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Where Peace and Justice Rule

Sermon - 12/09/07
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Psalm 72:1-14

We are taking a look at the Psalms for this advent season that have been set by the lectionary for reading on each of the advent Sundays.  And the Psalm for this second Sunday of advent is the 72nd Psalm.

I want to read this morning from the Contemporary English version, because I found it especially sharp and clear -- I invite you to follow along in your own Bible or the pew Bible, which is the New Revised Standard Version [Note:  the NRSV version appears below in red text, followed by the Contemporary English version in blue]:

1Give the king your justice, O God,
   and your righteousness to a king’s son.
2May he judge your people with righteousness,
   and your poor with justice.
3May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
   and the hills, in righteousness.
4May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
   give deliverance to the needy,
   and crush the oppressor.

5May he live while the sun endures,
   and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.
6May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass,
   like showers that water the earth.
7In his days may righteousness flourish
   and peace abound, until the moon is no more.

8May he have dominion from sea to sea,
   and from the River to the ends of the earth.
9May his foes bow down before him,
   and his enemies lick the dust.
10May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles
   render him tribute,
may the kings of Sheba and Seba
   bring gifts.
11May all kings fall down before him,
   all nations give him service.

12For he delivers the needy when they call,
   the poor and those who have no helper.
13He has pity on the weak and the needy,
   and saves the lives of the needy.
14From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
   and precious is their blood in his sight.

Please help the King to be honest and fair, just like you are, God
Let him be honest and fair with all your people, especially the poor.
Let peace and justice rule every mountain and hill
Let the King defend the poor, rescue the homeless, and crush everyone who hurts them

Let the King live forever like the sun and the moon
Let him be as helpful as rain that refreshes the meadows and the ground
Let the King be fair with everyone, and let there be peace until the moon falls from the sky

Let his kingdom reach from sea to sea, from the river Euphrates across all the earth
Force the desert tribes to accept his rule
Makes his enemies crawl in the dirt
Force the rulers of Tarshish and of the islands to pay taxes to him

May the Kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts
May other rules bow down and all nations serve him

Do this, because the King rescues the homeless when they cry out
He helps everyone who is poor and in need
The King has pity on the weak and the helpless and protects those in need
He cares when they hurt, and he saves them from cruel and violent death.

 

I was listening to the radio, about a week ago I think it was, National Public Radio, and they were covering the presidential campaign.  They were in New Hampshire or Iowa, one of those states with the early primaries.  They quoted a woman at one of these political rallies (I don't know which one, or for which candidate), and she said:  "I am tired of paying for a free lunch for someone else's child".

Presumably she was looking for that candidate that would do away with all of those kinds of free-lunch programs.  I can understand that feeling a little bit, you know, I think there's times when we all grow tired of paying someone else's way.  But I wondered if she had ever read the 72nd Psalm?

Without even considering what the rest of scripture says about such things, there are a couple things that occur to me that are just plain wrong with that attitude.  First of all, it does not recognize that good nutrition is essential to good education, and good education is essential to good productivity.

I served this year on a United Way committee that was looking at issues of poverty and economic development and what we can do locally to promote that for the working poor.  I discovered in the course of that process that the #1 factor that determines a person's income level throughout their life is their level of education.  And thus it's no surprise that the poorest portions of our society are also those that are least educated.  Thus, an undernourished child who has difficulty learning, will not only be more likely to be a burden on society as an adult, but the loss of potential productivity from that child as he or she grows is a price that we all pay. 

And thus, senior citizens, and all those who want to be senior citizens, would do well to remember that our social security is paid by those children now in school.  And there's a real sense in which that free lunch benefits all of us.  So it is in our own self-interest to make sure that every child has good nutrition and a good education.

Secondly, the problem with the attitude that says I'm tire of paying for all of those folks to get free food or free healthcare or subsidized housing and the like, is that it assumes that we are all responsible for 100% of the income that we earn.  Thinking it's our money, we ought to be able to do with it whatever we decide, right?

Never mind again the biblical perspective that would suggest otherwise, Herbert Simon (who received a Nobel prize for Economics) estimates that 90% of what we earn is directly attributed to the social capital -- schools, roads, utilities, infrastructure, government, and the like, that is paid for by others.  In other words, if you take away all those benefits in society that we take for granted, put yourself in the middle of a country like Bangladesh that doesn't have those things, and the most you could expect to earn in your lifetime is about 10% of what you do now, IF you're lucky.

90% of everything you have has been made possible in one way or another by someone else.

Now the biblical vision of our responsibility to the poor is pretty evident, I think, just in this Psalm.  And there are three ways we could read a text like this.

