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Preaching Justice

17 March 2020

Preaching from Year A, May to July 2020


Christopher is Editor of The Preacher and Diocesan Director of Ministry, Diocese of Chester

It is one of the paradoxes of our age that the aspiration of justice is more widely acknowledged across our global than every before and yet numerically probably more people find that aspiration blighted, in one way or another, than ever before. Whole societies, communities, families and individuals are alert to the issue of justice in all kinds of relationships, but as that awareness has increased the mechanisms for achieving justice are often as difficult as ever. Even if only because of the powerfulness and prevalence of the idea of justice, preachers should concern themselves with it.

To my mind, however, more than its contemporary social resonance, the idea of justice is deeply embedded in the notion of the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed. Luke tells us that when Jesus stood up in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4.16f), he read from the prophet Isaiah: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ As all eyes were on him, he said, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ That claim places the actions and saying of Jesus firmly within the concept of ‘righteousness’ so fundamental to the Hebrew scriptures and applies it afresh to the requirements of social justice in his own day.

Couple that Jesus perspective with the contemporary resonance of the idea of justice and the Christian preacher has an imperative for practice. Old debates about whether evangelism should take precedence over justice in Christian action and thought seem just that – old in the sense of obsolete. Without a firm justice commitment, efforts at faith sharing are unlikely to be received as good news. Just how those commitments work out in the local church context is part of what it means to live faithfully in our age.

Our columnists offer a range of responses that keep justice firmly in view:

Rob Esdaile writing in the season of Easter reminds us, ‘Christian hope doesn’t withdraw us from the world and its struggles; rather, the opposite. Because we have hope, this time, this place, this little Now matters infinitely.’ He asks us to make that hope tangible in a world too often despairing: ‘In the face of climate change and ecological destruction, in the face of the manifest injustices that (for instance) mean that the world’s 42 richest people have the same wealth as half the world’s population (with the disparity growing ever-greater), in the face of the threat posed by the new nuclear arms race, in the face of the hate-filled rhetoric of populist movements that seek to divide us by ethnicity or faith; it is our calling to create signs and to sow seeds of new hope, showing that real change is possible.’

Lusa Nsenga-Ngoy, writing for Pentecost takes care to demonstrate the justice dimension of some key biblical concepts. In explaining Mishpat, she says it ‘is about taking steps to advocate for the vulnerable, and actively work at challenging and changing unjust social structures. It is about a radical selfless way of life. For biblical writers, justice is about restoring the image of God in all humanity. … Instead, the reality of injustice seems an unescapable one. We are all entrapped in its tentacles and are all subjected to its influence. We all play a part in it passively, actively, even unintentionally.’ She goes on to demonstrate what living in God’s shalom might look like.

Brian McMahon takes us back to the works of Walter Burghardt SJ who argued that ‘of all the demands on preachers, none is more urgent today than a persuasive presentation of biblical justice.’ He reminds us ‘this requires a faithful adherence to the key messages from the Old Testament where, “justice was a whole network of relationships; and the profound basis of these relationships was Israel’s covenant with God.”’

Darren Blaney’s sermon for Proper 9, offers a timely reminder that behind all conceptions of justice lies the mercy of God. That’s not to avoid the demands of justice, but to have a realistic appreciation of our creatureliness and our too-human limitations.

At the height of the Cold War, the American Methodist Bishop and social reformer, Garfield Bromley Oxnam, said, ‘The Christian demand for justice does not come from Karl Marx. It comes from Jesus Christ and the Hebrew prophets.’ These many years later, may we also be confident in justice rooted in the Kingdom values of Christ.

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