Pardon Me, God. Is That Justice?

Sermon delivered on the last Sunday after Trinity, Year C, Sunday, October 23, 2016 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Joel 2.23-32; Psalm 65.1-13; 2 Timothy 4.6-8, 16-18; Luke 18.9-14.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Running just below the surface in all our readings this morning is the issue of God’s justice and righteousness versus God’s mercy. As Christians, some of us think that God’s justice is antithetical to God’s mercy. But our readings tell a different story and this is what I want us to look at this morning. What relationship really exists between the two?

In one way or another, each of our readings suggests that God’s mercy—his willingness to forgive and pardon and be reconciled to us—is a basis for God’s justice. Before we look at this, however, it is necessary for us to quickly review the biblical notion of God’s justice and what that looks like on the ground. When the biblical writers speak of God’s justice they had in mind living in ways that are in tune with God’s good creative purposes for his creation and his image-bearing creatures. It is a way of life that is based on being right because God is right. When we order our lives in ways that are consistent with God’s good creative purposes for us, the inevitable result is goodness and harmony and balance. We are not to act unjustly because God does not act unjustly by showing favoritism. God loves us all equally and wants the best for each of us. And because God created us good and knows what is best for us, he desires us to live accordingly. In other words, God desires us to live for God, not ourselves, so that we can truly be his image-bearing creatures who reflect God’s goodness and glory out into the world.

This helps explain what is going on in our OT lesson. God had called his people Israel to be the people through whom God would take back control of his good but sin-corrupted and evil-infested world. But Israel had become part of the problem rather than part of the solution! Its rulers for the most part had acted unjustly, failing to uphold the good Law God had given his people (to help them act justly) and encouraging all kinds of corruption and idolatry. This, of course, aroused God’s anger, especially the worship of false gods, because we tend to become like that which we worship, and the worship of false gods always results in folks following their own broken and disordered desires rather than God’s. And when that happens, greed, exploitation, war, factions, corruption, and all kinds of immoral behavior result. When we follow our own fallen desires rather than God’s original and good creative order, we cannot possibly hope for harmony and balance. If you don’t believe me, look at the times of your own life that have been most tumultuous and I guarantee either you or someone significant in your life was not acting rightly, in ways that are consistent with God’s good order and creative purposes.

So in our OT lesson, God reminds his people that he has punished them because they have not acted rightly or justly. They have not lived up to their calling and allowed injustice to reign. And because God loves us and wants the best for us, i.e., for us to live according to his good purposes for us, God had to put an end to those kinds of practices. So God punished his people to bring about their repentance, so that they would stop trying to impose their own self-centered and disordered will on others, and start to live according to God’s good order for them so that harmony and balance and peace and happiness could rule the day instead of injustice and exploitation and hurt and unhappiness and hatred and all the rest.

So where’s the mercy you ask? Locusts and blood and fire and the sun turning dark don’t sound all that merciful to me! Very true. But this wasn’t God’s last word on the matter. Sadly, there are evildoers in this world who are hopelessly opposed to God and who work relentlessly to impose their own disorder on the world instead of seeking to live according to God’s good order (think ISIS for example). And as long as these folks exist, evil will have a conduit into God’s world to ruin and destroy God’s good creation and creatures. And so God must act to restore order. But God promises to ultimately restore and heal his people, to be with them in the power of the Spirit to help them behave in ways that are just and right so that balance and harmony and goodness reign, not evil and disorder. But since none of us are capable of living in completely just and right ways that are consistent with God’s good creative purposes for us, God is merciful to us and pardons us even when we do not deserve it. God does this because God loves us and does not want us to live under his wrath forever. Living continuously under God’s wrath would be even more oppressive than living under the most unjust human conditions! So God’s punishment always intends to correct, to restore, not to oppress. And if God’s perfect justice was not based in part on God’s love and mercy for us, we would all be lost forever because we all sin and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3.23).

We see this truth illustrated most powerfully in the cross of Jesus Christ. Not only do the NT writers insist that Jesus’ blood shed for us somehow reconciled us to God and served as the basis for a new relationship with him, but that also the power of evil was somehow broken when Jesus died for us. This would be remarkable enough in its own right. But it is even more remarkable when we remember that Jesus was God become human. God’s justice was indeed enacted on the cross, but it was a justice based on God’s love and mercy for us. God dealt with evil and sin on our behalf because we are not able to do so ourselves, thanks be to God!

