“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former." Matt. 23:23
This morning I’m going to share a little about the DTES, but more than that I’m going to talk about Justice, mercy, and faithfulness in a way that impacts all of us, I hope. We just heard Matthew 23:23, and that’s where we’re going to start this morning.
In Matthew 23:23, Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees. We are not the Pharisees, but we do have some similarities to them. The Pharisees were all about looking holy, about looking as if they were living up to a certain set of expectations. They prayed regularly, gave a tithe of everything, even down to the most common herbs and spices, and acted as if sin and brokenness was somehow beneath them. And yet, in spite of all this, they ignored the weightier matters of the law – Justice, Mercy, and faithfulness. Today, We as the church fall into the role of the Pharisees far too often. While we don’t make as large a deal about tithing as the Pharisees did, we do present ourselves as best we can to everyone, both within the church and without. We put Jesus decals on our vehicles, read Christian fiction, and listen to Christian music. We even engage in ‘social justice’ and give to charity. Unfortunately, all these things fall short of the mark of the Justice, Mercy, and faithfulness that Christ was speaking about. In order to really grasp what he meant by these words, we’re going to have to look at how the Bible uses Justice and Mercy.
Now, when we think of Justice, I think we often get a picture of ‘Lady Justice’, the blind lady holding the scales outside of the law courts. We think of justice as a blind, impartial force – one that doesn’t get involved in the lives of people, but simply treats all crime the same, regardless of who committed the crime or why. God, however, is neither blind nor impartial. Justice, when used in the context of God in the Old Testament, has two sides, both identified by the word mispat. When used in the context of the oppressed, “the mispat of YHWH is experienced by the vulnerable in the community as ‘justice,’ the upholding of their rights, and the advocacy of their need.” For those abusing the oppressed, however, mispat implied judgment from God. Justice, therefore, is seen as a leveling of relationships within the community, upholding the oppressed and bringing low the oppressor. The scales of justice must be balanced, but rather than being held by the blind Lady Justice of the west, here they are held by YHWH, the God who speaks and interacts with His people on an extremely personal and situational basis. It is through this twofold action of raising up and lowering down that God is able to level the playing field, creating the opportunity for his mercy and faithfulness to be shown to us. We can see this from the very earliest conflict in scripture. In Genesis 2:16 and 17 We read God telling Adam and Eve that if they eat of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, they will surely die. We know the story – The serpent lies to Adam and Eve, and claims that they will not die, but in fact, they will be like gods! They eat of the fruit, hide from God, and then are found out. Rather than death, however, God showed mercy to his creation, throwing them out of the garden but promising a hope for the future. The oppressed, those lied to, Adam and Eve, are protected and held up, while the serpent is literally brought low, forced to crawl on its belly forevermore. There are consequences, but there is also mercy. God, as the saving one, the extender of salvation, provides a way for the relationship to continue by saving humanity from their deserved death.
Justice and mercy continually go hand in hand throughout the Old Testament. Micah 6:8 we are familiar with: Israel is asked to do justice and love kindness. Ezekiel goes further, saying this: “See here – this was the iniquity of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters had majesty, abundance of food, and enjoyed carefree ease, but they did not help 38 the poor and needy.” He claims that Israel has fallen farther than even Sodom in this regard. Isaiah claims that it is not fasting or empty worship that pleases God: ‘Is this not the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” Israel failed at this task, and invested its energy in sacrifice and tithing and observing the law, while missing the heart of the law – offering freedom to the oppressed, acting in mercy to those who are poor and broken. They acted as the oppressor by forgetting about mercy, and so were brought low by God. It is worth noting that every time Israel forgot about the poor and oppressed, every time they failed to enact the Justice of God and protect the weak, God sent an army against them. The Holy Land was not promised unconditionally, and was taken from the Jewish people whenever they forgot about the poor and oppressed.
If Biblical justice were completely impartial, if God did not show his bias towards those who are oppressed and poor, and did not take an active hand in the raising up of the oppressed and the lowering of the oppressor, mercy would be impossible. Impartiality leaves no room for mercy – If I stole your coat, it would make no difference if I were a millionaire or a homeless man in danger of freezing to death. The partial, relational justice of God understands hurt and struggle, and provides ample mercy for those in need of it.
We desperately need this kind of relational justice today. Looking at our home in the downtown east side, our society punishes those who are the weakest and most broken in the name of Justice. We exclude from our churches and communities those that need community and relationship the most, and we do it often out of some misplaced sense of ‘righteousness’. The vast majority of the people in the downtown east side did not choose that lifestyle. 100% of the women who live in the east side were seriously abused before they ever found their way there. Of the roughly 18,000 people who live in the V6A area code, 4,500 people have a prediagnosable mental illness, prior to any addiction. Another 4,500 suffer from some form of brain trauma or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. So 50%, a full 9,000 people, have serious strikes against them. One more number that is important to this discussion – at least 50%, but probably closer to 70%, of those who are hardest to house and most addicted, are products of the foster care system. The vast majority of the drug addicted that I have met did not become so by smoking up with their buddies one night. They became addicted because every social institution turned its back on them. They were hurt by those who were supposed to protect them, maligned by those who were supposed to support them, and forgotten about by those who swore to remember them. And yet we criminalize them, punish them for trying to find some solace when everyone else has turned their backs, and call them worthless, or worse than worthless, a drain on society. This is not justice.
