Jesus’ Justice – 1

Scripture: Matthew 25:31-46

Title: Jesus’ justice

Structure:

  • Introduction
  • Jesus’ justice is relational
  • Conclusion

Introduction:

New Zealanders value justice and giving people a fair go

  • We have this thing in us where we identify strongly with the underdog, so we get really upset when people are treated unfairly

It was the 1st February 1981 and the NZ cricketers were in a one day international match against Australia at the MCG

  • We needed 6 runs off the last ball to tie the match and Greg Chappell (the Ozzie captain) said to his younger brother, Trevor, “I want you to bowl an under arm delivery”
  • While this was within the rules of the game at the time it went against the principles of cricket – namely ‘fair play’
  • When Trevor Chappell bowled the underarm delivery the NZ batsman Brian McKechnie threw his bat down and walked off the pitch in disgust

Now some people might say, ‘Yea – but that was over 30 years ago. You need to let it go – you need to get over it’

  • That’s probably a fair comment – we Kiwis do tend to hold on to things a bit. I expect the Chappell brothers have suffered enough by now

The underarm incident is not a serious justice issue but it is tattooed on the NZ psyche and it points to our feeling that things should be fair

  • Other more significant justice issues in our nation’s past include the Treaty of Waitangi, Parihaka and being the first country in the world to give women the vote

Perhaps our emphasis on giving people a fair go comes from those ancestors who left the UK because it wasn’t a very fair or equitable society at the time and they were seeking to live in a country where the playing field was more even

  • But I think also there is something in Maori culture which values justice and a fair deal for everyone

As it turns out Jesus cares about justice too – he identifies strongly with the underdog as well

 

Please turn with me to Matthew chapter 25, verse 31 – page 38 toward the back of your pew Bibles

  • This reading is commonly referred to as ‘the parable of the sheep and the goats’
  • Strictly speaking though it is not really a parable, it is more like a vision of the future
  • Jesus is describing judgment day – at the end of the age (or the end of history) when he will return as King and put things right

Although this passage goes to verse 46, I am only going to read to verse 40 this morning – we will cover the rest of the passage over the next couple of weeks.

  • From Matthew 25, verse 31 we read…

31 “When the Son of Man comes as King and all the angels with him, he will sit on his royal throne, 32 and the people of all the nations will be gathered before him. Then he will divide them into two groups, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the righteous people at his right and the others at his left. 34 Then the King will say to the people on his right, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father! Come and possess the kingdom which has been prepared for you ever since the creation of the world. 35 I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink; I was a stranger and you received me in your homes, 36 naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me.’

 

37 The righteous will then answer him, ‘When, Lord, did we ever see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we ever see you a stranger and welcome you in our homes, or naked and clothe you? 39 When did we ever see you sick or in prison, and visit you?’

 

40 The King will reply, ‘I tell you, whenever you did this for one of the least important of these brothers of mine, you did it for me!’

 

May God’s Spirit remove the blinkers of tradition so we may see Jesus more clearly

This reading shows us what Jesus’ justice is like

  • At its core Jesus’ justice is relational, generous and eternal
  • We don’t have time this morning to look at all three of these aspects – instead we will we look at them one week at a time
  • This week we consider how Jesus’ justice is relational

Jesus’ justice is relational:

For God, justice is an inter-personal relationship [1] (not an abstract concept or a set of rules)

  • The law points to justice like a sign post points to a destination – but the law is not the destination itself
  • The destination (justice) is a relationship – loving God & our neighbour
  • So when we help those in need we are acting justly

This idea that justice is an inter-personal relationship is foreign to us today

  • It is not how our society naturally thinks about justice
  • We tend to think of justice as an abstract concept – a set of principles
  • So for us injustice is a violation of the law – it is breaking the rules whether those rules are written down or not
  • With the under arm bowling incident there was nothing in the written rules (at the time) to say they couldn’t do that
  • But there was an unwritten code which said, ‘you can’t do that – it is a violation of cricketing principles’

