies who had been abandoned and left to die of exposure. They took them into their own homes. They adopted them as their own children. Christians are the ones who first created orphanages. Christians are the ones who created hostels in order to provide safety for strangers and travelers. Christians are the ones who first created houses for the poor. Christians are the ones who created the first hospitals for the sick and the dying. The world had never seen anything like this before. Which is why the historian Rodney Stark writes,
“Christianity revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships able to cope with many urgent problems. To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services.”
Christians have an amazing legacy. Of course, when it comes to the topic of slavery, it's a little bit more of a mixed bag. Slavery was ubiquitous in the ancient world and much of the Christian church was complicit in its practice for far, far too long. But where did we get the idea that slavery is inherently wrong? It originated with Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century, who as he reads through the Scriptures realizes that slavery in all of its forms is inherently evil. It's inherently evil because God has made all human beings in his image—and you cannot put a price tag on existence. Therefore, he concludes that every human life without distinction is priceless! Of course, it took the church and broader society far too long to catch up with these Christian ideals, but they are Christian ideals, uniquely Christian ideals. That's why during the 18th century, when Whitefield and Wesley led revivals in Great Britain and in the United States, they focused not only on evangelism, but also social action. Their successors in the 19th century were Christians who fought for the abolition of slavery. They established child labor laws. They improved working conditions in factories and mines. They sought to humanize the prison system. These were all the actions of Christians that led to massive social reform. Christians have an amazing legacy of proclaiming the gospel and doing justice.
But I would suggest that something went wrong. Something went wrong at the beginning of the 20th century, which led to an eclipse of Biblical justice. It all started with what is known as the Modernist-Fundamentalist Controversy, and this led to the Great Betrayal and triggered the Great Reversal. Believe it or not, the Modernist-Fundamentalist Controversy actually began with Presbyterian Churches right here in New York City. The upshot is that the Presbyterian Church issued a statement in which they declared five fundamentals, five fundamental beliefs that they asserted, were necessary and essential to Christian faith. Those five fundamental beliefs were (1) a belief in the inspiration of Scripture, (2) the virgin birth of Christ, (3) that Jesus's death was an atonement for sin, (4) the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and (5) the historical reality of Jesus' miracles. Those became known as the five fundamentals, and with that the battle lines were drawn. From that point forward, churches and seminaries across the country were split between the "modernists" on the one hand and the so-called “fundamentalists” on the other. The modernists neglect of the gospel is what created the great betrayal. Many of the modernist neglected the gospel. Their most popular spokesperson was a man named Walter Rauschenbusch, who actually served as a pastor here in New York, at the Second German Baptist Church in Hell's Kitchen from 1886 to 1897. Then he moved upstate and became a seminary professor in Rochester. He advocated what became known as the "social gospel," but the "social gospel" was essentially social activism without the gospel. Rauschenbusch basically said that the goal of Christians is not to ensure that people are reconciled in their relationship with God, and it's not our goal to try to help people get into heaven. Rather, our goal is to transform society by our own efforts, so that we can create heaven on earth. He took the kingdom of God as his leading ideal, but he redefined the kingdom of God as a human achievement rather than a divine gift. Rather than allowing God to define what the kingdom of God is, or how it will be brought to bear on this world by Jesus, they said that the kingdom of God is whatever we claim it is. Any social improvement that we can achieve is the kingdom of God, and it's up to us to bring it about. That, of course, is very different from the Biblical picture. Jesus taught that the kingdom of God is wherever Jesus is king, and no one can see, let alone enter the kingdom, unless they experience a new birth through the power of the Holy Spirit. But Rauschenbusch and his followers declared that the kingdom is whatever we say it is, and it's up to us to bring it about. He once wrote, “It rests upon us to decide if a new era is to dawn in the transformation of the world into the Kingdom of God.” This neglect of the gospel led to the Great Betrayal, and then that in turn triggered the Great Reversal. Christians who were committed to the historic Christian faith reacted to the social gospel by reversing course. Whereas before Christians held together these two aspects of the Christian faith proclaiming the good news of the gospel and social reform, they doubled down on one to the exclusion of the other.
