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Category Archives: Justice

A Clashing of Powers, A Parable About Two Sons and A Vineyard

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Here’s this coming Sunday’s lectionary gospel text along with thoughts it inspired.   Maybe, just maybe, there’s a community of faith out there somewhere that would appreciate hearing a message based on my preliminary  impressions.  My inner cynic tells me it’s doubtful such a place exists; another small voice tells me to hang in there and have faith.  We’ll see.

Matthew 21:23–32 (NRSV)

(Mk 11:27–33; Lk 20:1–8)

23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

The question remains, “What exactly is the vineyard?” Bundled into that question is another, “What exactly WAS the vineyard?” Jesus tells a story about about a father, two sons, and a vineyard that needs attention. To folks in the audience, the vineyard would resonate on several levels. One, it’s a dominant symbol of the agricultural economy. Lots and lots of folks make a living in the vineyard. Two, it’s a symbol and metaphor used by their prophets, especially around the time of the conquest of Israel and Judah, the Babylonian exile and the return from exile. Isaiah’s “Song of the Vineyard” lays it out plainly:

For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel,

and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting;

he expected justice, but saw bloodshed;

righteousness, but heard a cry!          Is 51: v. 8

The parable of the two sons, the dad and the vineyard is told in the context of the Jerusalem Temple, one of the great marvels of the ancient world. If God Almighty had a mailbox on earth, it was there.

The story is told in the midst of an audience that had been steeped in the religious/social/political/economic cultural traditions that basically held that God had chosen this particular group of people to be first among all the ethnic peoples of the world, had given them this geography as sacred geography, and had called them to be a light for the nations. Ummm, do we find similarly held assumptions in our time and place?

Isn’t our geography seen as the land that has been given by God to God’s chosen people, who are of a particular ethnicity and religion? (The Patriot’s Bible, anyone?)

When Jesus uses the vineyard touchstone to make his point, he is certainly calling on the prophetic understandings of justice and injustice that are wrapped in the vineyard metaphor.  And he was speaking to a nation and within a nation about how the prevailing powers and authorities had become opposed to the new power and authority–and righteousness–he came to reveal.  For 2000 years, Jesus has continued the revelation, shocking and pissing off those whose power and status quo are threatened, to the extent that they find ways to crucify him again and again.   But the power of the resurrection keeps overcoming those powers, again and again.  His word to the chief priests and elders packs the same wallop today as it did back then, as does the word of the prophet Isaiah to a nation and people that lost its way.

Don’t believe me?

What happens if you read the Isaiah passage outside the Georgia state execution chamber immediately after Troy Davis is killed by the state? What happens if you read this passage at the Wall St. sit-in? What happens if you read this passage alongside a poster-sized photo of the children executed by U.S. soldiers during a house raid in Iraq?

Who are the chief priests and elders of our culture? Likewise, who would be the tax collectors and the prostitutes, and what exactly is it that makes them first in the kingdom of God?

And finally, what exactly is the Kingdom of Heaven and how might we find the wiring that connects all these questions to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount?

We can do a nice little 8-minute piece on the vineyard and the kingdom focusing on the church and its need to replenish a food pantry or provide coats for a coat drive. We can preach a nice, tidy little piece on the importance of repentance (metanoia) and how piety can often get in the way of growing in authentic faith.

But will it mean a heckuva lot when Monday comes and life keeps going down the same destructive path?

Maybe, just maybe, the tax collectors and prostitutes in our time are those folks who wouldn’t call themselves at all religious, maybe not even very spiritual. But they’re standing outside the execution chamber and they’re sitting in on Wall St., and they’re burning the midnight oil developing just alternatives to the injustices that bear down on and crush more and more people everyday. Perhaps it’s the gay teen who tragically committed suicide because he just couldn’t take the destructive bullying anymore.

Maybe these are first, like the first son in the parable, or a bit like those surprised sheep we find in the apocalyptic parable in Matthew 25.