We see this abstract concept of justice worked out in our judicial system

  • In a court of law there are certain principles of justice
  • For instance, the judge and jury are not allowed to have any personal connection with the defendant or the victims
  • This would represent a conflict of interest
  • The judicial process in a court of law is intentionally impersonal – in the sense that interpersonal relationships are taken out of the equation
  • So the primary question for the judge is not ‘how has this person treated me (or anyone else)?’ but rather, ‘how have they treated the law’

Jesus’ approach to justice is different to this

  • For him the question is not ‘how have you treated the law?’ the question is, ‘how have you treated your neighbour and therefore me?’
  • Jesus makes it clear that justice is an inter-personal relationship with our neighbour and with him, when he says…
  • Whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine you did for me
  • In other words, Jesus takes it personally how we treat other people
  • In fact we could say it would be impossible for Jesus not to take it personally – such is his connection with humanity
  • Let me illustrate what I mean…

There was a man by the name of Martin who lived around 300 years or so after Jesus [2]

  • Martin was born into a pagan family
  • At the age of 10 he heard a Christian preaching the gospel and it changed his life

Martin’s parents were not happy that their son was drawn to Christ and so, at the age of 15, Martin was compelled to join the Roman army

  • Roman soldiers were usually provided with servants to perform their menial tasks
  • Martin determined to treat his own allotted servant as a friend and an equal, sharing the tasks with him

On one occasion Martin and his comrades passed through the city of Amiens

  • It was the middle of winter and many of the poor had died from exposure
  • When one man in rags sitting by the city gates called out for mercy Martin took his sword and cut his one & only cloak into two equal pieces, giving one half to the beggar and keeping the other half for himself
  • Martin had given what he could from his poverty

That night, rolled up in his half cloak, Martin saw a vision of Christ seated in heavenly glory and wearing the portion of cloak he had given to the beggar

  • When one of the angels asked Jesus what he was wearing, Christ replied,
  • ‘Martin, who still awaits his baptism, has clothed me with this robe’

This is the extent to which Christ identifies with humanity – especially the poor

  • Their experiences are his experiences
  • What is done to them is done to him [3]
  • This is justice in relational terms

That justice is personal for Jesus does not disqualify him as our judge

  • If anything it better informs him to make a decision
  • When a judge in a court of law passes a verdict they do so by relying on the evidence given by witnesses – they must do it this way, otherwise they would just be guessing
  • But when Jesus makes a judgment he is not relying on witnesses and he’s not guessing
  • He is making an assessment based on his own personal experience
  • ‘What is done to them is done to him’, means that Jesus understands the reality of justice (and injustice) from the inside – from experience

We see this relational understanding of justice in the language Jesus uses to describe himself

  • While Jesus is talking about judgement day – he does not describe himself as a judge
  • Jesus prefers to describe himself as the Son of Man, (vs. 31)
  • As the heavenly King (vs. 31)
  • And as a shepherd (vs.32)

By referring to himself as the Son of Man (in verse 31) – Jesus is reminding us that while he is the King of heaven, He is also human

  • This means he understands what it is like to be us
  • He knows from his own experience how difficult life can be

And, by describing himself as a shepherd (for all humanity) Jesus is underlining the point that he is someone who is alongside us in the field, caring for us and helping us on life’s journey

So when Jesus passes his verdict on people he is not cold or detached or dispassionate in his decision making

  • He is not measuring us against the law or a set of principles
  • Jesus measures relationally – with empathy, compassion and a deep understanding of the human experience

Justice is an inter-personal relationship – not an abstract concept

When we look at the things Jesus says to the righteous it becomes even clearer what relational justice looks like. From verse 34 we read…

34 Then the King will say to the people on his right, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father! Come and possess the kingdom which has been prepared for you ever since the creation of the world. 35 I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink; I was a stranger and you received me in your homes, 36 naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me’