There's a number of additional reasons why justice was eclipsed at this period of time. I'll give you one more reason: It was bad theology. If you happen to have a Scofield Reference Bible somewhere at home, do me a favor and throw it out. I'm not kidding. The Scofield Reference Bible was first published in 1909, and it popularized the teaching of a man named John Nelson Darby, who was a theologian in the 19th century. He invented—and I mean that word literally—he invented Dispensationalism and Pre-Tribulation Rapture theology. If you don't know what that is, good! Don't ever look it up. But he invented this theology. This is not something you would find in the Scriptures. It’s not something that early Christians believed. The upshot is that Darby and Scofield believed that the world had to, it had to, get worse and worse, and then finally be destroyed in order for Jesus to reign over all things. They were literally hoping for the end of the world. If that is your ultimate hope, then there's no point in trying to make things better here and now. That would be like trying to clean the state rooms on the Titanic after it had already hit an iceberg. To them, that was just a waste of time. No, their focus, therefore, was simply on getting people saved, and then giving them a Bible to read. And for many of them, the Bible was nothing more than B-I-B-L-E: Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. But that is 19th century theological rubbish. You can throw it out because that's not what the Scriptures teach us. The whole reason why Jesus comes and rescues us by his grace is not so that we can escape this world before he destroys it, but rather, so that we can participate in this world when he renews it. Jesus has promised that he's going to return, and he's going to put right everything that ever went wrong. He's going to usher in a new creation, a new heaven and a new earth, and we get to be a part of it through his finished work on our behalf. If that's the case, then we cannot merely double down on personal evangelism and personal piety. No, we have a responsibility to act in line with God's future promises. Therefore, Christians are called to anticipate what God will do in the future through our words and our actions now—not because we can create the kingdom of God. We know we can’t. We can't bring heaven on earth. We don't harbor any utopian illusions. Only Jesus can bring the kingdom. It's his kingdom, not ours. Yet, when we act in a way that anticipates the future world that Jesus has promised, it's a way of putting our prayer into motion. It's a way of putting our prayer into motion that Jesus would bring his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
Why do I share all this history with you? On the one hand, I think many people are confused about the relationship between sharing the gospel and doing justice. Knowing our history can be enlightening. But there's another reason why I share this history with you, and that is because I am worried that history is about to repeat itself. I'm worried that history is about to repeat itself. It seems to me that once again, we are in a place where the church may split, just as it did at the turn of the last century, because of our confusion about how these aspects of the Christian life are related to one another. There are many people today—many Christians, many Christian pastors—who are calling for justice, and yet they're making the same mistake as Rauschenbusch. Rather than allowing God to define what justice is, and what it entails, and how we're supposed to pursue it, they're saying, justice is whatever we say it is, and it's up to us to bring it about. Then there are others who are overreacting by moving in the opposite direction, and again, they may reverse course, and drive a wedge between sharing the gospel and pursuing justice in our world today. How would Jesus respond to that? I suspect Jesus would say, “These you ought to have done, without neglecting the weightier matters of the law: To do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”
What Do We Do About It?
If this is the problem, that Biblical justice has been eclipsed in our day, and this is how it happened, through a Great Betrayal and a Great Reversal, what do we do about it now?
If I were to ask you, what are the two greatest sins in the Bible, what would you say? What are the attitudes and the actions that God is most concerned about? What does he call out and condemn consistently through the Scriptures? You might say, pride and envy. Or perhaps you might think, it's related to something with money and sex, so maybe greed and lust. Close, but no, that's not it. Let me give you a hint. What are the two greatest positive commands in the Scriptures? Jesus was asked that question in the immediately preceding chapter, Matthew 22. He was asked what's the greatest command, and Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” All the Hebrew Scriptures! The greatest command is to love God with all your heart, mind and soul. That relationship is primary, but it's inseparable from loving your neighbor as yourself. The two go together. If that's the case, the two greatest positive commands are to love God and to love your neighbor, then what are the two greatest offenses in God’s eyes? Idolatry and injustice. Idolatry is a failure to love God, and injustice is a failure to love your neighbor. The vertical relationship with God is primary, but it's inseparable from the horizontal relationship with one another.
Religious conservatives tend to latch on to idolatry, and religious liberals tend to latch on to injustice, but the two are intricately related. They cannot be separated from one another. You can't love God rightly, unless you love your neighbor, and you can't love your neighbor rightly unless you love God. That's why John writes in 1 John 4, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar.” You can't love God who you can't see if you don't love your brother who is standing right in front of you. That is the command that we have from Jesus that whoever loves God must also love his brother. That's why there are many prominent Christian leaders who worked very, very hard in the 60s and 70s, to try to bring back this commitment to sharing the good news of the gospel and social responsibility rather than allowing the two to be divorced from one another. John Stott was a leading voice in that debate.
