Saturday, November 10, 2018

“A Biblical Vision of Economic Justice”


            This weekend at Christ United Methodist Church in Lincoln, we continue with the second in a four-week proclamation series focusing on social justice for those who have been marginalized by society.  Running again and again, like a red thread throughout the scriptures, is the claim that God calls his people to be instruments of social justice for the powerless and marginalized.  The Hebrew scriptures focus on three principal marginalized groups:  the stranger (aka immigrants), the orphan and the widow.  Of course, this was the ancient Israelite context, but we live in our modern context; so, who are our marginalized groups, today? I think, by no coincidence, many are the same as they were in ancient times, but I would also add groups, such as Veterans, the elderly, LGBT persons, and racial minorities.

            This week, I want to explore the Biblical vision of economic justice, as developed in the Hebrew Scriptures—or Old Testament.  (Next week, in the third proclamation in the series, I will explore the Biblical vision of economic justice, as developed in the New Testament.) 

            My scriptural text for this week comes from Leviticus 25.  The vision of economic justice developed in this passage is grounded on the notion of sabbath.  In the Genesis 1 Creation story, God is busily engaged in the work of creation for six days, but on the seventh day, God “rested from all the work that he had done.  So, God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.” (Genesis 2:2-3) This scripture establishes the recurring pattern of work and rest “as woven into the very fabric of the universe.”[1]

Based upon this scripture, Jewish law established the seventh day—the sabbath—as a day of rest for all persons and their animals. It became codified as one of the Ten Commandments:

“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. (Exodus 20:8-10)

Clearly here, the seventh day is set aside as a sabbath—a day of rest—for the Jewish man and his household.  In Leviticus, God takes this provision for a household sabbath and expands it as a framework for social justice.  There are three foci for this expansion in Leviticus 25:  (1) a sabbath rest for the land and nature; (2) the redemption of property in the year of jubilee; and (3) freedom and release for slaves in the year of jubilee.  In my proclamation, I will focus on the first two of these three foci.

The first focus is a sabbath rest for the land and nature:

Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your unpruned vine: it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. You may eat what the land yields during its sabbath—you, your male and female slaves, your hired and your bound laborers who live with you; for your livestock also, and for the wild animals in your land all its yield shall be for food.  ~Leviticus 25:3-7

Every seventh year, the land—and, the rest of nature—is to be given a rest.  The land is to lie fallow.  During this year of rest, the land and the ecosystem which it supports is given an opportunity to rest and renew itself.  During the year, the landowner is prohibited from making an exclusive claim on anything that happens to grow and bear fruit on its own.  Instead, this fruit is available to anyone who wishes to harvest and eat it; the landowner, his slaves and laborers, sojourners in the country, livestock, or wild animals are all equally free to eat any fruit that happens to grow.

            Later in the chapter, God promises to provide an abundant enough harvest in the sixth year, so that the owner and his household will have sufficient food during the seventh year of fallow and rest.  God promises that the harvest in the sixth year will be so abundant that there will be food left over for even the eighth and ninth years, if needed.  (Leviticus 25:20-22)

            The second focus is on redemption of the land in the year of Jubilee.  The year of Jubilee occurred once every 50 years.  It represented a “sabbath of sabbaths.”  That is, seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, or 49 years.  The name “jubilee” comes from the word for “ram,”[2] because the advent of the year of Jubilee was announced by blowing on a trumpet or ram’s horn.  Then you shall have the trumpet [or ram’s horn] sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month—on the day of atonement—you shall have the trumpet [or, ram’s horn] sounded throughout all your land.” (Leviticus 25:9)  The year of Jubilee led to a radical re-calibrating of the economy by requiring the return of property to its original owners:

“In this year of jubilee you shall return, every one of you, to your property.  When you make a sale to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor, you shall not cheat one another. When you buy from your neighbor, you shall pay only for the number of years since the jubilee; the seller shall charge you only for the remaining crop years. If the years are more, you shall increase the price, and if the years are fewer, you shall diminish the price; for it is a certain number of harvests that are being sold to you. You shall not cheat one another, but you shall fear your God; for I am the Lord your God.” ~ Leviticus 25:13-17

In the year of Jubilee, all land and possessions are returned back to their original owners.  Leases and sales of land are terminated because everything is returned to its original owners.  Thus, the value of property should be calculated, based upon how imminent the next year of Jubilee will be.  If Jubilee is in the distant future, then the prices should be raised because there are many years of harvest before the land must revert back to its original owners.  However, if the Jubilee is imminent, then prices should be lowered because there are few years of harvest before the next Jubilee.  In essence, the purchase of land is essentially the sale of a certain number of harvests on the land, until it is returned to its traditional owners.  

