Sunday, March 6, 2016

Lent Is For... Loosing the Chains of Injustice

We opened an important question last week – or rather, Isaiah opened it for us: “Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one's head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?” (Isaiah 58:5). 

The religiosity of Judah's “spiritual superheroes,” those Pharisees in the making, was all about rituals and not about the heart; all about Sunday pretense, and nothing about Monday-through-Saturday reality; all about performance, not about grace-fueled transformation. They humbled themselves outwardly for a day and went straight back to their lives of deceit, violence, and oppression by the end of it. “You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high” (Isaiah 58:4). 

But then what kind of fast doesn't get in the way? What kind of fast, what sort of religious life, stamps “expedited shipping” on our heaven-bound prayers?

We've been wondering that all week, and now Isaiah opens up the answer. Here's what Lent is about: “To loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke” (Isaiah 58:6). That's not how we would've expected the next verse to go, is it? It seems so strange. What are the chains of injustice? Why are they so tight? Why is loosening them up something fit for Lent? If last week's Question of Lent was confusing, the Answer of Lent seems no better! 

Well, I'd like to suggest the chains of injustice spiritually and socially keep people tied down, restraining them from living the quality of life God wants us to live. And when I read the passages we picked out for this morning, it seems to me that there are three major types of the chains of injustice.

The first set of chains are deceit and unfairness. Ezekiel tells us all about this, because even writing a few generations after Isaiah, he still had to address dysfunctions from before the exile. Ezekiel dreamed of a new Jerusalem with a massive “sacred district.” And he prophesied that, in this ideal Jerusalem, the land around the sacred district and city – land to the east and the west – would belong exclusively to the Prince, as his own personal possession. “And my prince will no longer oppress my people” as in the days of the wicked kings before him, who let the powerful get away with whatever crimes they pleased; “but [he] will allow the people of Israel to possess the land according to their tribes” (Ezekiel 45:8). And we know who the Perfect Prince of Israel is – Jesus Christ, the generous Son of David.

But other sons of David born from below – they weren't so humble. “You have gone far enough, princes of Israel! Give up your violence and oppression” – we'll get to those two next – “and do what is just and right. Stop dispossessing my people, declares the Sovereign LORD. You are to use accurate scales, an accurate ephah and an accurate bath” (Ezekiel 45:9-10). That was a major problem in Judah as Ezekiel remembered her. The kings and the nobles looked around and saw people enjoying the land God promised to the tribes. And they couldn't abide that sort of prosperity in the hands of mere commoners. So they schemed. When it came time to make deals or assess taxes, they used miscalibrated scales – one set for buying, another for selling. Joe's come to sell three pounds of grain? Let's bring out scales that say it's just two-and-a-half pounds – we'll cheat him out of that extra half-pound. Julie's on her way to buy three pounds of grain? Let's bring out scales that say our two-and-a-half pounds is three pounds – she'll pay for more than she gets. And with that fraud, the merchants impoverished the nation and stole the land.

If you read the rest of what God told Ezekiel, you'll see why that was such a problem. In cheating the tribes, the king was trying to cheat God. All because he and his minions refused to use accurate scales the way God already said in the Law: “Do not use dishonest standards when measuring length, weight, or quantity. Use honest scales and honest weights, an honest ephah and an honest hin. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:35-36). But those kings of old didn't listen – they wanted to cheat and chain those without power to resist; they wanted to bend the truth to their own advantage.

And that happens today, doesn't it? There's plenty of fraud in the world. We have laws against it, but for anything “too big to fail,” the consequence is a slap on the wrist, and we forget all about it, even if people have gotten hurt. Now, I'm sure none of us, in the lines of business we've pursued, has ever defrauded a customer or an employer like that. But what about our personal lives? 

Think about it this way: those who worked for the king used their sets of skewed scales to gain an advantage that wasn't theirs. The standard they'd apply to themselves was very different from the standard they'd apply to anybody else. And ah, that hits home a bit more. Because that kind of hypocrisy, that sort of inconsistency, is more familiar. It's one of the favorite sins of American Christianity, just as it was with the Pharisees.

Here's the tough truth: Any time we “weigh” our own sins on scales we wouldn't use to “weigh” the sins of others – any time we pretend our sins weigh less, simply because they happen to be ours – any time we make excuses for ourselves and want the benefit of the doubt – well, then we've done what the princes of Israel did. We've dispossessed our neighbors of their standing before God and pretended to an advantage in righteousness that isn't ours. We've used inaccurate scales. And we do it all the time. Oh, I got upset and shot my mouth off in the heat of the moment? Something came over me – that's not me, I swear! You have to understand! But that guy across the street dared do the same thing to me? What a rude person! So that's what he's really like on the inside! We all do it sometimes. It's second nature to justify ourselves and not our neighbors – not if their sin is against us or betrays our values. And in doing that, we tighten the chains of injustice around them.