First of all, we could literalize it.  Says here it's the King's job to care for the poor and the homeless.  So let the King take care of those problems, it's not our problem.  Is there anything wrong with that?  Some people may think we have a King in this society, but I don't think we do.  So that doesn't work.

The second way is that we can personalize it.  When I was in high school, I'll never forget, attending some youth event, and someone said 'They way to read John 3:16 was to put your name in it'.  Example:  For God so loved Dan Bryant, that he gave his only begotten son. . . . .

That was pretty powerful.  Really made me look at that text in a new way.  Now, never mind the fact that it may be a little egotistical to substitute yourself for the world, but still it gets the message across.

So what if we personalize this Psalm?  "Please help me to be honest and fair, just like you are, God".  "Let me be honest and fair with all your people, especially the poor".  "Let me defend the poor, rescue the homeless, crush everyone who hurts them".  "Let me be as helpful as rain that refreshes the meadows and the ground".

"Let my kingdom reach from sea to sea, from the Euphrates river across all the earth.  Force the rulers and of the islands to pay taxes to me!  Make other rulers bow down and all nations serve me!".

It doesn't quite work, does it?  It started out good.  Actually, it ended up pretty good J.  But I don't think that's quite the intent of the passage, to personalize it in this way.

How 'bout if we contemporize it?  For the last several sessions of the Legislature in Salem I've had the privilege and honor of going up and providing the opening prayer in either the Senate or the House, in at least one of the sessions or meetings.  And that's always a fun thing to do.  And I suddenly had this fantasy, what if -- if I should get invited again -- I go and I simply read the 72nd Psalm.  It was probably written as a prayer for the coronation of the King in Israel.  So what if I used it as a prayer, and changed one word?  Just contemporize the word 'King' for the modern equivalent:

"Please help the Governor to be honest and fair, just like you are, God.  Let the Legislature be honest and fair, with all your people, especially the poor.  Let the Senators defend the poor, rescue the homeless, and crush everyone who hurts them.  Let the Representatives be as helpful as rain that refreshes the meadows and the ground.  Let the government reach from sea to sea.  Force the rulers of the islands to pay taxes to the government.  Do this because the President rescues the homeless when they cry out, and helps everyone who is poor and in need.  Congress has pity on the weak and the helpless, and protects those in need.  Our government cares when they hurt, and saves them from cruel and violent deaths".

What do you think?  Will that 'preach', as they say?

Actually, I get very specific instructions when I go, that say 'whatever you do, do not preach!' J.  So, will it pray?

In a recent issue of Sojourners Magazine, Ron Sider, former President of Evangelicals for Social Action, makes the case -- based on this Psalm (and a few other scriptures) -- that the responsibility of government from the biblical perspective is not just to prevent evil, to stop crime or invading armies, it is to promote good.  "Good" is defined, biblically speaking, by two words:  'justice' and 'righteousness'.

Justice meaning not getting one's due in court, whether it be for good or ill (punishment), but rather justice means getting one's fair share -- economic justice. 

Righteousness meaning not something holy, divine, pure, but righteousness simply means doing what is right in the eyes of God. 

And so we read in Ezekiel, a text especially appropriate today with all the controversy about sub-prime loans:  "Enough, princes of Israel.  Put away violence and oppression.  Do what is just and right.  Cease your evictions of my people, says the Lord".

The prophet Isaiah in chapter 10, speaking to the rulers of Israel, says:  "You are in for trouble.  You have made cruel and unfair laws that let you cheat the poor and needy and rob widows and orphans".

And so Sider concludes that the rulers of Israel were expected to provide in their own time what the messianic ruler would eventually bring more completely, namely that justice that delivers the needy from oppression.  Sider says:  "God's concern in the present and in the future is that government promote the common good, especially for the weak".

OK, so it's the government's job, right?  Let the government do it.  Does that let us off the hook?  Or maybe at the minimum our responsibility is to vote for the right person who shares this kind of biblical perspective of government's role to care for the poor?  Is that sufficient?

Pete Singer, who teaches Bioethics at Princeton, believes that is not enough.  He uses the example of a child drowning in a pond, maybe 4-5 feet deep.  And if you're walking by, and you clearly have the power to save that child from drowning, what ethical system would allow you to walk on by?  Everyone would agree that is your responsibility to save that child.  The problem is that global poverty seems so great, the problems of the world so enormous, two billion people that suffer from malnutrition.  Eight-hundred million people face the possibility of starvation.  Thirty-thousand children die from illnesses and hunger related to poverty every day.  How can we address that?

But what if it is within our power to save those children? 