             Obviously, this periodic re-distribution of property back to its original owners has the effect of re-calibrating and equalizing the economy.  Those who have accumulated excess wealth and affluence have it taken from them, while those who have become poor have their lands returned to them so that they may begin again on more equal financial footing.  Poverty and economic marginalization become temporary, instead of permanent and generational.

From God’s perspective, the theological rationale for both the sabbath year and the Jubilee  year are grounded in the fact that God actually owns the land and ecosystems.  As God says:

The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants. Throughout the land that you hold, you shall provide for the redemption of the land.  ~ (Leviticus 25: 23-24)

 Since the land and all of Creation ultimately belongs to God, human persons are not the owners but, rather, the stewards or caretakers.  We care for the land by observing the rhythm of six years of production, followed by a seventh year of rest.  Further, since the land ultimately belongs to God, then humans cannot own it permanently.  Instead, the true owner—that is, God—requires that all land be returned to its original families once every 50 years.

            As far as we know, the Israelites very seldomly—if ever—observed a sabbatical rest year for the ecosystem or a Jubilee year in which the economy was re-calibrated.  Despite the Israelites' failure to implement God’s economy, this passage is still important for informing our understanding of how God calls us to work for social justice.  The Jubilee plan reminds us that God makes a preferential option for the poor and marginalized in any society.  In any economic system, there is a tendency to overlook and forget about those who have become poor and marginalized.  That is, the poor and marginalized can become invisible to those with financial possessions.  However, the power of the Jubilee plan is that it periodically re-calibrates the economy and makes visible those who are powerless.

            This Sunday, November 11th, is Veteran’s Day—a day we set aside to remember and honor those who have served and made sacrifices for our country.  We usually honor our veterans with flowers and parades and special recognition at public events, such as ball games.  But, do these forms of recognition really honor our veterans, if we don’t support them with real programs that will enhance their lives and help them flourish, after their time of service has ended?  Rather than having a parade, wouldn’t it be better to work to improve our veterans’ access to quality mental healthcare, especially for those who suffer from PTSD?  Rather than having a special moment of recognition for veterans at ballgames, wouldn’t it be better to work with unemployed veterans, helping them to find a job or develop new work skills that would make them more employable?

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, November 11th, as we celebrate Veterans Day and reflect on the implications of the Biblical vision for economic justice.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.



[1] “Origins of Shabbat,” ReformJudaism.org, accessed at https://reformjudaism.org/jewish-holidays/shabbat/origins-shabbat, 10 November 2018.

[2] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Commentary on Leviticus in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 1, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.


Saturday, November 3, 2018

"Them"



            I have returned after my two-week study leave.  This weekend we begin a new series entitled, “Them.”[1]  In this four-week series, we will focus on the importance of social justice for God.  Again and again and again, God calls his people to be instruments for social justice for the powerless and marginalized.  The Hebrew scriptures focus on three principal marginalized groups:  the stranger (aka immigrants), the orphan and the widow.

The Bible is absolutely strewn with the language of justice, for instance Jeremiah 22:3 says, “Thus says the LORD, ‘Do justice and righteousness, and deliver the one who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor. Also do not mistreat or do violence to the stranger, the orphan, or the widow; and do not shed innocent blood in this place.’” Zechariah 7:9-10 says,Thus has the LORD of hosts said, ‘Dispense true justice and practice kindness and compassion each to his brother; and do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the stranger or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.’”

And these are just a couple of the examples, but the literature goes on and on. Clearly this kind of justice weighs heavily on God’s heart as he repeatedly called these groups out specifically. Of course, this was the ancient Israelite context, but we live in our modern context; so, who are our top four marginalized groups? We think, by no coincidence, many are the same as they were in ancient times, but we also added to the list such groups as Veterans, the elderly, LGBT persons, and racial minorities.[2]  Over the next four weeks, we will focus on  what it means to work for social justice for marginalized groups in our contemporary context. 

This Sunday, November 4th, is traditionally “All Saints Sunday” within the United Methodist Church, as well as many other denominations.  On this Sunday, we remember and give thanks for all of our family and friends who have passed away, with special attention devoted to those who have died within the last 12 months.  During the service, there will be opportunities for us to lift the names of our loved ones who have died. We will also celebrate the sacrament of The Lord’s Supper, remembering that our celebration is just a foretaste of the coming heavenly banquet with Christ and all of our loved ones.

