From The WORD
Healing as Justice
Stephen Charles Mott
Health care as a right is supported by
the association of healing with justice in the Bible. in Matthew 12 Jesus’
actions are said to fulfill the prophesy of Isaiah 42, which includes
announcing justice to the Gentiles and bringing justice to victory (Matt.
12:18, 20). Healing is what Jesus has just performed (V. 16). Matthew
understands Jesus’ healings to be the justice anticipated in Isaiah 42.
Healing as an act of justice may seem
surprising to us. In the Bible, however, those who are sick or who have
other physical infirmities are frequently associated with those suffering
from economic and political injustices. In Luke 4:18-19, in which Jesus
quotes Isaiah 61 and 58, the blind are referred to alongside the poor,
captives, and those who are oppressed. Psalm 107 gives a stanza to each of
several needy groups. These are wanderers (v. 4), prisoners (v. 10), the
sick (v. 17), those endangered at sea (vv. 23, 27-28), and the hungry and
landless (vv. 36-37).
The next three passages are similar. but
in addition they use the language of justice to describe the situation. In
14-16, Job is described as clothing
himself in justice. The ones to whom he comes to aid are the blind, the
lame, the needy, and the stranger. In Proverbs 31:8-9, the king is
instructed to execute justice by defending the dumb, the destitute, the
poor, and the needy. Psalm 146:7-9 applies God’s justice to the
oppressed, the hungry, prisoners, the blind, the bowed down, strangers,
the orphan, and the widow. With this background, it is not surprising that
Matthew would perceive Jesus’ healing as an act of justice.
The body in Scripture is the person as
one relates to one s physical and social environment. Disease, like
hunger, landlessness and captivity, is one source by which the body is
attacked by external forces. Psalm 107:39 (NRSV) summarizes the
various needy groups whose
deliverance it has sung as those who are
"diminished and brought low through oppression, trouble, and
sorrow." Justice, that empowers the needy and delivers the oppressed,
includes the physically ill and disabled.
The body is the most basic social unit.
The medical missionary who personally heals the sick is social in a simple
and personal form. When her or his work inevitably becomes
institutionalized in a hospital or clinic, it becomes more complex
socially. A further development is a legal framework providing health care
for all. There is a continuum in healing from direct treatment of the body
to a political framework ensuring that all receive basic health care.
The Bible understands the whole spectrum
of meeting the basic physical needs of health as justice. The duty of the
sovereign is to establish justice (I Kgs. 10:9). Accordingly, the king in
defending the rights of the destitute and of the poor
and needy also is to defend the dumb.
This king in Proverbs 31:8-9 is not an Israelite sovereign, so this
material cannot be dismissed as restricted to the theocracy or the old
covenant. Similarly, the rulers in Ezekiel 34 are condemned for not
healing the sick or binding up the injured (v. 4). This irresponsibility
will be corrected by God through the coming messianic ruler (vv. 15-16,
Care for the sick and the defense of the
disabled is a task of justice and a responsibility of the ruler when it is
not being carried out. Rights are the claims upon the community that are
granted by justice. Basic health care is a right supported by the teaching
From The WORD
Sin and Society
by Stephen Charles Mott
Often Christian social activists are suspected of being soft on sin. Sin is felt to be personal and internal, and so is missed by those who are working to change the behavior of the major economic, social, and political institutions of society.
Sin in the Bible is both personal and social; and the two aspects are mixed together. Understanding sin helps us to define our mission as individuals and as a church. We seek to resist everything which is against the will of God, who has redeemed us and whom we now seek to serve. The Letter to the Ephesians says that we are to "expose" "the unfruitful works of darkness" (5:11). Our struggle against evil must correspond to the geography of evil. If we ignore a significant area of life in which sin and evil reside, we will fail to extend our mission to that area.
From the older versions of the Bible, we may be familiar with the terms "the principalities and powers" (e.g. Col. 2: 10, 15). In more current English, they are called "rulers and authorities." The principalities and powers are angelic powers. They are not human. In this passage from Colossians, Paul said that Christ triumphed over them at the cross. The Roman emperor, the human ruler, continued to rule after Jesus death; and the Roman empire continued for several centuries. Those defeated were spiritual, angelic powers. 1 Peter 3:22 makes the connection: Jesus has gone into heaven "with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him" (cf. Rom.
