A sermon on Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Ps 100, Ephesians 1:15-23, Matt 25:31-46 by Rowland Croucher
‘Justice will be their staple diet’ – Nathan Nettleton’s translation of Ezekiel 34:16.
During the 1980s I was privileged to work with World Vision. Part of my role was to take Church leaders to various parts of the world to meet ‘the poorest of the poor’.
I vividly remember Pedro, a day-labourer who with his wife Isabella lived in one of the 400 favellas/slums around Fortaleza, in north-east Brazil. They had five children (of nine live births) – all malnourished. Pedro could only get work about every third day; Isabella made clothes on a basic sewing-machine lent by World Vision. But sometimes they had no food at night, and to stop their starving kids crying from hunger Isabella would feed them little balls of rolled-up moistened newspaper, sprinkled with sugar. These had almost no nutritional value, but at least they wouldn’t cry so much and Pedro could get some sleep.
They’d owned a black bean farm, inherited from Pedro’s father and grandfather, and one day the police, bribed by a wealthy neighbouring landowner, drove them off their farm. They had no legal redress – the authorities were in the pockets of the rich.
We asked this couple, through an interpreter: ‘What do you need?’ Isabella replied, ‘We have only one blanket for the children, and when the roof leaks they get wet and cold and sick, and many children here have died. I would like a blanket for each child.’ And Pedro: ‘I need a job every day to feed my family.’ What else? Pedro said ‘I want my farm back, and for justice to be done in my country.’ Anything else? ‘Yes, where is the God we worship at Mass every Sunday? Why are we treated like ‘the scum of the earth’?
Bill and Mary love one another, but they are a ‘fighting couple’, who came to me for counseling. He’s often verbally abusive, and she’s had enough, and is about to walk out. Why does he rage? Well the presenting issues are to do with trigger-behaviors by Mary, who felt rejected by her father, and by some previous lovers; the deeper issues for Bill have to do with his domineering mother and absent father, and his anger with all women who might be a bit assertive. What can they do? Well, he will attend an anger management course; and they both will be working on their marriage with another counseling-couple. They want to be committed to each other during this hard process.
So in a world of pain and hurt and emotional and physical poverty what are the issues? They can be boiled down to just three – and they’re all mentioned in our readings today.
Ezekiel inveighs against the ‘shepherds’ of Israel – kings and government officials, but also priests and prophets – who care only for themselves and ‘rip off’ the poor. But there’s another image here too: the Lord will judge the ‘strong’ sheep who ‘butt out’ the weaker sheep with their horns. So anyone who misuses their power against others – or by neglect does not use the power they have for others’ well-being – is a target of God’s righteous anger. God is committed to ‘social justice’ – the strong helping the weak. God’s judgment is against all who do not practice justice – not just those in high places, but also ordinary folks.
Not only that, the Lord will rescue the flock from the places where they are scattered, care for them, ‘look after’ them, search for the lost, bring back the strays, bring them to their own land, tend them with good pasture, bind up the injured, strengthen the weak… the images of helpfulness and tender loving care fall over one another in this beautiful pastoral homily. The Lord will deal both with the justice issue, but will also extend mercy to those who desperately need such compassionate and loving provision.
And behind all this is a ‘faith’ issue: false shepherds do not believe they are accountable to a just God, but only to themselves…
Paul in the Ephesians passage talks about these three dimensions but in reverse order. First, these Ephesians are commended for their ‘faith’ or ‘deep trust’ in the Lord Jesus; and also for their ‘active love’ for others. God’s provision for us is ‘extravagantly generous’: mercy in abundance. And the ‘powers’ – ‘religious hierarchies, military regimes, every legal jurisdiction and people-power movement’ – have all been placed under the authority of the Messiah: they will all answer to him. And the church – that’s us! – is ‘central’ to all this.
Psalm 100, the ‘Jubilate’, is a magnificent song of praise, and has inspired God’s people in their worship – Jews and Christians – for millennia. It is the psalm most commonly used in synagogue services and in Christian worship throughout the world. It’s one of the two most famous psalms (the other of course is Psalm 23) about God the shepherd caring for us, God’s sheep. It has inspired some of our greatest hymns: the happiest is William Kethe’s ‘All people that on earth do dwell/Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice/ Serve him with mirth his praise forth tell/ Come ye before him and rejoice’. This psalm also inspired the Isaac Watts/John Wesley hymn: ‘Before Jehovah’s awful throne/ Ye nations bow with sacred joy: / Know that the Lord is God alone;/ He can create, and He destroy!’
