Social Justice or Kingdom Righteousness? Part 2

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The Spirit of the Age

I recall with shame how foolish we all were. Even though I did not personally engage in it, I gave it tacit support. In the 70s, ideas of socialism and communism had gained strong intellectual traction in the public domain. Christians joined the spirit of the age, saying that the first socialist/communist manifestation is found in the Bible. Jesus tells the parable of three sets of workers who work different lengths of time in a day and they are all paid the same, much to the chagrin of those who work longer (Matthew 20:1-16). This seems to be a case of equal outcome to unequal input, supporting both communism and social justice. In another instance, we have needy people in the church and others with great wealth. The rich sold their property to feed the poor (Acts 2:44-45) – apparently, a communist ideal.

Is this the real meaning of Matthew 20 and Acts 2?

Acts 2:44-45 speaks of people putting money into a common pool to feed the poor. It is voluntary giving. Social justice strongly advocates the role and duty of the government to redistribute wealth, usually not without coercion. There is no similarity between the voluntary help to the needy and the coerced redistribution of wealth. The communist giver is motivated by fear and not love, and the communist recipient receives the redistributed wealth as a greedy entitlement with no gratitude.

Immediately following the statement that people sold their property to feed the poor, we are told, the believers “broke bread in their homes and ate together …” (Acts 2:46) This would be impossible if all their homes were sold. Acts 2:44-45 is a general and expansive statement celebrating the sacrificial giving of some in the community, not an absolute statement. It is not a prescription for action, nor is it an ideal for our perpetual emulation.

Not long after this event, there arose a couple who wanted the praise of man among the believers. They sold their property and claimed to have given all the proceeds to the Apostles to distribute. Peter’s rhetorical question in response to them is instructive, “Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal?” (Acts 5:4). The church never claimed an individual’s wealth. Private ownership was never discouraged.

We see this phenomenon again later in the book of Acts. When King Agrippa I persecuted the Christians by beheading James and throwing Peter into prison, the believers gathered in the home of Mary to pray for Peter. When God delivered Peter from prison, he went to Mary’s home to look for the other disciples. From the description we have, it was a big house with an outer courtyard and she had at least one servant employed in the household (Acts 12:12-17). If all the believers sold their homes, how did Mary come by this substantial home so soon after giving away everything?

The parable of equal reward in Matthew 20:1-16 has a context. Peter had asked Jesus, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” (Matthew 19:27). Jesus replied at three levels. First, the twelve will be as prominent in the Kingdom of God as the twelve patriarchs (19:28). Second, all who make sacrifices will be rewarded many times over (19:29). Third, “But many who are first will be last and many who are last will be first.” (19:30). Jesus then tells the parable of equal reward and repeats the same apothegm “So the last will be first and the first will be last.” (20:16). This forms the literary inclusio on the third group that will get a reward. The first two groups do not get equal reward, only the third group gets equal reward. This dispels the myth of citing this text as proof for equal outcomes.

Next we ask what is with the third group that they get equal reward. Who or what is Jesus referring to?

The literary inclusio “the last will be first and the first will be last” tells us two things about the third group. The first is that there will be a reversal of sequence of reward for this group. The second is that there is equal reward.

Jesus is talking about who enters the kingdom of heaven. The Jews who first hear the Good News of the kingdom will enter last while the Gentiles who hear it last will enter first. The reward of inclusion in the kingdom of heaven is a generous reward. A denarius for a day’s work for a laborer was generous. But it was even more generous pay for an hour’s work. This is the meaning of God’s grace. A person who enters God’s kingdom one hour before he dies is saved no less than a person who lives for God his whole life. There is a reward that is both generous and common to all.

In the parable, the equal reward of eternal life is never based on the goodness of the unemployed men incapable of providing for themselves or their family, it is the gracious provision of the generous employer who gives meaningful and gainful employment. In the whole story of Jesus, there is an even greater imbalance of unequal input that produces the same outcome of eternal life. Jesus the sinless Lamb of God dies to procure our salvation. What more unequal input is there? But the outcome of equal reward of eternal life is all of grace.

The current Christian infatuation with social justice is similar to the Christian infatuation with communism in the decades past. We are children of our time. But the Word of God calls us to a wisdom that lifts us up in courageous thought that rises above the shifting opinions of the world.

I don’t want to muddle through social justice as I did communism. I don’t want to approach social justice with a desire to justify it or to castigate it. I need to know social justice on its own terms and not baptize it with Christian thinking. With that in mind, my first realization is that social justice has a different moral referent from Scripture.

The Referent

Why is something good or bad? Social Justice is a moral expression of humanism. “Humanism is a philosophical and ethical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively….” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humanism, 18 Aug 2018). In humanism, we humans decide what is right or wrong, and right or wrong depends on whether it benefits humans. Social justice as an expression of humanism emphasizes equal outcome, diversity, and the creation of supportive environments (as noted earlier).

In contrast, the Judeo-Christian morality draws from monotheism. Monotheism is the belief there is only one God the creator of all things who determines right and wrong. Right and wrong issues from God’s character and God’s commands. God’s commands are consistent with his character even if some commands relate only to human life (e.g. marriage). The end
result of justice in society is that it brings glory to God. In contrast to humanism, the good that is accomplished is not what satisfies human wants, but what brings glory to God. God is glorified in us, when we are satisfied in him. So ironically, human satisfaction is to be found in God, not in any human self-actualization collectively or individually.

Tom Holland (British author, not the actor of Spiderman) is an atheist who authored several prominent books. He held the typical humanist view that Christianity created a huge blot against the progress of human goodness ushered in by the Greeks and the Romans. The triumph of Christianity brought in superstition, the crusades, the inquisitors and, eventually, dour puritans. But in 2016, this scholar of classical studies wrote an article that shocked his peers. “Why I was wrong about Christianity” a candid admission of his mistaken view. “It took me a long time to realise my morals are not Greek or Roman, but thoroughly, and proudly, Christian.” (https://goo.gl/2Py6UW)

Holland’s realization helps us understand humanism and social justice (the moral system based on humanism.)

Humanism argues that the moral goodness in the world today arose on the back of the Renaissance, which is a rebirth of the Greco-Roman worldview. Tom Holland came to the realization that the Greco-Roman world was brutal and their moral philosophy does not resemble what he holds to be right and wrong. His humanistic moral values are ultimately traceable to Christianity, to Jesus and to Paul.

Humanism takes what the Bible affirms about human values and human rights and elevates this good and make it the ultimate good. This is why humanism looks so much like Christianity, and seems to agree so much with Christian morals. Humanism is an imitation of Christianity, humanism is not the legacy of the Greco-Roman world but the illegitimate child of Christian morality. In that sense, Holland is right to trace the morals of humanism back to Jesus and Paul.

Idolatry is to take a good and turn it into the ultimate good. Humanism is the idolatry of taking humans, God’s good creation, and turning it into the ultimate good. Humanism is the sin of rebellion against God as God. It is when we are enticed by the whisper of the serpent, “You will be like God knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:5). Ironically, when we believe that lie, we lose our discernment of good and evil.

 [To continue …]

Pastor Peter Eng

 

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