In 1966, over 900 self-identified evangelicals, the heirs of the fundamentalists, from 71 different countries, gathered at Wheaton College (which is no bastion of liberalism). They gathered at Wheaton College in order to hammer out a statement on how evangelism and social responsibility go together. Their document became known as the Wheaton Declaration. In part they state, “We reaffirm unreservedly the primacy of preaching the gospel to every creature, and we will demonstrate anew God’s concern for social justice and human welfare.” Then they went on to say, “That, we urge all evangelicals to stand openly and firmly for racial equality, human freedom, and all forms of social justice throughout the world.” I want you to notice something. Many traditional Christians have a knee-jerk reaction to the term "social justice" because they equate that term with Marxism. They think it's been co-opted by Marxists, but one of the things I said at the very beginning of this series is that words like justice and love, are not self explanatory. They need to be defined. So whenever the topic comes up, we need to ask ourselves, who’s justice? What kind of love? Is it the kind of justice, the kind of love, that God speaks of or is it something else? It all depends on how we define it. I'm sure that there are some who use the term "social justice" to refer to state control of the means of production and forced redistribution of wealth by the government. But that's not what the Bible says about justice. Yet at the same time, while that's important to note, it's even more intriguing to notice that someone like John Stott had no trouble using terms like "social justice" or "social responsibility" or "social action." Why? Because from the Bible's point of view, all justice is social. All justice is social because it's about right relationships, first and foremost with God, and then secondarily with one another.
But the big question is, what kind of church are we going to be? What kind of church is Central Presbyterian going to be from this moment in history forward? Will we succumb to a Great Betrayal, or overreact with a Great Reversal, or will we reclaim our Great Legacy? Will we be able to hold together what God has joined together, or will we tear it asunder? Will we commit ourselves to a ministry of both word and deed? Personal evangelism and social responsibility? Will we proclaim the good news of the gospel and do justice? We've got to try.
We've got to try and we try knowing that Jesus can redeem even our worst mistakes. Before we ever hear the anger in Jesus' voice, we have to see the tears in his eyes. Before we ever hear the anger in Jesus' voice towards religious hypocrisy or injustice, we need to see the tears in his eyes. If you jump to the end of Matthew 23, you'll see that Jesus issues a lament—a lament over the city of Jerusalem because its inhabitants do not know the way of peace. They do not know the way of Shalom. They don't know the way of human flourishing. He says, “‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” You were not willing.
That might strike us as a quaint agrarian image, but consider what Jesus is saying. At the first sign of danger, from a potential predator or a fire, a mother hen will literally gather her brood under her wings, and she'll put up a fierce defense. She would rather die than see her chicks come to harm. People have literally documented this. If a fire rolls through a barnyard, there's a good chance that you might find the charred remains of a hen, which is a little bit strange, because a bird can fly away from that kind of danger. But if you find the charred remains of a hen, more than likely underneath that burnt body, you will also find her chicks alive because they have been saved from the searing flames. She died so that they might live. You realize that Jesus is telling us, look, there will be a final day of reckoning. On that terrible day of judgment against all injustice, he's going to make things right. But if we are honest with ourselves, we know that we could not stand up under the judgment. We ourselves could not bear that kind of scrutiny, but Jesus is providing a way out. On the cross, he has stretched out his arms, so that he might gather us underneath the shelter of his wings, so when the consuming fire of judgment rolls through, we could know that those flames will not touch us. We will not be seared. But it's only because we take refuge under his burnt body that absorbs the heat in our place.
But as for them, so for us. Jesus says, “How often would I have gathered you underneath my wings, but You were not willing!” I don't want Jesus to ever say to you, how often would I have gathered you under the shelter of my wings, but you were not willing! You've got to be willing. You've got to come to him. You have to place yourself under the shelter that he provides by faith.
That is why Jesus is so much better than the scribes and the Pharisees. The scribes and the Pharisees, they tied up all these heavy burdens, and they placed them on other people's backs through all their rules and regulations—through all the hoops that they gave people to jump through. And then they weren't willing to lift a single finger to help lighten the load. But not Jesus. No, Jesus, through his work on the cross, has done everything that is necessary in order to reconcile us in relationship to God so that we might be able to love God with all of our heart, mind and soul, and love one another. That is why Jesus can say to us, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Why is his burden light? Because he's already borne the hardest part, so come to him.
Let me pray for us.
Father God, as we consider the world in which we live today, we acknowledge that so often, Biblical justice has been eclipsed, but we pray that we would not succumb, individually or as a church, to a Great Betrayal of the gospel, or a Great Reversal against social responsibility. Instead enable us by your grace to reclaim our Great Legacy because we simply serve you, and we love you. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.