The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 25B)
October 24, 2021
Almighty and everlasting God, give unto us the increase of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain that which thou dost promise, make us to love that which thou dost command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Hebrews 5:12–6:1, 9-12
Today’s lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures laments the spiritual and political failings of the people: “Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands afar off; for truth has fallen in the public squares, and uprightness cannot enter.” The prophet tells us that “no one goes to law honestly; they rely on empty pleas, they speak lies, they conceive mischief and bring forth iniquity.” Isaiah longs for the restoration of justice and writes of how God, the Lord, “put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in fury as a mantle” and “according to their deeds, so will he repay, wrath to his adversaries, requital to his enemies.” It is all very “Old Testament.”
Our lesson from the Gospel tells the story of “Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus,” who on hearing that Jesus was passing by “began to cry out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’” And like many of the marginal characters who reach out to Jesus in Mark’s story, such as the woman with the flow of blood, he is told “to be silent,” as if he were not worthy of Jesus’ attention n. Jesus, however, as he does in each of these encounters, stops and calls for the man. He recognises in Bartimaeus a person who knows his true identity, who calls him the “Son of David,” and for showing this faith grants the blind man’s wish to recover his sight. While there are a number of important things happening in this story – including another example of a person who is unseen, unimportant, actually sightless, seeing Jesus for who he truly is – it is Jesus’ act of mercy that our lectionary seems to want to stand out for us in contrast to the justice meted out by God in Isaiah.
Time and again in modern religious thought justice and mercy are contrasted, as are justice and love, and not always with the same conclusions. In one schema, a sort-of Reform Protestant view, Justice is harsh, indicative of the actions of God in the Old Covenant, and mercy and love are the way of Christ in the New. In another, usually espoused across a spectrum of denominations by the politically active, it is Justice that comes out on top. Justice is strong, Mercy and Love weak, and one must move from the sentimental, superficial world of charity to the hard, practical world of the public square in which all people are to receive true justice. The constant here is the idea that Justice and Mercy, Justice and Love are somehow different, even polar opposites.
This is where we get into trouble. And perhaps the person to help us move beyond this kind of thinking is the much maligned, mid-twentieth-century Episcopalian ethics professor, Joseph Fletcher. He wrote, in his landmark book, Situation Ethics, that “love and justice are the same thing, for justice is love distributed, nothing else.” (1)
Jesus commands us to love God and love our neighbour, and when we put this into action what we see manifested into the world is justice. We need look no further for a concurring opinion than to that odd and unknown Platonist author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, who also knew that justice and love were not to be contrasted, but in fact are inextricably bound together:
For God is not so unjust as to overlook your work and the love which you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do. And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness in realizing the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.
We have the example of all those who have come before us, from Isaiah to Jesus, to the saints throughout the ages since, to see how doing the works of mercy and love “in serving the saints” can manifest justice.
There is no question that Jesus’ merciful restoration of Bartimaeus’ sight is a work of justice. And we need not decide whether our response to the challenge that Isaiah issues to be honest and righteous in our conduct in the public square are works of justice or of mercy. Jesus calls upon us to follow his example and distribute our love into those places where it is most needed, engage in the works of mercy and love, in order that justice may flourish.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Saint James of Jerusalem, 23 October 2021
1.Joseph Fletcher, Situation Ethics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966), 87.
© 2021 Andrew Charles Blume