Woe to The Commons – The Flip Side of Justice


IMG_0696Woe to The Commons – The Flip Side of Justice
Teaching Segment notes by Randell Neudorf
Sunday, October 20th, 2013

Over the fall we have been taking a look at The Commons Values of Justice, Hope, Beauty, Authenticity, Truth, Community, and Peace. These values are not just something we have chosen at random, because they are cool words, they are sign posts for things we see in the life of Jesus. They are words we use to describe what we see Jesus doing and teaching when we read about His life.

On the Commons website we have a little blurb about Justice.

Justice:  We live in a world of broken systems that mistreat and hurt many people. We believe that Justice is something that you must actively participate in to bring equity and dignity into people’s everyday lives.  We are committed to participating in justice on both a global and local level. We endeavour to give people who have been marginalized a place of belonging and a voice in their city.

John M Perkins was a huge part of the Civil Rights movement in the USA and talks a lot about Justice. He is one of my heroes and I’d like to show you a video of him talking about Justice.

As I was getting ready for today, I spent some time reading over some books I have by Perkins and some other Christian writers to frame today’s focus. There are so many great justice writers and speakers, but I kept coming back to this one guy who really calls it as he sees it. He doesn’t seem to hold any punches and I’m not even sure if I should be sharing his words because to be honest he is a bit of a trouble maker. If you follow the logical conclusions about what this guy says about Justice it is going to stir up a lot of trouble. It would probably be safer if we just left this one Justice advocate totally out of the mix, and just listen to all the other justice experts in our society. Sometimes I wish that I could just let go of this extreme stuff spoken by this one guy and focus the more realistic justice teachings. But the stuff this guys says, it won’t leave me alone, I can’t shake it.

This very extreme justice activist is named Jesus and his buddy Mathew wrote down one of His more controversial public speeches that touches on Justice. It is sometimes called the “Seven Woes.”

I would like to read it to you. Really listen to the intensity of what Jesus is saying.

Matthew 23: 1-12 CEV

Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples:

The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law are experts in the Law of Moses. So obey everything they teach you, but don’t do as they do. After all, they say one thing and do something else.

They pile heavy burdens on people’s shoulders and won’t lift a finger to help. Everything they do is just to show off in front of others. They even make a big show of wearing Scripture verses on their foreheads and arms, and they wear big tassels[a] for everyone to see. They love the best seats at banquets and the front seats in the meeting places. And when they are in the market, they like to have people greet them as their teachers.

But none of you should be called a teacher. You have only one teacher, and all of you are like brothers and sisters. Don’t call anyone on earth your father. All of you have the same Father in heaven. 10 None of you should be called the leader. The Messiah is your only leader. 11 Whoever is the greatest should be the servant of the others. 12 If you put yourself above others, you will be put down. But if you humble yourself, you will be honored.

Matthew 23: 13-39 NIV

13 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. [14] [b]

15 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.

16 “Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.’ 17 You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? 18 You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gift on the altar is bound by that oath.’ 19 You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 Therefore, anyone who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21 And anyone who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. 22 And anyone who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.

23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.

27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.

29 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. 30 And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!

33 “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? 34 Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. 35 And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36 Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation.

37 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. 38 Look, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’[c]

*It is important to recognize that these 7 woes aren’t something that are intended for us to judge other cultures or religious tribes by. Unfortunately in dark periods of church history the Seven Woes were used to foster anti Semitic sentiments. We need to remember that this is Jesus, a Jewish man talking about his own culture, recorded by Matthew who was also Jewish and was also critiquing his own culture.

(*for more info please see Herald Press’ “Believers Church Bible Commentary” on the book of Matthew PG 339-340. The Commons owns this book as part of an Anabaptist Starter Library from MCEC. If you are doing a teaching segment and you would like to take a look at what books we own, please come and talk to me.)

Even today it is so easy to use this text to look outside our own church community and to point out what is wrong in other traditions and in other churches. In reality this passage is more useful for examining ourselves. It should be read as “Woe to the Commons,” Woe to Randy,” “Woe to Paul, Miranda. Woe to Zoe, Susan, Caleb, Ross… and everyone else gathered here.” “Woe to the Commoners.”

