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Stewards of Just-Us or Justice?

Christians need to actively work for social justice on both a small and large scale.

I graduated from college over 20 years ago now. As communication majors, one of the things we learned is that people respond to positive messages and are turned off by negative ones. This is what makes hearing the Old Testament prophets so challenging. I mean, talk about negative. Clearly by today's standards the prophets are not very effective communicators. These guys rant and rave. They don't sugarcoat anything. Which means that sometimes what they say is tough to swallow. This is true especially for the pre-exilic prophets, like Amos, for example. Have you ever listened to Amos?

"I hate, I despise your festivals and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies …. Take away from me the noise of your songs … and let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."

Or there's the prophet Micah, who tells us that the Lord "shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore" (Micah 4:3 NRS). Micah also says, "He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8 NRS).

God cares about social justice.

Do you see what I mean? These prophet guys don't beat around the bush. They lay it on the line, even at the risk of offending people. Of course, it's only fair to note that the prophets operated with a much different communication theory than ours today. They were not entrepreneurs in the free market of ideas, vying with competitors who were also trying to persuade autonomous individuals to choose their products. No. Prophets speak the Word of the Lord. That's all the communication theory they need. And if you don't like it, well, too bad. That's your problem.

The prophet Malachi actually comes on the scene sometime after the Israelites return from the Babylonian exile. And yet he stands in continuity with this same pre-exile prophetic tradition. Like Amos and Micah, Malachi sounds off against injustice. In no uncertain terms, Malachi says that sin is not only related to one's personal and private behavior, what you do behind closed doors; it's related to one's public life, what you do out in front of everybody else.

In verse 5 of chapter 3, the Lord is speaking:

"Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness not only against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me," says the Lord of hosts.

Can you imagine this? God's people oppressing hired workers. Forcing them to live below the poverty line, or to survive on minimum wage? Can you imagine? God's people forgetting widows and orphans, the people in ancient society who end up destitute because family is the only social security system there is? Imagine the poor falling through the cracks. Imagine God's people rejecting the aliens, the non-Jews, looking down on those with green cards, avoiding those who can't speak Hebrew or do so with a thick accent, making fun of those who have weird, unpronounceable names or who look different.

Do you know what Malachi is saying to God's people? He is saying: "We don't have the luxury of ignoring the needy, of being stewards of just-us. No, we're called to be stewards of justice. It's our job to remember the poor and the powerless. It's our job to care for the little, and the least, and the last, and the lost."

The prophet confronts God's people head on, knowing that the temptation is always great for God's people to put themselves first, to be led by their wants and their needs and their desires. So what if everybody else goes to hell in a hand-basket? Truth be told, that temptation is probably greatest for God's people in times of abundance.

When biblical archaeologists dig down into the ruins of ancient Israel, they find there are periods when the houses are more or less the same size, and the artifacts of life they unearth show that there is a relative equality among the people. During those periods, interestingly enough, the Hebrew prophets are quite silent. They have very little to say. But the archaeologists' diggings also uncover remnants of huge houses, and tiny little hovels at other periods in the life of Israel, and other objects that show great economic disparities among the people. Not surprisingly, it's during these times that the prophets are most outspoken, denouncing the great gaps in wealth, denouncing the neglect of the poor. Which is not to say that wealth is bad. It's not. Anybody who tells you that doesn't know the Bible. But as Jim Wallace notes, "the Bible doesn't mind prosperity; it just insists that it be shared."

Malachi is saying to God's people: "Look, you have a choice. You can be stewards of just us or you can be stewards of justice." In a world with ever-widening gaps, where it seems that the rich only get richer and the poor only get poorer, we face much the same choice today. Just-us or justice?

In a world where Michael Jordan made more from Nike in one year than all the hired Nike workers in all the Asian factories that make Nike shoes—just us or justice? In a world where the CEO of Disney makes $97,000 per hour, and his hired workers in Haiti make $.28 an hour—just us or justice? It's so easy to point the finger at everybody else. But there's a huge gap between my 1,700 square-foot home and our friends who fit their living room, and their dining room, and their bed room—for as many as six or eight people together—under a single thatched roof in a hut measuring no more than eight or ten feet across. There's a huge gap between the 16,000 microbrews and the 50 flavors of Snapple available to quench our thirst, and the three out of five kids in Senegal who won't make it past their fifth birthday because what little water they do have to drink is tainted with animal dung and teaming with bacteria. The prophet Malachi says: "Don't you think for a minute that the Lord doesn't care about such inequities."

A lack of social justice will bring about God's judgment.

In the face of such inequalities, Malachi says that the Lord will come to judge God's people. And in fact, the New Testament says that the Lord did come some 400 years after Malachi in the person of Jesus Christ. What Malachi anticipated has happened. The Lord has come in judgment … but surely also in grace. And certainly the Lord continues to come to us today with words that might make us just a little hot under the collar at first. Read this text and tell me if you don't feel a little uncomfortable, just a bit convicted. Malachi would have us believe the judgment of the Lord does not come to destroy us. Rather, it is like a refiner's fire—purifying, cleansing, and consuming the imperfections. Getting rid of that which prevents us from being all that we can be for the sake of the kingdom of God. I think of the judgment of the Lord as a kind of severe mercy, like divine chemotherapy or divine radiation, attacking the cancerous cells or the deadly tumor of human sin so that we can truly live.

It's interesting that the image of a refiner's fire is alluded to in the long-lost verse of the hymn "America the Beautiful": "America, America, may God thy gold refine till all success be nobleness and every gain divine." So what will it be—just us or justice? "Every gain divine." Even after September 11th, even in a frustratingly complex world … just-us or justice?

Christians should participate in social justice.

You probably heard that the current allied military campaign against terrorism and against the Taliban was originally named Operation Infinite Justice. As you might imagine, this phrase was a terrible affront to peace-loving and justice-loving Muslims everywhere, as though a single nation or a coalition of nations could be above God's reproach, and single-handedly bring infinite justice to the world. It was a little arrogant. A somewhat embarrassed Pentagon quickly renamed the operation, realizing that only God can provide this particular quality in all of its fullness. And yet, surely the prophet Malachi is mobilizing all who claim to be God's people, whether citizens of this nation or any other nation, to be stewards of God's justice.

This is a large part of the church's mission. Isn't it? It seems to me that we could at least call what the church is up to in the world Operation Finite Justice. Finite justice is the money and the time given by this church, and by individual members of this church. Finite justice is not forgetting soup kitchens and overnight shelters, or the food barrel out in the narthex. Finite justice means reaching into the river of human despair and rescuing people who are drowning and offering them relief. It might also mean moving upstream to see who or what is throwing them in the river in the first place, and doing something about that.

When Henry David Thoreau was thrown in jail for a short time because of his opposition to America's involvement in the Mexican War, one of his friends came to visit him. Looking through the bars, the friend asked Henry, "what are you doing in here?" To which Thoreau responded, "I have to ask you: what are you doing out there?" Not a bad question.

What are you doing out there for the sake of justice?

Heidi Husted Armstrong is an ordained Presbyterian pastor who has ministered in West Coast churches for more than two decades. She also serves as an editorial advisor for Christianity Today's Gifted for Leadership. Heidi and her husband, Rick, live in Tacoma, Washington.

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Sermon Outline:


I. God cares about social justice.

II. A lack of social justice will bring about God's judgment.

III. Christians should participate in social justice.