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Justice and Fairness
Winter Quarter: Justice, Law, History
Unit 2: God: The Source of Justice
Sunday school lesson for the week of January 16, 2022
By Dr. D. Craig Rikard
Background Scripture: Exodus 23
Key Scripture (NIV):
“Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd, and do not show favoritism to a poor person in a lawsuit.” Exodus 23:2-3
- To better understand what it means to pervert goodness.
- To recognize the power of the crowd when seeking to act in truth.
- To better understand the responsibility we have toward others and God.
- To learn to seek the higher path of God’s moral law versus the shadowy path of self-serving.
Often, an assigned text contains far more areas of inquiry and observation than one lesson can explore. Thus, some of the lessons, such as this week’s lesson, appear long. I try to harvest all I believe the text offers, even when I know it is most likely too much for a one-hour or 45-minute lesson. In spite of all explored, I often feel there is so much more that time constrains me from exploring. The purpose of these lessons is to add another layer of exploration to the good work already done in the Sunday school books and teacher’s manuals. When a lesson is this long you may have to omit some areas of its content. I pray you can use the books, this lesson, and your personal study to offer an instructive and informative biblical lesson. Hopefully, you can save and use the unused info for another time.
Understanding the Terms
The term pervert
implies alteration. Perversion, as used in our text, does not imply a wrong is created from nothing. It implies that truth and righteousness exists priori,
as the gift of God. The term priori
refers to preexistent, objective reality. In other words, God’s truth, love and righteousness exists over and beyond us. We did not create them, we participate in them. Perversion occurs when that priori truth, righteousness and all other moral attributes are altered by humankind for selfish purposes in contrast to participating in them for the ultimate good. Using the words of Jesus, it is taking God’s preexistent light and altering it until it takes on a degree of darkness. No person or power possesses the ability to totally eradicate God’s truth and goodness. However, that truth and goodness can be twisted until it appears as a dark shadow.
The truth and goodness still exist; however, we cannot see or experience them in their full light. Read Luke 11: 33-36.
Sadly, we have witnessed some clergy taking the light and truth of Scripture and twisting them for self-serving purposes. Many of us recall the horror of Jonestown. Jim Jones began with a passionate desire for social justice. However, he took this righteous cause and created a dark existence. Social justice remains a righteous, good cause. However, as Jones perverted it, people experienced its dark alteration and its destructive consequences. Painfully, scripture has historically been used to justify slavery, sexism, and prejudice. Perversion, therefore, is a most grievous sin. When we use goodness for evil intent our sin, and the consequences of that sin, create pain and destruction. Sadly, we can use goodness and pervert it through ignorance. However, perversion, as understood in our text, can involve intent.
That is, we are aware of what we are doing, yet our desire for a selfish end drives us to alter truth to reach that end.
Most of us are acquainted with the moral philosophy of “the end justifies the means.” A person can desire a selfish end. We can so desire that self-serving end that we twist and alter that which is good to achieve it. Furthermore, we tend to justify this perversion of goodness and truth because we believe the end is worth it. Thus, it is not a moral philosophy. In most cases it is an immoral philosophy
Can you attest to witnessing the perversion of goodness for ill intent? What do you believe is the consequence of such perversion? How do you believe people are hurt in this manner? Can you share moments and experiences in which you witnessed someone, or a group, adhering to the philosophy of the “ends justifying the means?” Can you identify your own adoption of this philosophy when you believed it served you well? Do you believe the ends ever justify the means when it involves the perversion of light, truth, and goodness? What do you think Jesus meant when he warned of the light within us becoming darkness?
Perversion can be intensified in a crowd.
A crowd can develop its own personality. It is most difficult to stand alone for goodness and truth when the crowd endorses and promotes that which is destructive. Goodness and truth can swiftly become victims in a forceful crowd. Some refer to the power of a crowd as mob mentality.
There exists no greater expression of this mob mentality than the behavior of the crowd during the trial of Jesus. Many of the crowd in Jerusalem were pilgrims. They traveled from all parts of the world to partake of Passover in Jerusalem. It was the dream of every Jewish person to celebrate and observe Passover in the Holy City. Many would have been unfamiliar with Jesus. Even if some heard of Jesus, they most likely heard opinions or rumors. The vast number of these pilgrims, along with the Jews who lived in or near Jerusalem, were not violent people. They were people of faith! They were in Jerusalem to observe a holy day and event in their history. Individually, most would never take a human life.