The United Nations Millennium Summit, that met in the year 2000, set the millennium development goals -- to be met by the year 2015 -- as follows:

  • Reduce the number of people suffer from hunger by 1/2
  • Reduce the number of people who live in extreme poverty by 1/2
  • Insure that all children in the world receive at least a primary education
  • Reduce the mortality rate of children under 5 by two-thirds
  • Halt and reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other major diseases

It seems almost impossible.  A United Nations task-force led by Columbia University determined that the cost of achieving those goals would be $189 billion dollars by the year 2015.  To date, $115 billion of that has been pledged by governments, or spent, leaving us $74 billion short of achieving those goals.  Our deacons will now wait upon us J.

How can we possibly achieve such?  This is where Singer's article gets very interesting (by the way, it was published in the New York Times last December).  He says following the example of Bill & Melinda Gates, who have given away 1/3 of their wealth (Warren Buffet has added to that, pledged to give away at least 1/2 of his wealth -- $60 billion dollars between those two households combined), Singer calculates that if the super-rich in the United States would follow their example, if just the 1/100th of a percent who's average income exceeds $5 million dollars (and there are 14,000 households in the United States that meet that), if they would give away 1/3 of their wealth (leaving them a little over $3 million to live on), that would generate $61 billion dollars.  Just from that 1/100th of a percent.  If the top 1/10th of one percent gave 1/4 of their income (leaving them over $800,000 to live on), that would generate $65 billion dollars.  If the next 1/2 of 1 percent donated 1/5th of their income (leaving them over $300,000 to live on), it would generate another $72 billion dollars.  If the remainder of the top 1% gave 15% of their income (leaving them over $200,000 to live on), that would generate $35 billion dollars.  And finally, if the rest of the top 10% gave a biblical tithe of 10%, leaving them an average of $83,000 to live on, it would generate $171 billion dollars.

Now, have you been doing the math in your head?  That top 10% have now generated over $400 billion dollars, just in the United States.  So if the rest of the world just met that -- the top 10% -- we'd have over $800 billion dollars, more than 16 times what is needed to meet those Millennium Development Goals to reduce poverty, hunger, and the like by 1/2.

Singer's point is not just that the wealthy should be giving more (he clearly things they should, following the example of Gates and Buffet), but that there is a plenty of wealth in our society to go around.  And not only to meet the challenge of the Millennium Development Goals, but to virtually eliminate poverty altogether.  And only a massive moral failure -- the equivalent of walking by a pond filled with 30,000 drowning children every day -- only that kind of massive moral failure will prevent us from achieving those goals.

So the question is not "Can we?", but "Will we?".

If you go to the web site of the Gates Foundation, and click on a sidebar that says "Our Values", you will find there the two values of that foundation are:

  1. All lives, no matter where they are being lived, have equal value.
  2. To whom much is given, of them much will be expected.

Does that sound familiar to you?  It should, it comes from the gospel of Luke, the 12th chapter, the parable of the prudent manager.  And this is what Bill and Melinda Gates have written about that:

"Our Foundation and our partners are trying to solve these global problems because we believe that all lives have equal value, no matter where they are being lived.  In rich countries with high-quality healthcare or poor countries with almost none, in well-off suburbs with shiny new high schools, or disadvantaged communities where most kids drop out.  We also believe that from those to whom much is given, much is expected.  We benefited from great schools, great healthcare, and a vibrant economic system.  That is why we feel a tremendous responsibility to give back to society".

What if we all shared those values?

The Psalm says that the 'just' and 'righteous' King cares when the weak hurt.  Saves them from cruel and violent deaths.  So why is this Psalm part of the lectionary readings for this second Sunday of advent?  It's not just because this is Peace Sunday on our calendar, and that this is the biblical vision of that place where peace and justice rule, heaven on earth, if you will. 

But that this is the hope of God's people for the coming Messiah.  The perfect, ideal King who will establish such a reign of justice and righteousness and peace.  And even as we eagerly await such a time, we also affirm that Christ is for us such a King. 

So how can we make such a bold claim after 2,000 years with so much poverty still in our world?  Our claim, audacious as it might be, is that we are the body of Christ that lives by this messianic vision of God's will done here on earth as in heaven.  It's not 'him', the King.  It's not 'they', the government.  It is 'us', we the people.  We, the body of Christ, who are the ones called to care when others hurt.  To save them from cruel and violent deaths.  To bring peace, until the moon falls from the sky.

It's our responsibility to help those who are poor and in need to the full extent of our ability, and it is our responsibility to call upon our government leaders to do the same. 

This is the will of God.  May it be.

 


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