The Spirit of Justice
As we begin the season of Epiphany, which celebrates the coming of God’s light and revelation into the World, we are called upon to contemplate the ways in which God has enlightened us through the life and ministry of Jesus. The texts for the day of Epiphany include the story of the Magi who followed a star to the home of Jesus, whose own family had to flee from the oppressive forces of Herod, who sought to destroy a perceived threat – a sort of preemptive strike. As we turn to the texts for the first Sunday after Epiphany, the gospel brings us forward into time. The one whose family fled in the face of human violence had come to the Jordan to be baptized, and in the course of this event the Holy Spirit of God fell upon this man from Galilee. As a result, Jesus becomes the means through which and in which God brings light into the world and makes known God’s purpose and nature.
If light is a key theme for the season of Epiphany, one of the primary biblical themes is that of justice, and justice is part of this set of texts as well. The word justice appears regularly in Scripture, especially in the words of the Prophets. Its sort of odd that a TV personality would condemn churches for embracing the message of social justice since its so prevalent in the biblical text. But, perhaps the problem is that many in our society have forgotten the biblical mandates. It’s also possible that they misunderstand the nature of justice in its biblical context.
Most Americans think of justice in terms of law enforcement – of keeping criminals locked up. It’s telling that the Secretary of Justice is also the “Chief Law Enforcement” officer in the country. Although this department deals with issues that fall under the rubric social justice – things like equal opportunity – we usually think in terms of other kinds of justice – what some call retributive justice (punishment) rather than distributive justice, which deals with the way widows and orphans and the poor are treated. It is an implementation of God’s vision of equity, which means more than simply “getting what you deserve.” Surely, grace factors in here at some point.
As we contemplate God’s vision for the world, which is embodied in the one upon whom the Spirit of God fell during his baptism, anointing him the servant of God, we contemplate God’s justice and righteousness.
Our lectionary journey begins in Isaiah 42, a powerful text written during the period of the exile, by a prophet who announces the coming of the servant of God, the one in whom God has chosen to take delight. The servant isn’t identified by the prophet, which has led to much interpretive speculation. Suggestions as the identity of this prophet depend in part on one’s theology and faith tradition, whether you are Jewish or Christian, but they range from the prophet himself, to Israel, and from Jesus to Paul, Paul comes into play because the Servant is said to be a light to the Gentiles. There is still another possibility, which would involve “everyone who loves and trusts the Lord,” for thus “has assumed the task assigned to God’s servant in this passage” (Ronald Allen & Clark Williamson, Preaching the Old Testament, p. 16). As Ron Allen and Clark Williamson point out, any of these five identifications is appropriate, as long as we allow room for the others to be possible in their own way.
Upon this servant of God falls the Spirit who brings justice to the nations, and does so without faltering or discouragement. This text should be familiar to anyone who has read the Gospel of Luke, for in Luke, Jesus reads and interprets this passage as defining his own calling as God’s servant. God makes a covenant with this person (people), calling on them to be “a light for the gentiles, to open the eyes of the blind to free the captives from prison, and to release from the dungeons those who sit in darkness” (Is. 43:6-7 NIV 2010).
The justice spoken of here is not one that comes at the point of a sword or through coercion, but with humility and grace. This demeanor is defined in the opening lines of our passage, where we’re told that the Spirit-empowered servant doesn’t raise a voice or shout in the streets or even break a smoldering wick, but is instead one like a bruised reed. The justice that this servant brings is, as Allen and Williamson remind us, a “kindhearted justice.” They note further:
Some of the greatest injustices of history have been carried out by those in pursuit of a dream of absolute justice. Millions of people have died at the hands of those pursuing the classless society, a manifest destiny, or some idealistic political or economic vision of one kind or another. All our religious traditions have profaned the concept of God’s justice, Christians particularly in wars that they declared either just or holy, such as the Crusades or the wars of religion from 1618 to 1648. But God’s justice is justice on behalf of God’s children; it is like a mother whose love for her children leads her to seek justice for them. It is the justice of YHWH’s tender love (Allen & Williamson, pp. 16-17).
And so, we look forward to the fulfillment of God’s justice, which we have been called upon to embody as followers of the one who is baptized in fulfillment of God’s righteousness.
From Isaiah’s brilliant vision, we turn to Peter’s confession that “God does not show favoritism, but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (Acts 10:34-35 NIV
We can take this reference to the devil in a number of ways. It’s likely that Luke has in mind Jesus’ ministry of exorcism, but it might also have some less obvious, but clearly political implications. If we take seriously the Isaiah passage, then to fulfill his calling as the Servant of God, Jesus would be engaging in actions that are clearly political or social in nature. He would be acting out God’s vision of justice by releasing the people from bondage to the Powers and Principalities, which in shorthand could be the devil. But, as Peter reminds us, this ministry of justice led to Jesus’ death on the cross, but it also lead to resurrection, so that Christ might be seen by those whom God had chosen, so that he might judge the living and the dead. To those who believe on him (Jesus) is given forgiveness of sins. Peter is simply rehearsing the basics of the gospel message as he understood it and as it is presented in the New Testament. One might quibble with this or that part of the message, but the point is – Peter understood that the Spirit of God was present in the world, and God didn’t show favoritism, but instead embraced all who would come. Did Peter have a universalist understanding salvation? Probably not, but still present in this brief text is the recognition that God’s love and God’s justice is inclusive.
Finally we come to the text that defines the day – the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan. Jesus seems to believe that this act is an essential part of his journey, even if John resists, recognizing in him something that in his mind would preclude this step. But Jesus says, I need to do this to fulfill all righteousness. At that John consents to Jesus’ request. But what is it that Jesus must fulfill? As Allen and Williamson write, Matthew is concerned with a “higher righteousness,” one that stands in contrast with that of persons like Herod, who wish to dominate and destroy. Perhaps this is the answer to our question of why Jesus took this step: “Trusting in status and rank, being full of oneself in matters of faith, counts for nothing in Matthews eyes. What counts is morally responsible actions” (Allen and Williamson, Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews, p. 13). In taking his action of receiving baptism, whether in John’s eyes or our eyes, he needs to do this, he represents for us the attitude of the Servant of God whose coming is announced by Isaiah and witnessed to by Peter. And now, in this powerful moment of experiencing baptism at the hands of John, God provides God’s witness, as the Holy Spirit falls on him in the form of a dove and God speaks from the heavens: “This is my Son, whom I love, with him I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17).
The Baptism of Jesus marks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, the point at which he takes up the call of doing good and bringing healing to the people, which is part of Peter’s own testimony. As we remember the baptism of Jesus, let us remember that he took up the mantle described by Isaiah, and that he lived out God’s justice, having been filled with the Spirit of the God of Justice and Love. Yes, remember that the Justice of God is couched in the Love of God.