Justice and mercy mean raising up the weak, giving them hope and worth, but it also means bringing low the powerful. How else are they going to feel they can trust us, that we actually care? We represent everything that they are not. One question I always ask students when I lead them around the DTES is this: Would your church welcome people from the downtown east side, just as they are? Even if your church would welcome them, would they feel welcome in your church? Would your church be a place of peace and acceptance, or a place of condemnation and fear? Justice means more than giving away stuff to the poor – it means taking responsibility for our lifestyle and the way that we use our things. People must be more important that things. The weightier matters of the law, as Jesus put it, are the relational laws – Love the lord your God, and love your neighbor. And just who is your neighbour?
In Luke 10:25, Jesus answers that very question in the story of the Good Samaritan. Notice that the question asked of Jesus was not ‘how should I treat my neighbor,’ but ‘who is my neighbour?’ And the answer is this: Your neighbor is anyone that you choose to engage in the act of neighborliness with. There are no boundaries of age, gender, race, culture, or economic status. My neighbor, even if he or she belongs to the worst of my enemies, is the one whom I acknowledge and engage with as a fellow human being. We do injustice when we begin caring less who our neighbors are, and start caring more about how our church music sounds or how polished our powerpoint presentations are. Mennonites do have an advantage here – You are a powerful witness to neighborliness and relational justice, especially in your interactions with the First Nations community in the past year. The cold-weather shelter is another way to be a neighbor, but these things are important – they must be more than just programs. They are important because relational justice can only happen face-to-face. We cannot offload justice, mercy, and being faithful to God onto the state or onto a charity organization. If we do that, we destroy what it means to be truly gracious and just.
To illustrate what I mean, I’m going to tell a short story. Back in the 1800’s, a Chinese man was converted to Christianity by the Catholic church. He was so overwhelmed with gratitude that he chose to make a pilgrimage to Rome. First this trip was easy – In order to get a bed and some food, he simply had to present himself as a pilgrim to the village, and someone would put him up for the night. As he crossed into Eastern Europe, however, things began to change. Now, instead of the community finding him a bed and some food, they directed him to the priest in the village. The priest would put him up. Eventually he came to Italy, and now found that the priest would direct him to special hostels, run by the church, specifically for pilgrims. Professionals would help him with food and lodging. Now, if this man were to continue west, this is what I think he would find – no longer would the hostels be run by the church; rather, he would have found that the church gave the responsibility for caring for pilgrims – and the poor, and marginalized – to the government. Rather than interacting with the poor directly in any way, we have given the responsibility for caring for those in need to the government, or to professional aid organizations, and in doing so have twisted an act of grace into the institution of charity.
The gift of mercy and grace being transformed into the obligation and institution of charity goes hand-in-hand with justice changing from a relational dynamic focused on healing into a judicial dynamic focused on punishment. In Matthew 25:31 and following we are told that the defining mark of those who follow Christ is the act of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visited the sick and imprisoned, and extending care to the stranger. Because we have given the job of charity to the government and to aid organizations, and because we define justice as simply punishing the criminal, We as Christians now feel very little need to deal with anyone outside of our social class. Yes, we may still give money, or perhaps volunteer to give out coffee in the park once in a while, but even this we do at arms’ length, retreating to our home, unwilling or unable to look the poor and marginalized in the eyes and tell them that we love them, simply because Jesus Christ loves them. We do a disservice to our fellow human beings, to ourselves, and to our churches by creating distance from personal interaction with the poor. The church that forgets what it means to suffer is the church that ceases to be an effective witness for Christ.
So, where do we go from here? Not all of us have the ability to leave our homes and move into the slums. Nor should you – if you did that, you would raise property rates leaving little low-income areas for the poor. But, despite the fact that not all of us know what it feels like to be homeless and forgotten, all of us understand what it means to be lonely. We all understand what it means to be unloved.
Here in Abbotsford we have one of the fastest growing HIV / AIDS rates in the valley. We have a growing homelessness problem, and one that is set to worsen in coming years as more of the urban poor are pushed out of Vancouver to make room for high-rent skyrises. These rising AIDS and homelessness rates are happening right now, in spite of, or some might say because of, the No Harm Reduction Policy in Abbotsford – better understood, I think, as the ‘not in my backyard’ policy. We also have youth in this city who are desperate for good mentors – people willing to listen without judgment, willing to love without restriction. There are lots of opportunities in all of these areas right here in this city, both for the church as a body and for the individual. One such opportunity is the Extreme Weather Shelter that Emmanuel has been consistent in helping with. Another is the 5 and 2 Ministries, through which Ward Draper is working directly with the homeless and addicted in Abbotsford. Another is the Cyrus Centre which has a proven record of working with youth in this city, giving them some hope and respite from an all-too-often ugly home life. These are just off the top of my head – There are many, many other avenues to interact with those on the margins. The point must always be, however, to interact in such a way that we can look into the eyes of our neighbour and tell them that they are loved.
The church should be known as the first to love, the first to propose new ways of supporting and finding health for the addicted and marginalized, the first to give up some of our luxuries for the sake of others. Somehow we have lost that reputation.
Somehow we have become indulgent, caring more about our outward appearances than about the weightier matters of the law: Justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Let’s work to change that, starting today. Thank you.