These angels are described in political terms because of the area of life of their influence. We know their function from Jewish writings from the time of the New Testament. God's care of everything in creation from the stars to the elements, from individuals to nations was put under the care of angelic agents. One Jewish writing from the first century A.D, 2 Enoch, speaks of "angels who are appointed over seasons and years, the angels who are over rivers and seas, and who are over the fruits of the earth, and the angels who are over every grass, giving food to all, to every living thing, and the angels who write all the souls of men, and all their deeds and all their lives before the Lord's face" (19:4-5). Another writing, the Book of Jubilees (from the second century B.C.), describes "the watchers," who are linked with angels. Their role is to instruct humankind in justice and righteousness (4:15). In addition, according to the biblical book of Daniel, angels called "rulers" are assigned to guide and guard each nation (10:20-21).
In the thought of the New Testament, these angelic rulers and authorities are fallen. They have rebelled against God and corrupted their tasks. Because of their fall, evil penetrates the customs and institutions of society.
Our response is not to argue about whether angels and demons exist. Rather we must pay attention to the point the New Testament writers are making in talking about them.
Evil is social, not only personal. Satan and his evil forces are prowling the world, struggling for control of
God's creation. We know how our families have become a battlefield. The battle also takes place in our larger, more complex social institutions, including our customs, our laws. It includes government, our practices of finance, education, and hiring, and our systems of distributing goods and services. We have to fight evil in those places too. Our missional tools include such resistance actions as reform, lobbying, organizing, and boycotting.
Evil is a mystery. Both within us and within our society it cannot be fully comprehended rationally. It is out of control. It rears up just when we think peace and justice are at hand.
Evil is supernatural, and so is our struggle. Our tools must include prayer. Evil is beyond our human resources. Our battle is not against "flesh and blood" (Ephesians 6:12). We need a power which is higher and stronger. The battle must be God's. Prayer which invokes God's power must be a part of the arsenal against sin and evil in all their forms, not only personal but also social.
From The WORD
Worldliness and Social Evil
by Stephen Charles Mott
Growing up often when someone talked about not being "worldly," I would think of not smoking, drinking, dancing, or going to movies. In the Bible worldliness is even more challenging.
The New Testament often uses "the world" to talk about evil. Why does it use this term, "the world"? The usage with which I was familiar as a youth pointed to visible habits of behavior from which we were to be separated. We were the church; the sinful life outside the church was "the world." The biblical term goes further, however, The world refers to the order of society. It is one of the ways in which the Bible warns us that evil has a character which is social and political. It involves more than isolated actions of individuals. Evil is social as well as personal.
Our word "world" points us too quickly to a physical place World is a translation of the Greek term, cosmos. Cosmos means order, that which is assembled together well. We have an echo of that in our word cosmetics, that which orders our appearance. So 1 Peter 3:3 admonishes women not to let their external adornment [or order] be with gold ornaments. The term used is cosmos.
The term was applied to most important ordering of the earthly life, our social order. With that it was used for the civic order, the life of state, which provided a congenial order rather than social chaos. The whole universe was viewed as city-state and called order, or our "world." Values such as friendship, self-control, and justice were important bonds of that order.
For the Greeks cosmos stood guard against evil. The New Testament and first-century Judaism, however, had a powerful and forbidding realization of the significance of
humankind's fall away from God. For them cosmos is an intruder bearing immorality into our lives. Paul says that to avoid immoral persons of the fallen order (cosmos), one would have to leave human society (cosmos) altogether (1 Cor. 5:10). Ephesians 2:1-2
describes how Christ as made believers alive when "dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world (cosmos)."
The significance of this biblical understanding of "the world" is that it expands our sense of mission by expanding the geography of evil that we are to oppose on behalf of Christ. Evil exists in the ordering of society around the person and exerts a powerful and destructive influence on him or her. Our mission must be social.
The breadth of the fabric of society is included in the New Testament use of cosmos. It involves the system of property and wealth. I John 3:17 speaks of "whoever has the worldŐs means of livelihood." When Paul instructs us that we are to "make use of the world" but to not "overuse" it, he is referring to economic relations so necessary for life that we cannot separate ourselves from them.
