Proverbs 1:1-7 – Right, Just, and Fair

“Passing Wisdom, Planting Seeds,” building art in Brooklyn, New York City by artists Danielle McDonald and Jazmine Hayes

These are the proverbs of Solomon, David’s son, king of Israel.

Their purpose is to teach people wisdom and discipline,
    to help them understand the insights of the wise.
Their purpose is to teach people to live disciplined and successful lives,
    to help them do what is right, just, and fair.
These proverbs will give insight to the simple,
    knowledge and discernment to the young.

Let the wise listen to these proverbs and become even wiser.
    Let those with understanding receive guidance
by exploring the meaning in these proverbs and parables,
    the words of the wise and their riddles.

Fear of the Lord is the foundation of true knowledge,
    but fools despise wisdom and discipline. (NLT)

The pursuit of wisdom is a noble aspiration for the New Year. One of the best places to go in that pursuit is the biblical book of Proverbs because it is all about living wisely and not foolishly.

To acquire and live by wisdom means learning to become right, just, and fair in all our interactions and dealings with others.

“Right” for the ancient King Solomon is a relational term – to be righteous, to have right relationships with God and other people. Righteousness involves experiencing peaceful, harmonious, and fruitful relations. For the Christian, right living is to know the wonderful freedom and joy of an unhindered relationship through Jesus Christ in dependence upon the Holy Spirit. 

When it comes to fellow human relations, a person characterized by righteousness does not, for example, let the sun go down on their anger. It is to know personal peace as well as to be a peacemaker so that relationships do not remain strained but enjoy harmony.

“Just” is closely related to “right.” We might tend toward primarily understanding justice as a punitive act – and that is certainly a part of the term. God punishes the wicked (not us!) with appropriate timing and wisdom; and deals with those who withhold righteousness and love through their uncaring, inattentive, or evil acts. 

Solomon understood justice as mostly concerned with providing a person with the necessities of life. So, for example, if someone is hungry and needs food, or does not have clean water to drink, it is a “just” act for us to provide those critical needs. God is deeply concerned for justice and expects people to act in this same manner.

“Fair” is to be egalitarian. Fairness and equity binds righteousness and peace together by avoiding prejudice toward others and their needs. It means to not show favoritism because there is an unshakable belief in the equality of all people, no matter where they are from, what they do, or who they are.

Therefore, if we exercise righteousness and justice exclusively with individuals and groups we like, but ignore others in need, there is no fairness. To give our love and service to all persons without strings attached, or without being concerned to get paid back, is the practice of being fair in all our affairs.

To live in the way of being right, just, and fair in all things is to be wise. Conversely, the classic fool is one who judges others, creates discord, and ranks persons according to their own personal standard of who deserves help, and who does not. Trying to have a useful and gracious conversation with a fool is like trying to reason with a toddler – you will get nowhere. 

A good place to start in pursuing the wise and biblical virtues of righteousness, justice, and fairness is to ask God to open our eyes to those within our sphere of influence who need both physical and relational needs met. Then, follow through with loving those persons for whom God brings into our lives.

Almighty God, the essence and source of wisdom, you are always right, just, and fair in all things, I praise you for your infinite and abundant wisdom. Whereas you abound in wisdom, I am lacking. Please help me to grow in wisdom as I increase in my knowledge and respect of your divine presence. By means of your Spirit, please increase my depth of insight as I study your Holy Word. Hold me back from leaning on my own understanding and enable me to wholeheartedly embrace the wisdom from above. Righteous God help me to grow in wisdom continually and consistently. Teach me your ways. Since you are a just God who shows no favoritism, lead me into being like you in my dealings with others through the example of Jesus Christ, in the strength of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Numbers 12:1-9 – Against Racism

American artist Alan Jones depiction of Moses’ wife Zipporah

While they were at Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron criticized Moses because he had married a Cushite woman. They said, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Hasn’t he spoken through us, too?” But the Lord heard them. (Now Moses was very humble—more humble than any other person on earth.)

So immediately the Lord called to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam and said, “Go out to the Tabernacle, all three of you!” So, the three of them went to the Tabernacle. Then the Lord descended in the pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the Tabernacle. “Aaron and Miriam!” he called, and they stepped forward. And the Lord said to them, “Now listen to what I say:

“If there were prophets among you,
    I, the Lord, would reveal myself in visions.
    I would speak to them in dreams.
But not with my servant Moses.
    Of all my house, he is the one I trust.
I speak to him face to face,
    clearly, and not in riddles!
    He sees the Lord as he is.
So why were you not afraid
    to criticize my servant Moses?”