What’s the vineyard? What’s the kingdom? Who’s first? Who deserves Jesus’ bitch-slap, like the one he laid on those chief priests and elders?

A Message to Religious Leaders From An Outsider

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   “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”  –Jesus, speaking in the Temple during the last week of his life, according to Matthew 23:23-24.


Some time ago I was in conversation with a pastor who heaped a bunch of us other pastors together as “social justice pastors” and did so in a not-so-subtly dismissive way.  From this pastor’s perspective, the social justice bunch had missed the true mark and not focused in on the core message of grace that defines our denomination.  Thus, it shouldn’t be surprising to the SJP’s that they find themselves struggling with their vocations  in the church. It was too bad, yet also implicitly deserved.

It seems to me that Jesus is saying you can’t parse grace in ways that leave justice–and it’s key component , mercy–on the sidelines of “proper theology.”  The systems that do so are systems that inevitably result in a few folks pleasuring themselves while ignoring the needs of the many.

And right now, the needs of the many are growing exponentially huge.

Throw Out the Moneychangers: Chris Hedges’ Message is Food For Thought on Holy Monday

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via Truthout:

“We stand today before the gates of one of our temples of finance. It is a temple where greed and profit are the highest good, where self-worth is determined by the ability to amass wealth and power at the expense of others, where laws are manipulated, rewritten and broken, where the endless treadmill of consumption defines human progress, where fraud and crimes are the tools of business.

“The two most destructive forces of human nature—greed and envy—drive the financiers, the bankers, the corporate mandarins and the leaders of our two major political parties, all of whom profit from this system. They place themselves at the center of creation. They disdain or ignore the cries of those below them. They take from us our rights, our dignity and thwart our capacity for resistance. They seek to make us prisoners in our own land. They view human beings and the natural world as mere commodities to exploit until exhaustion or collapse. Human suffering, wars, climate change, poverty, it is all the price of business. Nothing is sacred. The Lord of Profit is the Lord of Death.

Read the rest of this entry

Dorothy I. Height’s Death A Reminder That Justice is a Life-Long Pursuit

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Dorothy Height, 1912-2010

I doubt many of us WASP’s ever knew much about the late Dorothy Height, who died April 20th at the age of 98.  Thanks to this Washington Post obituary, we learn that Ms. Height spent six decades of her long life committed to the work of racial equality in a mostly anonymous way.  Yet we also learn that Ms. Height was considered “the ‘glue’ that held the family of black civil rights leaders together.”

She joined Harlem protests in the 1930’s; spoke with Eleanor Roosevelt as a civil rights advocate in the 1940’s; became a strong influence in President Eisenhower’s decisions on school desegregation during the 1950’s; and planned strategy with Martin Luther King, John Lewis, A Philip Randolph and Roy Wilkins in the 1960’s.

Throughout her life, Ms. Height became an important champion of women’s rights especially within the African American civil rights movement.   She gave many years of service in leading The National Council of Negro Women to focus on voter registration and education.

“Dorothy Height deserves credit for helping black women understand that you had to be feminist at the same time you were African . . . that you had to play more than one role in the empowerment of black people,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) once said.

One of this world’s strongest temptations is the desire to make a major contribution for social change in as short a time and with as little effort as possible.  Dorothy I. Height’s legacy reminds us that enduring and meaningful social change comes incrementally over a time span that challenges our patience and perseverance.  Ms. Height apparently had these things in full measure, and they evidently kept her pilot light burning for nearly a century.  Rest in peace.

Post-script: read the WaPo obit with an eye discerning the influence the church had in her life and work.

Just sayin’….

Powers and Principalities Still Working to Crush the Poor and the Gospel

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God’s mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things,  and sent the rich away empty.  –Luke 1:50-53

And the rich are not happy about this at all.  In fact, they’re working very hard to make sure that it’s the poor who are sent away empty.  We’ll have to see who’s got more clout in this struggle; I’m siding  with the power whose best spokespersons never had to worry about on-camera makeup to go on cable tv.   I think they’re the ones who continue to speak with a more enduring authority.