The New Testament includes in "the world," the class and status classifications of social life, ways in which we identify and separate individuals and groups. Reference is made to the poor, foolish, weak, and lowly of the world (Jas. 5:5; 1 Cor. 1:27-28). The political rule of societies also belongs to this ordering of life (Matt. 4:8). The government controlled by "the world," the evil social order, now is subject to Christ (Rev. 11:15).
The most important aspect of this social use of "world" in the New Testament is as a system of values which are in opposition to God. "Love neither the world nor the things of the world. . . . Because everything that is in the world--the desire of the flesh and the desire of the eyes and the boasting of wealth is not of the Father but is of the world" (1 John 2:15-16).
We can say that for the New Testament in such passages "the world" is social life as it is organized in hostility to God. It points not only to the social breadth of our challenge of working for God. We must critique our political, economic, and social patterns and all the values and assumptions associated with them. Where they are in resistance to
God's ways, we must work toward change.
"The world" also indicates the power of what we must resist. We were born into this social world. It influences us from our birth through our immediate family. We accept its patterns and thoughts by familiarity and habit. Worldliness occurs when sin is so familiar that we accept it without reflection. We were socialized into it, and it is reinforced constantly by the life around us. It is the seduction of the ordinary.
From The WORD
When We Face the Full Biblical Teaching on Sin
by Stephen Charles Mott
In the last two reflections we have seen two ways in which the New Testament points to evil existing in our social life. The "principalities and powers" are fallen angels who had been responsible for protecting all of
Gods' creation, including its social institutions. The "world" represents the rebellious ordering of life in hostility to God and
As those who seek that God's will be done and who are directed to "expose the works of darkness that bear no fruit" (Matt.6:10; Eph. 5:11), our attitude and actions in society will be changed by this awareness. Our struggle with evil must correspond to the geography of evil. Evangelism and Christian nurture are not enough. Along with other responses, they must lead to social action, action directed to institutional practices of the world.
We will read and practice the Bible more completely. Too often when we think of sin, our list is something like "sexual immorality, stealing, gambling, profanity, lying, and murder." The biblical sins of economic exploitation or oppression or hoarding of wealth from the poor have vanished.
The biblical prophets, however, spoke out against not only sinful personal relationships but also against breakdowns in the complex relationships between social groups with unequal shares of power, such as the absorption into the vast estates of the rich of what once were independent peasant holdings
(Isa. 5:7-8). We are called to expose all works of darkness. In Scripture sin includes failure to correct social injustices (Amos 5:15, 23-24)
Selective reading of the Bible often passes over this dimension of sin and failed action. We are familiar with the words of Isaiah 1:18
(KJV), "Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow." Some familiar gospel songs use these striking words, "Whiter than snow, white than snow, wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow." We fail to recognize, however, that the sins spoken of here are specific social evils. The preceding two verses state, "Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed; defend the orphan, plead for the widow (vv. 16-17; cf. v. 23 also).
"The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?"
(Jer. 17:9, KJV) is a familiar and powerful indictment of our common fallen condition. Less taught and less known is that the first example of this condition that Jeremiah gives is "all who amass wealth unjustly" (v.
As those who are to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matt. 5:13-14), the recognition of evil in social life will change the mode of Christian citizenship from passive obedience to active responsibility. We then resist the corruption of
God's will for social relationships as salt resists rot and light combats darkness. To the old order there must be enmity; according to James 4:4 to be a friend of the fallen order is to be an enemy of God.
One option that Christians have used to express this enmity has been separation. Home, church, and monastery have been refuge places from an evil society. If the opposition ends in flight, however, where then is the mission to see that justice is done in the public place (Amos 5:15)? The other option is to find strength in the refuge of the Christian gathering and to use it in the world not only to call individuals to repentance but also to work for the establishment of a society of justice and mercy.
Sometimes the two options have been inconsistently combined with an attempt to flee social evils on one hand and involvement in world-wide evangelism on the other hand. Being fully informed of the biblical concern for sin will not take away from the mission of saving the world. Rather that mission will be carried out to its proper social consequences.
A rigorous social involvement of challenge, reform, and change of institutional practices reflects not a softening of
one's view of sin. Rather it requires a deeper view of evil that faces the total range of the biblical concern.