The Lord was very angry with them, and he departed. (NLT)

There are three observations about today’s Old Testament lesson I want to point-out and lift-up, and they are crucial observations for us in our present world.

First, the older siblings of Moses, Miriam the eldest and Aaron the other brother, had a problem with their sister-in-law (whose name was Zipporah). She was a Cushite. Cush was an ancient country which encompassed present day northern Sudan and much of Ethiopia in Africa. In other words, Zipporah was black, and Miriam and Aaron were critical of their little brother for marrying her.

Second, although having a black sister-in-law was the real issue, Miriam and Aaron confronted Moses not about this, but went after him concerning his role as a prophet. In other words, the siblings engaged in the age-old practice of ostensibly presenting a concern which was not really the matter on their hearts.

Third, the omniscient God knew what was happening. God was fully cognizant of Miriam and Aaron’s cloak-and-dagger attack at Zipporah through her husband Moses. In other words, God was incensed with this coup attempt because it was unjust, unfair, ungodly, and frankly, racist. And so, the text states that God, with divine anger aroused, “immediately” addressed the situation.

Racism is insidious. It tends to get expressed most often through the methods used by Miriam and Aaron on the level of criticizing another somewhat related issue. So, I offer the following questions with as much humility from Moses I can muster:

Are we aware of our own inheritance of centuries and even millennia of dominance language which keeps other human beings docile and subservient to another’s authority?

Have we chosen to challenge points of order and procedure in the attempt to marginalize certain persons?

Are we detached from our own needs and, so, unable to listen well?

Is there secret fear in our hearts, believing that we must maintain our hegemony, or else, there will be chaos?

Is the end game using whatever tools available for others to become like us, as if we were the Borg who talk about how resisting us is futile?

Are we willing to do the hard work of pulling out our own roots of racial segregation and injustice?

Do we want cheap diversity or true solidarity?

Will we work toward creating a new liberated humanity, championing equity in all things for all people, instead of attempting to sanitize existing systems?

For far too long, too many have relied upon individualism and anti-structuralism and it has not served us well in addressing our contemporary problems. Individualism sees only individual racist words and actions and is blind to systemic issues. It views social problems as merely a reflection of broken relationships, and, so, again, makes it impossible to see the systemic and nature of our racialized society.

Anti-structuralism, that is, not addressing racism as an organizing structure, is the assumption that racism is only individual racial prejudice and hatred. Thus, the approach in dealing with racism is to always be on the lookout for “bad racists.” This avenue, however, diverts attention from upholding biblical justice, forming policies of liberation, and establishing equitable care and opportunity for the common good of all persons.

As an historian, I tend to view things through historical lenses and, so, I resonate deeply with the late twentieth-century essayist James Baldwin when he said, “White people are still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.”

I want my history to be with Moses and freedom. I want God to show up and put racism to an end. I want to be part of the solution, and not the problem. I want justice and fairness to flow like a river that never runs dry.

Lord, Jesus Christ, you reached across ethnic boundaries between Samaritan, Roman and Jew. In your earthly ministry you offered fresh sight to the blind and freedom to captives. Gracious Savior, help us to break down walls and barriers in our community; enable us to see the reality of racism and bigotry; and free us to challenge and uproot it from ourselves, our faith communities, our society, and our world. Amen.

Romans 13:1-7 – Good Citizenship

1960 Elementary Classroom

Be a good citizen. All governments are under God. Insofar as there is peace and order, it’s God’s order. So live responsibly as a citizen. If you’re irresponsible to the state, then you’re irresponsible with God, and God will hold you responsible. Duly constituted authorities are only a threat if you’re trying to get by with something. Decent citizens should have nothing to fear.

Do you want to be on good terms with the government? Be a responsible citizen and you’ll get on just fine, the government working to your advantage. But if you’re breaking the rules right and left, watch out. The police aren’t there just to be admired in their uniforms. God also has an interest in keeping order, and he uses them to do it. That’s why you must live responsibly—not just to avoid punishment but also because it’s the right way to live.

That’s also why you pay taxes—so that an orderly way of life can be maintained. Fulfill your obligations as a citizen. Pay your taxes, pay your bills, respect your leaders. (MSG)

Back in the day (way back!) when I was in elementary school every student received a grade on their report card for “citizenship.”  Even further back, my Dad’s report cards had grades for “deportment.” Both citizenship and deportment were words used by the public-school system to gauge how well individual students conducted themselves with the teacher’s authority, behaved with fellow students, and handled the responsibilities of their studies. It was a grade given for the overall obedience and submission of students with their duties and obligations, or the lack thereof.

