Isaiah 58:1-14; Matthew 25:31-46
How do we respond to the suffering in the world around us? Throughout scripture, and especially in the Prophets and teachings of Jesus, we see God reaching through and beyond the lifestyles and concerns and rhythms of the rich and comfortable into the intimate circumstances of the poor, the oppressed, the excluded. Are we willing to follow God into relationship with our neighbors?
While the story of Les Miserables is set against the background of the French Revolution, the musical is primarily a story of love and redemption contrasted with legalism. Our main characters are Jean Valjean (the convict) and his adversary Javert (the inspector) Javert demonstrates fierce and blind dedication to the letter of the law and to the institution of the state. Jean Valjean served 19 years hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s children, but then after his release was marked and rejected by society. In desperation Valjean steals from a Bishop who housed and fed him in an act of charity. Brought back by the police with the story that he had been given the silver table service, Valjean then receives mercy from the Bishop who not only confirms the false story but gives even more silver, stating: “I have bought your soul for God.”
Valjean goes the rest of his life seeking to fulfill the calling of this mercy and grace. He shows it first to Fantine, then to her daughter Cossette, to a man mistakenly arrested, to Marius, and ultimately to Javert himself. In each of these instances he risks his own life, safety or freedom in an effort to extend the mercy and justice he has received.
God calls for us to offer charity to those in need, but not to stop there. We are called to recreate the economic and social systems of our world so that ALL people have the best chance possible to flourish and thrive, and so that when people stumble and fall they have the best possible opportunity for restoration, transformation and a redeemed life.
Paul highlights God’s desire when stating, “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us. That proves God’s love for us.” (Romans 5:8) The idea here is that God helps those who cannot help themselves (contrary to the popular saying, “God helps those who help themselves.” Which originates instead with Sophoclese and Euripides.) Scripture’s witness is that God enters in to redeem us precisely when we cannot help ourselves, and then God calls (commands!) us to structure our communities likewise. The Sabbath is designed to give all of creation regular days of rest, and the Jubilee eliminates both generational poverty and generational accumulation of vast wealth by restoring to each tribe their property and resources every 50 years, regardless of what choices, circumstances or failures led to them losing it in the first place.
God is continually calling the children of Abraham to be “restorers of streets to live in.” We are called to be people who renew and restore the world around us as signs of God’s kingdom, and to restructure our relationships and social interactions so as to open up possibilities for others. As followers of Jesus we are called, and then empowered by the presence of the Holy Spirit, to join in God’s work of creating the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. God’s upside-down kingdom where all live fully and in harmony.
Let us ask one another, and our neighbors, how we might grow toward this vision of beloved community that Jesus dreamed.