Then we respond not in mere dogmatic condemnation of the evil of others. We know our own involvement in evil. We also feel for the fear, humiliation, and suffering, and the loss when people hurt people. Then we can weep with those who weep, and turn to the God who knows that hurt, cries out against it, and dies for that world. We then ask, "Lord, what must I do?"
From The WORD
Being in Society What We are By Grace
by Stephen Charles Mott
This summer and autumn we have been examining in this column the deep biblical understanding of sin. Evil is so penetrating that its imprint lies deep within the institutional practices of our society. The Christian message, however, for both individuals and their society, moves quickly to
God's grace. At this season of Thanksgiving and Christmas, we consider God's grace and our action in the world.
Social activists are too often viewed as people hurrying to make changes in society out of their own energy. Christians not actively involved to confront institutional evil too often fail to act on the radical demands of the Bible; fulfillment seems beyond their personal resources.
Christian social action, like all genuine Christian conduct, when understood biblically is grounded in the grace of Jesus Christ. It too bends its knee at the manger. The sin that penetrates society penetrates our own abilities and strategies. Because of sin the social activist is thoroughly dependent upon
God's power through Christ working for us, working in us, working through us. Christian activism starts with the cross in the reception of
Christ's atonement for us.
The basis of our hopes and efforts for the needy is society lies in the most basic impulse of our lives. We exist to give glory to God and to see that God is glorified in the world. We seek to obey God in society as well as in the rest of our lives because God has been gracious to us in Jesus Christ. "We love because God first loved us" (1 John 4.19). Our obedience flows out of that love for God, and changed life is expected of us.
Paul says that because "Christ our paschal lamb was sacrificed," "you are to clean out the old yeast in order that you may be a fresh batch just as you are, without fermentation" (1
Corl. 5.7). Our behavior in our personal and social is to conform to our new identity as the redeemed followers of Christ.
We are "without fermentation." That is what we are by God's grace. That is our new reality, yet we have a duty rising out of it. We are to conform ourselves to that reality. We are to "clean out the old yeast." In the context Paul shows us that the yeast to be discarded includes personal behavior such as sexual immorality (v. 9). It also includes social conduct that goes to the heart of injustice, such as greed (v. 10).
We are "without fermentation." At the same time, we are told to "clean out the yeast." This is not a contradiction. As those who have received
Christ's gift of salvation, we are to "become what we are."
This response does not come from our own independent efforts. Our actions of obedience are allowing God to work through us. John 3:21 states, "Those who do what is true come to the light that their deeds may be clearly seen as being done in God." Our activity rises out of a relationship with God and is in harmony with that relationship. When we do what is right, the power of God is at work. What we do is done in God.
The commands of Scripture, including carrying out justice in the gate and opening wide our arms to the poor, now can be understood and carried out under the motivation of love for God. We are set free by the act of Christ so that "the just requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us" (Rom. 8:4).
The grace of God for us is indispensable for living in harmony of God. In turn, living lives of humble obedience at home and in the community is a central part of
God's gift. God through Christ's work has created a new realm of social existence, a believing and obedient human community. When we urge and develop new ways for human beings to relate to each other, we are in tune with the essence of
God's gracious and saving activity in Christ. We are being what we are.
Our actions are natural and spontaneous because they rise out of an inner affection and feeling of gratitude to God. A great example of this is the publicly known sinful woman who embraced Jesus at supper (Luke 7:36-50). Overcome by her feelings and without premeditation, she washed his feet with her tears. She wiped them with her hair, inviting shame by letting down her hair in public. She "continually kissed" his feet--a sign of complete submission, further humiliating herself for Jesus.
Jesus' acceptance of these actions itself was in indication of his forgiveness of her sin. He explained the situation with a beautiful and endearing lesson. His story about the forgiveness of two debtors, one whose debt was about ten times more than the
other's, states that those who are forgiven more, will love their benefactors more.
In Greek the word for forgiveness used by Jesus here is a verbal form of the noun for grace. It is "to be gracious to." Grace is the power which frees us for love and action. The force of the sinful
woman's love comes from the grace she has received. The power in actions to shape social conduct according to the just and loving standards of God arises out of gratitude. In worship and in deed, we are being what we are by grace.
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