"Doing Justice"
Jeremiah 33:14-16
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
December 9, 2012

A colleague pulls a newspaper article from her file and reads it for the 20th time. It tells of a young African-American woman from Atlanta named Mozella Dansby who was a bookkeeper at the Georgia Power Company. One Friday she walked into her office, pulled out a gun, and shot two of her supervisors. Then this 31-year-old wife and mother turned the gun on herself. The papers reported that she had been distraught because once again she'd been passed over for a promotion.

A friend of hers said, "Almost a week elapsed between the time Mozella found out she'd been denied the promotion and she fired the shots. A week is a long time to dream of killing someone. Didn't anyone sense her torment?"

According to her husband, she had taken the previous day off from work to look for a new job and had come home cheerful and optimistic. He later discovered that was the day she bought the gun.

Why hadn't the sight and the feel of her two small children as she prepared them for bed that Thursday night, or the touch of her husband's lips on Friday morning as she gave him (what he described as) a "strange long kiss" been enough to pull her back from the abyss?

She wrapped all the hopes she had once had for a better life around a 38-caliber revolver, and stuffed them and that gun into her purse. In that same pocketbook she left a note that read: "I think this was something that needed to be done. They didn't do me fair about the job and they had to be stopped. I know everyone is saying this goes on everywhere and always will. But I think this will give other supervisors something to think about before someone else is done unfairly."

Why did this woman give in to despair? The key lies in this line in her note: "I know everyone is saying this goes on everywhere and always will." It wasn't just the fact that she'd been passed over for a job, which was given to a white man, though her employer later admitted she was eminently qualified for it. That was crushing, but survivable.

What drove her to that tragic moment was being told that there was nothing to look forward to except more of the same.1

She was being told, "There is no justice in this world, and there never will be."1

Is that right? There's no justice in the world and there never will be. Jesus and the Old Testament prophets declare: "It doesn't have to be this way." They make it clear that God is not neutral when it comes to injustice. God expects us to be compassionate and to do what is right and good and fair.

When we study the gospels, we find no evidence that Jesus ever jotted down a list of things to believe. What we do find is that he shows us a certain orientation toward life.

If the church is going to be a force for good in the 21st century, we need to recover the essential characteristics of a Christ-like life.

That has been our focus this fall. We began by looking at Christian love, because love is the root from which everything else grows. God want us to love others and to love ourselves. The other essential characteristics we have named are generosity, service, empathy and gratitude. Today we conclude the series with an indispensable element of Christianity and every other enduring religion - Doing Justice.

The call to promote justice is a deep thread that weaves its way through the Old and New Testaments. Yet it is one of the most avoided subjects by people of faith who are financially prosperous.

God has a vision for this world and God wants us to embrace it. The vision is of a world where no one goes to bed hungry, where everyone has a roof over his head, where no child is abused, where everyone gets a fair shake, where no one lives in poverty.

This morning's text from Jeremiah is just one of the numerous biblical texts that talk about God's vision for the world.

The prophet Jeremiah spoke to the Hebrew people when their nation and everything they held dear was obliterated. In 587 BCE, the Babylonians invaded and defeated them in battle, killing many of the Hebrew people, tearing down the city walls, leveling the king's palace and decimating the sacred Temple. The demise of the nation called into question the people's relationship with God.2 All seemed lost.

In today's passage, the prophet Jeremiah holds out hope for the people. Speaking through the prophet, God says, "The days are surely coming when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days, and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land."

Jeremiah links justice and righteousness. So does the prophet Isaiah. So does the prophet Amos. That's because they are practically synonyms. Righteous is not self-righteousness. It is not acting holier-than-thou. To do what is right is to do what is just.

The Old Testament prophets often chastised the people of God for not doing what was right. It almost always included mistreatment of the poor. The prophets were clear
that it was the responsibility of the well-off to make sure the poor did not suffer. When we study the gospels, we discover that some of the harshest words Jesus ever uttered were to the wealthy who ignored the poor.