We see this interplay of God’s justice and mercy in our gospel lesson as well. The haughty and self-righteous Pharisee, the man whom society held in high esteem, was brought low while the humble and contrite tax collector, the most despised of all people in his day, was forgiven and raised up. Justice was achieved through mercy. Now surely the self-righteous Pharisee continued to live in his spiritual arrogance and spread all kinds of misery to those around him, just like the self-righteous in our day do. He would continue to be judgmental and hard-hearted toward those whom he considered inferior to himself. And based on his prayer, that would be just about everybody! But notice that this man did not go home justified (or made right) before God, and the trajectory of the parable suggests that he never would be justified. God is not mocked.

But the real story is the tax collector. Tax collectors in Jesus’ day worked for the Romans, an unforgivable sin in its own right. Good Jews simply did not work for the foreign oppressor, regardless who the oppressors were. This would be tantamount to folks in our day swearing allegiance to our country’s worst enemies. It would not play well with most of us. But there’s more. In addition to collecting taxes, some of which were simply unjust (and we all know how we feel about unjust taxation!), many tax collectors extorted even more money from their victims than was owed to Rome. They could do this because they had the power of Rome behind them and this extortion allowed them to enrich themselves even further at their victims’ expense. It wasn’t unlike mobs extorting money from business owners to keep the mob from destroying the business along with its owners. There is no justice here and this kind of injustice inevitably breeds hatred and disorder of all kinds. This was the man who was praying to God.

But notice what happened to this tax collector. Somehow he had become aware that he stood under God’s just judgment and he had the needed humility to repent. He didn’t try to rationalize his behavior. He knew he was toast and his behavior was simply inexcusable. And so he did the only wise and humble thing he could do. He asked God to be merciful to him and God answered his prayer! Now while Jesus didn’t tell us what happened to the tax collector afterwards, the clear assumption is a changed life, where the tax collector would begin to mirror God’s justice and righteousness so that justice would be achieved in his life and world. God’s great love and mercy was the basis for God’s justice being executed in ways that brought about balance and harmony and goodness and peace. No wonder the psalmist speaks of all creation rejoicing when God comes to execute his judgment on the world because then it will be returned to its right state. No wonder Paul speaks of all creation longing for the liberation of the children of God in the new creation so that we can start running it properly (or justly) again (Psalm 96.10-13, 98.4-9; cf. Romans 8.18-23). God’s justice will be reestablished and goodness and prospering and happiness will ensue! And in this parable, Jesus is reminding us that one way God’s justice is lived out is in and through the mercy and pardon we receive from God when we resolve to live our lives in ways that are consistent with his creative order and intentions for us.

That’s the good side of the equation. But there’s also a dark side for us to consider because we live in a world where evil, while defeated, is not yet fully vanquished and banished. When we resolve to live justly and rightly because we know we are loved and forgiven by the Great Lover and Author of all life, we can expect the dark powers and their human minions to rise against us to take us down. They know their goose is cooked but they still have plenty of fight left in them, and if we are not prepared for this, we can get sucker punched pretty easily. This is what we see going on with Paul in our epistle lesson. He is in prison, awaiting trial and almost certain execution. Nero was in charge of Rome and Nero was one of the most unhinged people who have ever lived. Paul could not and did not expect justice in any sense of the word to be served in his case. He was unjustly imprisoned and deserted by all his friends. Think about that. Think of the most traumatic times of your life. Bad as those times were, what would it be like if you had to face your trauma all alone? It would make an awful situation even more traumatic. This is what we are seeing in Paul’s letter to his young protege. But Paul was at peace with it all. He forgave those who had deserted him and considered his unjust imprisonment a new opportunity to proclaim Jesus and the gospel to even more folks. He knew Jesus was with him and he knew the crown of resurrection life that awaited him. And so he not only endured, he had the power to transcend his unjust situation and proclaim the Good News in the midst of his desolation.

When we resolve to live our life for Jesus, i.e., to live justly, this is what most of us can expect to happen to us as well. We probably won’t face imprisonment and death. But we will certainly face ridicule and increasing persecution. The dark powers won’t go quietly and if we start living justly because we are a healed and forgiven people, we can be assured that we will catch their attention. But we are not to be afraid because we are Jesus’s people and therefore a resurrection people. We are promised a power, the very power of Christ himself, to overcome any darkness that attempts to overwhelm us. To be sure we must fight the good fight as Paul did and we will surely lose some of battles along the way. But we fight with the assurance that the war has already been won on our behalf. And that, folks, is what the power of living the Good News looks like, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.