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Social Justice Sunday

Michaelmas, 30 September, 2013
Stephen Duckett, parishioner, St Peter's Eastern Hill

Micah 6: 1-8

September has been 'Commitment month' here at St Peter's, bookended on 1st September by The Feast of the New Guinea Martyrs, where we remembered those who served and died on mission overseas, and today, celebrated as Social Justice Sunday.

St Peter's has a long tradition of commitment to social justice causes, most notably represented by the work of Fr Maynard. The parish demonstrates its contemporary concern for the disadvantaged in our society through the Lazarus Centre, its breakfast program and the work of Fr Philip and the parishioners who volunteer in these programs.

It was Fr Maynard who was instrumental in the Brotherhood of St Laurence relocating to Melbourne seventy years ago in 1933. Fr Tucker, the founder of the Brotherhood, also led St Mary's Mission in Fitzroy, an offshoot of this parish in those early days. Brotherhood trainees lived in Keble House at that time[1]. There is a pew cushion honouring Fr Tucker and the Brotherhood in one of the middle rows on the left hand side of the church (when facing the altar). Fr David Farrer served on the Board of the Brotherhood until his appointment as Bishop of Wangaratta, and Fr Hugh serves on the Brotherhood board now. Fr David nominated me to the Board and I was privileged to serve on the board for 10 years, five as its chair.

The Brotherhood of St Laurence is just one example of the church's role in promoting social justice. That role has a solid theological base, as Jesus' message is one of radical social reform.

We see a prophetic call to justice in today's reading from the Hebrew Scriptures.

Micah lived and wrote in the Southern Kingdom, Judah, in the eighth century BC. Micah contributes to an important theme in the First Testament about the proper ordering of society and what is due to God. Much of the Book of Micah talks about justice, with many examples of unjust behaviour which are condemned and could lead to judgement.

To give two examples. In chapter 2, Micah, speaking with the voice of prophecy, has this to say:

What sorrow awaits you who lie awake at night, thinking up evil plans.
You rise at dawn and hurry to carry them out, simply because you have the power to do so.
When you want a piece of land, you find a way to seize it.
When you want someone's house, you take it by fraud and violence.
You cheat a man of his property, stealing his family's inheritance.

Later in chapter 6, he goes on to say this:

What shall I say about the homes of the wicked filled with treasures gained by cheating?
What about the disgusting practice of measuring out grain with dishonest measures?
How can I tolerate your merchants who use dishonest scales and weights?
The rich among you have become wealthy through extortion and violence.
Your citizens are so used to lying that their tongues can no longer tell the truth.

Strong language indeed! And all involved are condemned and called to judgement.

Micah is here addressing real concerns of real people. Their houses and land get taken from them, they are cheated. Addressing unfairness is a theme of the whole book of Micah. Although many of these examples still resonate today, they are even more powerful when one thinks of their context. For example, with no ordered system of weights and measures, many could easily be exposed to cheating by dishonest scales and weights. What is today's equivalent of 'dishonest scales and weights'? People cheating on taxes? Banks not passing on interest rate deductions?

So, turning to today's excerpt from Micah.

The first few verses of chapter 6 of Micah are set up as a court room, with God judging his people. The context is God charging his people with rebellion, ingratitude and that they worshipped other gods, despite all that Yahweh had done for them.

The people respond by asking what they should do: what would please the Lord, or what does God want from them. In the traditions of the time they can only think in terms of animal and even human sacrifices, and generous gifts of 'ten thousand rivers of olive oil'.

God's reply is challenging: I don't want gifts or sacrifices, I want you. In verse 8, God is saying His religion is not just something that can be done with gifts, but is a way of life.

There are several different translations of Micah 6:8, picking and choosing amongst the translations gives me this one:

What the Lord yearns for or requires is 'to promote justice and do what is right, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God'.

This threefold plea is the commitment to social justice required of us, today and every day.

First we have to 'do justice'; to promote justice and do what is right. Note it doesn't say 'enforce justice'; there are others who are employed to do that. We have to live justice, to treat the earth justly, to treat others justly, and paralleling Mary's great song, we also need to exalt the humble and to fill the hungry with good things (Luke 1:52).

Second, we have to love mercy. Again not just be merciful, but a stronger plea. It's a call to embrace mercy and kindness, not just in a perfunctory way. Do we show enough mercy to the strangers at our gate? Are we wholeheartedly showing mercy and kindness to all others? Are we doing all we can to welcome the other, the outcast, the refugee?

These are the justice calls, this is the spirit of social justice which infuses the Bible. But wait, there's more!

God's third yearning is that we walk humbly with our God. Humbly could also be phrased as 'attentively'. This plea is a very active one. It's about walking, travelling, going about our everyday life with our God and listening attentively to the whispers from our God.

The three requirements are all one. You don't just do justice or love mercy, focusing simply on the social justice message; you also have to do that whilst walking alongside God. God is there to strengthen you in those endeavours and, sometimes, to call you up when you have left undone, what you ought to have done.

Micah's short injunction has echoes of Jesus' summary of the Law in Mark 12 and Matthew 22:

The most important commandment is this: 'Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength'. The second is equally important: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' No other commandment is greater than these."

The first parts of Micah 6:8 are about loving your neighbour, the last part about loving your God. Micah, in a sense, is being more explicit and prescriptive about what it means to 'love your neighbour'. It is a loving God who is behind the justice calls earlier in Micah, and whose promises are fulfilled in the Second Testament. It is this loving God who is calling us to commit to do justice and love mercy, every day and in every way.

And the potential ways are many and varied. If I go back to Fr Tucker and the Brotherhood of St Laurence. Fr Tucker certainly wanted to help the poor, and he sought donations from wealthy people to do that. The prevailing view of welfare at the time was that the poor could be divided into the 'deserving' and 'undeserving' — and we still see some of that today. Fr Tucker rejected that and often highlighted what we would now call 'environmental factors' or social determinants as leading to the need for support.[2] But he also moved on from a charitable view of welfare to one which emphasised action and challenging government to take a more active role. In one celebrated case he squatted on the verandah of a slum tenement house to prevent the occupants from being evicted.[3] The Brotherhood quickly moved from just ameliorating the conditions of the poor, to being concerned about social justice as well.

So what does that mean for us here today? Are we focussed on amelioration, or transformation? Where is the tenement verandah that we propose to squat on?

Fr Tucker challenged us all when he argued that the 'Sermon on the Mount is the best plan known ... for welfare here on earth. In this plan lies the one hope for humanity'.[4]

Later in this service we commit to living and working to God's praise and glory. In doing so I invite you to think of this commitment of 'living and working' in the way Micah called us, as being about doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God.


Notes:

  1. Holden, C. (1996) From Tories at prayer to Socialists at Mass: St. Peter's, Eastern Hill, Melbourne, 1846-1990 (Melbourne University Press)
  2. Holden, C., et al. (2008). Divine discontent — the Brotherhood of St Laurence: a history. (North Melbourne, Vic., Australian Scholarly Publishing). Page 87; McLachlan, R., Gilfillan, G. and Gordon, J. (2013) Deep and persistent disadvantage in Australia (Productivity Commission)
  3. Handfield, J. (1980). Friends and brothers: a life of Gerard Kennedy Tucker, founder of the Brotherhood of St. Laurence and Community Aid Abroad. (Melbourne, Hyland House)
  4. Handfield, p193


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