So how do we loosen up those chains of injustice? We make a commitment to holding ourselves to the very same standard we hold others. In fact, if anything, we should take our own sins more seriously than the sins of anyone else. Their sins are between them and God – we should correct them when we can, but always see our sins as a log and theirs as just a speck. (But don't despair: Jesus is an expert at extracting specks and logs alike – and his grace outweighs all our sins on God's scales, when we follow him in faith.) 

And we also need to make a commitment to always doing our due diligence with regard to the truth. How often do we pass on stories, rumors, claims we haven't vetted, haven't researched, just because some website or magazine or friend told us it was so? I see this all the time. We read something, we don't think critically about it, and we pass it along – because we care more about its convenience than its truth. If we want to use accurate scales, that habit has to die. Because the Jesus we serve calls himself the Truth – not the Custom, and certainly not the Convenience.

Here's a Lenten challenge for you – and for me, just as much: In every “measurement” you make, ask yourself if you're using the same standard to yourself or your 'side' as you're using or approving for others. Ask yourself if it passes the review of God's word, not just of our personal tastes and our moral intuitions. It's not easy, but it's what Lent is for. Remember from last week: Lent is all about stripping away our self-deceptions, our illusions about the world and about ourselves. And that includes our double standards – our illusion that there's something about our first-person perspective that privileges us and our needs over the well-being of others.

Back to the chains of injustice. The second set of chains is violence. Remember, Ezekiel told the princes to stop their violence. But what is violence, from the Bible's point of view? Let me make a bold claim and then dig a little deeper. The Bible never once describes God as doing anything violent. The Bible never once says that the righteous Israelites do anything violent. The Bible absolutely condemns violence in every form, every type, in every situation. The Bible commands that we be completely and entirely non-violent. 

Now, that should give you questions. Doesn't the Bible say that God is a warrior (Exodus 15:3)? Doesn't the Bible record the Israelites going to war against the Canaanites and the Philistines? Jael drives a tent-peg through Sisera's skull, David hurls a stone into Goliath's head, Elijah orders the butchering of all Baal's prophets – doesn't that prove that the Bible is full of violence, that the Bible endorses violence? No. It shows that not all lethal force is violent, and not all violence is physical force.

The Bible records all these things, but is emphatic in refusing to call them “violence.” When the Bible portrays God using force, or commanding his people to use force, that isn't something that arises from the anger of their hearts. It's a cleansing action to scrub violence away from the land. It's God's judgment against violence, not an act of violence itself. As one biblical scholar, Peter Leithart, observes, “violence is unjust and sinful use of force.” Just punishment after due process doesn't count as violence – but it can be, if it isn't just or if it's pursued out of wrong motives. The same's true for military service – it can be forceful without being violent, even though, sadly, it often has been violent throughout history. 

And yet not all violence is physical force. For instance, the Bible false testimony in a courtroom “violent” (Exodus 23:1). Overly harsh words are violent – Job protests that his accusers, with just their words, are doing violence to him (Job 19:7). “The mouth of the wicked conceals violence” (Proverbs 10:11) – violence is in what passes out over their lips. Bad government is called violent (Psalm 58:1-2), exploitative commercial practices are called violent (Ezekiel 28:16), deception is called violent (Micah 6:11-12). Not all force is violence, and not all violence is physical force.

But violence was a problem for the prophets. They saw it everywhere they looked. Isaiah describes those “spiritual superheroes” of his day as being violent – as “striking each other with wicked fists” (Isaiah 58:4). And Jeremiah after him names it outright and shows how it targets the most vulnerable. Again, in an oracle given to the king of Judah, the prophet commands the king and his officials: “Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless, or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place” (Jeremiah 22:3). Some people are especially vulnerable to violence because of the resources they lack or the position they have in society.

For instance, some people are made vulnerable due to natural circumstances. Not necessarily through their fault or the fault of anyone else, they've just gotten to a precarious place. The main biblical examples are orphans and widows, just like Jeremiah said. Now, thanks to the influence of the church over a couple thousand years, the situation has gotten steadily much better than it was during biblical times – and now, even plenty better than during the Industrial Revolution. (Remember Oliver Twist? Remember “Little Orphan Annie”?) This is not a patriarchal society where only landowning adult men have a voice and all others are left defenseless. 

