Tag Archives: Social Justice

The First and the Last

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The full readings for today can be found here.

Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

In the name of the Living God, who binds all of us together: Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier.

Good morning, good morning. It is a great pleasure to be with you again at St. Paul’s and I want to thank your rector for inviting me and you for your wonderful hospitality.

You know, I grew up out in West Texas, and was the eldest of four boys. And although my parents never said so, I’m sure they were terribly grateful for my finely attuned sense of fairness. Because whenever they made a mistake in the allocation of resources (whether it was Christmas presents, dolling out allowances or apportioning dessert), they could count on my keen sense of justice and willingness to speak up and tell them: “That’s not fair.”

I had a profound sense of justice and of the urgency to get my fair share, to get what’s coming to me. And so, for a long time, the story in today’s Gospel bothered me. But as I’ve gotten older and my focus has turned to the spiritual life and perhaps a broader awareness of just how lucky I’ve been, I have come to realize that the very last thing in the world I want from God is for God to give me what’s coming to me.

So, let’s take a look at this parable, this story that Jesus tells to his listeners. First, we need to note that the whole story is set in the context of Jesus trying to explain what the kingdom of God is like. And I don’t think Jesus was necessarily trying to give them a description of heaven, because elsewhere, he tells them, “The Kingdom of God is within you now.” So, Jesus is trying to explain how we can live into, how we can bring about the kingdom, here and now. This story isn’t about some rarefied, ethereal event that will happen in the sweet by and by: it’s about how we live our lives right here and right now.

So, the parable itself is not that complicated. It’s not a hard story to follow. Then again, as Mark Twain once said, “Most people are bothered by those passages of Scripture they do not understand, but the passages that bother me are those I do understand.”
A landowner needed people to work in his vineyards. He hires workers early in the morning, and again at nine, and noon, at three in the afternoon and again at five o’clock. And when it comes time to pay the workers, he pays those who showed up last first, and to compound things he pays those who only worked for an hour the same wage as those who worked all day. When the day ends, all of them (those who showed up early and those who showed up late) are all paid the same wage. And the workers who worked all day in the hot sun begin to do exactly what we would expect—exactly what most of us would do—they engage in one of the most ancient practices of Christians everywhere; they grumble.

Now, I love that word: grumble. It sounds like a cross between a grunt, a groan and mumble. We think it comes from the Middle French or Middle Dutch, and meant to “mutter between the teeth.” And if we look at the Old Testament lesson today from Exodus, that’s exactly what we find God’s people doing in the desert: they are grumbling, they are complaining. So, we have been doing this for a very long time, and have gotten pretty good at it by now.

If we think about Jesus’ parable, it’s probably helpful to think about those laborers. Day laborers probably weren’t all that different in the first century than they are today. The men who would have been hired first, early in the morning, would most likely be those who were young, strong, healthy and looked like they could do a hard day’s work. By five o’clock in the afternoon, the men left would probably have been the old, the weak and perhaps those who were lame. And yet, they had the same needs as those who were strong and healthy: they needed to feed themselves and those they cared for. So, maybe, part of what Jesus is trying to tell us is that God is far more concerned with our needs than with our abilities. In other words, God’s economy may have a great deal more to do with generosity than with merit.

I know that will come as a great disappointment to many of us; our culture insists upon the importance of merit. Whether it’s athletic ability, intellectual capability, holiness and piety, wealth or beauty, we crave success: it’s the addiction of our age. So, whatever this kingdom of God is, I’m not sure it looks very much like our society today.

You see, it looks like God is much more concerned with mercy than with justice. Or at least, God’s justice looks a lot more like peace and mercy than some courtroom drama where the criminals get what’s coming to them. Which is kind of a shame, because we Americans really love justice. We love it when the billionaire is sent to prison for insider trading, or when the politician is caught perjuring himself before a senate committee, or when the sanctimonious preacher is exposed in a torrid sexual affair. Schadenfreude—the delight at watching another’s misfortune—may well be the emotion most characteristic of our age. As the Canadian songwriter Bruce Cogburn said, “Everybody loves to see justice done . . . on somebody else.”

But I’m beginning to think that God’s justice looks a lot more like what most of us would call mercy. And so, most of us can breathe a collective sigh of relief. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu has observed, we may be quite surprised by the people who end up in heaven. “God has a soft spot in his heart for sinners. His standards are really quite low.”

