Justice Denied—Except from the God of Love


In the story of the Ethiopian eunuch, we meet a man who occupied a post of high authority in Ethiopia, but who, on account of his status as a eunuch, could not have worshipped in the Jewish Temple or become a part of the Jewish community even if he wanted to with his whole heart. This was a man who knew something about humiliation, and so it is no coincidence that he was drawn to Isaiah 53 and its amazing depiction of a suffering servant who brings redemption - quoting, "in his humiliation justice was denied him" but also, "the righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous."

Who can this be? The Ethiopian eunuch knew quite a bit about suffering servants, being one himself. But where, but how, is the redemption? Where, how, is God in this? This is not the normal picture of God. Everyone knows that God redeems through triumph, not through humiliation. Humans often lose but God always wins. But Isaiah 53 speaks of a God who, in and through humiliation and injustice, redeems. The eunuch wants to know and serve this God, and through Philip, he meets him. He learns that his name is Jesus.

Psalm 22 parallels Isaiah 53, at least in historic Christian interpretation. We know part of this text at least, because our hearts are pierced with it each Lenten season by encounter with Jesus' cry of dereliction, drawn from Psalm 22:1 - "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Read further, and we see that Psalm 22 is yet another text of a human being suffering humiliation at the hands of others - quoting, "But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people. All who see me mock at me."

Both Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 speak of the despised, rejected, and humiliated ones of this world. The Isaiah passage explicitly makes a turn to the redemptive - he has borne our infirmities, carried our sins, and by his wounds we are healed. Psalm 22 doesn't get there, but is instead a cry of anguish, a plea for help, and finally, a declaration of confidence in the justice of God.

I believe that here, in this last section of Psalm 22, we discover something surprising that takes us near the heart of biblical religion. It is easy to miss, at least for comfortable Christians, because we don't read Psalm 22 to the end.

And so, we miss what Psalm 22 is actually doing. Read to the end, the psalm is narrating one man's journey from humiliation before the eyes of cruel and unjust people to vindication before the eyes of a loving and just God. It is also promising a similar journey for others.

Verse 25 reads:

From you comes my praise in the great congregation.

That is, I am a despised worm surrounded by enemies now - but soon, very soon, I will take my place in the assembly of God's people.

And then the text says:

The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord.

In this world, the poor, the ravaged, the humiliated ones are left on the outside. But in the justice of God, the poor and afflicted, the ravaged and humiliated shall be welcomed.

In their pride and in their prejudice, human beings (even religious people; perhaps especially religious people) devote so very much energy to judging and excluding people like dark-skinned Ethiopians, the disabled and the different, the poor and the homeless. But God does not see people the way that we do, and so, the psalmist is sure that all those who seek shall praise God and find God's welcome.

The text continues:

All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; all the families of the nations shall worship before him.

Lines like this in the Hebrew Bible are most often taken as a promise of the in-gathering of the gentiles, the cracking open of exclusionary religion by the inclusive love of God - as with the Ethiopian eunuch. But can we see how this line is also something of a threat, a threat from below of judgment from above? The theme is made all the clearer in the next two verses which begin:

For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations. To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down.

On a daily basis, human life is about power - who has it and who doesn't, who can humiliate others and who faces humiliation, who sets the terms of welcome and who faces the back of the hand and the close of the door. It appears to be one of sinful humanity's greatest pleasures, this exercise of power to the exclusion of others.

But the psalmist knows that human powers only think they are in charge. Dominion truly belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations. There is a fundamental human equality in this - God rules all, and all who live, and all who die, shall answer to God. All who sleep in the earth - the Hebrew here suggests especially all who sleep well, all who sleep well in their comfort and power - these shall bow down, down, down before the God who is ruler of all, equality of all - the God who shatters all human pretensions to power and majesty.

Our text from 1 John speaks not of justice but of love. But here justice and love are not in contradiction. It is precisely because the God we have met in Jesus Christ is so clearly a God of love, that claims about God's coming justice make so much sense.

God is love, says John. Love is God's defining characteristic. This divine love was decisively revealed in God's decision to send Jesus into the world to be the atoning sacrifice for human sins - and to give us a new kind of life, now and eternally, in and through Jesus.

As the Gospel of John says, those who abide in Jesus bear much fruit. The love of Jesus takes root in them. As he loved, we love. As he wills, we will. As he is, so we gradually become.

1 John says that "there is no fear in love, because perfect love casts out fear." Jesus feared no one, which enabled him to love so freely and unconditionally.

If we abide in him, we too can over time learn to love in the same way - freely and unconditionally. So often it is fear that causes our impulse to gain, hold, and abuse power over others, to draw lines as to who is in and who is out, even to crush those whom we find most strange, most threatening, most other - that pattern that Psalm 22 suggests leads straight to the judgment of God.

These John texts show a better way: abide in Jesus, the Son of God, who takes away the sins of the world, and who incarnates the love of God as no one before or since. Abide in him. Drink deeply of his love. In that tender love is no fear. Born of that tender love is a fierce desire to create a world in which no more people have their faces crushed into the dust by the boot of oppression.

And so, that final word from 1 John 4: "The commandment we have from God is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also." Indeed.

Let us pray.

O God, today we are reminded of all whose cries of dereliction ring out around the earth; they are available for us to hear if we will but listen. We are comforted by the good news that you are the only one who holds true dominion over all the earth, and by the even better news that your dominion is marked most profoundly by your suffering love in Jesus Christ. And we are challenged to abide in Jesus, and to carry the love we have imbibed into all the earth, most especially, to those whom human powers have denied justice. Through Crist our Lord we pray. Amen.