Proper 12 (July 24-30) Texts: Gen. 18:20-32; Luke 11:1-11; Col. 2:6-15
JUSTICE ON TRIAL
It seems like the OJ trial gave a huge boost to the way in which trials are all over TV. Most recently it’s been George Zimmerman’s trial. What I see happening is that in an increasing number of cases, it’s not so much the defendant that’s on trial, but our legal system — justice itself is on trial.
That’s exactly what’s happening in our first lesson from Genesis today: justice is on trial. It begins as the investigation against Sodom and Gomorrah. The Lord comes down to investigate; it looks like there might be a trial to bring judgment on those two infamous cities. But what does Abraham do? He seemingly turns the tables. It’s no longer Sodom and Gomorrah on trial, but God’s very standard of justice! Abraham is a shameless a defense attorney — listen again to his first speech: ‘Your honor. . .
“. . . will you indeed destroy the righteous with the wicked? … Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
Then comes that unbelievable bartering! Abraham talks God down from fifty all the way to ten. God will save Sodom and Gomorrah for a handful of righteous people. Abraham is so audacious as to turn the tables on God. It is not so much Sodom and Gomorrah on trial as it is God on trial! “Shall not the Judge of the earth do right?” Abraham asks. It is God’s justice on trial!
What’s going on has to do with the very heart of the movement of Scripture itself. This is precisely what Jesus came to reveal to us — except Jesus came to turn the tables on what Abraham does in today’s lesson. Jesus represents God’s justice in a way that turns the tables on us. Jesus came to be put on trial and convicted so that our human ways of meting out justice could be put on trial, in hopes that we would finally recognize God’s true justice as an alternative to ours.
Looking carefully at Scripture, we can see the visible progression in how God is perceived. That is what helps us understand that there are false gods and so false ideas about God’s justice, and, conversely, a true God and true divine justice. By taking this journey through Scripture, we can move from our false, human ideas about God and come face-to-face with the true God that Jesus reveals — a God of unconditional love and merciful justice, and not of judgment and punishment.
Did you know that St. Paul had been a lawyer? He frames the whole vision of the gospel in terms of God’s justice. As he begins his vital letter to the Romans, he says, “I am not ashamed of the gospel…. For in it the justice of God is revealed through faith for faith.” The Justice of God. In the cross and resurrection of Jesus, we finally get to see what God’s justice is really like. And it is quite different from what we thought. It is quite different than our own versions of justice.
Paul sums it up in one verse at the end of today’s second lesson: “God disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them, through the cross of Jesus.” In other words, through the resurrection, God says “Not guilty!” to the “Guilty!” verdict of the human courts that convicted and executed Jesus. The cross and resurrection are all about overturning the verdict! The cross overturns our human justice system that we might come to finally see God’s justice system as completely different. And we can only begin to comprehend it through our faith in Jesus Christ.
This was stunning to the first Christians! On that first Easter morning, they weren’t overjoyed. They were afraid! And confused! They had grown up believing that the Messiah would be King! He would destroy their oppressors! Like in last week’s video from Brian McLaren, the Messiah was supposed to put others on trial and execute them, not be put on trial himself and executed. Yet Jesus had been found guilty not only by the Romans, who sarcastically posted his crime of insurrection above his head — “Jesus Christ, King of the Jews” — but also convicted by his own people according to their Jewish Torah, found guilty of blasphemy, of being a heretic.
But the Gospels make clear that he was NOT GUILTY. Jesus was a completely innocent victim. And through his trial, execution and resurrection, God put our human way of violent justice on trial in order to reveal God’s true self, a God of mercy, forgiveness, and transformation.
God’s justice is central in all three readings today. Look at how the Lord’s Prayer ends. “Save us from the time of trial.” It strikes me how much the Lord’s Prayer is like Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane — he prayed that he would not be put to trial. He also prayed that God’s will be done, God’s kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven. And when he was put to death, Jesus’ prayed again — “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” The God of mercy forgives those who judged and crucified Jesus.
That same God also forgives us, heals us, and reveals God’s true self so that we might also begin to break the terrible cycles of violence and hurt. So we also pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” And so we conclude our engagement with the readings this morning by asking: Who do you or I need to forgive, as we have been forgiven? Where might we bring God’s merciful justice this week in a way that helps bring reconciliation?
Are we ready to live under God’s new justice of mercy and love? This brings us back to the beginning, trials like the George Zimmerman trial. We cannot begin to sort through all the complexities of that trial here, but we can conclude by affirming that it is part of our calling as disciples of Jesus to be part of the sorting out. I believe that God’s justice in Jesus Christ has already made our U. S. justice system better, affording rights to the accused, for example, as no other human justice system has achieved. But we are still a long ways from God’s justice as revealed in scripture, which both hears the cries of the victims — like Abel killed by his brother Cain, like Trayvon Martin. And, at the same time, it works with the convicted perpetrators for restoration, not just retribution. You and I are called to participate in the ways in which God’s justice continues to transform our human justice. You and I are called to be part of racial reconciliation, working towards God’s promise to create one new humanity in Jesus Christ. How can you and I help to ensure that tragic deaths like Trayvon Martin’s lead to greater justice? As disciples of Jesus, we are called to make a difference. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran, Portage, MI, July 27-28, 2013
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