Sunday’s sermon: Jesus Who Brings Justice

Text used – Luke 16:19-31

  • The year was 1963, and he was in prison. Again. Not for the first time. Not for the second time. For the 13th Heck, this time they even had him in solitary confinement.[1] While in jail, he read an open letter in The Birmingham News signed by all the local white clergy – Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal, Catholic, Presbyterian, and even the local Jewish rabbi. It was a letter calling for unity … of sorts. It was a letter calling for patience … of sorts. It was a letter that backhandedly blamed the recent peaceful protestors for the exceedingly violent response against them while simultaneously commending those perpetuating that violence for “the calm manner in which these demonstrations have been handled.”[2] And after reading it, Martin Luther King, Jr. began to work on his response.
    • Result = “Letter from Birmingham Jail” or “Letter from Birmingham City Jail”
    • Result = 7000 words, 21 double-spaced typed pages
    • Result = finished before he was released from that Birmingham jail just over a week later BUT not published and distributed until June 1963
    • Result that included what has probably become one of King’s most repeated quotes: “Injustice anywhere is a thread to justice everywhere.”[3]
    • Result was some unapologetically direct calling out of the established, white congregations (that had just called King himself and the entire Civil Rights movement out in the previous open letter): In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime – the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists. I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action. … Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust. Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world.[4] → “Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and our world?” I don’t know about you, but that sounds a lot like the question Jesus is asking in our gospel reading this morning.
  • Today’s parable = Lazarus and the rich man → probably one of my favorite parables (though that could be because I can’t read it without seeing the Godspell interpretation playing in my mind! … and yes, I watched it while I was working on this!)
    • Parable told, once again, in response to the Pharisees – verses leading up to our reading this morning: The Pharisees, who were money-lovers, heard all this and sneered at Jesus. He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves before other people, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued by people is deeply offensive to God. Until John, there was only the Law and the Prophets. Since then, the good news of God’s kingdom is preached, and everyone is urged to enter it. It’s easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for the smallest stroke of a pen in the law to drop out.”[5] → Jesus is making it clear to the Pharisees that they’re so worried about following every single letter of the Law that they’re missing the intention behind the Law. They’re so busy hunching over the scrolls and staring fixedly at what’s written there that they’ve neglected to look around them – to see the need around them, to see the injustice around them. And so Jesus tells them this parable.
      • Basics:
        • Unnamed rich man “who clothed himself in purple and fine linen, and who feasted luxuriously every day”[6]
          • Gr. here is really interesting
            • Phrase “feasted luxuriously” = literally “rejoiced through daily splendor/sumptuousness”
            • Word “rejoiced” = root of a word we use today: euphoria: a state of intense happiness and self-confidence
            • So clearly the rich man in Jesus’ story is living it up. He’s living the high life, not just eating well every day but boisterously feasting, living sumptuously, living the life of a high roller!
        • Flip side: poor man named Lazarus who lays at the gate to the rich man’s house covered in sores – text: Lazarus longed to eat the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table.[7]
        • Both men die → Lazarus is taken up to heaven to be with Abraham while the rich man is sent to be tormented in “the place of the dead” (Gr. = Hades) → rich man looks up to see Lazarus living well and comfortably in eternity and calls out to Abraham for mercy → Abraham reminds rich man that he had everything good in his previous life while Lazarus had nothing and now the roles are reversed → rich man, thinking of his family members still living, begs Abraham to send Lazarus to go warn his family of the fate that awaits them if they don’t change their ways → Abraham reminds rich man that his family has Scripture (Moses and the prophets) to guide their actions à rich man insists that seeing someone come back from the dead (a lá Jacob Marley in Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol[8]!) will straighten out his living family members → Abraham’s final word: “If they don’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, then neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.”[9]
          • “If they don’t listen to Moses and the Prophets” … “Moses and the Prophets” was the Law. This was the sacred writings that the Pharisees spent their days and their entire lives studying. Jesus is very clearly saying to them, “If you don’t listen to the intent of the Law, then nothing will persuade them.”
    • Really interesting context – today’s parable of injustice = sandwiched in between Jesus’ teaching on faithfulness with money[10] and Jesus’ teaching on faithful service[11] → In between talking about how to use one’s financial blessings to help further and care for God’s kingdom and how to use one’s actions to help further and care for God’s kingdom, Jesus tells this parable about a man who turned a blind eye to injustice.
      • Important to note: unnamed rich man in this parable never actually does anything overtly unjust to Lazarus (not that we know of, anyway) → No, the rich man’s injustice is an injustice of omission. He turns a blind eye to the need of his fellow human being, to the point where the man’s dogs eat well from the scraps of his table (because they are there within in sight) while Lazarus lays out at the man’s gate, starving and in desperate need. Despite the way this passage has been used (dare I say manipulated?) in the past, it’s clear from the context and the content of the parable itself that this isn’t a parable told to mollify those who are poor that there will be rewards for them later. This isn’t a “bide your time, you who suffer” parable. This is not a “Call to Unity” open letter parable. This is a parable to call out inactivity in the face of injustice. This is a parable from Jesus, the one who brings justice to those to whom justice has long been denied. This is an “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” parable.
  • And so we get to the crux of this parable: Where are the unseen injustices around us? Even more pointed, what are the injustices we willingly don’t see? How is Jesus challenging us to open our eyes and our hearts and look around? Because it is imperative that we be honest here, friends. There are unseen injustices all around us.
    • Dr. Mitzi Smith, prof of NT at Columbia Theological Seminary (Georgia): The huge housing, health care, educational, wage, and employment disparities we create and support based on class, gender, culture, race, ethnicity, sexual preference, and so on must be closed in our lifetime. This repair requires truth-telling, introspection, risk, and strategic intentional change by individuals, nations, governments, and businesses.[12] → So let’s do some truth-telling this morning.
    • UNSEEN INJUSTICE: wage gap, especially as it pertains to women and BIPOC à for every $1.00 that white men earn:[13]
      • White women: $.79
      • Black women: $.62
      • Hispanic or Latina women: $.54
      • Asian women: $.90
      • American Indian or Native Alaskan women: $.57
    • UNSEEN INJUSTICE: massive chasm between minimum wage and the cost of living across the country[14]
      • Minimum wage = $7.25 (nationwide)
      • Living wage for a single adult = $14.50 à difference: $7.25
      • Living wage for a single parent with one child = $26.48 à difference: $19.23
      • Living wage for a two-adult home with two children = $27.45 à difference: $20.20
    • UNSEEN INJUSTICE: the Super Bowl (just a couple of months ago) → Texas Attorney General announced in 2011 that this massive, yearly, multimillion dollar sporting event – by far the biggest sporting event in America every year– is also the single largest human trafficking event in America every year[15]
      • Just an e.g. – 10,000 girls and young women were trafficked in Miami during Super Bowl 44 in 2010
    • UNSEEN INJUSTICE: vast differences in experiences with the justice system for white people verses BIPOC[16]
      • Just an e.g. – for the lowest level offenses, Black and American Indian youth are confined at rates over 3 times the rate of white youth
    • Friends, there are injustices all around us. We cannot deny it. As Presbyterians, when we join a church or are ordained to a position in a congregation – ruling elder or deacon or Minister of Word and Sacrament – we vow that we will uphold and live by the tenets of Scripture and by the tenets expressed in the confessions – those creeds and witnesses of the faithful who have gone before us. à words of 3 of those confessions:
      • Confession of 1967: Life is a gift to be received with gratitude and a task to be pursued with courage. Man is free to seek his life within the purpose of God: to develop and protect the resources of nature for the common welfare, to work for justice and peace in society, and in other ways to use his creative powers for the fulfillment of human life.[17]
      • Confession of Belhar: We believe that the credible of [God’s gospel message of grace] is seriously affected and its beneficial work obstructed when it is proclaimed in a land which professes to be Christian, but in which the enforced separation of people on a racial basis promotes and perpetuates alienation, hatred, and enmity.[18]
      • Brief Statement of Faith: In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.[19]
    • “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” So I ask again, friends: What are the injustices we willingly don’t see? Amen.

