Week Eleven November 20, 2016
READ: Isaiah 49:7-16a
Why Pursue Justice and Peace?
Jesus challenged the powerful and lifted up the lowly. He did not come to establish a new system of power and control. In a time when women were clearly under the rule of men, Jesus shook the system by standing up for justice for women. Jesus disarmed the men who stood ready to stone a woman caught in sin by inviting the sinless to throw their stones. The thud of stones dropping and feet shuffling away from the stoning circle was deafening. In another story, Jesus ate dinner at the home of Simon the Pharisee. A woman known in the community for her sinful life entered the house and began washing Jesus feet with her tears. The religious leaders who sat at the table with Jesus spoke disparaging words about the woman while Jesus showered her with compassion. Jesus retorted with sharp words to cut the heart of the self-righteous men.
Followers of Jesus are called to work for justice for the oppressed and underserved in our community because this is what Jesus taught and practiced. It coincides with the practice of thinking less about ourselves and more for the sake and betterment of others, especially the poor and marginalized. When the poor have accompaniment to work their way out of poverty, the whole community is made stronger. It requires a change that begins with our own attitudes. It calls for an ongoing change of my attitude. We can practice justice by standing up for people who are not present in a conversation as they are being ridiculed and torn down. It always begins with our attitude which we surrender to God in prayer. Eventually, it starts to impact our actions.
Justice looks out for others. Justice cares for the rights of the young and the elderly, women, the disabled, the L.G.B.T.Q. community, people of color, and people who primarily speak other languages. I know that as a white male I have access and can travel in the United States with little question or problems. When I am with my son-in-law, Arturo, I have come to recognize how he gets looks and asked questions that I never receive. It is not all the time. It’s subtle. I have walked with senior citizens who have gotten hassled because they walk to slow. “Get out of my way old man.” Do I say something or just remain silent. Does not my silence say I approve, or at the least, I do not care? What would Jesus do?
The work of peace-making is all about reconciliation, a Christian activity. To make peace is to resolve conflict, not avoid it or pretend that a Christian never experience conflict. The activity of peace-making is a work within families, neighborhoods, cities and the church. Peace-making is relational and works to minimize and eliminate violence, abuse and the taking of life. It is a way of life and it involves a process that is educational. Our community and world needs to learn a new way to live and resolve conflict. Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid,” (John 14:27). The work for justice and peace is the higher way to live.
Jesus says that he came to earth to bring good news to the poor (Luke 4:18). The Psalmist David wrote: I know that the LORD maintains the cause of the needy, and executes justice for the poor, (Psalm 140:12). Certainly the needs of the poor have not disappeared. There is global poverty which far exceeds the harsh reality of much of the poor in the United States. Yet the challenges of being poor in the U.S. is real. Irene runs her single parent home situated near the government housing apartments. She has three school age boys who all live in this small, run down bungalow. The youngest son deals with pretty significant mental and emotional challenges. The oldest son, Jimmy, just dropped out of high school as a sixteen year old.
Poverty has left its toll on this family as evident in poor dental and physical health. Both Irene and Jimmy are missing front teeth as the basic way to fix dental problems for individuals on government assistance has been to extract teeth. Irene’s husband died of a heart attack some ten years ago who worked full time as a car mechanic but had no life insurance. Any nest egg was gone within a year after his death. To give you an idea what poverty and a hard life does to a person, when I initially met Irene she looked to be at least 65 and I thought these boys were her grandchildren! Good thing I did not say anything because Irene was only 38.
If it were ever possible to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” it would require that everyone had equal access and opportunity to education and work in the United States. It just is not so. It is much easier to know “someone” who can get your foot in the door if you are higher up the economic mountain. At the same time, it is way easier to look down the economic mountain and point fingers at people with less access, and no network of influential people inside the work zone to open a door for you and shake a head and call them lazy.
The first time I walked into Irene’s home it made me physically sick. I am allergic to cats, mold and mildew and all three were obviously in the air when I entered her house. Within the first five minutes of my visit, I had a headache and battled the urge to sneeze. The air was dank the lighting dim and the furnishing old, thread-bare and minimal. I may have come off as rude but I remained standing knowing I had to cut this visit short. I sped home, took something for my headache, hopped in the hot shower and laid down for a nap.