In the Video we watched, Perkins talked about Justice being a moving target, and we need to continually self examine to move towards that target. We also need to remember that Justice is inherently an action. It is not just avoiding the injustice but it is doing what is Just (what is right). I’m not going to talk specifically about any one justice issue today, there are so many, there are too many because there is too much evil in the world. We as a society, let the world be too evil, too unjust.

In Jesus’ Seven Woes sermon we are being painted a picture of what injustice looks like so that we might be able to recognize Justice.

So what does justice look like if we reverse some of the things Jesus warns us against?

  • Words and Actions should line up: The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law are experts in the Law of Moses. So obey everything they teach you, but don’t do as they do. After all, they say one thing and do something else.”
  • It is about helping people, it is about sharing the load, it is about putting others before yourself: “They pile heavy burdens on people’s shoulders and won’t lift a finger to help. Everything they do is just to show off in front of others…”
  • Be humble. It is about equality under God. Systems that create hierarchy perpetuate injustice: But none of you should be called a teacher. You have only one teacher, and all of you are like brothers and sisters.Don’t call anyone on earth your father. All of you have the same Father in heaven.None of you should be called the leader. The Messiah is your only leader.Whoever is the greatest should be the servant of the others.If you put yourself above others, you will be put down. But if you humble yourself, you will be honored.”
  • Welcome people into the Kingdom, while actively entering it yourself: ““Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”
  • Success doesn’t have to look like me: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.”
  • It is the big picture, sometimes so big we miss it because it is all around us: ““Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”
  • Who Cares what “THEY” think. Justice is about my own heart on the inside. It is about an internal moral compass not an external set of rules. It is more about “Me” (in a good way) and less about the royal “They” and having to live up to “their” judgements: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
  • We are responsible for the actions of our society. We don’t get to be morally superior then those who came before us: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation.”
    This really got me thinking about Aboriginal Land Claim Issues, and the Truth & Reconciliation activities happening right now. This passage really made me have a pang of guilt for some of my attitudes in the past about make restitution for what my ancestors have done, or what took place in my society’s history. I see here that we need to seek to restore and bring Justice to what was done wrongly in the past.
  • Justice longs to forgive & reconcile: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings…”
    Despite all Jesus’ criticism, He still wants to restore His people back to Him.

Justice is crazy and extremely hard. If you are moving towards the target that Perkins was talking about, you are going to hit resistance, you are going to be unpopular, maybe even persecuted. Once you start living for the other, for the marginalized, for the people without power. Once you start to break down systems of hierarchy; the people in power (the people who aren’t part of the kingdom but rather part of the empire) they aren’t going to like you and they are going to fight against you. No one likes a prophet. No one really wants to hear about how we have mountains of inequality all around us. When you start stepping into the kind of Justice Jesus is talking about, you are going to be stepping on some toes.

The 7 Woes Sermon is often considered a follow up to Jesus’ Sermon on The Mount (found in Matthew 5). In that sermon Jesus is painting a picture of a Just Kingdom and He describes the subjects that inhabit this strange Kingdom of Heaven.

So who does the Kingdom of Heaven belong to?

  • the poor in spirit
  • those who mourn
  • the meek
  • those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
  • the merciful
  • the pure in heart
  • the peacemakers
  • the persecuted

And what happens to these citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven?

  • people insult them
  • they are persecuted
  • people falsely say all kinds of evil against them because of Jesus

Why does this happen?

It goes back to Justice being about throwing your lot in with the outsider, the marginalized and giving up power.

Now I haven’t ever been persecuted but I do know what it is like to associate with  people who are outside of my peers. I actually get to spend a lot of time with people who aren’t in my peer group.

I have worked for Living Rock Ministries for 5 years. The Rock works predominantly with street involved youth, and for three years I worked for their Gang Prevention project. I know people who have done very bad things and I know people who have had horrible things done to them. I get to journey with these people and see them make positive changes one step at a time (and sadly see them make mistakes as well). I’ve gotten to spend time with these youth, sharing meals, making music, playing games, dreaming about future plans, and all of this helps me see these street youth as people and not downtown problems.