There are six things the righteous are commended for here…

Feeding the hungry

Giving drink to the thirsty

Welcoming the stranger

Clothing the naked

Caring for the sick

And visiting the prisoner

These are primarily inter-personal relationship things

  • They describe one person doing something with and for another person, not just from a distance but up close and personal

We might also think of them as inter-national relationship things

  • That is, as one country (or community) sending aid and personnel to help another country (or community) in need

The world we live in is different in many ways to the world Jesus lived in

In the original context, feeding the hungry meant literally giving them food – either out of your own pantry or sharing your lunch with them

  • So you knew the person you were giving food to
  • You saw their hunger and felt their weakness
  • You sensed the awkwardness, vulnerability and fragility of their situation

These days (for us in NZ) feeding the hungry is less relational, less personal and less confronting

  • We feed the hungry by paying our taxes so the unemployed can draw a benefit and eat
  • Or we feed the hungry by giving food items to the local food bank
  • Or we might feed the hungry by giving money to World Vision or Tear Fund or some other NGO
  • But unless we work for WINZ or in a food-bank or visit those in the 3rd world we don’t normally have any face to face contact with the poor
  • For the most part, inter-personal relationship is taken out of the process these days
  • So most of us are kind of semi-detached or at arm’s length – not in conversation with the poor, not getting to hear their stories directly

Don’t get me wrong – paying your taxes and donating to a food-bank or World Vision are all legitimate ways to feed the hungry – I believe those efforts count with God

  • It’s just not up close & personal for most of us, in the same way it was for Jesus’ original audience

Giving drink to the thirsty

  • That was quite different in Jesus’ day too
  • Once again it was an inter-personal transaction – like the Samaritan woman in John 4 who gave Jesus a drink at the well

That act of drawing water for Jesus meant far more then than it does today

  • We live in a country with hot and cold running water
  • We can drink from the tap without worrying about getting sick or going blind
  • For many in the world (throughout history and still today) getting water requires the women to walk some distance to the community well carrying heavy jars – it is labour intensive
  • So in giving people a drink you are actually giving time and effort
  • You are also giving life and relief
  • There is something quite urgent (even desperate) about being thirsty

Welcoming the stranger

  • In the original context that meant receiving travellers into your home – giving them a bed for the night – showing hospitality and friendship to people you didn’t know, perhaps people different from you
  • It required some inconvenience to yourself and your household
  • These days we live in an anxious society where we don’t feel safe to have strangers in our homes anymore
  • With good reason we teach our children about ‘stranger danger’ – which works against welcoming the stranger

The idea of welcoming the stranger into your home is a tricky one (not that the others are much easier)

  • You see, it is not appropriate to trust everyone
  • We need to be wise and discerning about how far we allow strangers to come into our lives – especially when we are responsible for children
  • We don’t need to feel guilty about saying ‘no’ when that’s appropriate
  • Perhaps in our context little steps are needed to establish trust before offering a bed and breakfast

Of course, welcoming the stranger doesn’t just mean letting people into your home – it could be as simple as talking to someone in the pew beside you

Clothing the naked

  • On one level this is about keeping people warm
  • Like some ladies in our church who knitted woollen jerseys for orphans in Russia some years ago
  • Or you may have noticed in the newsletter the Mardi Bra collection we are holding at the moment
  • Ladies, if you have some bras you want to pass on, bring them to the church office and we will ensure they are given to women in the Pacific
  • Sometimes, in other cultures, spending money on a bra is considered extravagant – the mother is expected to spend money on food for the family, not on herself
  • But if the bras are free then that’s okay – mum can be comfortable without feeling guilty

On another level though, clothing the naked is also about saving people from shame or embarrassment

  • We clothe the naked (or cover their shame) by not passing on gossip, not drawing attention to people’s mistakes, not humiliating people
  • Honouring people (having their backs) in our conversations