Scholars tell us this psalm was written after the exile in Babylon, a grim period, when the Jews returned to their devastated land. Jerusalem was desolate, and the holy temple a heap of ruins. And yet, God had delivered them from those who had oppressed them; with the encouragement of Nehemiah and others they were ready to start again, so they ‘Made a joyful noise to the Lord!’
Before we get to the Gospel let’s summarize: Every relationship in the universe – between God and creation, between humans, and between humans and creation – is driven by three dynamics: justice, mercy and faith.
Justice is about ‘fairness’, the right use of power. It’s about the strong helping the weak, not exploiting them. Why do we relate to one another with justice? Because every human is like God, made in God’s image, and infinitely precious and loved by God – and hopefully by us. (CSLewis says somewhere – The Weight of Glory? – that if we realized who the others really were with whom we are worshipping, we’d be tempted to fall down and worship *each other*!) The whole Bible, from the creation stories in Genesis to the Book of Revelation, which celebrates the ultimate overthrow of all ‘powers’ but God’s, is full of the theme of ‘social justice’.
Mercy addresses our immediate, our presenting needs. ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ asked Jesus. In other words, what are your needs, here and now? They might include survival needs – food, clothing, shelter, well-being; or emotional needs – respite from depression, a sense of belonging, greater self-worth etc.
Third, faith is about the ultimate dimension of any relationship. Can I trust God to care for me? Can I trust you to accept me (Romans 15:7) and care for me? Do you have my interests at heart, or do I exist mainly for yours?
In any relationship – and in our relationship with God – all three are important. In the Bible they’re interwoven (see e.g. Micah 6:8, Matthew 23:23). You mustn’t emphasize one to the exclusion of the others.
There’s an old parable about a fast-flowing river, and tortured and dying bodies are floating down the river. The fundamentalists come with a megaphone and shout (KJV) texts to the bodies. The doers-of-good set up a hospital in which to care for the broken people. The radicals go upstream and confront the ‘Powers’ who are torturing people (and many of them join the bodies floating down the river).
Now it’s OK to major on one of these important ministries, so long as you also affirm the others. Billy Graham majors on ‘faith’, evangelism, but in South Africa refused to preach to a segregated audience – that’s justice. Dom Helder Camara majored on all three (which is why he’s one of my heroes). Remember his famous ‘When I give to the poor they call me a saint; but when I ask “Why are they poor?” they call me a communist!’
A preoccupation with justice can lead to violence and terrorism; a preoccupation with mercy can issue in paternalism (‘do-goodism’); a preoccupation with evangelism – inviting people to exercise faith in God – can lead to our treating them merely as ‘souls to be saved’…
Back to our stories: Pedro and Isabella want their farm back – justice; they need food, clothing, adequate shelter, a job – ‘mercy’; and they need to know they’re loved by God, and others – the ‘faith’ dimension.
The couple with the anger problem again need all three ‘ministries’ – mercy, constructively dealing with the conflictual aspects of the relationship; justice – figuring out the causes/aetiology of the problem – in the past, and in terms of the ‘power-dimensions’ of their relating; and faith: trust in one another that they’ll work it out.
In other words, the great trilogy of Christian virtues is operative at all times in healthy relationships: love (the relationship of subject to object which ‘creates worth’ rather than ‘responding to worth’ in the object); faith (the strong belief that the universe is friendly), and hope (commitment to a better future in spite of the injustices perpetrated by ‘the powers’ in the present).
Every individual, every family, every church ought to be operating in all three of these dimensions all the time…
I used to be a school-teacher, and back in 1962 at Jannali Boys’ High School I taught 3F geography. The smart kids were in 3A, and 3F’ers were hanging on until they were 15 and could leave school and go surfing. An educational innovation arrived at that time – giving students the questions before exams: ‘Here are 13 questions; 8 will be in the exam, and you have to answer 5!’ Some of these boys did better than some of the smart ones up in 3A.
I conclude with some bad news and good news. Bad news: we’ll each ‘front up’ for the final exam. Good news: we’ve already been given the questions. They’re in our gospel in Matthew 25.
‘Have you received me as your personal Savior?’ No that’s not there. Nor is ‘Have you been baptized in the Holy Spirit and speak in tongues?’ Not there either. Nor is ‘Have you attended Mass, are you a tithing member of a church, do you agree with the creeds of the church?’
‘When I was hungry, thirsty, a refugee, naked, sick, in prison… what did you do…?’