Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Oceans of justice and rivers of fairness

Off the Wall  with Padre James Bhagwan
Published in the Fiji Times, Wednesday, November 09, 2011
IN preparation for a sermon I preached last week in the English-language worship service here at the Methodist Theological University, I came across a translation of Amos 5:21-24, from The Message Bible.
The goal of The Message is to engage people in the reading process and help them understand what they read.
According to Eugene Patterson, the publisher of The Message, "Language changes. New words are formed. Old words take on new meaning.
"There is a need in every generation to keep the language of the gospel message current, fresh, and understandable-the way it was for its very first readers.
"That is what The Message seeks to accomplish for contemporary readers.
"It is a version for our time-designed to be read by contemporary people in the same way as the original koin Greek and Hebrew manuscripts were savoured by people thousands of years ago."
So this is what Amos 5:21-24 looks like in The Message translation:
I can't stand your religious meetings.
I'm fed up with your conferences and conventions.
I want nothing to do with your religion projects,
your pretentious slogans and goals.
I'm sick of your fundraising schemes,
your public relations and image making.
I've had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.
When was the last time you sang to me?
Do you know what I want?
I want justice-oceans of it.
I want fairness-rivers of it.
That's what I want. That's all I want.
When read in this translation, these are not comforting words. The point God was making to Amos is that if we ignore issues of justice and righteousness then even the best worship and gifts are unacceptable to Him. A true relationship with God was never about sacrifices, but was based on obedience.
The rejected worship wasn't true worship because it was not part to active obedience. It was not flowing out in abundance, like living water; it was still. It was stagnant.
We all know what stagnant water means. This issue was still a live issue in Jesus' day. It is still a live issue for us in 21st century Fiji.
What God, through the prophet was pointing out was that the division of private life with public life, and worship with day-to-day living, was a false one. It still is today.
You see we've created a false division in our lives, between the private and the public, between the Sunday worship and the day-to-day living, and between the spiritual and the physical.
I remember last December, as some of us lobbied for December 25th, which was a Saturday, to be clarified as a public holiday because of the public holiday on Monday 27th.
I began my campaign after a church member lamented to me about the fact that he would not be able to attend worship on Christmas day because his employers had said that because December 27 was a public holiday, December 25 was a normal working day.
Common sense prevailed, eventually, and most of those who wanted to observe the day or attend services were able to do so.
How I pray for a similar lament about social justice. Amos calls for social justice. He calls for the compassionate life. What is the compassionate life? It is a life of justice, peace and love.
The Hebrew word for justice is mishpat. It means justice or righteousness. Psalm 103:6 declares, "The Lord works vindication and justice (mishpat) for all who are oppressed."
The Hebrew word shalom means peace but it is peace with wholeness, unity, and balance. Shalom is a vision of an all-inclusive (every is welcome) community of loving persons. Shalom begins the bible and it is the end of the bible.
It is harmony with God; harmony with our neighbour; harmony with nature. Justice and mercy abound. Faithfulness prevails. Peace and unity reign. It is a caring and consideration for all people.
The Hebrew word for love is hesed. It is a word that is hard to translate. God's hesed love is "from everlasting to everlasting" (Ps. 103:17) and it "endures forever" (Ps. 106:1). It is a steadfast love full of compassion.
For example, the Hebrew law says that if a neighbour borrows your cart and leaves his coat as a pledge, you must give the coat back before sunset even if he doesn't return your cart. Why? Because the night is cold and he needs his coat for warmth. A widow's coat could never be taken as a pledge because it was probably all she had. This is compassion in the highest order.
Even the earth deserves some hesed.The land is to have a year of rest. This may all seem like nice but ineffectual words given the situation many of us find ourselves in. Basically the compassionate life means right relationships and right living. It means that we make fair judgments and have fair business dealings. It becomes a stewardship of integrity and justice.
Let us swim in that ocean of justice, let us sail in it. And let us drink and bring others to drink from the rivers of fairness and righteousness. All it takes is compassion... and courage.
* Reverend JS Bhagwan is a student of the International Graduate School of Theology at the Methodist Theological University in Seoul, South Korea. Email: (Facebook/Twitter).

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