On the Cost of Justice and the Reward of Peace
November 5, 2023
Micah 3: 9-12
Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob and chiefs of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity, who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong! Its rulers give judgment for a bribe, its priests teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money; yet they lean upon the Lord and say, “Surely the Lord is with us! No harm shall come upon us.” Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height.
Matthew 23: 1-12, 23-24
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!
Today’s sermon is titled On the Cost of Justice and the Reward of Peace.
After hearing today’s reading from Matthew, we have to admit that Jesus has a sense of humor. He accuses the religious leaders as “blind guides.” “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel,” he says. Jesus is all riled up when we find him, still preaching in the temple after entering Jerusalem for Passover, riding on a donkey. Jesus has turned over the tables of the moneychangers and he has driven the merchants out of the temple, chastising them for being “thieves” because of the exorbitant prices they set on sacrificial animals. Jesus is demanding justice, but also mercy and faith.
The problem is, Jesus is running out of time because, like the prophet Micah that we heard from this morning, Jesus is telling those in power what they don’t want to hear. Jesus is accusing the religious leaders of very specific instances of hypocrisy. The word “hypocrite” is used 13 times in the book of Matthew but only three other places in the other gospels. Jesus accuses the leaders of being “blind guides” because they are overly concerned with the little details, like how much mint and dill and cumin to tithe while “neglecting the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith.”
We must be careful here not to villainize the priesthood. We must remember that the Hebrew people are living under the occupational forces of the Roman Empire and the Romans are using the priests to keep a tenuous peace with the people. In return, the Roman army is protecting them from other potential invaders. The priesthood has become embroiled in the political power structure and in that process and in so doing, they have forfeited their ability to serve both God and Caesar. Jesus sees this very clearly. That is why he is resorting to accusations and name calling. Jesus is trying to shake them awake before it is too late.
Jesus is one person who knows the cost of justice. Jesus is risking his life to expose the social and political inequalities and how they are undermining the integrity of the Jewish tradition. I imagine that Jesus’s heart is breaking because he sees clearly what is at stake. The same holds true for the prophet Micah, some 700 years before the birth of Jesus. Micah learned the cost of justice. To say the prophet was outspoken would be an understatement. Micah was ruthless in his critique warning the rulers, the priests, and the other prophets that their focus on material gain would be their downfall and that “Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins.” It happened…over and over. In fact, during Jesus’s lifetime, the temple was being rebuilt after having been destroyed and in just 40 years after his crucifixion, the temple was destroyed again.
Jesus can see the beginning of the end and he is trying to change the course for the people he cares about and for the tradition that he is fully and completely committed to. It is bad enough when any leader turns a blind eye to the needs of the people they serve, but in Jesus’s time, it was the spiritual leaders who were turning a blind eye. It was the spiritual leaders, the very ones who supposedly have devoted their lives to the service of God, who were now complicit in the Roman oppression of the Hebrew people. The spiritual leaders determined that the cost of demanding justice for the Hebrew people was too high. To demand justice would have cost them their positions of power and favor of the Empire. The cost was deemed too great.
There is always a cost for justice, but only through justice can we realize peace. Former president and General Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “Peace and justice are two sides of the same coin.” It is only through a commitment to justice, equality, and security for all people that we can even dream of peace.
40 years before the holocaust, Theodor Hertzl, a Jewish journalist, was dreaming of justice and peace for fellow Jews who were being persecuted by Christians all across Europe. Hertzl wrote a pamphlet titled The Jewish State, proposing that Jews return to their ancestral home in Palestine. The idea caught on and spread rapidly. By 1914, there were over 75,000 Jews living in Palestine, which was then controlled by the Ottoman Empire. After World War I, the British took control of Palestine and promised that Jews would have a homeland there, but no one asked the 700,000 Palestinians. After World War II and the holocaust, establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine was seen as an essential step towards justice for the Jewish people, but that justice came at a great cost. It has been nearly a century of injustice for the Palestinian people and until some measure of justice is restored and the rights of both Palestinian and Israeli people are recognized, I fear there can be no peace.
In his time, Jesus longed for justice and for peace. This is why, in our reading today, he is accusing the religious leaders of “neglecting the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” The prophet Micah was also calling for justice, justice and fairness. Notice that both Jesus and Micah are not calling for justice alone. Jesus calls for justice, mercy and faith; the prophet Micah calls for justice and fairness. When justice is tempered by mercy and fairness, the cost of justice is mitigated. Listen to the words of Noi Katzman, whose brother was killed during the Hamas attack last month: “I don’t want anything to happen to people in Gaza like what happened to my brother and I’m sure he wouldn’t want that either. So that’s my call to my government. Stop killing innocent people. That is not what brings peace and security to Israel.” Yanatin Zygen, whose mother was taken hostage by Hamas, said, “The only way to have safety and live good lives is with peace; vengeance is not a strategy.” And finally, the words of Mr. Aghamani, whose daughter, Noah, was taken as a hostage. He says, “I hope we can come together so that we can think together about what is best for us and also them. They are suffering, too. We have to stop this killing between us and them so there can be real peace.”
The calls for justice, mercy and fairness echo still. The prayers for peace continue to rise.
In closing, let us lift up a prayer for those in positions of authority, especially those who are vulnerable to misusing their positions for personal gain; may the welfare of others be ever-present in their minds and hearts. Let us lift up a prayer for the leaders of every nation, especially those nations at war; may vengeance be tempered with mercy. And may we, the people of the church, be a united voice for justice and for peace here at home in our United States of America and abroad. God’s peace be with each of you and with us all. So be it. Amen.
Source of love we call God, we are in dire need of your guidance. It is so difficult to care for one another in a polarized atmosphere, where the expression of opinions and beliefs run roughshod over the call for civility. I pray your help, Lord, in steering us towards a better way, whatever that may be. Perhaps one in which we can see one another without labels and the judgment that comes along with labels; perhaps one in which we can both oppose the practice of war and still hold those who have served, and are still serving, in high esteem. I pray that we will pause and reflect as to how we can take steps toward an end to the wars within ourselves, the wars between friends, families, the wars between religions and the wars between nations. We are all suffering in various ways, and there is healing to be found in helping those whose sufferings are greater than our own. For the victims of war everywhere, we pray for you. For the Veterans that are waiting for medical care, counseling and treatment, we pray for you. For the leaders of our local, state and national government, and those that will soon be sworn into office, we pray for you. May the light of peace and the pull of hope and the warmth of compassion guide us today and always. This we pray in Christ’s name. Amen.
I leave you now with these words from Philipians 4:6 “Have no anxiety, but in every prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your petitions be made known to God. And may the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds.”