The Flip Side of Justice Worship Series: WEEK 2
Tenth Sunday After Pentecost - August 18, 2019
We continue our three-week series on “Joy: the Flip Side of Justice.” Last week, the Scripture lessons affirmed that joy can be the flip side of justice when the fruits of our generosity benefit the needy. Joy can be the flip side of God’s justice when we make choices that follow God’s teachings faithfully.
This week’s lessons continue to underscore the theme of justice. The Isaiah passage is known as “The Song of the Vineyard.” The seven verses are more of a parable than the poetry of a song. The prophet tells of a vineyard planted with “choice vines” and yet it yields “wild grapes,” or what the NIV calls “bad fruit.” The vineyard failed to live out the purpose for which it was created. The vineyard represents the people of God who were created to live lives of justice and righteousness, but who fail to live in this way. When the people fail to live lives of justice, it is because they fail to treat others with fairness and honesty. Instead of treating others as equals, they take advantage of people by mistreating them or abusing the power they may hold over them. When people live righteously, they live up to God’s expectations of fairness.
Use of a parable to tell the story helps the hearer to identify with what has gone wrong so that he or she can come to the realization of his or her own complicity with such behavior. The prophet tells the parable so that the people who have mistreated others—who have failed to be just in their relationships—can see themselves. Treating others unfairly, without justice, leads to devastating results. The vineyard will be “trampled down” (verse 5), made waste and no rain will fall on it. The prophet’s words were addressed to Israel and Judah, the northern and southern kingdoms, eight centuries before Christ. And yet, people who have economic or political power over others continue to demonstrate lack of justice. Even 2,800 years after Isaiah first spoke these words, we see manifestations of abuse of power and the injustice of the economically strong taking advantage of the economically weak.
Where, we might ask, can there be joy that is understood as the flip side of this story of injustice? Isaiah’s parable paints a picture of devastation in the wake of injustice. To find the flip side of joy, we must look to the verses of the psalm that is part of this week’s readings. Psalm 80 also refers to a vine, “a vine out of Egypt” (i.e., the same people of God addressed by Isaiah), and pleads with God to “come and save us” (Psalm 80:2b, NRSV). The psalmist pleads with God to “have regard for this vine” (verse 14b). It is a plea for restoration. This psalm of lament shows that the people of God have faith in the power of God to transform their circumstances and to bring restoration.
The reading from the book of Hebrews can offer us the flip side we seek for the strong words of judgment for our practices of injustice. The concluding verse from this week’s reading charges us to look “to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame . . .” (Hebrews 12:2, NRSV). The joy that Jesus anticipated and for which he endured the ignominy of the cross, was the taking of “his seat at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Joy is the consummation of perseverance in faith through trials, difficulties, disasters that we experience in life. If we fix our eyes on Jesus and look to him for guidance, we too can experience a joy that transcends our failings. Ultimately, along with the psalmist, we affirm our faith in God in and through the person of Jesus the Christ and in him, we find joy.
The reading from Luke echoes the harsh tones of Isaiah in words of judgment and division. The hard work of responding favorably to Jesus’ invitation to receive or enter the kingdom of God comes with a price: there will be strife, division, in-fighting. Becoming part of God’s kingdom in response to Jesus’ teaching requires a deep level of commitment and the patience to endure suffering, as attested to in the lesson from the book of Hebrews.
Here are some questions whose answers might translate into a message for the lessons of the tenth Sunday after Pentecost:
- How can we as individuals and as communities of faith recognize our complicity with unjust behaviors?
- How do we plead to God to rescue us from our failings?
- How can we serve as champions of justice?
- What might justice, informed by faith in God, look like for our town, our state, our country today?
- Where do we find joy amid the clamor for justice?
Throughout human history, people of economic means and political power have abused their station and have brought devastation to the lives of people of less economic means and little power. It was true in the day of Isaiah. It was true in the day of Jesus. It is true today. The question for us is how to embrace a life of righteousness that seeks justice for all God’s people.
The Rev. Douglas Ruffle, Ph.D., serves as Director of Community Engagement and Church Planting Resources/Path1 at Discipleship Ministries. He also serves as liaison with The Upper Room. He is the author of A Missionary Mindset: What Church Leaders Need to Know to Reach Their Community—Lessons from E. Stanley Jones (2016), and Roadmap to Renewal: Rediscovering the Church's Mission, Revised Edition with Study Guide (2017).