A Prayer inspired by the prophet Obadiah

Almighty God,
You are righteous and just,
You are the Judge and the Deliverer,
and we worship You.
Our world, Lord, needs Your intervention
with goodness and fairness –
come to us!
Our lives, Lord, need Your touch
of healing and restoration –
come to us!

Thank You for the message of Obadiah,
who reminds us that You see the ruins
and You will intervene,
that you know the loss
and You will restore.
Give us courage and strength
to persevere with You,
no matter our circumstances
until the day we see You
face to face.

All this we pray, through Jesus Christ,
our Savior and Deliverer,
to whom, with You and the Holy Spirit
be honor and glory, now and forever.
Amen.

The Core of Amos’ Message

justice and mercy

Understanding Amos’ message is tied up in these four contextual factors:

  1. a shift in structures of land ownership and exploitation within the new structure
  2. an increasing gap between the wealthy elite and the poor peasant class
  3. corruption of justice in the law courts
  4. covenantal disobedience with hypocritical religious ceremonies

Generally speaking, Amos proclaimed a message of doom, that “Yahweh was moving upon the land to devastate a sinful people” (Flanders, People of the Covenant, 344). He indicated that Israel’s pending devastation was primarily due to the utter absence of justice and righteousness within the nation as demanded by covenant relationship with Yahweh. As J. S. Smart writes:

The heart of Amos’ faith was the conviction that only a nation in which the dealings of men with one another are just can be in any true sense a people in covenant with God. . . . It is the justice, holiness, and purity of God that calls for justice, holiness, and purity in the common life of Israel. – J. S. Smart, “Amos,” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 121.

Within the prophetic oracles recorded in the book of Amos, there are two key terms related to justice and righteousness and four key terms related to the poor. The first two terms, mišpat and tsedeqah, are common to most of the prophetic books included in the Hebrew Scriptures. The first word, mišpat, is usually translated as “justice” or “judgment.” Mišpat “connotes a complex of meanings like equal, fair, right, good, which, however modulated, constitute a focus of value that is understood to be essential to social well-being” (James Luther Mays, “Justice: Perspectives from the Prophetic Tradition,” in Prophecy in Israel: Search for an Identity, 145).

The second term, tsedeqah, is most commonly translated as “righteousness”, but also conveys meanings of “vindication, deliverance, uprightness, right, and even prosperity” (Bruce C. Birch, Let Justice Roll Down: The Old Testament, Ethics and
Christian Life, 153). Tsedeqah is best understood in relational terms, as Gerhard von Rad elaborates, “Every relationship brings with it certain claims upon conduct, and the satisfaction of these claims, which issue from the relationship and in which alone the relationship can persist, is described by our term” (quoted in Birch, Let Justice Roll Down, 154).

We see justice that is essential to social well being (mišpat) and righteousness as the satisfaction of claims upon conduct within relationships (tsedeqah). Both terms are used in the scriptures of the interactions between God and Israel but also in reference to ideal human interactions within the covenant community. Thus, God relates in justice and righteousness with Israel by being faithful to them in the covenant relationship and fulfilling his promises given to them. Concurrently, Israel is required by the covenant to reciprocate such faithfulness with God by serving him alone as well as acting justly and rightly in all interpersonal relationships as prescribed in the covenantal stipulations. In his prophetic oracles, Amos joins mišpat and tsedeqah in parallelism three times (Am 5:7; 5:24; 6:12b), emphasizing that the two concepts are inseparably related. “The two are so closely coordinated that Amos’ use of mišpat is not to be understood out of relation to its source and orientation to sedeqah” (James Luther Mays, Amos: A Commentary, 92). J. du Preez further illumines the relationship of mišpat and tsedeqah as seen in Amos 5:24, writing that “the two words together express a specific idea which, to a large extent, amounts to what may be called social justice” (J. du Preez, “Social Justice: Motive for the Mission of the Church,” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 53, 37).

These two terms, justice and righteousness, form the core of Amos’ message.

Why the Quartet of the Vulnerable?: insights on justice by Nicholas Wolterstorff

Reginald Marsh - downtrodden masses

As I prepared my message on the prophet Amos this past weekend at Eastbrook, I read widely and returned to some material I had read years before. Here is an insightful piece form Nicholas Wolterstorff‘s fantastic book, Justice: Rights and Wrongs.

