Luke 16: 19-31
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.
In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’
He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
Justice is one of the highest ideals which we aspire to as human beings. There has never been a group of people that formed without aspiring to be just, at least on the surface. We look at things like law codes and complex administration as the basis for advanced society. Alongside things like writing and pottery we see in the administration of justice something that goes beyond the mere existence of humanity as animals like any other and the establishment of the human condition as something altogether more special. Justice is that thing which makes us, not just intelligent or rational, but human.
The problem with our conception of justice is that we usually see it in terms of a reactive force. Justice is what happens when a person does something wrong and is punished for their impropriety. When we picture lady justice, blind fold around her face and scale in her hand, we cannot escape the sword she holds in the other hand. The menace of justice is more fascinating to us than it ought to be, and I think that that is in part just because it is easier to tie crime to punishment than to see any sort of beneficent action justly administered to those in need. There is causality behind one thing, a person violates a social principle or law and faces repercussions for that violation. The other exists irrespective of the person’s morality – people receive their due even when they have not done anything to actively earn that good thing.
The Church has contributed to this misunderstanding of what justice can be. If you, like me, grew up hearing about the ultimate contrast in the universe being God’s mercy and God’s justice, then you know what I’m talking about. For those who aren’t familiar with this, the paradigm goes like this: God, being absolutely good, must punish evil. Therefore, God executes God’s justice when God punished wrongdoing. God, however, being absolutely good, is capable of infinite mercy, and therefore God is also quick to forgive others. The two opposite ideas, Justice and Mercy, are then seen as a push and pull within the person of God.
This is a false dichotomy all the same. To say that God is just only when God punishes people puts up the idea that God primarily exists to punish people. To say that God is merciful only when God fails to be just is to say that justice is a purely punitive force. If we believe that God is good, all of the time, then there must be a deeper unity to the things that God does. One of the ways that this unity manifests is in the perfect justice which God demonstrates in all that God does – not only in retributive displays against wrongdoers but in restorative actions meant to bring people back to God and generative actions that sustain God’s creation.
One of the ways we can understand the nature of God’s justice is in looking to our own legal system. Despite their many faults, courts of law are meant not only to punish people, but to ensure that people receive their due. If I owe you money and I fail to pay it out, then I have cheated you out of your money. If a court settled that matter, then they would first ask me to pay out the amount I was owed and then deliberate on if my delayed payment caused harm enough to warrant additional fees or punishments. The function of the court in this way is not primarily to administer a punishment to me for something I did wrong, but to get me to do the right thing I had neglected up to this point.
Legal metaphors fall short in God’s economy of grace once we go beyond this kind of broad imagery. The truth is that God is not weighing scales when God thinks about us. God is not counting, on one hand, the good things we have done, and on the other the bad, God loves us entirely and seeks to further our relationship with all members of the Trinity and with one another. This desire to see goodness applied to our life means that God’s justice is oriented primarily toward the good of God’s people, secondarily to any matters of crime and punishment.
The story we read from scripture captures God’s justice in the call for us to care for one another and the vision of consequences for those who fail to do so. Despite the truth of what I just said, that God is not primarily concerned with punishing wrongdoings, there are still expectations that we as people of God are given for how we ought to be. As our discussion last month of faith and works showed, a faithful person will never be perfect, but if fail to show any signs of their faith in how they live out their life their faith is likely not as serious or authentic as they might like to believe. We are called to follow God’s example and care for people, an act of justice in itself, and through that merciful outlook to bring God’s kingdom to this earth.
The example given in our scripture is of a rich man and a poor man, one who has every good thing in life and the other who sits hungry and covered in sores, sleeping with feral dogs. The rich man and the poor man die on the same night, both are Judean, both claim the God of Israel, but one finds himself in the perdition of Hades and the other in the comfort of Abraham’s presence. God took the poor man into his arms, while the rich man was cast aside for never regarding the plight of the poor man who lived outside his gates. There is no doctrinal difference between the two, only the acknowledgment that one of them was poor and in need and the other was rich and did not care.
Justice in the way we typically think of it on earth would be impossible here. No crime was committed by not feeding this man, and many would argue that the livelihood of someone outside of a person’s family is not their problem. This earthly perspective would see the punishment of the rich man as unfair, and the admonition of Abraham that there was no hope for people like him because they had been warned already as far too severe. With God, though, our earthly perspective is simply not enough. If we wish to truly understand the way that God would have justice completed in this world, we must see good and evil as more than just the things we do.