However, how quickly the crowd is moved to demand the crucifixion of Jesus. I’ve only attended one political rally in my life. As a young man I was bewildered over how quickly usually quiet people became loudly vocal. As a student of theology and human behavior I was equally surprised over how quickly individuals seemed to “feed off the emotions” of others. I even found myself wanting to agree with the crowd though I arrived with a strong set of opinions that differed. Most of us understand and have witnessed the power of a crowd.
The power of the crowd can serve a good cause. Sports crowds often inspire players. When individuals gather respectfully and lawfully around a just cause, they empower that cause. When women marched for the right to vote, their crowd amplified the justice of their cause, eventually leading to a change of law. Crowds at revival services often strengthen the faith and increase the hope of fellow worshippers.
In contrast, how often have we witnessed a sports crowd turn violent? How often have we experienced marches and gatherings around a cause become a riot? How often have we witnessed a crowd of good people manipulated into destructive actions?
Our text warns us about “following the crowd.” Perversion is destructive enough when performed by an individual. How destructive it can become when enticed and nurtured within a crowd! Just because a majority of people believe in something or support something, their number does not make their thought and action right. Often in history, a few people, or even one person stood for the right against a sea of wrong. Shannon Adler was correct in writing: “People can waste a large amount of their time trying to be accepted by people. Sometimes, God meant for you not to fit. You never know, you may hold the unique perspective that when voiced or demonstrated will change generations.”
The Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s is a great example of the few against the crowds. We often mistakenly think of the movement as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the massive crowds he drew as the norm. Actually, King and a few with him were a minority, a great minority in the beginning. The large crowds that later became associated with the movement were first a small few, committed totally to the justice and righteousness of their cause. The power and righteousness of their cause won the hearts and minds of people.
A crowd not only possesses the power to arouse constructive or destructive passions within us, it can also birth apathy and silence. In silence we attempt to insulate ourselves from the destructive energy about us. We may feel like we are non-participants in the wrong by remaining silent. Joseph of Arimathea was a member of the Sanhedrin that tried Jesus. We have no record of him saying a word in defense of Jesus. He has often been praised for giving his personal tomb for Jesus’ burial. However, I have often wondered if this was not an act of guilt on his part for not having stood against the wrong being done to Jesus. Only he and God knew his heart. We must recognize the power of a crowd to silence dissent, even when that dissent is right.
We live in community. Most of us live and embody our morals and values in that community. The community can inspire and nurture those values, or it can stifle them. As people of faith, we must know what we believe while always being open to new light. We must know when to join and when to resist. We must know when to speak and when to be silent. We must always be aware of the crowd and its power! Even more so, we must always be aware of the power and presence of God’s overriding and transcendent goodness and righteousness.
Exodus is the story of a moral community. The Mosaic Law has been given. Now, the nation of Israel must prayerfully and corporately determine how to live as a moral, just, godly society. They were not creating a moral life for the community; in contrast they were participating in the moral life God had created.
The crowd has tremendous power in early Israelite history. Remember, unlike the West, where we strongly believe in the rights of the individual, the Near Eastern world believed in the power of the community over the rights of the individual. If an individual could possibly harm the entire community, they could lose their life. Read the story of Achan in Joshua 7. The crowd was perceived mostly in a positive, healthy light in Hebrew culture. Yet, against this historical backdrop Israel is warned about the power of the crowd to pervert justice.
Can you share moments when being part of a crowd proved inspiring and empowering for good? Can you share moments when crowds took a positive moment and created destruction? Have you witnessed “mob mentality?” Can you recall a moment when a crowd, of great or small size, influenced your thought or behavior? Can you remember some such moments as a positive? Can you recall some proving destructive in your life? Can you attest to a time in your life when you felt a crowd silenced you? Can you identify with Joseph of Arimathea during Jesus’ trial? How do you think you would have felt to stand in his shoes?
Our text offers five choices we can face when presented with opportunities to engage in truth, justice, mercy and goodness. Though these choices were written long ago, we can still identify with them. These five do not represent an exhaustive list of all such choices. However, they do awaken us to consider our response when facing choices of goodness versus self-centeredness. We can either participate in God’s goodness or engage in the perversion of that goodness.
