Over the last few months, with a new and fresh burden on my soul for those caught in the cross-hairs of injustice and oppression, I’ve often looked up to heaven wondering when God is gonna show up and right some of the wrongs in front of us. As I wait in silence, like a lonely passenger waiting in the subway for that train that never seems to come, it’s easy to get to a place where you wonder if he cares at all.
It’s actually quite easy to assume he doesn’t.
But then I got an answer that was both encouraging and daunting: God expects his followers – the people who truly claim to be committed to him – to create the justice we all long for. He’s expecting you and I to stand in that gap. To not wait for someone else or for the right time or for the right resources – but to fight and labor for justice now!
Certainly, there is a day coming when Jesus will come back on the scene… not as a baby in need of care, but as a King ready to rule. But that’s not yet. For today, he’s called us to rise up and act.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill, and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”
In Jesus’ day, the teachers of the law and Pharisees were an interesting bunch. I don’t like to admit it, but they thought very similarly to the ways I often think, when left unchecked. They’re more similar to us in the church today than we often concede. I’m convinced of this.
It was common practice for the Jews to tithe- to give 10% of their earnings and income each year back to God. And they were very meticulous about it. It was common practice for families to tithe from all of their crops. Even if they had a small garden of spices in their back yard, they would still give a tenth of it each year at harvest time as an offering. In fact, they were so meticulous, if there was any miscommunication or question as to whether or not the tithe had been given already, the owner of the land would give a second tithe, just to make sure it happened.
Jesus isn’t knocking that carefulness here. He clearly states that they should be following the law, which this practice was part of.
The issue Jesus has here is that they were neglecting something more important in the process. Clearly, Jesus felt the issues of justice, mercy and faithfulness were of greater importance and more central to his heart than tithing spices. Essentially, if we’re gonna get something wrong, we ought to not let it be turning a blind eye to injustice and allowing our brothers and sisters to live under the stubborn, selfish, systemic oppression that snakes its way into society.
It gets better.
If his audience wasn’t repulsed enough already, he ended with a sucker-punch to the gut with this last indictment:
“You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”
The imagery here is profound. According to Jewish ceremonial law, both a gnat and a camel were unclean; it would be impure to ingest either one. If living today, the Pharisees would put a metal strainer over that tiny opening at the top of their Starbucks cup to ensure a gnat wouldn’t accidentally get through on their way to work… not realizing (or caring) that the night before they feasted at the dinner table on camel steak.
There were probably many examples of a lack of justice, mercy and faithfulness in Jesus’ mind as he had this conversation.
- The woman caught in adultery – in the very act. The woman was caught… but what about the man? He was never presented before Jesus and the mob never intended to kill him. But their stones were in hand, raised and ready to kill her. A complete lack of justice.
- The story of the Good Samaritan. Jesus for sure had specific examples in mind of this scenario playing out. A man is beaten and left to die on the side of the road, but religious people walked by and looked the other way, rather than investing and helping. A complete lack of mercy.
- Jesus continually got in “trouble” with the law when he healed hurting people on the Sabbath. A complete lack of faithfulness.
One of the best examples is probably the day Jesus walked into the temple for worship, overcome with wrath at the blatant injustice occurring right before his eyes. People behind tables, taking advantage of the poor and destitute, using the sacrificial system set up by God in order to turn an exorbitant profit margin for personal gain.
So… why does all this matter?
To those who don’t follow Jesus or claim allegiance to him, I think in many ways you’re off the hook here. To those of us though who do name the name of Christ, and sing his songs on the weekend, and claim him as our Savior, we have a responsibility. And when we don’t step into these conversations and speak up and create the kind of justice we all want, and when we don’t fight against the systemic forces of oppression in our nation, our message loses credibility.
People walk by and see us tithing our mint, and dill, and cummin… and they see us doing nothing about the young black boy shot in the street last week.
And they don’t care about our message. Because to them, (rightfully so) it doesn’t matter! Our message isn’t changing their experience on the ground!
There’s a God that cares about justice.
If you’ve been hurt and beaten down while the church passed by on the other side of the road, oblivious, I’m sorry.
It’s not your fault, and it’s not God’s.