A striking feature of how the Old Testament writers talk about justice is the frequency with which they connect justice, both primary and rectifying, with the treatment of widows, orphans, resident aliens, and the poor. Alike in the presentation of the original legal code, in the accusations by the prophets of violations of the code, and in the complaints of the psalmist about violations, some or all of the members of this quartet regularly get special attention when justice, mishpat, is under discussion.

In Deuteronomy 24:17 Moses enjoins the people, “You shall not deprive the resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge” (cf. Exodus 22:21-22). In Deuteronomy 27:19 the priests call out, in a ritualized cursing cermony, “Cursed by anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice,” to which the people say, “Amen.” In Isaiah 1:17, Isaiah of Jerusalem says:

Seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.

And in 10:1-2 (a passage already quoted) he excoriates those

who make iniquitous decrees,
who write oppressive statues,
to turn aside the needy from justice,
and to robe the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be your spoil,
and that you may make the orphans your prey!

The theme is too pervasive in these writings, and too familiar by now to most readers, to need further elaboration.

The widows, the orphans, the resident aliens, and the impoverished were the bottom ones, the low ones, the lowly. That is how Israel’s writers spoke of them. Given their position at the bottom of the social hierarchy, they were especially vulnerable to being treated with injustice. They were downtrodden, as our older English translations nicely put it. The rich and the powerful put them down, tread on them, trampled them. Rendering justice to them is often described as “lifting them up.”

The prophets and the psalmist do not argue the case that alleviating the plight of the lowly is required by justice. They assume it. When they speak of God’s justice, when they enjoin their hearers to practice justice, when they complain to God about the absence of justice, they take for granted that justice requires alleviating the plight of the lowly. They save their breath for urging their readers to actually practice justice to the quartet of the vulnerable low ones.

[Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 75-76.]

Amos [God in the Ruins]

God in the Ruins Series GFX_App SquareThis past weekend at Eastbrook, I continued our series on the minor prophets, “God in the Ruins,” by turning attention to the prophet Amos. Amos is best-known for his strong words about justice and righteousness, and his stinging rebuke of the people of Israel, particularly their leaders.

Unlike many other minor prophets, Amos has a clearly-defined vocation as a shepherd (Amos 1:1) and dresser of sycamore-fig trees (7:14). He was likely a wealthy land-owner who does not serve as a prophet beyond a short period of time. Even though he was from the southern kingdom of Judah in the vicinity of Tekoa, just south of Jerusalem, Amos prophesied to the northern kingdom of Israel at the height of its economic prosperity and political power around 760 BC.

You can watch my message from this past weekend and follow along with the message outline below. You can also engage with the entire series on the minor prophets here or download the Eastbrook mobile app for even more opportunities to connect.

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A Prayer inspired by the prophet Amos

Almighty God,
who can stand before You
without feeling some level
of smallness, fear, and failing?
Have mercy on us
in spite of our wrongs,
and bring Your forgiveness
over our sins, both known and unknown.
Save us from false religion,
from the bustling of activity
that has lost its center in You
and fails to reflect who You are.
You are a God of righteousness
and justice in Your character and activity.
Shape us, Your people, to be like You
so that justice might roll on like a river
and righteousness like a never-failing stream
in and through us, O God.

All this we pray, through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord
to whom, with You and the Holy Spirit
be honor and glory, now and forever.
Amen.

Our Longing for Justice and Need for Mercy

justice and mercy.jpg

One of our strongest longings as human beings is a longing for justice. We long for our lives and the world around us to be bounded by what is just, right, true, and fair without impartiality.

In presidential elections, both here and around the world, we long for fairness in the process so that votes are counted and people are given necessary attention. This is why we have impartial monitoring groups paying attention to elections around the world. This longing for justice is behind the outcries that arise when human rights are violated, whether around the world or here in our own country. International watchdog groups give voice to the helpless or the ignored so that justice can be brought to bear in their lives. We long for justice because we experience injustice and sin in our world.