Even so, the Red Cross still lists “unaccompanied children” and “widows” as two of the world's major “potentially vulnerable groups.” And we instinctively know that in today's society, don't we? Studies show that the most stable sort of home for raising a child is typically one with with a mother and father both alive and present.And others besides orphans and widows are made vulnerable by natural circumstances – think of those with disabilities, those with mental illnesses, those who live to an advanced age.

And then others are made vulnerable due to the actions of others. That's why Jeremiah mentions “the one who has been robbed.” Some people have their security taken away by being victimized. Maybe they've been the target of identity theft. Maybe their houses have been burgled. Maybe they've been assaulted. Maybe they've been hit with frivolous lawsuits. But in any case, some people need their neighbors to rally around them in support as a result of the harm that someone else has already done.

And finally, some are made vulnerable by their social distance – and so Jeremiah talks about “the foreigner,” as in the immigrant, the refugee, or in our global world, literal citizens of other nations. And that's a hot button issue today, how we should think about immigrants and refugees (especially for those from troublesome places or for those who didn't have the luxury of waiting for our immigration system to help them). 

Now, we might debate endlessly what immigration policy is the most just, the most fair – what policy is most loving to both natural-born Americans and those in desperate need who come from elsewhere. Politicians will argue that 'til the cows come home (and then confiscate the cows). There are almost no issues where the Bible lays out a specific policy proposal for you, saying that this and no other is the clear mandate of God in practice. Whatever you hear from the Right or the Left, the Bible generally doesn't do that. 

But through the Bible, God does teach us what he values and why. And in the Bible, God embeds us in a story where the chosen people were immigrants mistreated in the land of Egypt. They escaped as refugees, and for the rest of their national existence, their public policy was supposed to be a reflection of their life as immigrants and refugees. And in the New Testament, hospitality is held more highly than security, and believers are depicted as migrants passing through the present world (Hebrews 11:13). Like in Derek Webb's one song, “We're all migrating to a place where our Father lives, / because we married into a family of immigrants.” Whatever the right policy is, we who believe don't have the luxury of telling our neighbors of other ethnicities, faiths, or birthplaces that they're unwelcome to live beside us, work beside us, come to Christ and worship beside us.

But what do all these vulnerable groups have in common? What made them so vulnerable in Jeremiah's Judah? One common factor: They didn't have an effective voice in the courts, nor in the court of public opinion. Think about it: Orphans, widows, foreigners – they all had no one legally responsible for their care, responsible for personally speaking up on their behalf. And the victimized weren't in a position to do much about it. 

Jeremiah is totally clear on one thing: Those in a vulnerable place are to be treated with special consideration, and not – as King Jehoiachin was doing – to be taken advantage of. The Bible portrays them as being under God's personal protection: “The LORD watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow” (Psalm 146:9). “He defends the cause of the orphan and the widow and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:18). And God places his curse on those who withhold justice from anyone who falls into one of these vulnerable groups (Deuteronomy 27:19).

So how do we loose this chain of injustice? We can remember that one of the three biblical tithes – yes, there were actually three of them – and one of them was reserved to benefit exactly these people, as well as the tribe of Levi, which was vulnerable by divine calling and dependent on the others for physical support, just as Israel was dependent on them for spiritual life (Deuteronomy 26:12-13). Because Israel's law recognized that God owns everything and it's just on loan to us, their law reserved a “sacred portion” of everyone's property for maintaining those who needed that 'safety net' of protection.

And with that in mind, we can consciously advocate for anyone whose human dignity is degraded or whose rightful claims are ignored. Now, that doesn't mean that we take the side of the seemingly disadvantaged in every case. God's Law taught Israel, “Do not show favoritism to a poor person in a lawsuit” (Exodus 23:3), just a few verses before God adds, “Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits” (Exodus 23:6). 

In other words, give them due consideration – keep the scales of justice balanced – but without twisting justice either for or against them. And this also doesn't mean that, in those cases where sin puts someone in a vulnerable position – think how vulnerable ex-felons and those involved in drug abuse, prostitution, or same-sex sexual sin can be, especially in today's youth culture – it doesn't mean that we endorse or ignore those sins. But we are still to stand up for their dignity and to defend their rights; we are to lovingly embrace them and gently help them to turn from their sin and to be healed by Jesus.

We are exhorted to actively intervene, where we truthfully can, in favor of those who otherwise would have no voice. “Defend the oppressed; take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). “Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor” (Zechariah 7:10). “Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless” (Exodus 22:22). “Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed” (Psalm 82:3). That's four biblical books, four authors. How many times and in how many ways does God have to say it before we get that there's no such thing as a Jesus-follower who stands against justice for the vulnerable?