The failure of the rich man to actively seek the good of the poor man is counted as though he had directly hurt him. There is, therefore, no difference in a biblical mindset between withholding what is due to someone and taking it from them directly. If I come into your house and steal your food from your cabinets, no one would doubt that I had done wrong. What we must understand, biblically, is that it would be equally wrong for me to allow someone’s cabinets to be empty as long as I had the power to prevent that. We are not called simply to avoid doing evil but always seek after doing more good. Sometimes that means directly, through taking cash or goods from our hand and putting it into someone else’s. Other times it means giving the reins over to people who know better than we do. Either way, the truly just thing for us to do is to act, not simply to abstain.
God’s justice saw the poor man being cared for after death, but it is not God’s will that people should only have comfort in the world to come. The eternity of God’s kingdom was established the moment God mercifully let the sunrise on sinners like you and me. With every drop of rain that sustains our fields and keeps our world going, God is showing God’s commitment to sustain us in this life as well as the next. The only way that scarcity enters the world we have built up around us, a world of untold plenty and connectedness, is in our decision to withhold resources from those in need. As God allows the sun to shine on the wicked and the good, so too must our love be all-encompassing, and our own mercy be poured out upon all who are in need.
This all-encompassing love meets its greatest challenge, not in our desire to do good, but in our ability to appropriately manage our attention. It is not always easy, or even possible, to stay engaged with every problem that we possibly could at all times. We as human beings developed in communities of about 250 for most of our existence, and that development means that we are not equipped to carry all the worlds burdens at once. The advent of a 24-hour news cycle and online news sources has made it so that we cannot get away from endless bad news that we would love to do something to help with.
Since we are constantly seeing so much, it can be hard to consistently help any one thing. We’ve seen time and time again people lose support once their story leaves the news cycle. There will come a time in a year or so when we do not remember the people of the Ukraine as intensely, and the work that needs done there might just struggle to get done as the world moves its attention elsewhere. On one hand, this sort of shifting attention is unavoidable, on the other, it is simply tragic. When we end our time together I’ll talk about some more consistent ways we can regularly give to meet the needs of those around us, but suffice it to say for now that we cannot just wait till our heart is moved by some incredible disaster.
Likewise, we have to teach ourselves not to prioritize disaster only when it happens to people we like or agree with or resemble. We all felt pain for those displaced by war in the Ukraine, but what of those displaced by war in the middle east? Refugees from South America and Africa and non-European nations, do we have the same sympathy for them? Whether conscious or not, we do create hierarchies of need and care in our minds, and those hierarchies inevitably bleed out into the ways we speak and act and advocate. When we have our James bible study next month, we will look at his teachings that particularity is one of the easiest sins that we can fall into. The Gospel is preached to all people, the kingdom is open to all people. If in Christ there is no East or West, then there can be no divide between our care for those around us.
Justice is the end result of the virtues we have discussed up to this point. When we live prudently, deciding what we must do in any circumstance with a sound and even mind, we will naturally come to a place where we can respond to the problems of the world justly. When we acknowledge the complexity of temperance, we can see how important it is to be merciful even as we strive to use only what we need in all respects. When we understand the hard work of being courageous, then we will stand up against the inequity of a world that does not work for the good of all people, but only those for whom such advocacy is convenient.
Justice is the act of making sure all people receive their due. It is the upholding of those divine principles which we depend upon. When we hold justice up as our banner, amazing things can happen. As today is a Sunday reserved for the United Methodist Committee on Relief, I want to specifically plug them as a way to be proactive in our administration of justice. UMCOR is among the first to respond to the needs of people all over the world in the midst of disaster. Whether it be floods, earthquakes, mudslides, or tidal waves, UMCOR is there to provide for those in need.
Beyond UMCOR are all our local resources for those in need, Open Heart, the Mission, the CHANGE initiative, and food pantries galore! We can learn to be better stewards of justice through careful study of materials created by people who have worked in ministries of peace and reconciliation. We can change the world we live in when we see justice as the active advocacy for the good of all people, and not simply the passive waiting for the bad in the world to simply be done away with. The lesson of the rich man and Lazarus is not just that we should learn our lessons well to avoid the rich man’s fate, but that there is room for all in the company of God’s redeemed. The table we set now can make a big difference about what table we will sit at later, so make the choice today and show love and care to all who are in need. – Amen.