Corresponding with our celebration of “All Saints Sunday,” the first focus in our “Them” series will be the ways in which we tend to exclude and marginalize those who grieve the loss of a loved one.  Our scripture for the Sunday comes from the Hebrew—or, Old Testament—Book of Ruth.  The Biblical scholar Kathleen A. Robertson Farmer notes that the Book of Ruth is misnamed.  Rather than Ruth, it is Naomi who is the central character in the story and so the book should have been named the Book of Naomi.[3]

The story begins with Naomi and her husband, Elimelech, and their two sons moving from their hometown of Bethlehem in Judah to Moab, which was a neighboring country.  The family moves from Bethlehem because of a severe famine.  This was a radical move for Naomi because there were always great tensions between the Hebrews and the Moabites.  The Hebrews looked down upon the Moabites and regarded them with great contempt.  In contemporary terms, their move would have been akin to an American family leaving the United States and moving to North Korea.

Ruth and Elimelech settle in Moab with their two sons and start a new life together.  Over time their two sons mature and become adult men.  Mahlon and Chilion, the two sons, eventually marry local, Moabite women:  Orpah and Ruth.  However, tragedy strikes.  All of the men die.  In Biblical times, the loss of a husband or father could have severe consequences for the surviving widow and/or orphaned children.   Unlike contemporary societies, such as the United States, these ancient societies made no provisions for the care of widows and orphans.  In other words, there were no social programs, such as Medicare and Medicaid, to provide for widows and orphans.  By law, all the deceased husband’s property returned to his family; again, with no provisions for the wife.  Further, there were virtually no work opportunities for women in these ancient societies, with the exceptions of prostitution, begging, and scavenging.  Thus, many women who lost their husbands were destined to live in severe poverty for the rest of their lives.

The situation facing Naomi and her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth was desperate.  Naomi becomes especially bitter over the loss of her husband and sons.  Today, we know that bitterness and anger—over the short run—are healthy and just part of the grieving process, especially for someone such as Naomi, who has multiple losses of her husband and sons. 

Naomi learns that the famine in Bethlehem is over.  So, she decides to return to Bethlehem to her family and kinsmen.  Since Orpah and Ruth are Moabite women, Naomi encourages them to return to their “mother’s houses” in Moab and eventually re-marry.  At first, both daughters-in-law refuse to abandon Naomi.  Rather than appreciating the love and faithfulness of her two daughters-in-law, Naomi responds bitterly:

“ ‘Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands?  Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.’”

In her bitterness and anger, Naomi believes that God is angry with her; that God has turned against her.   She has lost her husband and two sons.  A parishioner, who lost a daughter in a tragic car accident ten years previously, once told me, “Richard, when you lose a child, there is this huge aching hole in your heart and it never goes away.”  This is what has happened to Naomi.  She has this huge, gaping hole in her heart.  Only for Naomi, the huge hole in her heart creates a chasm which separates her from the love and presence of God. 

Although Orpah decides to return to her family, Ruth refuses to abandon Naomi.  So, the two women, Naomi and Ruth, travel back to Bethlehem, Naomi’s hometown.  Even after returning home, Naomi remains bitter about her tragic losses.  Making a word-play on her name, which means “Pleasant,” Naomi encourages her family to call her Mara (“bitter”) instead:

“‘Call me no longer Naomi,
   call me Mara,
   for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. 
I went away full,
   but the Lord has brought me back empty;
why call me Naomi
   when the Lord has dealt harshly with me,
   and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?’
 ~ Ruth 1:20-21

These two quotations of Naomi in the first chapter are a form of lament, which is a special type of genre in the scriptures.  There are many different literary genres in the Bible. In addition to laments, the genres include history, poetry,  parables, biography, apocalyptic literature and others.  Laments are passionate expressions of grief, loss, and sorrow.  A lament describes the depth of loss, and it frequently includes an appeal to God to make things right.  In the Bible, laments usually end triumphantly with the conviction that in the end, God will prevail, and all will be well.  Laments can be found in the Book of Lamentations, the Book of Job, as well as in certain psalms, in some prophetic literature, and in the Book of Ruth.  

            In the Book of Ruth, the laments of Naomi do not include an appeal to God to make things right.  However, as we shall see at the end of the Book of Ruth, God does prevail and all is well.  That occurs in chapter 4.

