You have heard it said that murderers are liable to judgment. But I say to you that, if you are angry with someone, or if you have insulted someone, or have harmed someone even unintentionally, you will be held accountable. If you are offering a gift at the altar and remember such an offense, put down your gift and go be reconciled with that person. Then come back to the altar and offer your gift. (Paraphrase of Matthew 5:21-25).
When Jesus was teaching, the religious institution had convinced most everyone that the temple rituals were the most important thing in the world. The people had come to believe that keeping up the temple traditions – like paying the temple tax, and attending the various festivals, and making the correct animal sacrifices at the right times, and observing the minutia involved with all the rules – was the primary thing God was interested in.
This emphasis on observing the traditions and following the rules led to an odd sort of compartmentalization on the part of the people who were trying to be faithful. It led to good people focusing their lives on superstition and forgetting how to deal with each other with compassion and understanding. They came to believe that, as long as they were bringing God the right kind of gift for Sabbath worship, they could behave however they wanted to the other six days of the week. In our language, as long as they were coming to church they felt they could take advantage of others however they wanted to and God didn’t care.
As we look at human history, it’s amazing the behavior we have rationalized. How in the world, for instance, could any human being come to justify owning another human being as a slave? How could people come to see another group of humans as so inferior that we could justify genocide? How do we lump groups of people together and assume each one of them is the same? Or, closer to home, how can I be hateful and unforgiving with any other person and convince myself it’s all her fault or pretend God doesn’t really care about little things like that?
Starting the day quietly in prayer, reflection, and meditation is stimulating for me. I find a deep connection there and comfort. Then, after a while, I start thinking about the damn difficult people I’m going to have to deal with in the day ahead. Some of them I have designated as enemies, or idiots, or hopelessly unbalanced and dangerous. I start thinking of how I might work around them as obstacles to the accomplishment of my day’s goals. That’s when God gives me a little push and reminds me that those damn difficult people are his children and my kindred.
After a certain amount of time connecting with God, he basically tells us that is enough and pushes us into the world. Life isn’t just about telling God who I am and how difficult my life is. God listens to all that very generously. Then God says, “Go. Get out there and deal with all that. You can’t stay here with me all day and ignore those people.”
Sometimes we’re so focused on asking for God’s mercy and grace that we don’t hear his call for us to pursue justice in our world. Maybe we think of justice as the government’s job or something only the bigger systems of the world can affect. But how I treat every other living person, individually and corporately, reveals my outlook on justice. Maybe we can’t change the way injustice is occurring in other parts of the world. But maybe we can. We are called to the just treatment of every person we meet this day. Beginning each day seeking God’s mercy and comfort is a good thing. And the better we are able to establish that touch with God, the clearer we will hear his beckoning us to justice.
Pursuing justice involves considering how our actions affect other people around us, people in other cultures and countries, people who will come after us and inherit the world we leave to them. Pursuing justice involves me putting the needs of others ahead of my own needs. Pursuing justice involves me letting go of trying to separate myself from others and recognizing that my behavior either helps or hurts others. Justice is seeing that God’s mercy extends to every single living creature and acting like it does.
It’s not just about you getting close to God, being saved, and going to heaven where you and God can talk about how much he likes you. The faithful life involves dealing with those damn difficult people that you’d rather write off and just work around. Sometimes we’re working so hard to ignore or change those damn difficult people that we forget to remember that we are held accountable for how we treat them.
Ask for mercy. It will be given. And along with that gift will come a little push from God to do justice.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.