Here’s a Brave New Films clip on how the high and mighty are conspiring to –as a starting point–crush ACORN and its public advocacy and empowerment of those in poverty .

The Importance of Good Theology, Part 2

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Another title might be, “How Good Theology Gives People Life.”

Millard Fuller (January 3, 1935-February 3, 2009), co-founder of Habitat for Humanity, was someone steeped in the  Christian theology expressed through daily life at Koinonia Farm,  a Christian community co-founded by Clarence Jordan.

Thanks again, John.

Will President Obama Listen to This Spiritual Advisor?

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The following  excerpts come from “The Crescendo of Violence,” written by Father Thomas Keating in the winter edition of the Contemplative Outreach News.

The last hundred years have witnessed two world wars, the cold war, local wars, and the horrors of genocide (the murder of thousands of noncombatants for reasons of race, nationality, religion, ethnicity, or just plain greed). In time of war one is now safer in the military rather than remaining a civilian, since noncombatants suffer a much higher proportion of casualties than soldiers.
Everyone involved in war loses, including the winners. Success is ephemeral and quickly passes. Empires of the past are gone, except for their horrendous legacies of economic inequalities that keep vast populations mired in abject poverty.A nation that supports a military/industrial complex creates a mindset that easily loses sight of basic human values. No expense seems too much for the sake of defending one’s country and its economic interests anywhere in the world. This attitude enables governments to disregard the needs of the poor at home and abroad in order to finance weapons designed to destroy as many human beings as possible. Has economic domination become for us more important than addressing the grinding poverty of a third of humanity? A billion children in the world suffer extreme deprivation because of war, disease, and poverty according to a UNICEF
report published in the New York Times.1 Millions of the world’s poor are refugees, without work,enough food, or adequate medical care.

Violence lurks in the unconscious of every one of us as an effect of our evolution from lower forms of life. Under the extreme conditions of war such as constant danger, the dismemberment of bomb victims, the hatred of mobs, or the sudden death of friends, anyone can revert to barbarism or sadistic conduct unthinkable in normal situations. Torture is the ultimate capitulation to the primitive instincts of our lower nature. It destroys the souls of victims and perpetrators alike and may radically undermine their capacity to live any kind of normal life. In people suffering oppressive treatment over a long time, despair may lead to the conviction that nothing matters, not even one’s own life. Some have chosen suicide bombing to express their desperation and hatred of enemies.
The Present Moral Dilemma of the United States
At this historic crossroads, our country stands at the threshold of its greatest opportunity-or on the brink of its demise. The fading hope of a world order based on justice and peace, symbolized by the United Nations, depends on the choice that we make at this time.  The United States as a dominant economic and military power in the world today faces a critical moral dilemma. Will we continue on the path of empire building that will inevitably collapse into a black hole of self-interest and military power? Or do we choose to be a major contributor to the emerging global community by sharing our experience and vision as the world’s predominant democratic society?
If the United States abandons its long held democratic ideals, it will seal its decline as a nation, replacing these ideals with the pseudo accomplishments of economic domination brought about by the imposition of the American brand of capitalism on the developing world.

The only fully adequate alternative to utmost violence is utmost charity: the practice of mutual love in personal relationships and among nations, even to the point of dying for the sake of the survival, enhancement, and transformation of the whole human family, past, present, and to come.

As a postscript:  last Fall, a good friend I’ve known since college asked me why I went into the ministry.  I surprised myself with my response, which was immediate, from the heart, and unlike any previous answer I’ve given to the question.  I told her that I felt like we humans were locked in a global struggle some call the War on Terror, but one I call the War on Tolerance.  It threatens to wipe us out and I feel called to do my part as God’s footsoldier to whatever I can to bring the Biblical life-principles of forgiveness, peace and agape–or charity– into that struggle.    I find it significant that religious figures such as Father Keating would seem at first glance to be detached from the world given their monastic lifestyle.  However, his article reveals that he is very much engaged in this struggle as well, and in a much bigger way.