Yes, Virginia, There is a Social Gospel
Reading: Jeremiah 36-39, James 5
This is another one of those times when the Old and New Testament readings assigned for today has curiously parallel thoughts.
James carries the brunt of the message this morning. At the beginning of James 5, the writer warns his audience that taking advantage of poor, or of those over whom the rich have power, will not be tolerated. The consequences will be harsh. James writes:
“Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you” (James 1:1, NIV). All that has been accumulated will be destroyed. It’s not because God doesn’t approve of people having money. It’s the injustice and inequality that bothers God to the extent that He uses harsh words and even harsher judgment against those who ignore what is right and just when it comes to the distribution of wealth.
“Look! The wages you have failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence.” And then come the ominous words, “You have fattened yourselves for the day of slaughter” (James 5:4, 5, NIV).
Back in the passage from Jeremiah, the Lord has delivered a message to His servant. Jerusalem is under siege. The Babylonians are waiting at the gates. When they overwhelmed the city’s defenders they took into captivity most of the people. Those left behind were poor. Jeremiah 39:10 (NIV) tells us: “But Nebuzaradan the commander of the guard left behind in the land of Judah some of the poor people, who owned nothing; and at that time he gave them vineyards and fields.”
At first glance that statement doesn’t seem all that significant. But it has a wealth of meaning when we look at passages like Isaiah 58, which is a scathing condemnation of what James is talking about–the haves ignoring the needs of the have-nots. Part of the sin that brought the people of God to their knees and dragged them into captivity was their lack of righteousness expressed through social justice. They practiced “religion” but not with righteousness. Isaiah writes: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke; to set the opposed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter–when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:6, 7, NIV).
Whether its unfair wages or ignoring the poor and needy, God doesn’t look lightly on those who take what He gives and hoard it for their exclusive use. He will equal things up and work righteousness and justice Himself if we refuse to do it. Can you imagine what the poor in Judah, those who had owned nothing, felt when they suddenly become property owners? Now they could grow what they needed, build homes, enjoy the security and provision that had been denied them by those who had been stripped bare by the Babylonians and hauled away.
But Isaiah adds another aspect to what we see come true in Jeremiah. The prophet tells us that unless there is social justice as an outcome of righteousness, there will be no blessing on the people of God. He says: “Then [when the needy are looked after] your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I” (Isaiah 58:8, 9, NIV).
How beautifully does this coincide with James’s statement in James 5:16b (NIV) “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.”
And in the event that saying it once wasn’t enough, Isaiah continues: “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail…” (Isaiah 58:9b-11, NIV).
Yes, Virginia, there is a social gospel and we’d do well not just to preach it but to live it.