Since the major thrust of our lesson is related to the perversion of justice and goodness, we can only briefly visit the issues involved in these choices. Time will not allow us to explore all factors involved in these choices. Our intent is rather to understand how these choices are representative of all choices involving our participation in or perversion of God’s goodness and justice.
First Choice: Involvement or Negligence
In day-to-day life we often witness our neighbor, or even a stranger, experiencing difficulty. In this first choice, a neighbor’s donkey has either wandered off or the animal is so overloaded its legs cannot withstand the weight, rendering the animal unable to work. On the surface these incidences do not strike us in 2021 as major moral dilemmas. However, in ancient Israel such moments could lead to hardship and loss. The ass was indeed a beast of burden. It possessed the remarkable ability to travel the terrain of Israel with steadfast footing. There existed only two means of traveling. A person could walk or ride a donkey, burro, or ass. In this instance, the ass is most likely used to transport necessary supplies for home and work. In ancient Israel the ass was their car and truck! The loss of the animal could mean great hardship for the family involved. Imagine owning a business in which you depended upon a truck to transport your tools and necessities. Continue to imagine someone stealing that truck, leaving you to fend for yourself. The ancient Israelite would most likely have experienced the same emotions as us.
In the second part of this incident the donkey is overloaded. Even if items are removed from the donkey’s back, allowing the donkey to stand, what happens to the removed items? Do you leave them and pray no one steals them? Do you try to hoist them upon your own back, risking injury and pain? An overloaded donkey presented a most difficult dilemma.
In both cases we are being asked, “What should be our godly, righteous response?” Do we help our neighbor or continue in our own pursuits? In both cases it is possible to ignore the struggle of another and choose not to become involved. We might ask Cain’s question, which we studied in our first lesson of January, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer to Cain’s question is an emphatic “Yes!” Again, we live in community. All of us are interconnected in life. Failing to recognize the pain and struggle of another means that see ourselves as “disconnected” from them. If we ignore them we are choosing to believe our time is too valuable and our own pursuits far more important than their pain.
How is this negligence perversion? The priori moral law of God proclaims we are loved and are to love likewise. This moral truth calls us to identify with our neighbor’s struggle. The same calamity afflicting them is possible for us. In our human community, pain and struggle are as real as joy and triumph. We all live through both together. The only way we can “leave the scene” is to twist or alter this moral law of love through rationalization. We might say, “Yes, they are important to God, but not as important to me today.” “There is an end I desire more than helping them.” “Yes, they are hurting, but they will survive.” Of course, the greatest rationalization often facing us can be stated as, “Someone else has more time to help them.” We can add rationalization after rationalization, each one an attempt to alter and twist the moral law of love for one another. Each rationalization adds shadow to the radiant light of love and compassion.
In the second incidence the text introduces an interesting caveat. We are to help the person even if they hate us.
It is of great importance to consider the ramifications of this caveat. This caveat forces us to observe there exists no condition with the power to nullify the moral law of God’s love. How they feel toward us has no bearing on our responsibility to do the right thing in love. The moral attributes of God are eternal. These attributes are the moral attributes of the Kingdom of God, later fully embodied in Jesus; thus, they are eternal. Eternal attributes cannot be destroyed by human sin. The only way we can leave our neighbor in these situations is to alter the truth with rationalizations.
There are two consequences of such negligence. First, I diminish my own character. I have missed the opportunity to identify with one of God’s children, even when they despise me. I have missed the opportunity to transform their dislike and hatred into love and appreciation. I have forfeited the opportunity to learn and grow through another opportunity in life. Secondly, I have left the individual and family in pain. As I move forward in life, I may find a way to put the moment out of mind. However, their pain is real, and it continues. In such moments, we have a choice. We can choose the higher, noble path of love, or we can walk away in the shadows.
Can you identify with the owners of the donkey’s in both cases? How do you think they felt, and what possible pain awaited them? Can you recall moments in your life when you faced the choice of helping or neglecting? Did you find yourself wanting to rationalize your leaving? Can you understand why rationalizing and leaving are a perversion of the good? Can you recall moments when you did help? What did helping another do for your spiritual life? What were the positive consequences of following God’s moral law of love?
