Are We More Devoted to Order Than To Justice?
I’ve been reading a book lately that I shared with the session and the leadership of the church . It’s called The Pentecost Paradigm: Ten Strategies for Becoming a Multiracial Congregation. In it, Jacqueline J. Lewis and John Janka wrote a sentence that caught my attention: “Any congregation—white, black or otherwise—that is ‘more devoted to order than to justice’ and disengaged from breaking down the dividing walls of hostility has lost its way.”
The phrase “more devoted to order than to justice” drew me in… because as a Presbyterian, I have heard the slogan “decently and in order” plenty of times. So I wanted to explore the invitation to look at the concepts of order and justice a little bit further.
That particular phrase was not written by the authors of the book, but by someone who has become more and more of a spiritual mentor of mine: Martin Luther King. His words seem to appear more and more lately in my own reflections as a Christian Presbyterian, especially when I see more and more people emphasizing our differences as markers of inferiority and unworthiness, or saying that we are a nation of "law and order" in order (redundancy implied) to oppress others that are different from the supposedly dominant culture.
In the Letter from a Birmingham Jail Dr. King writes: “I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Council of the Ku Klux Klan, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
Jesus does things intentionally
As I look at Matthew 12: 1-14, I question what Jesus would have thought about moderate followers.
Here we have one of two Sabbath controversy stories, where Jesus is questioning what is lawful to do on a Sabbath and the relationship of humanity to the Sabbath.
What is the Sabbath? Remember that the Sabbath is a weekly day of rest or time of worship given in the Bible as the seventh day. The Ten Commandments prohibit doing any work on the Sabbath, and Jewish law prohibits doing any form of work on Shabbat. There are 39 categories of activity that the Talmud prohibits; things like… sowing, plowing, reaping, building, writing two or more letters, erasing two or more letters, demolishing, extinguishing a fire, or kindling a fire (no barbecues on the Sabbath).
So we find Jesus and the disciples, during a Sabbath day doing something they are not supposed to be doing: the disciples pluck some of the heads of grain, a practice that apparently was permitted to hungry travelers by the law. Then we read about some Pharisees confronting Jesus about the disciples' behavior, arguing that they were reaping on the Sabbath, in violation of the prohibition against work.
Jesus then decides to turn the tables on the Pharisees by mentioning one of the great men of Israel: King David. David had eaten the sacred bread of the temple when he was in need. If David could do that, his disciples could pluck the heads of grain. Done. Case closed. Jesus wins the argument.
Wendy Farley, a professor at San Francisco Theological Seminary, has a very interesting take on this passage. She starts by defending the Pharisees, saying that Jesus is intentionally provoking a confrontation. She says this story “is not about how urgent need permits us to break the rules.”
Then... what is it about? I believe that she has a point. This passage does not state that the disciples were hungry so the comparison to David does not ring true. And the other part of the passage where Jesus cures a man with a withered hand? She says Jesus could have waited until sundown.
She also states it would have been easy for Jesus and his disciples to honor the Sabbath… so that leaves the question... why does Jesus decide to violate a law that is part of the Ten Commandments and that has been ordained by God? Her answer is that “by refusing to observe conventions for honoring the Sabbath, Jesus invites us into a form of faith in which time-honored practices are relativized by healing power, compassion, and joy.” This conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees, she says “contrasts religion that hardens hearts with the gospel that opens hearts to the ubiquitous presence of God and gives birth to compassion and joy.”
A contrasting story
This passage is a story about contrasts. Jesus is questioning the very fabric of his religion and proposing a new way to do things. He proposes functioning out of grace, compassion and joy, and not out of rules and regulations… not out of order, but out of justice.
After all, Jesus’ conclusion to this argument is “The Sabbath was created for humans; humans weren’t created for the Sabbath. This is why the Human One is Lord even over the Sabbath.” If the Sabbath serves to oppress and to punish, then it loses its purpose and way.
Back to order and justice
As I look at the Christian family today… I wonder how this passage challenges us as Christians and as the body of Christ. As I said before, one of the things that I grew up within the church is that Presbyterians do things “decently and in order”. But if we look at Jesus, and what he does in this passage… I’m not sure that he was an “order” kind of guy. He was decent… and his decency leads him to challenge his followers to make sure that the laws that ruled their lives were more about compassion, grace, justice and human well being than about keeping order in the land.
I believe that Jesus was calling the Pharisees and those who followed him, to challenge values, laws, and lifestyles that enslaved, oppressed, punished and diminished their society. And that is what Jesus is calling us to do as the Church today. Going back to Martin Luther King… He said ““The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.”
I'm not alone in this belief. There are a group of leaders that have felt the need to reclaim the Jesus that fought against systems that want to pass order as justice. Based on Jesus and his actions in passages like this… and on Martin Luther King’s words, a group of leaders from different churches decided to write a confession. They said “Our urgent need, in a time of moral and political crisis, is to recover the power of confessing our faith. Lament, repent, and then repair. If Jesus is Lord, there is always space for grace. We believe it is time to speak and to act in faith and conscience, not because of politics, but because we are disciples of Jesus Christ—to whom be all authority, honor, and glory.”
They may not include everyone that could be included... but their invitation rings true. We need to be a Church that does things decently and with justice, discerning carefully if the current law of the land is serving political and social agendas that are intended for oppression and destruction of "the other". Any law that incites fear, that does not show mercy, that is not measured by the grace shown by Jesus Christ, must be questioned and changed if need be. We have done this before. Jim Crow laws have been challenged and erased. Laws that sought to punish the Japanese people that lived for generations in the United States were challenged and changed. We are the conscience of the state. We are disciples of Jesus Christ... the same one that challenged the law and that opened the way to a new relationship with God and with one another.