Today’s New Testament lesson is one of those Scripture texts which has been used and abused throughout history. Since we no longer give grades on citizenship and deportment, a careful consideration of both what this biblical passage is, and is not, must be observed.

What Citizenship is Not: Irresponsible and Disobedient Injustice

Advocating a favored political philosophy or party to the point of avoiding a rival party or power and resisting their government through lack of submission, being uncivil and disrespectful, and stubbornly disobedient is poor deportment and will earn an “F” from God on the report card of life.

Picking-and-choosing which laws I will obey and which ones I will not is extremely far from the biblical teaching given. Rebellion against laws I do not like will only result in getting punished from the principal for being shortsighted and stupid.

On the other hand, blind and unthinking adherence to a government is irresponsible and can be unethical. Unjust leaders and immoral laws which merely champion certain people and not the common good of all need to be dislodged and dismantled. When one simply says, “I’m just doing my job,” or “I don’t want to get in trouble,” in the face of unjust laws and leadership, then we are complicit in the perpetuating of the evil person or system. Blind obedience keeps abusive people in the classroom.

Vigilante-ism is a form of “recess justice.” It is a refusal to accept what is taking place and takes matters into one’s own hands. Just before explaining citizenship, the Apostle Paul said, “Do not take revenge but leave room for God’s wrath,” and, “Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:19, 21). There is no place for vigilante justice in the kingdom of God. At its basest form, vigilantes are resisting God’s justice and being extremely impatient with the divine plan.

Good Citizenship

What Citizenship is: Responsible and Submissive Justice

Submission is a choice. The word “submit” in the New Testament means “to place oneself under authority.” In other words, to submit to another person, group, system, or government is a human volitional choice. Obedience through coercion, as in totalitarian regimes, is not submission – it is oppression.

Good citizenship begins with humble submission to governing authorities who are trying to do their best and have everyone’s best interests at mind with responsible laws which benefit the common good of all. Most parents and school boards would do well to remember that.

Justice is primarily about provision, and not about being punitive. I realize that many, if not most, people use the term justice in the penal sense – wanting convictions and incarcerations when someone has committed a crime against the state and/or humanity. And, although this is a very important work of government, the biblical sense of justice is about provision – giving people their rights to life and liberty and ensuring that we all exist in an equitable form of union together as one people.

When people fall through the cracks of bureaucracy and do not have what they need to survive, let alone thrive, then this is an injustice which needs remedy sooner than later – without putting it off to another election cycle. So, put the spanking paddles of shame away (yes, kids at school got the paddle in my day) and instead find ways to uplift and support one another.

Responsible citizenship involves a proper deportment of volitional submission, careful obedience, proper payment of taxes for the benefit of all, and providing due respect to public servants. Keep in mind that the Apostle Paul originally wrote about how to conduct ourselves with government smack in the middle of a Roman Empire which was often fickle and careless about the rights of Christians, Jews, and others.

We submit not because we must, but because it is the right thing to do. To do otherwise is to not only violate the law but our consciences, as well.

Our consciences also need to be clear and clean about the need for justice in this old fallen world of ours. Christians have a continuing and outstanding debt to love one another. Having justice for some and injustice for others is not going to cut it with a Just God. Our Creator and Sustainer desires that every single individual on planet earth – regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, or any other human contrived social construct – have their needs met without prejudice, favoritism, or cronyism.

God’s original plan for the world includes an egalitarian society, so we must be careful to remember and work toward the ideal, while at the same time dealing graciously and resolutely with the realities of injustice all around us. I wonder what grade Jesus would give us so far this year for our deportment.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, just as you welcome us into your kingdom, help us to love each other deeply,
offer hospitality to one another without grumbling, encourage each to use the gifts we have received to serve others, and submit to the governing authorities with the good citizenship you have provided us so that every one of us will be a faithful steward of God’s grace in its various forms. Amen.

Psalm 133 – The Blessing of Unity and Harmony

Ascend to Jerusalem by Dan Livni
“Ascend to Jerusalem” by Dan Livni

Oh, how wonderful, how pleasing it is
when God’s people all come together as one!
It is like the sweet-smelling oil that is poured over the high priest’s head,
that runs down his beard flowing over his robes.
It is like a gentle rain from Mount Hermon falling on Mount Zion.
It is there that the Lord has promised his blessing of eternal life. (ERV)

Unity, solidarity, and harmony are a beautiful blessing. Disunity, division, and fragmentation are an ugly curse. Within all families and faith communities are a diverse bunch of people – which brings the potential of both wonderful fellowship and disagreeing fights.

