"THE GOD OF JUSTICE"
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20)
September 22, 2019
Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church
Hear this, you who trample on the needy and bring the poor of the land to an end . . . The Lord has sworn by the Pride of Jacob: "Surely I will never forget any of their deeds."
Amos 8:4; 7 (ESV)
Of all the social ills that plague mankind, one that certainly seems to have persisted since the very beginning of time is poverty. Even Jesus recognized this as a permanent problem. When Judas Iscariot reprimanded an unnamed woman for wasting expensive perfume by anointing Jesus' head, claiming that that perfume could have been sold at a high price and the proceeds given to the poor, the Lord rebuked him and said: "You always have the poor with you" (Matthew 26:11). I don't think anyone would disagree with the Savior's assessment. We hear a lot about the poor in our own country (perhaps even moreso as an election year approaches) and I would by no means want to minimize the seriousness of their plight, but the truth of the matter is that, compared to the poor in other lands, the poor in our country aren't really all that poor. Be that as it may, the problem of poverty both at home and abroad has always had a place in our collective conscience and I suppose that it always will.
There has always been a lot of public discourse about how to address this perpetual problem but much of it has been dominated by extremists. On the one side there are those who show their lack compassion for the poor by trying to convince us (and probably themselves as well) that the poor themselves are to blame for their predicament. These people would make the argument that the poor are poor because they are lazy or because they squander their limited resources, spending what little they have on unnecessary and foolish things. At the other extreme there are people who appear to be compassionate but their proposed solution of endless giveaways without any kind of education or accountability to go along with them only serves to perpetuate the problem. As we listen to these harsh words of warning from the prophet Amos in this morning's Old Testament Reading, we can get a sense of how God defines the problem of poverty and what kind of solution He offers.
Strange as it may seem, the real problem underlying poverty actually has nothing at all to do with material wealth. The real problem is a failure on the part of most people to recognize the value of a human being apart from that human being's material wealth. People who "trample on the needy" do so because they consider the needy to be less than human--or, at the very least, less than themselves. The reason for this is quite simple: They are so distanced from the needy that they are in fact ignorant of them, and ignorance always gives birth to fear. Their attitude is one that suggests: "These individuals are different than me. Therefore they are a threat to me and to my way of life." It's the same attitude that lies at the root of racial or any other kind of prejudice. The need to feel superior--to exalt yourself while you disparage others--arises out of your ignorance of whoever or whatever it is that you are disparaging.
"Bring[ing] the poor of the land to an end" is a little different. This has to do not so much with any of the perceived ridiculous threats that generate unfounded fear and prejudice, but rather with a very real threat. People want to "bring the poor of the land to an end" because they don't want to be reminded that there are poor in the land. You see, the very existence of the poor is evidence that something is not right among us--that there is some kind of failure in operations somewhere in our midst. Maybe that failure lies with the poor themselves. Or it could very well be with the greediness of those who are not poor. Or possibly something is amiss with the society or the economy where poverty is allowed to exist and flourish. No matter what it may be, the fact of the matter is that we don't want to deal with any of it. And that, my friends, is the real reason why we carefully avoid walking past that homeless guy looking for a handout on our way into the stadium. It's an indictment--maybe not of us personally (although our conscience often convicts us) but it is certainly an indictment of someone or something. At the very least it is an indication that something is not quite right--that things are not as they ought to be.
But God is different. He doesn't respond to the needy and the poor in the same way that mere humans do. In the passage before us we are told: "The Lord has sworn by the Pride of Jacob." "The Pride of Jacob" is a very interesting term. It is used in a number of ways in Scripture. It can refer to the people of God or to God Himself or to the Lord's Messiah. Perhaps all three of these designations are intended here. The justice that God enforces for the needy and the poor is a justice empowered by His name, accomplished by His Messiah, and proclaimed and put into practice by His people. The needy and the poor, you see, are not only those who are lacking in material wealth. No, the poor are especially those who have no wealth of righteousness with which to stand before the bar of God's justice. In this respect all of us are needy and poor.
God brings justice to the poor and needy because He sees them as being worth something--not because of how wealthy or good they might be but simply because they are His--having been created in His image and endowed by Him with an immortal soul. Because they are His He brings them justice not by condemning them but by making them just in His sight through the justice brought about by His one and only Son when He fulfilled all righteousness by His life of perfect obedience and by His innocent suffering and death on the cross. In this He shows both His perfect justice and His perfect love in that "In Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them" (2 Corinthians 5:19).
Jesus was right: "We [will] always have the poor with [us]" (Matthew 26:11). What's more, we ourselves are spiritually poor in the sight of God. But God has addressed the problem of poverty once and for all in the life and ministry of His Son. He did it not by throwing money at the problem (which all too often has been the human “solution”) and not by merely reprimanding and punishing those who take advantage of the poor. He has done it by personally identifying with the poorest of the poor: poor sinners like us--sinners who are bankrupt before the judgment throne of God. To these He gives His perfect righteousness and the greatest comfort that anyone can know in that "though He was rich, yet for [our] sake He became poor, so that [we] by His poverty might become rich" (2 Corinthians 8:9).
May the Lord bless your hearing of His Word, using it to accomplish in you those things for which He gave it. May you be enriched and strengthened in faith that you may leave here today to go out into our world armed with the whole armor of God, prepared to be able ambassadors of your Savior Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, and He will do it. Amen.