In the parable, Jesus points out something else that I think is really important for us today. It’s a curious phrase: “Or are you envious because I am generous?” In the original Greek it reads: “Is your eye evil because I am good?” I think Jesus is pointing out one of the greatest spiritual dangers most of us face, the danger of envy, of thinking we deserve what someone else has. In the final analysis, when we feel that, we are saying God or the fates or life has treated us poorly, that we deserve what others have. And as Shakespeare once observed, “Comparisons are odious.” But they’re worse than smelly; they are dangerous in that they encourage us to continue the practice of keeping score. And in the spiritual life, that is a sure road to Nowheresville, a long, rocky path to unhappiness and bitterness.

Jesus talked about the same thing in the Gospel reading last week, when he spoke about forgiveness. If you’ll remember, Peter asked if he would need to extend forgiveness as many as seven times. Jesus answered, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” In other words, you’re going to have to do it so often that you lose count, that you give up the practice of keeping score. You see, when I’m looking at whether someone else deserved an award, or a raise, or a new car, I’m avoiding examining at my own life and the choices that I’ve made and the kind of person that I’ve become.

Jesus contrasts that kind of life with a life of radical generosity and a life full of grace. Grace doesn’t have anything to do with what we deserve; it is by its very nature an undeserved gift, a gift given out of love rather than obligation or merit. When we learn to trust in the Lord of heaven, we find a God who will rain down bread on us, who sets a table for us as we wander through the desert. What does it mean for us if God’s love, God’s grace, God’s mercy, doesn’t depend at all on our effort, our achievement, or our merit? I think following Jesus may mean that we have to give up keeping score and recognize that we have enough for today, enough for this day’s journey. And enough, as my parents told me so often, is enough.

So, I’m wondering what this passage might mean for us in really practical everyday terms. It might mean that we give a coworker a second, or even a third chance. It might mean that we give something to a street person, regardless of whether we think they deserve it or not. Or it might mean that we forgive someone who hasn’t really shown they’re sorry, or that we are kind to those who have been unkind to us in the past. It may not change them, it may not change them at all, but maybe if we’re really lucky and God rains down his mercy on us, it just might change us. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2017

Dying of Thirst

Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”

….

The time is surely coming, says the Lord GOD, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it. In that day the beautiful young women and the young men shall faint for thirst.  Amos 8: 4-13.

In the Daily Office reading from the Old Testament, we find the prophet Amos acting in the quintessential role of the prophet:  he speaks as a social critic, calling the people of Israel to change their ways.  At first blush, we might wonder what this has to do with us today and how this reading fits into our understanding of Advent.   

Amos speaks out against a terrible social and spiritual problem:  deceit.  Particularly, he is concerned with those who take advantage of the poor.  We don’t have to look very  far to find modern examples suggesting that this is still a problem.  Our newspapers remind us  that there’s nothing archaic about Amos’ concern.  From pools of mortgage-backed securities to deceptive bank  and credit card practices to borrowers who take out loans that they know they cannot repay, we encounter the problem of deceit every day.  But, for the sake of our souls, rather than looking at the headlines, we should search our lives for the ways in which our own deception has separated us from God.  If I have a superpower in this life, it’s my capacity for deception and self-deception. 

Amos believed  that the problem had become so widespread that he compared it to a moral famine and a spiritual drought.  He believed that sharp dealings and deception would result in our inability to hear God in the world.  He wrote about people going from “sea to sea, and from north to east” looking for some whisper of God, and not being able to find it.  That’s the state of the people in first century Palestine:  they knew that their spiritual lives were withering without God’s word, without God’s presence.

Amos summed up our Advent expectation, hoping for a day when justice would “roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”  Amos 5: 24.  In the Collect for this second we of Advent we pray:  “Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.” 

Like Amos, we pray for the end of this famine, for this spiritual drought.  We hope for a day when justice, honor and fairness would roll across the land like an  overflowing torrential river.  That’s our Advent hope, as well.  The people of Israel were spiritually parched, dying for God’s word.  Advent tells us that Word is coming. 

God give you peace and a spirit of wonder,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

 © 2011 James R. Dennis

Life and Death Decisions

On August 19, 1989, Mark MacPhail, a former Army Ranger, worked for the Savannah Police Deparment. That night, with his wife and baby daughter at home, MacPhail was working as an off-duty as a security guard in a Burger King restaurant. When MacPhail learned of a man being assaulted in the parking lot, he intervened to defend the victim. Seven witnesses testified that they had seen Troy Anthony Davis shoot MacPhail, and two others testified that Davis had confessed to the murder. Davis, a black man, stood accused of killing MacPhail, a white police officer.

Some of the witnesses who testified at trial later recanted their sworn statements. Two of the jurors indicated that had they known 20 years ago of the facts that have surfaced since then, they would have voted differently. Nonetheless, some 20 years after he was originally sentenced to receive the death penalty, the State of Georgia ended Troy Davis’ life on September 21, 2011.

