I have thoroughly enjoyed teaching Sunday school the past month, and as an additional benefit, the Lord has been convicting me more and more--both through my preparations to teach Sunday school and also through my own personal studies--about the priority he places on caring for the poor, needy, and mistreated. The more I study the Old Testament, the more I see its emphasis on righteousness and justice. Those two words are used together in more than 35 places throughout the OT, not counting where they are used individually. It seems clear that the Lord emphasized righteousness and justice-love for God and love for neighbor-to counter Israel's primary two sins: idolatry and injustice. I am not going to talk about righteousness here, because the Lord has specifically been showing me his emphasis on justice, and I would like to share with you some of what the Lord has been teaching me.
Jeremiah 9:23-24 explains that one who knows the Lord understands that He "practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth," and 22:16 even more potently explains what it means to know the Lord: "He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? declares the Lord." Clearly, then, to know the Lord is to "judge the cause of the poor and needy." Was this not a large portion of the ministry of Jesus? He spent his time loving the rejects of society: the criminal, the destitute, those rejected by society, and he repeatedly challenged those who oppressed others, whether financially, socially, or even religiously.
Finally, scripture's emphasis on caring for the poor and needy can be neatly summarized in one verse: "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained from the world" (James 1:27). This powerful summary comes after James spends the better part of chapter one explaining how important it is to be a doer of the word and not merely a hearer. We are all familiar with Jesus' quotation from Deuteronomy regarding which law is the most important; he says, "Love your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Mt. 22:37-39). It seems, however, we often forget that a lawyer asked Jesus specifically, "who is my neighbor?" Jesus didn't say, "the person who lives next to you," nor did he say, "your co-worker or fellow-student." No, Jesus answered by telling the story of the Good Samaritan, explaining that our neighbor is the abused, destitute man in the street that no one else will help. Is this not looking after widows and orphans? Is this not loving like our Father, who "practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth"?
As we begin to see that God emphasizes justice-i.e. love for the rejected, the poor, the destitute-as much as he does righteousness, we begin to see that God expects us similarly to emphasize the practice of our faith in loving others as much as we emphasize theology, righteousness, and personal morality. Additionally, we must remember that loving others means loving those that cannot give back to us, i.e. the poor and destitute (Luke 14:12-14), not simply those who are easy to love or who love us. God demonstrates and also verbally explains that he cares about the poor and rejected. If we really desire to be children of God, if we truly long to please our Father, we, too, will love the poor and destitute, just as our father does.
I am still wrestling with what exactly this emphasis looks like. For example: how does this change my family and our priorities? How does this change how we do ministry as a church? If the Lord himself emphasizes justice and mercy ministry as his priorities, what does this say about the value we place on the diaconate? How do we better promote their ministry?
How can we better equip them and free them to lead our body in works of justice? I have many questions about what an emphasis on righteousness AND justice looks like individually and corporately, but one thing I am confident of: God makes it clear that pure, undefiled religion is caring for the poor, the needy, and all those that society has marginalized.