Text: Luke 11:1-13
Words can be tricky, especially for children. I have always enjoyed reading the stories posted online from children’s Sunday school classes and seeing the words they use to retell familiar bible stories. Here are some of my favorites: Moses died before he ever reached Canada. Solomon, one of David’s sons, had 300 wives and 700 porcupines. St. Paul cavorted to Christianity. He preached holy acrimony, which is another name for marriage. Lot’s wife was a pillar of salt by day, but a ball of fire by night. And, Joshua led the Hebrews in the battle of Geritol.
An art teacher in a Maine elementary school who also taught Sunday school told this story. She had the little ones draw pictures of bible stories. Little Emma proudly presented her picture of the journey of Bethlehem. The drawing showed an airplane flying over the desert. In the passenger area were seated Joseph and Mary and little Jesus. “The drawing is fine,” said the teacher. “But who’s that up front flying the plane?” “Why that’s Pontius the Pilot,” answered Emma.
Sometimes, we don’t just use the wrong word we project words. When Nora was about two or three one of her favorite songs was a country song titled, “Beautiful Mess.” Now before I go any further and in defense of Nora, the music she listened to at age two and three was determined by what I listened to. Recently, she informed me that she has NO country music on her IPOD. But back to the song, “Beautiful Mess.” The refrain goes like this: “What a beautiful mess; What a beautiful mess I’m in; Spendin’ all my time with you; There’s nothing else I’d rather do…” But here’s how Nora would sing it: “What a beautiful mess; What a beautiful mess I’ve made…” Nora wasn’t in a mess; she was making a mess.
I was reminded recently of just how tricky words can be and how we often project words, even as adults. Not too long ago I was standing beside one of you as we were singing Light Dawns on a Weary World. As we sang the first verse, here’s what I heard: “Light dawns on a weary world, when eyes begin to see, all people’s dignity. Light dawns on a weary world, the promised day of judgment comes.” Now, as you may remember, Mary Louise Bringle, who wrote that song had a different image of the “promised day.” For her, it is about the promised day of justice not judgment. It is an easy mistake to make—even if it is projection. For many of us, in the churches we grew up in, we heard a lot more about the promised day judgment than we did about the promised day of justice. Hearing the slip of the tongue as we sang Light Dawns and feeling compelled lately to be involved in the justice issue of school diversity, I started wondering about these two words—judgment and justice—in the context of our faith. What do they mean and what do they have to say to one another?
Emily Dickinson, recounting the horror she felt as she listened to a preacher deliver a terrifying sermon on the Last Judgment wrote: “The subject of perdition seemed to please him, somehow. It seems very solemn to me.” The idea of judgment, of being called to account for the way we have lived in this world, is solemn, and terrifying. Often, I watch TV evangelists at night to wind down. I know, it’s crazy, but I find it helpful to know the diverse theologies out in the world. As I watch, I am amazed at how many preachers and sermons, at least on TV, are focused on judgment and more specifically, the Last Judgment. It seems that one of the favorite texts for preaching on judgment is the parable of the weeds and the wheat in Matthew 13. At face value it is a somewhat disturbing lesson—while everybody sleeps an enemy comes into the newly planted field and sows weeds among the wheat. The preachers love to paint a picture of what happens next. They speak of a Jesus thief who comes in the night and destroys the world, their voices trembling with excitement at the thought of a final harvest, when the weeds will be gathered up and burned in a blazing fire. They embellish what the church has taught for centuries about judgment—that it is a kind of sifting, whereby the distortions of evil are brought to defeat, and dissolution and good prevails.
In an ambiguous world where good and evil seem to be about equally matched, this belief in judgment remains on the level of faith. Belief in a final judgment is the hope that what is now ambiguous will resolve itself in the end, and the advance of good over evil will decisively win out. This ambiguous world is, in the imagery of the gospel parable, like a field in which wheat and weeds are growing together. And belief in a last judgment is the hope that the weeds will be eliminated and the good wheat brought to maturity. All through scripture, biblical judgment is that moment of God asserting – “I am God and this is my way” – it is when good triumphs over evil, when injuries are healed, when right is restored. Biblical judgment is a belief in a righteous God.
What strikes me about the parable of the weeds and wheat is something that I rarely hear preachers talking about, especially those TV preachers. Nowhere in the text is there the slightest justification for our being judgmental of others. In fact, the parable is a powerful injunction against just that. Jesus plainly teaches in the parable that it is not our job to pull up the weeds. Judgment belongs to God.
But what about justice? Both the Hebrew and the New Testament scriptures make one thing clear: as God’s people we are to do justice. So, what is biblical justice? Walter Brueggemann defines biblical justice this way: “Biblical justice concerns distribution in order to make sure that all members of the community have access to resources and good for the sake of a viable life of dignity. In covenantal tradition the particular subject of YHWH’s justice is the…widow, orphan, and immigrant, those without leverage or muscle to sustain their own legitimate place in society.”
Brueggemann goes on to say that justice in the Bible is pre-eminently a relational bond that links persons together in a community of mutual responsibility and mutual rights. Specifically, biblical justice defines and creates a relationship between a holy God and God’s people, and with one another in a community of faith. Let me speak clearly and plainly. Biblical justice is taking care of each other. It is the act of loving your neighbor, and acting out of that love to make sure others have what they need, even if that means giving them some of yours. Biblical justice goes beyond our individual responsibility to care for one another and requires us to take on the institutions of our world when (and there is always a when) they fail to care for the whole, for the least, for the needy. Biblical justice is, first and foremost, relational.
In our gospel lesson, Luke paints a beautiful picture of biblical justice. Jesus tells a story about a man who has been caught unprepared for his visitor. Needing some food, he goes to his neighbor late at night and asks for some bread. At first, Jesus plays out a scenario in which the neighbor gives excuses as to why he can’t get up and give his friend some bread—the door is already locked, I’m in bed, and my children are in bed. You can almost hear the judgment in his voice—“It’s late man, you should have had some bread in the house. But Jesus says because it is right to do, the man will get up and give his neighbor whatever he needs. When we do justice, we act out of love and mercy to make sure others have what they need; and we forgo our need to judge.
I want to share with you a personal story where I learned the difference between judgment and justice. In October of 1992, I went home to “come out” to my parents. It was a day that I approached with fear and trembling. October 4, 1992, on my 29th birthday, I finally spoke the words to my parents that I had been holding inside since 6th grade—I am gay. For a moment, but what seemed like eternity, we sat in silence. Then my father broke the silence with these words, “I don’t understand but this is between you and God and it is not for me to judge. I love you and I will always love you.” What I realize now is that that was a justice moment. I knew in my heart that dad’s theology couldn’t support me being Christian and gay. And I imagine that it had to be difficult for him not to judge me. But on that day, he stayed away from God’s work—judgment—and he chose the path of doing justice: to love me, to show mercy, and to stay in relationship with me. That is the difference between judgment and justice.
Does justice mean judgment? Not in a life of faith. No, justice means that individually and collectively, in our homes and through society’s institutions, we make sure that all members of the community have access to resources and good for the sake of a viable life of dignity. Justice isn’t about judging who is right and who is wrong. God does that work. Justice means taking care of, standing up for, and speaking out for those without leverage to sustain their own legitimate place in society. If we are faithful to that biblical call, the promised day of justice will come!