This is a biblical concept that flows throughout the Bible. When we wonder what God is like, we inevitably encounter the God of the Bible as a God of justice. The Torah calls for maintaining justice and dealing appropriately with the wrongs in the world: protecting widows, orphans, foreigners and the weak in the face of a difficult world. The Hebrew word, mishpat, is the word most often translated as ‘justice’ in the Old Testament. It conveys the idea of right and appropriate order of a just cause being maintained in the world. When we ask the question, “What is God like?”, we discover that at least one answer is this: He is a God of justice.

But here is something interesting. Even as we long for complete justice in the world, we encounter our own need for leniency. We call for justice for wrongs done by some to us or others, but we often hesitate when we do wrongs ourselves.

When a toddler has his toy taken by another child who did not ask, the toddler cries out for the toy to be returned. It was taken unfairly. But, it comes as a great surprise to that same toddler when he is placed in a time-out for unfairly taking a toy without asking from one of his peers later on. Justice looks good from one perspective, but looks a bit more painful when justice hits closer to us personally.

In 1984, Jennifer Thompson was a 22-year-old college student with a promising life ahead of her. But when a man broke into her apartment and assaulted her on a warm summer night, she vowed to put him in jail for the rest of her life. When the police gathered a lineup of men for her to identify, she pointed to man #5: Ronald Cotton, as the perpetrator. In the 1985 trial, Cotton was sentenced to life in prison with little hope of release. Justice had been served, or so it appeared.

11 years later, Jennifer Thompson received a knock at the door of her home. She had moved on, gotten married, had children, but every day for 11 years, she had been praying for Ronald Cotton to die. The detective at her door had some important news for her. After a review of evidence through advanced DNA testing, it became clear that Ronald Cotton was not her assailant but, rather, another man already in prison, Bobby Poole. Ronald Cotton was not guilty.

11 years. Ronald Cotton falsely imprisoned. Jennifer Thompson held in a prison of anger. The tables had been turned and Jennifer Thompson said, “I was overwhelmed with guilt and shame for mistakenly putting an innocent man in prison….I found it almost impossible to forgive myself.”

So, when Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson were reunited, she begged for forgiveness. Ronald Cotton took her hands, and with tears in his eyes, told her that he had forgiven her a long time ago.

Ronald Cotton said that both he and Jennifer were victims of the same man. They both became wounded, but they both began to heal. He said, “I choose to forgive…so that I stay free and not be a prisoner the rest of my life.”[1]

You see, we long for justice – for things to be set right in our lives and world – but we also long for mercy because we all need it. The chasm of injustice and sin runs right through our world and also right through us. 

In Matthew 18, Jesus tells a story about a servant who was gravely indebted to a king for a tremendous amount of money. He owed the king so much money, in fact, that as a day laborer it would have taken him about 3,000 lifetimes to pay the debt off. When the king brought this man in to settle the debt – to experience justice – the servant begged for mercy. Seeing the servant’s pleas, the king decided to cancel the debt and give the man a new lease on life. Justice was going to be served but instead the servant received mercy.

Returning home, this servant encountered a fellow servant who owed him about four month’s wages and began to choke him, commanding him to repay the debt. Although this other servant too begged for mercy, the first servant denied it and had the man thrown in prison.

The king eventually heard of this situation and called the servant in. Hadn’t this servant owed the king more than he could repay in 3,000 lifetimes? Hadn’t the king shown mercy and cancelled the debt? And now the servant had thrown another man in prison for a debt of four month’s pay? Where is the justice in this lack of mercy?

We long for justice, but human justice can, honestly, at times be unjust. The encounter with justice leads us ultimately into a plea for mercy.  We long for mercy because we know we all need it. The chasm of injustice and sin runs right through our own souls as well.

What good news it is that the God of the Bible is both a God of justice and a God of mercy. One of the most prevalent cries in the psalms is for mercy: “Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint; heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony” (Psalm 6:2). And one of the most resounding themes of the entire Bible is that God is a God of mercy:

  • “Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.” (Isaiah 55:7)
  • “We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy.” (Daniel 9:18)
  • “You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy.” (Micah 7:18)

It is in the character of God to be both just and merciful. We struggle to bring these two characteristics together, but God is capable of bringing both to bear upon human lives in a way that also reflects His wisdom.

