Our Social Justice Journey Group has walked together through the Gospel of Luke to learn how the gospel impacts our understanding and theology of social justice. I shared the following thoughts with my Journey companions on Luke 13:10-17, when Jesus heals a crippled woman and Luke 14:1-6, the healing of a man with dropsy.
I love reading about the person and ministry of Jesus in the Gospels. Every gospel writer portrays Jesus in a different way and Luke’s portrayal is very unique as it relates to Jesus response to injustice.
Jesus, in Luke 13:10-17 and 14:1-6, continues to face reactions from Jews who are concerned about Jesus keeping the Sabbath. The Sabbath is the day that one rests from labor and gives wholly to the spiritual practice of worshipping God. However, the response of Jesus, in both the healing of the woman in Luke 13 and the man with dropsy in Luke 14, makes it clear that there is a demand of justice no matter what time or day of week. Jesus was very much aware of the Jewish Law and customs of his day. He even had knowledge of Roman law, but the presence of these things did not prevent Jesus from answering to the immediacy of justice. These two stories do not only address Jesus’ ability to heal but they point to the immediacy of justice–the demand it puts on those who have the ability to act with means of justice.
For both the crippled woman and the man with dropsy, justice comes in the form of healing. When Jesus heals it is not just a matter of curing symptoms, there is wholeness, a restoration, a giving back of one’s human dignity. When the leader of the synagogue is indignant about Jesus healing the crippled woman, Jesus responds in Luke 13:16, “And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” A very similar question is asked in Luke 14 when Jesus sees the man with dropsy. Jesus ask the Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath or not?” (14:3). What do you think; is it lawful? Love of God and love of neighbor does not break the law; it is a fulfillment of the law. When Jesus ask such questions he shifts the issue of obeying the law as a set of rules to fulfilling the law by enacting wholeness, restoration, and giving back of human dignity. That is what God’s law is all about.
If the law’s telos is not love, then the law can be used for other purposes than what is intended—i.e. it can be used to oppress and violate the image of God in others. To act in this way is not love but the way of injustice. And where injustice is present, the immediacy of justice requires a certain kind of response, but one in which we “conduct [our] struggle on the high plain of dignity and discipline.” (Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech). Jesus responded to injustice with both an immediacy infused with dignity and discipline.
Martin Luther King during the March on Washington spoke these words:
“But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”
What I call the immediacy of justice, King would call “the fierce urgency of now.” All persons who have stood in the prophetic tradition have the ability to sense this “fierce urgency of now.” I often think that the church–a sleeping giant (Trueblood’s expression)–is beginning to arise from her sleep. However, the church often slips under the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” Sometimes I have to look outside the Christian church to hear that voice crying out, “Wake up out of your stupor! Look around! See and hear the immediacy of justice–the fierce urgency of now!” There was a time when the Christian church seemed to be the leading prophetic voice that would call this nation to recognize the “fierce urgency of now.” But we too have killed our own prophets who pointed to our tranquilizing gradualism; the American prophets who were telling us to do away with seen and “unseen” injustice.
But we, followers of Christ and children of God, must reach back through the prophetic tradition, to a man named Jesus who showed us the proper act against injustice—a response infused with discipline and dignity drenched with the immediacy of justice; with a fierce urgency of now!
The Rev. Kenita Harris is a member of Highbridge Community Church in Bronx, NY and is currently the Executive Assistant to the Office of Multiracial Initiatives and Social Justice for the Reformed Church in America.