Revised Common Lectionary for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year B: Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; and John 2:13-22
The third of the questions asked by a parishioner that I would like to tackle is “What does ‘social justice’ mean in the Episcopal Church?” Social justice generally refers to the idea of creating a society or institution that is based on the principles of equality and solidarity, that understands and values human rights, and that “strive[s] for justice and peace among all people, and respect[s] the dignity of every human being.” (The Book of Common Prayer, 1979, page 305)
In the Episcopal Church, we believe that our Christian faith has both a personal (or individual) dimension and a corporate (or social) dimension; we believe our call to the Christian life has both a contemplative (or prayerful) dimension and a public (or active) dimension. We refer to this as a “cruciform” (or cross-shaped) understanding of the faith, for as St. Paul said, “We proclaim Christ crucified.” In the one dimension, the cross of Christ has a vertical member which symbolizes our personal, individual, contemplative, and prayerful relationship with our God and creator. But the cross also has a horizontal member illustrating the corporate, social, public, and active ministry to which we are all called. A lovely prayer mission in the Daily Office of Morning Prayer recalls this horizontal dimension as we pray to our Savior:
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.
And today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus cleansing the Temple, exemplifies the active, social justice ministry to which he calls his church. Throughout his ministry on earth, the Son of God did not simply call individuals to be good persons: he insisted that the systems and institutions of society were to be reformed so that they would reflect the values inherent in the Law of Moses (from which come the Ten Commandments we read in today’s lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures) and the word of God spoken through the Prophets.
Jesus began his public ministry by reading these words from the Prophet Isaiah:
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. (Luke 4:18-19)
To bring good news to the poor, to release captives, to let the oppressed go free … these words herald and describe systemic and institutional changes in society, not simply a change for some individuals but for all of God’s children.
Jesus’ ministry and the Christian call to social justice are informed by the word of God spoken through Moses who ordered the Hebrews:
You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry. (Exodus 22:22-23)
Jesus recognized and we recognize that widows and orphans have been and are still abused in many places around the world, and as the people of God we must heed their cries and reform the systems and institutions which permit, and often even inflict, that abuse. This is Christian social justice.
Jesus’ ministry and the Christian call to social justice are informed by the word of God spoken to the leaders of God’s people:
You shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the officials, and subverts the cause of those who are in the right. You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:8-9)
Jesus knew and we know that the leaders of nations do take bribes (and “kickbacks” and “earmarks” and “political contributions”), that political influence is peddled in many ways, that resident aliens are oppressed in this and many countries, and that the causes of those in the right are often subverted. As the people of God, we must stand for changes in power structures to prevent these abuses. This is Christian social justice.
The Christian call to social justice is informed by Jesus’ own words promised to those who are faithful:
I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. (Matthew 25:35-36)
We see in these words a call not only to feed those who are now hungry, but to prevent others from going without food. We are called not only to give drink to those who are now parched, but to prevent others from becoming thirsty. We are called not only to cover those who are now unclothed, but to prevent others from becoming naked. We know all too well that despite Christ’s mother’s song, the powerful have not yet been brought down from their thrones; the lowly have not yet been lifted up; the hungry have not yet been filled with good things; and the rich have yet to be sent away empty. We, the people of God, are called to accomplish these things. This is Christian social justice.
Our catechism (beginning on page 845 of The Book of Common Prayer) informs us that the mission of the church “is to restore all people to unity with God and each other” and that the church “pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.” Furthermore, “The church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members.” You will recall from the baptismal covenant that our ministry, individually and collectively, is to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving [our] neighbor as [our]self” and to “strive for justice and peace among all people, … respect[ing] the dignity of every human being.” (BCP, page 305) This is Christian social justice.
For nearly the past half-century, the Episcopal Church, together with our brothers and sisters throughout the Anglican Communion, has recommended that all our members and parishes measure themselves from time to time against certain core Christian priorities, which are called the Five Marks of Mission:
- To proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God;
- To teach, baptize and nurture new believers;
- To respond to human need by loving service;
- To seek to transform the unjust structures of society; and
- To strive to safe-guard the integrity of creation and to sustain and renew the life of the earth.
In pursuit of the last two of those “marks” (which summarize social justice ministry), the Episcopal Church in 2006 committed itself to work with others in the Anglican Communion, with other churches and religious bodies in ecumenical and interfaith cooperation, with secular non-governmental organizations, and with our government and those of other nations to accomplish as quickly as possible eight “Millenium Development Goals” set out by the United Nations:
- Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
- Achieve universal primary education
- Promote gender equality and empower women
- Reduce child mortality rates
- Improve maternal health
- Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
- Ensure environmental sustainability
- Develop a global partnership for development
In pursuit of the gospel mandate, the Episcopal Church has dedicated itself to these goals. This is Christian social justice.
The Anglican Marks of Mission and the Episcopal Church’s commitment to the UN’s Millennium Development Goals are our church’s way of putting into positive action the last seven of the Ten Commandments. We understand these to form a sort of basic contract listing some fairly fundamental expectations of God with regard to social justice in the global human community. Ultimately, Jesus would summarize them in the two great commandments, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength …. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:30-31) In today’s epistle lesson, St. Paul reminds us that this contract is beyond the wisdom of the world, and that it is our responsibility to fulfill these divine expectations without sacrificing the spirit of the Law which, as foolish as it may sound to the wise of this world, is to build up the whole human community. This is the goal of Christian social justice.
In Jesus’ time, the religious, political, and social institutions had forgotten this. In place of the fair and equitable financial system anticipated in the laws set out in Exodus and Leviticus, Jesus found the bankers sitting in the Temple courtyard taking advantage of the poor, exchanging Roman drachmas for temple sheckles at outrageous conversion rates and pocketing unacceptably high profits. He exercised an active social justice ministry and threw them out. Instead of priests and Levites aiding the people in their relationship to God, he found the sellers of sacrificial animals preying on their sorrows, cheapening their thanksgivings, and profiting from their earnest effort to be faithful. He exercised an active social justice ministry and drove them away.
Jesus cleansing the Temple exemplifies the active, social justice ministry to which God calls the church. Throughout his ministry on earth, the Son of God did not simply call individuals to be good persons: he insisted that the systems and institutions of society were to be reformed so that they would reflect the values inherent in the Law and the word of God. Because of human frailty, because of human greed, because of human failure, the systems and institutions of society are always in need of reform and, thus, the church is always called to an active ministry of social justice.
Let us pray:
Almighty God, who created us in your image: Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil and to make no peace with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom, help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice in our communities and among the nations, to the glory of your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (BCP, page 246)