Second Choice: False Accusation or Truth
The next alternative is presented to us in the courtroom of God’s justice. Perhaps one of the darkest expressions of injustice involves accusing another falsely. The tone of our text infers that the accusation is intentional. The one accusing knows the charge is false, and thus, doesn’t care about the pain the victim experiences. In the Old Testament world, a false charge could result in the death of the innocent.
Justice is the expression and human action of God’s truth in human life. In God’s Kingdom what is right is right. Again, it is priori. I can proclaim that all pine needles are purple. I can enlist thousands to agree with me. I can sit on the witness stand, having taken an oath to tell the truth, and continue to proclaim the color of pine needles is purple. However, the truth is: pine needles are green or brown! It doesn’t matter how many proclaim them purple. It doesn’t matter whether I state differently in a court of law. The truth about pine needles is real, and thus unchangeable by us.
Justice is based on THE TRUTH! Again, the moral truth of God stands above and beyond us. We can choose to participate in that truth or pervert it. When we falsely accuse another, we are perverting truth. When we pervert truth, we pervert justice.
Jesus was innocent. This was the truth. Yet, for selfish ends, the Sanhedrin falsely accused him. However, the false accusation could not alter the truth of Jesus’ innocence. Still, human sin could pervert the truth and proclaim a twisted, altered expression of truth. The Sanhedrin offered their accusation to Rome as truth. That was a day of darkness, great darkness. Thankfully, the resurrection of Jesus proclaimed the eternal nature of truth. The truth about Jesus and God was indestructible. Still, Jesus suffered greatly because of that dark, false accusation. Biblically, the truth in the end always wins. However, that doesn’t mean our perversion of that truth does not create pain and destruction in the here and now.
Sadly, the innocent have often been wrongly accused. On some occasions those false accusations were based on ignorance, and yet others falsely accused intentionally for selfish ends.
False accusations do not only occur in a judicial court for the creation of serious consequences. A false accusation on social media can ruin a life. We live in an era of false accusation. Charges are tossed about here and there with little consideration of the pain created. False charges must never be accepted as a “normal part of life.” The perversion of truth and the dark consequences that ensue are always serious and destructive. The Mosaic Law clearly warned against such perversion.
Our text warns against a “bribe” to participate in such darkness. The reason most people falsely accuse is because there is a temporary gain. Again, there exists a dark, selfish end that leads a person to pervert truth. The temporary gain often appears very appealing. However, the gain is very fleeting, followed by the diminishing of character. Guilt arises and fear of the falsehood being discovered haunts. Choosing falsehood for gain leads one to walk a different path, a darkened path. This path is not a way of light and growth. It is a path of shadows, grief, and missed opportunity.
Have you witnessed the consequences of false accusations? Have you been a victim of false accusation? If so, what effect did that accusation have upon your life? Have you witnessed the destructive nature of false accusations on social media? Can you articulate the pain you witnessed? What does the warning against false accusations have to say about your daily interactions with others at home, work, leisure? Have you recognized false accusation and their consequences in the routine of life? Why do you think Jesus taught that truth is liberating? If truth is liberating, what is the result of falsehood?
Third Choice: Equality or Favoritism
The moral truth of God’s love, revealed in Christ, proclaims the equality of all in relation to love, respect, value and treatment. Jesus’ entire life challenged every action of favoritism and inequality. Since all are equally loved of God, then favoritism is a violation of that moral law. Favoritism is perversion. The truth of our equality in Christ must be twisted and altered for one to engage in favoritism.
Even in the earliest days of Israelite life, they recognized how easy it was to treat the wealthier person differently. In courts of law, the poor often suffered unnecessarily simply because the word of the wealthy carried more weight. In the West we live in a nation offering one of the supreme justice systems in the world. However, as long as frail humans are involved in justice there will be injustice. Many argue today that the poor are denied the justice offered to the wealthy.
As the Church of Jesus, we should represent equality, and embody the love of God for all. Our actions and beliefs should always reflect the transcendent moral law of God’s love for all. Embracing this moral law especially means that all within the Body of Christ are treated equally. There can be no rich or poor, important or non-important, powerful or weak, etc. Our frail humanity is not an excuse for favoritism. Read James 2:1-9.
Why do you think people find it tempting to treat the wealthy and powerful with favoritism? How do we justify such treatment? How is favoritism a perversion of justice and truth? What are the consequences in a society that treats some with favor? What are the consequences in the Church? What are the personal consequences we experience when treating some as more important than others?