Today’s reading is a psalm of ascent. It is one of a group of psalms the Israelites would say and sing together as they made their pilgrimage to Jerusalem and ascended the temple mount to worship the Lord. Their common purpose and shared experience led to a blessed unity among all the worshipers.

The metaphors the psalm uses are meant to convey the feeling and impact of a unified people’s blessing as one harmonious bunch. The reference to oil communicates abundance and extravagant blessing beyond expectation. The gentle rain or the dew pictures the giving of life to a parched landscape. The psalm is a celebration of life’s simple pleasures, enjoyed with friends and family.

People created in the image of God are hard-wired for community. Rather than existing in isolation, doing our own thing, and keeping to ourselves, the Lord’s intention for humans is to be close enough to one another to rejoice with those experiencing joy and to weep with those mourning a loss. True community requires unity and harmony.

To live in harmony with one another means we regard everyone the same way by not playing favorites, being condescending, or giving more weight to one group more than another. It is a willingness to interact, work, and play with all kinds of people – not just those whom we like or help us get ahead in life. We are designed by our Creator to live and work together in common purposes. In fact, it takes a great deal of effort.

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.  Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:2-3, NIV).

Think about what we have in Christ: the encouragement he has brought us, the comfort of his love, our sharing in his Spirit, and the mercy and kindness he has shown us. If you enjoy these blessings, then do what will make my joy complete: Agree with each other and show your love for each other. Be united in your goals and in the way you think. In whatever you do, do not let selfishness or pride be your guide. Be humble, and honor others more than yourselves. Do not be interested only in your own life, but care about the lives of others too (Philippians 2:1-4, ERV). 

If we desire the enjoyment of blessed relationships we will engage in genuine conversation, focused listening, and equal dialogue; simply stating opinions at each other will not do the trick.

Yes, we are to work at unity and harmony because we can have a nasty tendency to think better of ourselves than what is true, and of others what is not so good.  We might inflate our positive qualities and abilities, especially in comparison to other people.  Numerous research studies have revealed the propensity to overestimate ourselves.

For example, when one research study asked a million high school students how well they got along with their peers, none of the students rated themselves below average. As a matter of fact, 60% of students believed they were in the top 10%; and, 25% rated themselves in the top 1%.

College professors were just as biased about their abilities – 2% rated themselves below average; 10% were average and 63% were above average, while 25% rated themselves as truly exceptional. Of course, this is statistically impossible. One researcher summarized the data this way: “It’s the great contradiction: the average person believes he is a better person than the average person.”

Christian psychologist Mark McMinn contends that this study reveals our pride. He writes, “One of the clearest conclusions of social science research is that we are proud. We think better of ourselves than we really are, we see our faults in faint black and white rather than in vivid color, and we assume the worst in others while assuming the best in ourselves.”

Where sinful pride rules, disharmony runs amok within a community. The acid test of harmonious love is how we treat the lowly. One of the great preachers in church history, St. John Chrysostom (the fourth century Bishop of Constantinople) had this to say:

“If a poor man comes into your church behave like him and do not put on airs because of your riches.  In Christ there is no rich or poor.  Do not be ashamed of him because of his outward dress but receive him because of his inward faith.  If you see him in sorrow, do not hesitate to comfort him, and if he is prospering, do not feel shy about sharing in his pleasure.  If you think you are a great person, then think others are also.  If you think they are humble and lowly, then think the same of yourself.”

We cannot function apart from harmony. Consider a tuning fork. It delivers a true pitch by two tines vibrating together. Muffle either side, even a little, and the note disappears. Neither tine individually produces the pure note. Only when both tines vibrate is the correct pitch heard.  Harmony is not a matter of give and take and compromise to make each other happy or satisfied.  Harmony comes through a common mission and purpose which engages in shared experiences of loving and caring for others.

My Christian convictions and tradition tell me that the Word of God is applied by the Spirit of God through the people of God.  We are to embrace community.  We are to do life together.  We are to view everyone as my brother or sister. After all, we are our brother’s keeper.

So, let us ascend the hill of the Lord together. Let us worship God together with glad and sincere hearts. Let us be mindful of all our brothers and sisters, no matter who they are.