As for caring for the sick, this is largely done by professionals now

  • Back in the day they didn’t have hospitals like we do – so nursing happened in people’s homes, or it didn’t happen
  • Personally I prefer having a trained expert providing medical care
  • But there is still a vital place for volunteers alongside professionals
  • A professional is paid to be there – a volunteer gives their time freely and in doing so they communicate something about the dignity and value and worth of the one being cared for

The sixth thing on the list there is visiting the prisoner

  • What we need to appreciate is that prisoners 2000 years ago were not provided for in the same way they are today
  • They were often reliant on friends or family to bring them food and other necessities
  • So visiting prisoners in that context was as much about keeping them alive as it was about emotional support

The other thing to note about the historical context is that often those in jail didn’t deserve to be there – they were oppressed with injustice

  • If someone did something really bad (like murder) they were executed
  • So your average prisoner was more likely to be in jail because they were poor and unlucky – not because they had committed some heinous crime
  • For example, those who couldn’t afford to repay a debt could be thrown into prison by their creditors
  • Then there were political prisoners…
  • Shortly after the time of Christ many Christians were thrown in prison simply for professing the name of Jesus
  • Some say it is primarily his followers that Jesus has in mind here

Translating all of this into today’s context, visiting the prisoner is probably broader than literally going to see someone in jail

  • While it includes prison chaplaincy and the work of Prison Fellowship
  • It also includes advocating for the oppressed and trying to get a fair deal for those who have suffered injustice (the survivors of crime)
  • The work of Freeset and Stand Against Slavery comes to mind

Stepping back to look at the bigger picture once more, Jesus’ justice is relational

  • Jesus’ idea of caring for the poor was up close and personal
  • It involved talking with people, listening to them, spending time and sharing resources with them

Generally speaking, care in NZ these days is more hands off, unless it’s your job

  • We have government departments and NGO’s and experts who specialise in providing various kinds of services to people in need
  • There are advantages to the way we care for people in the 21st Century but there is also a greater risk of detachment and consequently of doing things to people rather than with them
  • When we are disconnected from those we seek to help compassion risks becoming a sentimental feeling and solidarity risks becoming liquidarity
  • Our alienation from the poor makes it harder for us to trust – harder to know what is right

Conclusion:

Now, some of you may be thinking, ‘Okay – if Jesus’ justice is relational, how come the righteous say to him…

  • When Lord did we ever see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? – and so on
  • It appears the righteous had no idea they were doing these things for Jesus
  • They thought they were simply helping a fellow human being in need

Well it’s like Jesus said…

  • Whenever you did this for one of the least important of these brothers [or sisters] of mine, you did it for me!’

When I was a new born baby I wasn’t aware that I had a relationship with my parents (I didn’t even know that I had parents or what parents were)

  • But my lack of awareness of mum & dad didn’t negate the relationship
  • There was still a bond between us
  • Even though I wasn’t aware of it, they certainly were

It is similar with Jesus

  • Most of the time we aren’t aware of the relationship between helping others and helping Christ
  • But our lack of awareness doesn’t negate the relationship
  • There is still a bond between those who help the poor and Christ
  • Even if the righteous aren’t aware of it, Jesus certainly is

This suggests something quite profound about the relationship between Christ and humanity

For Jesus, justice is an inter-personal relationship (not an abstract concept or a set of rules)

  • And the fact that justice is relational holds true whether we are aware of it or not

Next week we’ll consider how Jesus’ justice is generous (not judgemental)

Now though let us pray…

[1] Writing from a Jewish perspective about the Hebrew Scriptures, Abraham Heschel talks about  justice as an interpersonal relationship – page 268 of ‘The Prophets’

[2] This information about Martin of Tours comes from Leigh Churchill’s book, ‘Blood of the Martyrs’, pages 222 – 223.

[3] R.T. France’s commentary on Matthew, page 965.

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