October 22, 2008

Jesus Justice

2008 1530 page22 cap see Him clearly, announcing His public ministry by standing up in the place where He had worshipped all His life, and reading in a strong voice from the scroll of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” 

He closes the scroll, hands it to an attendant, and sits down. As the congregation stares at Him, He concludes, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (see Luke 4). Everyone murmurs, “That was nice.”

But Jesus never leaves it at nice. He always seems to “agitate, agitate, agitate,” in the urgent words of Ellen White.
I can imagine Jesus’ mother, who had “kept all these things in her heart” for 18 years, thinking, Oh-oh, here it comes. By the time Jesus is finished instructing and admonishing the very people with whom He used to play games and cut wood, they are so “filled with wrath” that they want to kill Him.

No ExcusesCatch the Spirit

2008 1530 page22 link

They will have to wait. The more I study Jesus’ words from Isaiah, the more troubled I become. Surely He’s speaking metaphorically—setting captives, such as the poor, free in a spiritual sense; or liberating the oppressed medically.
We have doctors for that. Anyway, this is the Lord talking. He can do anything.

Looking through the Bible, however, I find other troubling words. Jesus explains the final judgment with a tale of sheep and goats, but the speech isn’t really about separating livestock. It’s about hunger, drinkable water, homelessness, health care, and prison ministry. Apparently, God insists that we must respond justly and personally to these social issues (see Matt. 25).

Jesus goes out of His way to bring healing on Sabbath, explaining, “‘If you had known what this means, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,” you would not have condemned the guiltless’” (see Matt. 12). Sabbath observance employs mercy to restore human dignity.

Encountering systemic corruption, the peacemaking activist Jesus drives from the Temple courtyard all the corporate business thieves. When He returns years later and finds the same oppressive conditions, He clears the crooks out again (see John 2; Matt. 21)!

When asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus replies that our neighbor is anyone who is in need—even if they don’t look, act, or think as we do (see Luke 10).

I turn to Isaiah, where my Master turned. The opening chapter informs me that God will not listen to my prayers until I “seek justice, correct oppression, defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.”

Later, in exquisite chapter 58, God comments on fasting, “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?” (verse 6, KJV).

After studying Scripture, I reach an inescapable conclusion: working for justice, peace, and dignity (by fighting oppression, poverty, and corruption) is just as certainly a Christian spiritual discipline—a test of discipleship—as are prayer and fasting.   

Christ Blake is an associate professor of English and Communication at Union College. His most recent book, swimming against the current (Pacific Press) is based on Micah 6:8.