So here's a second Lenten challenge: Replace all the violence in your life – let the Spirit guide you in noticing it, identifying it, whether it's in word or deed – with self-sacrificial peacemaking, including being reconciled with and speaking up for the vulnerable. Again, that's not easy. But it is what God says Lent is for. Lent is a special season for mortifying our passions, and our passions so often tug and pull us inward. When we're safe, when we're in power, they whisper to us that the margins don't matter – that if the system hasn't hurt us lately, the system must be healthy. Our passions get inflamed when the system turns against us, but stay cold when we aren't the ones being hurt. 

Remember Martin Niemöller's famous poem? “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.” 

Lent is a time to stand in solidarity with all victims of violence and with all who are at special risk. And I'm sure we'd be surprised if we knew just how many people in our own community were, in some way or another, deprived of a voice or a defense. Lent is a time to decide that we'd rather be broken ourselves than to break anyone else – just as Jesus preferred to be broken on the cross than to break us all for good at the Last Judgment.

The chains of injustice again – the third set (and I'll be brief here) is oppression. Ezekiel mentions it, and also Jeremiah mentions it, and so does Isaiah himself. The true fast, the authentic Lent, is “to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free” (Isaiah 58:6). Oppression was a problem then, and it still is today. Sometimes, we're oppressed by lawlessness. Crime is oppressive! Crime is violent! When there is no law, when each man does what's right in his own eyes – well, you watch the news. Seldom a Sunday goes by where someone doesn't mention to me a story they heard that sickens or saddens them to their core. So sometimes, we're oppressed by lawlessness.

And yet, sometimes we're oppressed by an excess of law, which can be no better than the law's absence. Think of the Pharisees. What did Jesus say about the way they treated the Law of Moses, to which they appended all their oral traditions like a fence? “And you experts in the law, woe to you, for you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them” (Luke 11:46). In their system, an excess of law oppressed the people by chaining them to so many rules. 

And look at modern America. With as many laws are on the books, every single one of us is probably rendered unknowingly a law-breaker – giving the state the power to find a suitable pretext to punish anyone at any time. As the law becomes more and more intrusive in the name of new political orthodoxies, we've begun to see the progressive creep of horror stories – normal people whose lives are turned upside down for seeking to live a quiet and peaceful life in the way their parents and grandparents did before them – or, more dangerous yet, for daring to obey God rather than man (cf. Acts 5:29).

But the greatest oppression of all isn't from criminals, isn't from the media, and it isn't from any government. The greatest oppression of all is from sin itself. “Long my imprisoned spirit lay, / fast bound in sin and nature's night.” What does Jesus say? “Everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). And what does Paul say? The unbeliever is “unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin” (Romans 7:14), and being “slaves to sin … leads to death” (Romans 6:16). Sin creates slavery. Sin oppresses. Pharaoh was just a shadow of sin's tyranny. We need freedom, and Jesus offers it. If any of you haven't been “set free from sin” (Romans 6:18), you need to turn to Jesus – “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).

But still, all this talk of unbalanced scales, violence, oppression – doesn't so much of it seem foreign to our church right now? And yet it's all terribly relevant, even for us, nestled out here in the countryside beneath our broken roof. To begin with, every time we vote for any office-holder, from the bottom all the way to the top, we have a hand in choosing whether the chains of injustice will loosen or tighten. 

It's a mess this year. In both parties, plenty of candidates fail miserably when it comes to consistency – to measuring others with the same standard they'd seek for themselves. That's politics as usual. And in both parties, candidates actively endorse physical and verbal violence, whether against the wealthy and the unborn in one party or against immigrants and refugees in the other. And the front-runners of neither party have a track record of seeking, in the words of the pledge we all grew up with, “liberty and justice for all” – a Christian sentiment before it ever was an American one. 

I can't tell you how to sort out that muddle – what ballot box might loose the chains of injustice most. I can't tell you, and not just because we'd have the IRS breathing down our necks. The gospel isn't about handing down a new law like the old one; it's about being led in dialogue with the Spirit deeper into the heart of the Lawgiver – the Lawgiver who tells us to forsake weighted scales, to speak up for the vulnerable, to abandon all violence, and to set the oppressed free.

But beyond participating in the political process, we can put these biblical truths into practice here and now in our lives. We can follow through on those Lenten commitments – we don't have to wait the fifty-one days until the Pennsylvania primary. We can loose the chains of injustice in Salisbury Township and the other neighborhoods around us. And we can start with our own lives: devoting ourselves to the fairness of the truth; replacing the violence of our lips with words of peace and comfort; and spreading the good news that “whom the Son sets free is free indeed” (John 8:36). Amen.

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