Again all though I wouldn’t call it persecution there was one time where my time with street youth got me mistaken for somebody else.

I was trying to go to a concert at the Pearl Company that our friend Jared was organizing. Jared lives close to the Pearl Company and he invited everyone to come to his place before the show to buy supper at his house from his little Hot Dog cart business called “Wienies.” Now I had never been to Jared’s place before, and all though I like the area he lives in, lots of people would consider it a little more rough around the edges then they care for. Even though their are lots of great people on that street and the Pearl Company has all kinds of great cultural activities going on, their is also a lot of illegal things going on in that area as well.

So I’m driving up and down the street very slowly trying to find my friend Jared’s house and I can’t find it at all, eventually the police pull me over and a lady officer gets out of her car and asks me “What are you doing?” I say “I’m going to a friends house for a Bar BQ before a concert at the Pearl Company.” She doesn’t believe me and says “Don’t you know where your friend lives?” I say “No, this my first time at his place.” She takes my license and insurance and takes a really long time running my numbers. She comes back and says “You don’t own this van.” I say, “I do it is just registered to my wife’s name, see we are both Neudorfs.” She goes and takes even longer checking out her files and comes back and says “I can’t find you in the system anywhere, but you look sooooo familiar!” (she was saying this in a “you look like a bad guy” kind of way, and not like “you look my favourite actor” kind of way). It then hits me, she has seen me at the Rock! I blurt out “I work at the Rock! Maybe you have seen me there?” I was pulled over because when this officer saw my face she saw the faces of the youth that she deals with. My face was in her mind along side of Gangsters, Homeless People, Assault Victims, and other marginalized youth.

Again I’m not saying I was persecuted in this story but I definitely got a taste of being falsely thought to be a criminal for associated with people outside of my peer group. I was seen  repeatedly out side the circle of power and middle class affluence, and I became part of that outside image in that lady’s mind.

Justice is so hard. It is a moving target, it will not ever be completely realized until the Kingdom of Heaven is fully realized, when Jesus comes back to make things right. But our job in the mean time is too continually level the playing field, to give up our own power and raise up people without power. Raise up people without voice. Raise up people without privilege.

It is frustrating because to do this we need continually self examine our selves and encourage each other. As soon as one target is met we need to move on to the next.

I’m not an expert in this, so I can’t tell you how to be an amazing person of Justice. We aren’t going to solve the worlds problems tonight, but I think their are some things we can start with to get closer to that moving target:

  • I would encourage all of you, that when you find out about an injustice, tell other people, call it out for what it is.
  • Get involved in something that is building people up, and empowering marginalized people. That could be at The Rock, Welcome Inn, Mennonite Central Committee, Big Brothers or Big Sisters (or you name it). We all need to start with something.
  • In your personal networks be an advocate for people who are falling through the cracks. Each of us is placed in our own unique position for a reason. Social Service agencies and safety nets do lots of great work but they can’t do everything, and they can’t be everywhere. They are still just imperfect systems that create their own types of inequality. There are going to be people and situations that you are going to come across where you are going to have a choice between Justice and turning a Blind Eye.
  • Learn from those who have come before you. There are so many Justice Heroes we can learn from. Seek them out, build in the best of them into your own DNA.
      • Read about them. I love Perkins, Jennette reads about Martin Luther King. Find the stories of those who are farther down this Justice road
      • Sign up to be on a mailing list (Mennonite Central Committee is a great one that is part of our tribe)
      • Volunteer with them. Every volunteer organization has that one person that is just getting it so right, if when you are volunteering, try to learn from them. Find out what makes them tick.

When I started working at the Rock I would learn how to be a good host and friend to the youth by watching a lady named Julie. I tell people that I was trained at the Rock under the WWJD? program (What Would Juile Do?). Now Julie didn’t like all that attention (I think she thought she might get struck by lightning) but it is so important to plug into people who know more about this Justice thing then you do and follow their lead, and if some day you know a little more then someone else remember to take them along with you as well.

But don’t ever think you have Justice all figured out. As soon as one thing is made a little more “just,” God is going to show us what we need to do next. Justice is a process that isn’t going to be finished until Jesus returns.