[1] Barbara Maranzani. “Behind Martin Luther King’s Searing ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail” from History, https://www.history.com/news/kings-letter-from-birmingham-jail-50-years-later. Posted Apr. 16, 2013, updated Aug. 31, 2018, accessed Mar. 14, 2021.

[2] https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/sites/mlk/files/lesson-activities/clergybirmingham1963.pdf.

[3] James M. Washington (ed.), “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row Publishers, 1986), 290.

[4] Ibid, 298, 300.

[5] Lk 16:14-17.

[6] Lk 16:19.

[7] Lk 16:21a.

[8] Charles Dickens. A Christmas Carol. (London, England: Chapman and Hall), 1843.

[9] Lk 16:31.

[10] Lk 16:1-13.

[11] Lk 17:1-10.

[12] Mitzi J. Smith. “Commentary on Luke 16:19-31” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/rich-man-and-lazarus-2/commentary-on-luke-1619-31-7. Accessed Mar. 14, 2021.

[13] https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/women/reports/2020/03/24/482141/quick-facts-gender-wage-gap/.

[14] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-09-10/mapping-the-gap-between-minimum-wage-and-cost-of-living-in-u-s-counties-and-cities.

[15] Michelle Lillie. “Largest Human Trafficking Incident in America” from Human Trafficking Search, https://humantraffickingsearch.org/largest-human-trafficking-incident-in-america/?gclid=CjwKCAiAhbeCBhBcEiwAkv2cY1TRhxo8GwhYIavjOBC7Vmj5waBvlWgKXfQi-xLcykjRIxs2YizY0RoCnegQAvD_BwE. Posted Jan. 20, 2014, accessed Mar. 14, 2021.

[16] Wendy Sawyer. “Visualizing the racial disparities in mass incarceration” from Prison Policy Initiative, https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2020/07/27/disparities/?gclid=CjwKCAiAhbeCBhBcEiwAkv2cY9JZkaHQl5Ew1CXUvhW1KQNz7DhFjHATdYJY143508OsSn7rCFqClBoCnWgQAvD_BwE. Posted July 27, 2020, accessed Mar. 14, 2021.

[17] “The Confession of 1967” in Book of Confessions: Study Edition, revised [Part 1 of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA)]. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 9.17.

[18] “The Confession of Belhar” in Book of Confessions: Study Edition, revised [Part 1 of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA)]. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 10.5.

[19] “A Brief Statement of Faith” in Book of Confessions: Study Edition, revised [Part 1 of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA)]. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 11.4, lines 65-71.

One response to “Sunday’s sermon: Jesus Who Brings Justice

  1. Pingback: Sunday’s sermon: Jesus Who Comes | Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

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