God has created us as one human family. We thrive when we seek the health, happiness and prosperity of one another. John Chrysostom, the fourth century archbishop of Constantinople, was a major theologian of the early church who has influenced Christian thought in succeeding generations. He said, "This is the rule of most perfect Christianity, its most exact definition, its highest point, namely, the seeking of the common good...for nothing can so make a person an imitator of Christ as caring for neighbors."

He may have been influenced by the Epistle of Barnabas, written about the time of the Gospel of John which says: "Do not live entirely isolated, having retreated into yourselves...but gather instead to seek together the common good."

If we honestly believe that God is the Creator of all that is, then we show our devotion to God by honoring all people because all are created in God's image.

Unfortunately, we human beings have occasional lapses. Feelings of insecurity well up in us and we are tempted to see ourselves in competition with one another for a scarcity of goods rather than recognizing that there is enough for all if we do not grab more than our fair share.

We thrive when we recognize the interrelated nature of life and that our well-being depends on the well-being of others. We flourish when we help one another and work in harmony for the common good. Scientists have even pointed out that reciprocal altruism makes sense from an evolutionary view. Those "who aid others commonly receive aid in return...(Those primitives who reasoned) I'll care for your baby if you take my son on the hunt tomorrow"3 survived better than those who did not help one another. Acts of kindness strengthen ties within families, tribes and larger communities.

Further, God seems to have created us in such a way that we are hard-wired for justice. We have an intuition of what is right and fair, and we believe it should be rewarded; and we have a sense of what is wrong and unjust, and believe it should be punished.

One of the world's great spiritual leaders writes: "To develop a sense of universal responsibility - of the universal dimension of our every act and of the equal right of all others to happiness and not to suffer - is to develop an attitude of mind whereby, when we see an opportunity to benefit others, we will take it in preference to merely looking after our own narrow interests." He goes on to say that "an important benefit of developing such a sense of universal responsibility is that we come to see the need to care especially for those members of the human family who suffer most."4

The church has often taught us the importance of charity. We donate food to feed people who are hungry. We donate clothing to people who cannot afford to buy new clothes. We house people in our church and donate money to shelters who house people who are homeless.

Charity is vital to relieving suffering. But according to the prophets and according to Jesus, charity is not enough. We must also pursue justice.

Nicholas Wolterstorff teaches theology at Yale. He wrote an essay entitled, "How My Mind Has Changed." He describes his comfortable upbringing in Michigan, and how he was taught that it was a Christian's duty to live a good life and to do good things. Then one day he attended a conference in South Africa and saw firsthand institutional racism and political oppression. The South African officials explained how much charity they were doing for poor blacks, and that's when he realized it was not enough, and was not what the Bible mandates. What was needed was not charity, but justice; not new aid programs, but new laws.5 Sometimes we need new laws and changes in the system in order to truly level the playing field.

Dostoevsky wrote: "If there is no God, then everything is permitted. If there is no God, then there are no ultimate standards of right and wrong. If there is no God, morality is whatever each individual wants it to be. If there is no God, then greed and lust and retribution win the day. And we are doomed.

However, if there is a God, we can glean God's vision for the world and pursue it. We can throw ourselves into creating a world where refugee camps are abandoned because people have safely returned to their homes; where people can safely stroll through our downtowns at night; where foster care agencies close their doors because all the children have been taken into loving homes; where soup kitchens run out of homeless people to feed; where everyone who wants a job has a job and is paid a living wage; where nations settle their disputes without sending off their young people to war; and where men and women, blacks and whites, gays and straights, Jews, Christians and Muslims, are respected and treated equally so they won't feel driven to take the law into their own hands.

God's vision for the world is a world that is just. And God's vision is our calling. May we muster the courage to fulfill it.


  1. Kathlyn James, "That you May Live," on Day.1 June 29.1997.
  2. Kathleen M. O'Connor, "Introduction to Jeremiah," The New Interpreter's Study Bible, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), p.1051.
  3. Lynn Margulis, "Does Evolution Explain Human Nature?" an essay for the John Templeton Foundation celebrating the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin.
  4. The Dalai Lama Dalai Lama, Ethics for the New Millennium, (New York: Riverhead Books, 1999), p. 162-163.
  5. John Buchanan, "On Trial: Who is Your King?" March 28, 2010