Ultimately we encounter this within the work of Jesus Christ, whose ministry is one of both justice and mercy. James’ description of the Christian reality speaks to the ministry of Jesus: “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). Paul’s marvelous summary of the good news in Ephesians 2, finds its center in the mercy of God:

All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 2:3-5)

What a gift that our strongest longing for justice meets with our strongest need for mercy in Jesus Christ, the image of the invisible God. What is God like? He is a God of justice and a God of mercy.

 


[1] “Finding Freedom In Forgiveness,” NPR – This I Believe, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=101469307, November 26, 2011.

The Weekend Wanderer: 5 October 2019

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.

guyger-hugging-01-abc-jt-191002_hpMain_4x3_992“Extraordinary act of mercy: Brother of Botham Jean hugs and forgives Amber Guyger after 10-year sentence imposed” – Forgiveness is complicated and powerful. There has been a lot of discussion around Brandt Jean’s response to Amber Guyger, but there is no doubt that it is powerful to see the extension of forgiveness to an offender. We saw something similar to this after the shooting of nine people at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. Different people respond in different ways. Justice is required because all lives are equally valuable as made in the image of God. We must admit that justice and forgiveness apply in overlapping arenas of the public square and interpersonal relationships. Justice and forgiveness do not exist in an “either/or” dilemma perpetually at odds with one another. We must continue to debate the appropriate and equitable application of justice in these situations. We must also continue to learn more about forgiveness until we see the Author of forgiveness face to face.

 

SheepAmongWolvesII_6.16.1“Iran has world’s ‘fastest-growing church,’ despite no buildings – and it’s mostly led by women: documentary” – A friend passed this article along to me about a new documentary, Sheep Among Wolves, exploring the dramatic growth of Christianity in Iran. This dynamic growth is fueled by discipleship and not by structures. I have had the privilege of talking with movement leaders in this part of the world, as well as with the Iranian diaspora, and it is fascinating to hear about this surging work of God. While I haven’t watched the nearly two-hour documentary yet, I look forward to doing so.

 

Ghostly figure leaving the interior of Sanahin Monastery, Debed Canyon, Armenia“Three Decades Ago, America Lost Its Religion. Why?” – One of the biggest discussions amongst religious folks these days is the decline of religion in America, particularly Christianity, and the rise of what is known as the “religious nones.” I am increasingly convinced that this at least partially a result and symptom of (manipulative?) messaging in the public square more than it is about theology and decline in religious desire. Derek Thompson writes: “Religion has lost its halo effect in the past three decades, not because science drove God from the public square, but rather because politics did. In the 21st century, ‘not religious’ has become a specific American identity—one that distinguishes secular, liberal whites from the conservative, evangelical right.” Now, that will make you stop and think for awhile. You will wonder to yourself, “Is that true?” And you will read the news, and you will say, “That may just make sense.”

 

Screen Shot 2019-10-03 at 11.06.51 AM“InterVarsity can require its leaders to be Christian, judge rules” – In a headline that seems obvious, we return again to the contested crossroads of faith and the public square, this time in relation to student groups on university campuses. If fraternities and sororities can choose for their participants to be only men or women (which is already debated), can social or religious groups not also limit their members based on affiliation? Thankfully, a judge in Iowa used some basic common sense here in relation to a lawsuit filed by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship against the University of Iowa. One could ask the searching question, “Why would someone want to be part of the leadership of a group that stands for something they disagree with?” The answer to that may lead us into deeper questions about hidden motivations and some aspects of the entire contemporary social project aimed at eliminating all limits and differences between individuals and groups.

 

Screen Shot 2019-10-03 at 11.19.16 AM“The Miracle of Canticle – I don’t remember when I first read Walter Miller’s post-apocalyptic novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz, but I do remember not wanting to put it down. What was it that captivated me within this quirky series of three novellas depicting a world ravaged by war and scavenging for lost knowledge and wisdom? Was it the central role some aspect of faith plays in the form of a resourceful monastery at the heart of all three stories? Was it the author’s ability to weave together meaningful conversation about reason, faith, war, and loss in the midst of fascinating science fiction that feels contemporary? It’s still hard for me to put my finger on it, but as the work celebrates sixty years since publication, I don’t mind joining Daniel Kennelly in savoring it again.

 

Music: Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” from Ella and Louis.

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]