For our devotion today, I thought I’d talk about how I came to see Jesus as addressing large social change — what we today might call “activism” — as well as the change of individual hearts and minds. Over the past few weeks, since the murder of George Floyd on Memorial Day, the question of Jesus and social activism has entered the spotlight once again. What role do we, as followers of Jesus Christ, have when it comes to engaging in such activism? I assume we all agree that Jesus taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves, but how do we do that? What form can or should that love take? And, maybe most important for today, is there a form that our love for our neighbors should not take — for example, should we or should we not join in protests or other kinds of activism?
I get the feeling many of us are asking these kinds of questions right now. To a degree, they can only be worked out in prayer and conversation for each situation that arises, but I believe Jesus offers us a good model for understanding what our general approach should be to social activism.
God of Kindness, please guide us this morning by your Word and your Holy Spirit, so that in your light we might see light, and in your truth, we might find freedom, and in your will, we might truly discover peace through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
“Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” — Charles Wesley
(YouTube video with lyrics for in-home worship: https://youtu.be/JGGcqhKShQ8)
Love divine, all loves excelling, Joy of heaven to earth come down, Fix in us thy humble dwelling, All thy faithful mercies crown. Jesu, thou art all compassion, Pure, unbounded love thou art; Visit us with thy salvation, Enter every trembling heart. Breathe, O breathe thy loving Spirit Into every troubled breast, Let us all in thee inherit, Let us find that second rest. Take away the love of sinning, Alpha and Omega be; End of faith, as its beginning, Sets our hearts at liberty. Come almighty to deliver, Let us all thy life receive; Suddenly return and never, Never more thy temples leave. Thee we would be always blessing, Serve thee as thy hosts above, Pray, and praise thee without ceasing, Glory in thy perfect love. Finish then thy new creation, Pure and spotless let us be; Let us see thy great salvation, Perfectly restored in thee; Changed from glory into glory, Till in heaven we take our place, Till we cast our crowns before thee, Lost in wonder, love and Praise.
The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant in Matthew 18 is impossible to understand if we don’t take into account the Jewish tradition of the Jubilee. The Jubilee was the sabbath of all sabbaths. Every forty-nine years (“seven times seven”), says Leviticus 25, all debts are to be forgiven, all slaves and indentured servants are to be set free, and everyone should be allowed to return to his or her ancestral land. The Jubilee was a way to bring a community back into equilibrium by dissolving all inequities.
During Jesus’ day, heavy taxes had forced many peasants to borrow against their land to pay those taxes off. This only pushed the problem down the line, however. Rarely could anyone make enough to pay off both debts and future taxes, so the debts kept piling up until the creditor decided to recoup his loses by selling the peasant into slavery along with his family and all he owned. Jesus tells his parable in this context. One day, the creditor — or king — decides to collect on his folks’ outstanding debts and runs across someone who owes him so much that paying it off is laughable. The debtor begs for more time, but the creditor decides to do something even more radical and generous. He forgives the debt altogether. He performs, in other words, the Jubilee.
You can imagine the financial cost such forgiveness required. The king was out a whole bunch of money. Plenty of creditors in Jesus’ day worried about the same thing. If they followed the Jewish tradition of Jubilee, they risked losing much of their capital. No wonder, then, that a workaround was created. They called it the prosboul. A creditor was allowed to transfer a debt he owned to the courts before the year of the Jubilee and then recall it after the Jubilee had passed, thus circumventing the Jewish law’s requirement to forgive that debt.
Jesus’ parable marks him as a staunch opponent of the prosboul. Not only did it undermine the whole point of the Jubilee and so of God’s intention for the community, it helped contribute to the impoverishment of the poor. John Howard Yoder, in The Politics of Jesus, explains:
The sabbatical year [or Jubilee], like the day of sabbath, must be practiced. They are both meant to liberate people and not to enslave them. This is why the prosboul, like all the other human traditions, which were added to the law in order to attenuate its revolutionary and liberating character, called forth Jesus’ indignation.
In passages like this one in Matthew 18, we see Jesus reflecting upon and disparaging large social injustices while simultaneously expressing concern for hurting individuals.
In Luke 4, this is how Jesus describes his salvation project altogether. Preaching in the local synagogue, he applies a quote from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah to himself, saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” It is possible to interpret this passage in completely spiritual terms as only about release from individual sins, but to do so would we would have to discount the Jews’ very real experience of economic poverty, political oppression, and even physical illness — all of which were a consistent theme among the Old Testament prophets.
There are quite a few passages in the Gospels like the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant that show Jesus had large social concerns in mind as well as care for the individual soul — such as when he overturned the moneychangers’ tables in the Temple, which was as much a complaint against robbing the poor as it was a desecration of God’s space. (See Matthew 21:12-17.) But, maybe the most powerful one for me is simply his command that we love our neighbors as ourselves. I believe that there are times when it is impossible to love our neighbors well without addressing the large social issues that cause them harm, as Jesus did with the prosboul. We might today think of the history of American slavery, which was finally only dissolved by war and legislation.
But, not every issue is so obvious. In a study published by the Heller Institute at Brandeis University, Tatjana Meschede and Joanna Taylor compared black and white college-educated families with regard to their financial status. It was believed education would level the playing field, but that is not what they discovered. Instead, the most important factor was receiving an inheritance. “Among college-educated black families, about 13 percent get an inheritance of more than $10,000, as opposed to about 41 percent of white, college-educated families. And about 16 percent of those white families receive more than one such inheritance, versus 2 percent of black families.” Indeed, on average, white families received upwards of $150,00 in total inheritance whereas black families received less than $40,000. Here’s how Meschede and Taylor explain their findings: “When we think about wealth, often we think about our individual standing, but it’s so strongly linked to what’s happening in your family and in your networks. We think about education as the great equalizer when, clearly, it’s not. It’s much more complex than that. There’s so much more needed in order to support the black community toward closing the racial wealth gap.”
This is what we call a “systemic” problem, and I have to believe that Jesus cares about this sort of poverty and injustice that has plagued and continues to plague one particular group of people more than others. So, how do we love our neighbors in a systemic situation such as this? I think Jesus’ life and teachings suggest that we can do a lot. At the individual level, Sara and I could (should?) give away our inheritance to help close that gap. We might be able to help one, maybe two, families. But, the systemic issue would continue to impact millions of others. Putting a bandaid on a bullet wound does little to solve the real, underlying problem. As with those crushing taxes and loopholes like the prosboul in Jesus’ day, God’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves requires, I believe, that we also work to fix the big, underlying problem years of unjust laws and behaviors have caused.
So, this is why I believe actively working toward large, social change is part of my calling as a Christian. It’s one big way I can love my neighbor and one big way I can be like Jesus.
Forgiving God, keep us today in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace each of us may proclaim your truth with boldness, and perform your justice with compassion, for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.