Justice (sermon)

1 Corinthians 9:7-12

Baptists are “gospel” people.  That is, they take the Bible seriously, find deep meaning and significance in the Gospel events (the birth, death, resurrection, ascension and return of Jesus Christ), expect and pray for people to experience the “new birth,” and are committed to expressing their faith with actions such as reading the Bible together, living the kind of life Jesus prescribed, and engaging in various forms of mission.

Most Baptists are evangelicals, but not all evangelicals are Baptist.  Here in Sydney, we live among some of the most convinced and best resourced evangelicals in the world – committed to proclaiming the core tenets of the sixteenth-century Reformation, the necessity of regeneration, and the imperative of evangelism.  On Friday night (16 Nov 2012), Sydney lost one of its best and longest serving evangelists, John Chapman, who was promoted to glory aged 82.  Archbishop Peter Jensen said:

“Chappo” represented the very essence of what our diocese has always stood for and continues to stand for.  A strong affirmation of the authority of the bible, the importance of preaching and an approach to evangelism which made it central while at the same time respecting the intelligence and integrity of the listeners.  He was a man of faith like Joshua of old, and he lived out his faith with clear godliness of life.[1]

We too honour the man, thank God for his work, and pray that God will give us others like him to do the work of evangelism.  And yet… the Pharisees also revered the Scriptures, and loved to hear them preached, and conscientiously shared their faith, and above all lived out what they believed with “clear godliness of life,” to a fault.  And, according to Jesus, this was not enough (Luke 11:42):

Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.

Now John Chapman was no Pharisee.  I am sure he understood that the good news of Jesus Christ is transformative, radical, practical, and comprehensive.  With Jesus, and the Apostles, and the prophets who went before them, and many others, he imagined a world where absolute justice and perfect peace reigned supreme, constructive, uncontested, unsullied, without end.  And he wanted the faithful to follow Jesus and experience that ultimate reality.  And so do we!  That is our goal too!  That is what drives us forward!

Our faith is a “faith expressing itself through love” (Gal 5:6).  Our faith is expressed in action.  And some of that action – perhaps most of it – will be counter-cultural, and challenging, and incremental, and liberating.  Take the biblical theme of justice, for example, and apply its demands to our habits of consumption.  Many of the products we consume are made in developing countries, from clothes to electronics to coffee and tea.  This should be good news for the poor, because it generates jobs that can lift them out of poverty and set them on a life course where they are less susceptible to hunger, disease and exploitation.

Tragically, their actual experience is often poverty-level wages, unsafe work environments, child and forced labour, and various forms of workplace abuse.  Again and again, the Bible declares this way of ordering our lives to be wrong, and points us toward what is right and good and true (e.g. James 5:1-6; Luke 12:13-21).

Or take Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 9:7-12.  In chapter nine, Paul defends his apostolic right to make a living from the generosity and sacrifice of those whom he has evangelised – and also the right to decline such financial support if he believes that path serves the greater good (vv. 1-6, 12b).  Those who devote their lives to full-time active gospel work do indeed possess these rights, according to Scripture: they will seek to do whatever best promotes the gospel and the glory of God, and God will meet their needs.

Then, in verses 7-12, Paul presents two arguments supporting his case.  In verse 7, he cites examples of three kinds of workers (soldiers, farmers and shepherds), framed as rhetorical questions, indicating that a worker has a right to fair pay for his or her labour, or (to put it another way) a share in the fruit of their labour.

In verses 8-12, Paul appeals to Deuteronomy 25:4 (cf 1 Tim 5:18) as divine sanction of fair pay for fair work: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.”  What may shock casual and uncritical readers here is that Paul insists that God is concerned not so much about animal welfare as about human welfare (see v. 10).  The literal sense of the passage in Deuteronomy refers to the humane treatment of animals, but Paul’s hermeneutic uncovers a deeper meaning, equally inspired by God, one which addresses the problem of unjust relations between people, or between an employee and an employer.

Unfortunately, there is no shortage of examples of such situations in our world today.  There are political and structural ways to address the problems, and some of us are called to public office, or public theology, for just such work.  For example, I stood with others and addressed a public meeting in Sydney on Tuesday, urging the NSW Government not to further erode the rights of retail workers facing deregulation of public holiday trading restrictions.  I said:

We expect our government to serve and protect the interests of its citizens, and promote the common good, with respect to employment conditions and entitlements.  We do not expect our government to serve and protect the special interests of big business at the expense of the people.

In the face of intense lobbying pressure and brazen grabs by large retail chains and their shareholders and investors for a bigger slice of the finite consumer dollar, we say enough is enough.  There is more to life than profit and self-centred greed.  Workers are created in the image of God, and should be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.  Working unsocial hours has a negative impact on family life.  Workers must not be considered merely instrumental in the production of goods and services.  Workers have a right to adequate rest from their paid employment.

A healthy work-life balance delivers vital benefits to workers, families, employers and the whole community.  And neither the government nor the business community should impose responsibilities on workers, or remove conditions and entitlements, which lead to a deterioration in their already fragile work-life balance.

And the NSW Treasurer withdrew the bill that would have deregulated restricted trading provisions for Boxing Day and Easter Sunday.  A small win.

But there are also measures each of us may take, as consumers, to help break injustice and promote attitudes and actions that honour God and bless the poor.  As Steve Cooper said in his sermon introducing this series:

What we need is a radical reorientation to consumption in which we see consuming not as the essence of living the good life but as a means of living a life rich in love for God and others.  Rather than assuming it’s normal to acquire and consume more, we need to ask what we need to consume in order to love God, love our neighbour, and thankfully steward the Earth.[2]

If we simply stopped buying goods produced in the developing world, in most instances this would leave workers in developing countries worse off, because even their poorly paid jobs are better than no job, and no food, and no shelter.

But there are three ways you and I can consume in ways that help rather than harm the workers of the world who live in relative poverty:

  1. Buy ethically certified products, such as those certified Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, or UTZ, which identify products that meet important social and environmental standards.
  2. Buy from companies that source ethically, so that you preference the products of companies known to source their goods and services ethically.
  3. Speak out, adding your voice to campaigns calling ethical companies to source ethically.

And in doing so, you will help to imagine a real world where absolute justice and perfect peace reign supreme, constructive, uncontested, unsullied, without end.


Sermon 612 copyright © 2012 Rod Benson. Preached at Eastwood Baptist Church, Sydney, Australia, on Sunday 18 November 2012. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).

[2] Steve Cooper, sermon on Luke 12:13-21, preached at Eastwood Baptist Church, 4 Nov 2012.

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