Mercy and Justice Part 1/3

If we think of a blog a free food – free thought food, if you will, then here is the next tray. As you help yourself to the topic offered, keep talking to your conversation partner(s). Soon that conversation can lead to a relationship.
The Metokos blog is centered on church revitalization. We collaborate with local churches to set a chosen mission for each local church. I have shown you our image of the three legs of the Metokos “stool” – worship, discipleship, and mercy ministries. Today, let’s begin to investigate the local church’s mercy ministry, focusing all the while on mercy and justice. Local churches all need to face this sensitive, divisive, emotional, biblical issue. Facing the issue and coming to terms with God’s direction in the matter will help these churches in the neighborhoods where they are rooted and where they live and witness as they seek revitalization.
We are all aware, no doubt, that the biblical issue of mercy and justice is a part of the political conversation our nation is having in this election year. In my own church, The Presbyterian Church in America, we are having internal conversations and debates about issues related to justice and mercy, and these issues will face votes at our next General Assembly in June.
I am indebted in this study to writings that have touched and taught me throughout my ministry, from school days to now. Two recent books by contemporaries, Tim Keller and Randy Nabors, stand out on this topic. Keller’s book, Generous Justice, gives a helpful beginning to a biblical survey of the topic. Then, we can see the nuts and bolts in Nabors’s personal writing in Merciful.
From farther back in my ministry, I bring you Jonathan Edwards’s Charity and Its Fruits. His sermon from Deuteronomy 15:7-11 “The Duty of Charity to the Poor, Explained, and Enforced,” sums up some of his thoughts and is on the web at Yes, Edwards owned slaves, yet he was used by God as a saved sinner. The whole of Jonathan Edwards can be another conversation, but his writings did shape my thinking about the topic at hand.
Finally, I will share with you later from my seminary professor for three courses in ethics. Dr. David Jones gave us Biblical Christian Ethics.
As we get going on mercy and justice, let’s look at two areas relating to mercy and justice and the local church. First, we will consider a brief biblical outline of mercy and justice, and then an explanation of why those topics need to be in the scope of a church seeking revitalization.
The whole of the Bible’s treatment of mercy and justice is obviously, and thankfully, Big. While I will point to a few significant texts, keep in mind that a more thorough treatment is available to you in Keller’s book.
Acts 20 is a good place to begin. Paul’s last words to the Ephesian elders in the 20th chapter address the church’s ministry to the weak, not only as a response to the Lord Jesus, but also as a chosen lifestyle – “I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” Paul, a former Pharisee and persecutor of the church, found himself shaped by the words of Jesus and the Old Testament. Let’s revisit a few of those passages.
The final book of the Old Testament, Malachi, is one of the labeled Minor Prophets (Minor simply means shorter). These shorter messages from God call the Covenant people back to Him to be revitalized, to have new life. In chapter 3 the LORD of hosts says,

Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.

Earlier Minor Prophet Zechariah 7 reflects the same concerns,

Thus says the Lord of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.                                                      

As we continue to move back through the Minor Prophets, we find the even-more-familiar text in Micah, chapter 6,

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

It should become clear now that God ties together justice and mercy in our social/political communities. As we read in Keller’s work on page 3,

The term for “mercy” is the Hebrew word chesedh, God’s unconditional grace and compassion. The word for “justice” is the Hebrew term mishpat. In Micah 6:8, “mishpat puts the emphasis on the action, chesedh puts it on the attitude (or motive) behind the action. To walk with God, then, we must do justice, out of merciful love.

Move now from the Minor Prophets to the Pentateuch and look at a foundational passage in Deuteronomy 15 – the one Jonathan Edwards chose for his sermon on the poor.

If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. Take care lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart and you say, “The seventh year, the year of release is near,” and your eye look grudgingly on your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the Lord against you, and you be guilty of sin. You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, “You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.”

In this sermon from Deuteronomy, Edwards tells his listeners, “So Christ tells us, it is one of the weightier matters of the law.” He cites Matthew 23:23, Hosea 6:6, and then from Matthew again (9:13 and 12:7) as he builds his argument for those listeners – “Ye have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith. The Scriptures again and again teach us that it is a more weighty and essential thing than the attendance on the outward ordinances of worship.” He reminds them that in the Hosea passage they read that their God “desired mercy, and not sacrifice. I know,” he continues, “of scarce any duty which is so much insisted on, so pressed and urged upon us, both in the Old Testament an New, as this duty of charity to the poor.”
Before God’s people even had a kingdom or the land, God gave them a text in Leviticus 24 concerning capital punishment. “You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the Lord your God.” Further, Deuteronomy 16:18-20 speaks to the appointment of judges who are not to pervert justice or show partiality or accept bribes. Isaiah 10 warns against unjust laws that would deprive people of their rights and oppress them. Hear this: Mercy, my friend, is clearly to be with an open hand. Justice, my friend, will be the same for the “sojourner and the native.”
Our Lord Jesus reflects the words of the Minor Prophets when he teaches about judgment in Matthew 24. He notes those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and in prison. His words, “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me,” are hard words of judgment from the one who identifies with those who are poor, powerless, orphaned, widowed, oppressed, strangers, sojourners, non-natives, and immigrants. Jesus publicly berates the religious leaders of his day for neglect of justice in Luke 14:42, “But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.”
Come back to this space in the coming days as I address other texts, specifically from the New Testament, related to Justice and Mercy. The step after that will be to connect the texts from both testaments to the church as the Ministry of Mercy and Justice connects with revitalization – particularly, how does the revitalized church “live out” its new-found health.
According to Keller, “The three causes of poverty, according to the Bible, are oppression, calamity, and moral failure. Having surveyed the Bible on the texts numerous times, I have concluded that the emphasis is usually on larger structural factors.” (P. 38) I, Fred McFarland, writing to promote the ministry of Metokos, come away from reading and studying God’s appeal in his last prophetic books of the Old Testament with a clear call for mercy and justice – for the orphan, widows, day workers, and the immigrant – that relates to new life for God’s covenant people. A revitalized church will listen to ALL of God’s word, not just the words that give us comfort or support a comfortable and safe style of life. The vision held out for the healthy church is from Acts 2,

And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

Are you curious about Metokos and how we can assist your church in revitalization? Do you know others who might be interested in our help? Contact us and share this blog link for further information.

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