Fourth Choice: Stranger or Friend
There is only one verse in our text related to this alternative. However, this brevity does not lessen its importance. This alternative has everything to do with “identification.” Our text infers that we would not oppress a stranger if we identified with them. We too were once strangers! When we encounter people outside the Church, let us remember, we once were outside the Church. When we encounter people participating in sinful behavior, let us remember we were once sinners! The day we forget from where we’ve come, we create a sense of “them and us.”
The higher moral law reminds us that we are all sojourners with God and with one another. Though we may not know each other’s names or understand life in the same manner, we are still family. All are members of God’s human family and through faith the Lord’s spiritual family. The only way I can treat someone as an outsider, oppressing them, is to perceive and treat them as a stranger. I have to accept the erroneous thought, “They are not me, or like me.” Again, we must pervert the truth. Read Mark 12:29-31. It is the perversion of this law that causes all human relational pain.
How easily do you think we differentiate ourselves from others? What are some of the major “differences” we use to separate ourselves into “us and them?” How is the oppression of another a perversion of the Law of Laws in Deut. 6:4? What are the painful consequences of the divisions that oppress and separate us? How do you think we can better relate to those we have formerly considered “different?” How can our church help us to break down such distinctions and more greatly embrace the human family? Do you think most of us look at strangers and think, “They are not like me,” or “They are very much like me?”
Fifth Alternative: Tending or Abusing
Our text closes by calling our attention to creation. From the beginning we were called to tend this beautiful garden of creation. I have personally visited only a small portion of the world, and yet I am always overwhelmed. The beauty and design of creation drives me to my spiritual knees. Creation inspires us and gives us life. It contributes to our spiritual life as much as it does our physical sustenance.
In our fallen humanity we have placed far more emphasis on using creation to feed and clothe us. We use creation to make us happy, and for some, to make us wealthy. All of us are participants to some degree in the abuse of creation. We have not cared for our air, water, the forests, etc. as those called of God. We have used the garden’s resources repetitively.
Even in the early years of Israelite agricultural history, they acknowledged the need to care for the fields that feed them. Planting crops repeatedly, without allowing the land to rest, drains the soil of nutrients. The Sabbath is a God-created time for us to worship, be thankful, and spiritually rest. However, we often fail to remember it was also a day that allowed creation to rest as well. Included in this rest for creation is also rest for the creatures that enrich our life. Even the poor benefit from the care of creation.
I truly believe we are witnessing the consequences of our perversion of the moral law to care for creation. Caring for creation is a means of expressing to God our gratitude for home and life. The beauty of the earth is a gift. Beauty inspires and enlivens. We can identify with the earth in such a manner that we refer to certain parcels of land as “home.” We are not only morally connected to each other, we are connected to creation. It is interesting to note in the creation hymns that care is taken to remind us we were made from the dust of the ground. Thus, we are a part of the earth and the earth is a part of us.
When creation is abused we live in estrangement. We were not created to live disconnected from the gift of creation. Again, we are part of it! We suffer spiritually when we create a disconnect from the world and earth. When we use and abuse instead of caring and nurturing we suffer spiritually and biologically.
Again, the only way I can abuse and use creation for my benefit is to twist the truth. I must alter the truth that instead of creation being a gift to be nurtured, it becomes something to which I feel entitled for my personal happiness.
Do you believe our present world lives in a disconnected manner from creation? Do you believe we embrace creation as a gift from God? Are we tending the garden or abusing the garden? What consequences do you recognize from the abuse of nature? In what ways do you feel a kinship with the earth? What do you believe can be done to foster a greater appreciation for the gift of creation? What do you think happens within us spiritually when we are disconnected from creation? In what ways has the gift of creation become perverted for the selfish purposes of humanity?
The above scenarios are windows into life. They represent moments when we are confronted with embracing the higher moral truth of God or perverting that truth to accomplish our selfish purposes.
Almighty God, thank you for the truth that enlightens and enlivens. Thank you for the meaningful lives we enjoy as people who follow Jesus, the light of the world. Forgive us for succumbing to the temptation to pervert justice and goodness. Save us from our selfishness and egocentrism. By your Holy Spirit, continue to reveal the higher way that leads to life eternal. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Dr. D. Craig Rikard is a South Georgia pastor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org