Sometimes, history entangles strange stories together. You see, back on June 7, 1998 James Byrd accepted a ride home from Shawn Berry, Lawrence Brewer and John King. Mr. Byrd knew the driver, Shawn Berry, from around town. But instead of taking him home, the three men took Mr. Byrd out into the country. They beat him viciously, urinated on him, chained his ankles to their pickup truck and dragged him for three miles. They then went to a barbeque. As you probably know, the incident took place in Jasper, Texas.

In one of those historical ironies, the State of Texas executed Lawrence Brewer on the same day Georgia executed Troy Davis. Brewer, a white supremacist, had previously served time for drug possession and burglary. He had apparently joined a white supremacist gang during this earlier prison term, and it was there that he met John King. When interviewed by the media the day before his execution and asked if he had any remorse, he said “As far as any regrets, no, I have no regrets. No, I’d do it all over again, to tell you the truth.”

As a lawyer, I think I understand the legal issues in most of these cases, and it’s hard for me to avoid the notion that the death penalty is constitutional. There are also a number of practical issues involved, like the question of deterrence and the relative cost of life imprisonment versus the total costs of carrying out the death penalty. One of those practical issues is the remarkable disparity in the racial application of the death penalty. There’s also the question, in fact the probability, that we have executed several people who were innocent of the crimes of which they were convicted. But I don’t think that answers the question, the bedrock question I’d like us to consider this morning: what kind of people do we want to be?

The scriptural witness in this regard is somewhat ambiguous, forcing us, as Scripture so often does, to struggle with the text and its meaning. Proponents of the death penalty find solace in the commandment of Leviticus: “Whoever takes the life of any human being shall be put to death” (Leviticus 24:17). (It’s worth noting, however, that the Old Testament similarly provides for the execution of those who works on the Sabbath (Exodus 31:15) or for one who curses one’s parent (Exodus 21:17) and even for a rebellious teenager (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).)

Those who oppose the death penalty can look to the notion that God has reserved vengeance for himself (Rom. 12:19). We find in the Biblical story of the first murder that God spared Cain’s life, although Abel certainly seems like an innocent victim. Chapter 8 of John’s Gospel records the only time our Savior’s encounter with capital punishment in the case of the woman caught in adultery; and Jesus put a stop to it.

It’s worth observing that there are good people, and there are people of faith, on both sides of this issue. As so often happens, we find that we must struggle with the biblical text on this issue. I think that’s a good thing, because the Bible isn’t a book of recipes that will teach us how to prepare a good life, nor is it an encyclopedia where we can go to look up the “right” answer. In Holy Scripture, God speaks to us in a collection of stories, a narrative about how people struggle to find their sanctification and how we struggle to find ours.

Three overarching themes, however, strongly suggest to me that capital punishment is the wrong answer. The first of these is an understanding of what it means to be human. We are told that we were made imago Dei, “in the image of God.” That probably doesn’t mean that our elbow looks like God’s elbow. But I think it means that all of us have some spark of the divine within, no matter how well we try to hide it. In other words, we are all instances (no matter how blurred) of something sacred and holy.

Secondly, we have the Biblical meta-narrative of God’s reaching again and again to redeem people, not because of their merit but because of His love. This happens over and over in the Bible, often enough that I believe God is trying to tell us something. We see it in the story of Cain, in the Exodus (which remains the overarching narrative for the Jewish people), in the story of David, and in the story of Christ’s calling St. Paul. Jesus preached “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” (Matt. 7:1.) While I’m not smart enough to have considered all of the implications of that commandment, I think at a minimum that we are not to judge the content and character of another man’s soul. God knows who can be redeemed, and I do not.

Finally, I oppose the death penalty because I honor the Christian virtue of hope. I am hopeful that God can redeem the even the shame of the murder of James Byrd, and the horror Lawrence Brewer’s unrepentant racism. I am hopeful that God’s love can reach into Brewer’s life, and into mine. I believe in “the means of grace and the hope of glory.” I think capital punishment reflects a despair at the possibility of Christ’s redemptive love reaching into the very darkest places of the human heart, and I am compelled to reject that.

In the final analysis, I think the real question is one posed by Sister Helen Prejean: “The profound moral question is not, ‘Do they deserve to die?’ but ‘Do we deserve to kill them?'” I pray the answer is no, just as I pray for Mark MacPhail, for James Byrd, for Troy Davis and Lawrence Brewer.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2011 James R. Dennis