When I awoke, I could not stop thinking about all of the advantages my children have to make it in this world as compared to Jimmy and his brothers. Irene’s house is such an unhealthy place to live. Other than the kitchen table, there was no place to sit and do homework. I did not notice a single book in the house. Who will mentor these boys? They are not in any after-school clubs, no travel teams, no summer park district teams, no YMCA involvement because it is a long bike ride to get there, and no church connection.
We all have done better in life because someone took an interest or believed in us. A quick count in my head says that I have had at least 15-20 people who have significantly influenced or helped me in my life. How about you? Irene’s family need adults who invest themselves in their lives. Who do these boys represent in your periphery? Jimmy and his girlfriend Destiny, a sixteen year old drop out, have just renovated the single car garage in the back of Irene’s house into their apartment. Destiny is expecting their first child. The cycle continues.
The reality remains that Irene and her family often feel ignored and forgotten. She fights for her kids, not as often as she once did because Irene has wore down. The complaint of the Jews in exile was that they felt forgotten by God (49:14). When you find yourself forcefully extracted from your home which is destroyed and hauled off to a distant land as a captive for 70 years, it is easy to imagine the feeling of being forsaken by God. Seventy years from now, I will be long dead, my daughter Amanda Monroe will be 98 and her daughter Grace will be 72. That is a long time to live in captivity.
The reply of Yahweh to the Jews complaint in verse 14 is met by God’s response in verses 15-16a: “Even if there is a person who feels like a motherless child, I do not nor will I forget you.” God assures the Jews that they are tattooed on God’s hand. You are in the palm of God’s hand and ever visible to God’s mind. The complaint of feeling forsaken is countered by God’s assurance that this is simply not the case.
The LORD heard and answered their long and frequently voiced prayers from the distant land of Babylon (49:8). Israel remains a covenant people who the LORD has “kept” all these years, even when they have felt abandoned by God. God’s vision of the journey back home from Mesopotamia to Palestine (49:9-12) follows. God will provide food, drink and protection for the Jews as the LORD did throughout the journey out of Egypt during the Exodus. All of the feared heat of the day in the wilderness will not harm them. As a result, what follows this good news is a song of praise (49:13; see a parallel song of praise in 44:23).
Yahweh’s promise of the return home of the Jews occurs throughout Second Isaiah. This repetitive pattern tells us several things: 1) God spoke this word of promise many times as a reassurance to Israel that they were not forgotten. 2) Second Isaiah is a prophetic narrative and not a chronological word. 3) Not everything in Second Isaiah appears to be in the original order because it was spoken over 2500 years ago, written down later and edited over time. There are many questions that remain about Second Isaiah that still stump scholars today.
The first illusion to the return home happens in Isaiah 41:17-20. God will provide food and water in the wilderness or desert because God will answer their prayers and has not forsaken Jacob (41:17). The way through the wilderness from Mesopotamia to Palestine causes anxiety and is unfamiliar to the Jews in Babylon. It is as if they are blind yet God will lead them safely home (42:16). One of the great verses of Second Isaiah as it pertains to the future return home is found in 43:19-21. Yahweh is a way maker who will give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people (43:20). There is also reference to the Exodus account in 48:21.
Second Isaiah tells the promises that Yahweh will deliver and lead Israel back to her home. At no point during the exile has God forgotten the Jews. Yet the refrain throughout these short sixteen chapters of Isaiah (40-55), Jacob has repeatedly complained of being forgotten and forsaken by God. This complaint is echoed in the final chapter of Lamentations (5:20): Why have you forgotten us completely? Whey have you forsaken us these many days? To that end, God prepared and used King Cyrus of Persia, a gentile, to be God’s deliverer. God is at work in the world, not just the church. God will call and send anyone who is willing to be about God’s purposes on earth. God works through people.
- What types of injustice do you see in our community?
- In the story of the poverty experienced by Irene and her family including Jimmy and Destiny, what would you think are some of the root causes of their poverty? What is their responsibility in this?
- In what ways can you understand the complaints of Israel toward God during their exile in Babylon? Did they have a case against God? What defense does Yahweh have in the midst of the suffering of the Jews?
- What does God call us to be about in the case of the Jimmy and Destiny’s of our community? How can what appears to be hopeless be turned into a future with possibilities? What other partners are there besides the church? What is our role as the church in our community?