However, in chapter 1, Naomi’s grief is deep and palpable.  She is bitter and depressed.  There is a huge hole in her heart.  Even worse, Naomi is convinced that God is angry with her and is responsible for all of her misery.  Even with the help of her family, Naomi will still have to deal with the economic hardship brought on by the death of her husband.  Even though she has returned to her family and even though Ruth continues to live with her and support her, in many ways Naomi feels isolated from her friends, her family, and her God.  Naomi is not alone in becoming marginalized after the death of a loved one.

            Even today, in 2018, those who grieve and mourn their beloved can become marginalized.  The funerary customs of American society can lead to the marginalization of those who grieve major losses.  Of course, at first, we are very good at rallying around someone who has suffered the death of a loved one.  We send sympathy cards, make phone calls, and drop off food at the home of those who grieve.  On the day of the funeral or memorial service, we rally around those who grieve, trying our best to comfort and support them.  We go out of our way to be sympathetic and supportive. 

            Yet, when the services are over and the body or ashes have been laid to rest, then everything goes back to normal.  We return to work or school.  We return to our routines.  Everything goes back to normal for everyone—except those who grieve the death of a loved one.  These persons are left alone, for the most part.  They must continue going through the grieving process by themselves.  Frequently, they are left with Herculean tasks of disposing of their lost loved one’s possessions and settling their estate.  All of this must be done while trying to figure out a “new normal” without their loved one.

            Frequently, discovering this new normal includes re-negotiating relationships with others.  Over the course of my ministry, many widows and widowers have told me one of the most disappointing aftermaths, following the death of a spouse, was losing the friendships of other couples; relationships which they thought would last forever are suddenly dissolved because those relationships are relationships between couples.  Suddenly, the grieving widow or widower is no longer invited to play cards or go out for dinner because they no longer have a partner.

            In this way, we frequently marginalize those who are grieving.  Whenever we marginalize someone from the rest, we have created a social justice.  Rather than marginalizing those who grieve, disciples of Christ are called to work for justice by including those who grieve.  We can overcome the isolation by freely sharing our love and support.

Our scripture reading provides an exemplary role model for this work of solidarity, love, and support in the person of Ruth, Naomi’s daughter-in-law.  Ruth promises to love and support Naomi for the remainder of her life.  In a beautiful passage from scripture, Ruth pledges her lifelong support and love for Naomi:

‘Do not press me to leave you
   or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
   where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
   and your God my God. 
 Where you die, I will die—

   there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
   and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!’ ~ Ruth 1:16-17

            Naomi and Ruth return to Judah.  As the story continues, Ruth meets and falls in love with Boaz.  Eventually, Ruth and Boaz are married and soon thereafter have a son.  Then, the Book of Ruth concludes in this fashion:

“Then the women said to Naomi, ‘Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.’ Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi.’ They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.” ~ Ruth 4:14-17                                                                         

            The women tell Naomi that Ruth’s son will be to her “a restorer of life;” that is, the son will give new meaning and purpose to Naomi.  The birth of this son enables Naomi to be finally healed from her grief at the loss of her husband and sons.  The birth of this son reverses the emptiness which has embittered Naomi.  The birth of this son enables Naomi to re-connect with others and rise out of isolation and marginalization.  The birth of this son reassures Naomi that God has not turned on her, but instead loves her.  Contrary to its title, the Book of Ruth is really about Naomi and her redemption from grief.  God does not abandon or turn away from Naomi.  On the contrary, throughout the story God is working to redeem Naomi.  God uses the love and loyalty of Ruth as a channel to redeem Naomi.

            In a similar way, when we freely share our love and support and solidarity with someone who is grieving, then, just as Ruth, we also become channels which God uses to bring healing and redemption to those who have a huge aching hole in their hearts.  When we share our love and support and solidarity with those who grieve, then we bring them to the center of our concern and we help them overcome the marginalization, which pushes them to the edges.  This is social justice.


If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, November 4th, as we remember and celebrate our loved ones who have passed away.  Come and join us, as we lift up our loved ones by name and ring a chime in memory of them.  We will also explore how loving and caring for those who grieve may be a form of social justice, as we seek to break down society’s tendency to marginalize those who grieve.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.


[1] The worship staff and I developed the ideas for this series—as well as the name, “Them” for the series, several months prior to the publication of the book, Them, by Sen. Ben Sasse.  We were unaware of Sen Sasse’s forthcoming book when we planned the series.  Therefore, the emergence of both our series and the book with the same title was purely a coincidence.  I have not read the book by Sen Sasse and cannot comment further on it.

[2] The previous two paragraphs contributed by Hayden Florom, Marketing and Communications Director at Christ UMC.

[3] Kathleen A. Robertson Farmer, Commentary on The Book of Ruth in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 2, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.