August 7, 2020

Justice and Mercy — Jesus’ Way

The word quickly spread through the synagogue that Sabbath day. “Jesus, the son of Joseph, is here!” Already the word had spread about this Son of Nazareth, who had been preaching in towns, in other synagogues, and had performed miracles. He was now back home.

Imagine it with me: the church is full. His brothers and His mother are there. Everyone is anxious to see and hear Him. He is invited to read and teach from the Torah. The scroll of Isaiah is handed over to Him; He reads a passage from Isaiah 61. Then He sits down and waits. The Bible says the people marveled at the gracious words that proceeded out of His mouth. The people are amazed at just His reading alone! They then wonder, “What will this Teacher say next?” Here is what Luke wrote:

Then He said, “Assuredly, I say to you, no prophet is accepted in his own country. But I tell you truly, many widows were in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a great famine throughout all the land; but to none of them was Elijah sent except to Zarephath, in the region of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And many lepers were in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian” (Luke 4:24-27, NKJV).

A Changed Perception

It’s impressive to see the change in behavior. In His sermon, Jesus challenged their perception of “the other.” The congregants believed that, as a people, they were favored by God and that the Gentiles were of lesser worth to Him, and so they felt that the Gentiles were also of lesser worth.  Jesus challenged them by saying that the kingdom of God He was proclaiming is not just for the Jew but also for the Gentile.

What was Jesus doing with this teaching? He was condemning their prejudices against other cultures. He was taking away their Jewish privilege, a privilege that they refused to renounce. The Bible says the people then got angry, with Luke specifically using the Greek word thumos, a form of anger that is fierce and passionate. What does that tell you? Now the true nature of their hearts was exposed. Now their behavior moved from marvelous adoration to monstrous fury. Why? Because of prejudice.

Prejudice, a Sinful Behavior  

Prejudice is sinful behavior that Satan has always sought to exploit in people, even among the disciples. In Luke’s gospel, we see that at one point in their travels, Jesus and the disciples sent word out that they would stop at a Samaritan town on the way to Jerusalem. When that Samaritan town refused to welcome Jesus, it was James and John who, in their fury, exclaimed, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” In response, Jesus rebuked them and said He came not to destroy men’s lives but to save them (Luke 9:54, 55, NKJV).  

Prejudice, at its most extreme, can lead people to do acts of violence. Prejudice led to actions like the Trail of Tears journeys in the nineteenth century, which led to the deaths of at least 12,000 Native Americans, possibly more. Prejudice led to the lawless execution of hundreds of Tejanos by the Texas Rangers and others during the “bandit wars” between 1910 and 1920. Prejudice led to the 1921 Tulsa, Oklahoma massacre led by white Americans, which left between 100 and 300 people dead and 8,000 African Americans homeless.

It was prejudice that led to the murder of George Floyd and the multitude of other African Americans who were also needlessly killed by police. Reactions to the Floyd video and other tragic deaths has led to swift worldwide condemnation and protests. It also led to a review of the inequities of what people of color face, not just in the United States but also in other countries. As Seventh-day Adventists, we condemn the inequalities that people of color face and are clear in our desire to see those conditions rectified. We also condemn the use of force and destruction as a response to these deaths. In light of the injustices that exist today, the question that lies within us is this: “What would Jesus want us to do?” 

To Save or to Kill?

The answer is found in a Bible story in Mark 3, an incident that also happened in a synagogue. Jesus comes in and sees a man who has a crippled hand. It is the Sabbath. He longs to help this man who has suffered for such a long time. At the same time, Pharisees and scribes have their eyes on Him to see if this might be the time to accuse him of law-breaking.

Jesus says to the man, “Come here.” Jesus asks the scribes and Pharisees, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save a life, or to kill?” The Pharisees didn’t say a word. We all know what happened next. Jesus healed the man’s hand. But have you noticed how Mark describes the way Jesus felt? He looked around at them with anger, grieved (literal Greek translation reads being “greatly grieved”) at their hardness of heart.

Why He Was Angry

Jesus was angry at religion that misses God’s heart by holding on to human-made rules that are considered more important than the well-being of a suffering man. He was angry because He truly loved this man, and the Pharisees did not. He was angry to see the prejudice these religious men have toward Him and all those they consider under God’s condemnation. In essence, Jesus was angry over the injustice He was seeing. Jesus was angry, but it was a good kind of anger.

Good anger can be a powerful motivation to hunger and thirst for righteousness. This anger rests on justice as the object and love as the expression. When coupled with love, anger makes a person passionate and energized in the pursuit of making things right. This story challenges us to be passionate, angry over the injustices and wrongs that we see. But it's anger bathed with love.

We must show love through practical acts of compassion to those who are impacted by injustice.  We must show love to those behaving unjustly by praying the prayer of Jesus, “Forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” Romans 12:21 says it well: “Do not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” In a world filled with turmoil and despair, may God help us, as Seventh-day Adventists, to be His instruments of justice, healing, and peace.

The original version of this commentary was posted by the Lake Union Herald.