Being a Steward of Mercy and JusticeChristine Van Wyk
Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve. On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’” Mark 11:11, 15-17
Here we find an infamous moment from the life of Jesus, perhaps one you’ve heard about before. Many of those that have never cracked open the Bible are aware that the Messiah once went berserk in the sanctuary.
And it’s difficult to overstate the importance of this episode in the whole biblical arc. This account occurs in all four Gospels – which puts it in an exclusive company. It’s one of five events that is recorded by all four of Jesus’ biographers prior to his final 24 hours. The reason that this is the starting point of this post is because of a message I heard from Bridgetown, a church in Portland, USA.
I want to give you this familiar story and pick up on two themes, that were really brought to life for me in a message shared by Tyler Staton. It has fundamentally changed the way I think and act and has inspired me about the kind of giving that I believe Jesus shows us in the Scriptures. The two themes that come to life in this passage are mercy and justice.
We begin with mercy. When you look around as you live your life, do you see a disconnect? Staton tells a story of disconnect – where a revival takes place in a high school and yet the 2 first black students in attendance are never included in the community of the school. We don’t have to look very far to find the disconnect in our context. The intersection, the parking lot and under most bridges. People disconnected from the things they need to live with dignity, to reach the potential they were created for.
Staton points out that this exchange in the temple is similar to an encounter Jesus had with the same priests a couple of years prior, when they asked why Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. In response, he quoted another prophet, Hosea:
Jesus has a habit of quoting the prophets. And each time he’s getting at the same thing. He’s using respected prophetic voices to deliver a common message. And that message if we were to sum it up in just a single word would be the Hebrew term ‘tzedek’.
The Biblical term for personal righteousness is tzedek. And the biblical Hebrew term for outward justice is also tzedek. This means that when you read the Old Testament, in English, the words ‘justice’ and ‘righteousness’ are interchangeable.
This is important, because it means that, Biblically speaking, you cannot separate personal righteousness, from outward works of justice and mercy. To be righteous is to care for the poor and to care for the poor, is to be righteous. The drum that the prophets just kept beating on is this, “You are trying to separate something that God has joined together; personal righteousness and outward justice.”
Many have summed up the prophetic message this way,
The claim here is that our standing with God does not only rest on private, personal spirituality, but on how we stand with the marginalised. This is the message that Jesus is delivering when he quotes familiar words like,
‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’
Now, sacrifice in Hosea’s context was referring to the strict observance of a religious ritual. The priests Jesus addressed were what we might call spiritually formed. The trouble is that their spiritual formation was not spilling into the lives of others.
When we devote ourselves to personal righteousness without equally devoting ourselves to outward mercy, it’s not the way of Jesus that we’re practicing- it ends up being something more like spiritual wellness. When all of our practice does not add justice nearer to the margins of our society, we separate personal righteousness, and outward justice. Which, as we have learned, is something that God fundamentally joined together as tsedek.
Staton offers this challenge, if your discipleship with Jesus is not edging you increasingly toward the marginalized, then this same disconnect is alive and well within you cloaked in the clever disguise of a new time, and a new place.
Jesus arrives at the temple to do some strategic rearranging. According to Matthew’s account, Jesus does the rearranging and declares “my house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers“. In the very next verse, the blind and lame come to him at the temple and he heals them. Jesus entered the temple and then made room for the disqualified to come in behind him. So, as we increasingly seek to becoming like Jesus, ask, ‘Who am I making room for? Who am I removing barriers for?’
If we’re going to talk about mercy and justice, then we have to acknowledge that this starts here; in our house and in our hearts. Jesus did not start by critiquing the tax system and the unjust oppression of the Romans. He didn’t point the finger at politicians and corrupt policies. He started with us, the church. And when we talk about the church, we cannot be tempted to point to our pastor and demand what is or is not being done. We are the church – you and me. We start with ourselves.
Staton’s message picks up here: Jesus enters the temple courts. And again, this is where he’s throwing tables over, change is spilling out across the stone floor, and there’s feathers flying everywhere. He’s got a homemade whip and he’s leading a stampede down the temple steps. The meek and mild Saviour is raging. And it gets more interesting if you rewind a few verses. It says that Jesus entered Jerusalem, went into the temple courts, and looked around at everything but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the 12. So, Jesus didn’t act impulsively. He took a look, he noticed, and he mulled things over. And then he went home and slept on it (Mark 11:11). The next day (Mark 11:15), as they were leaving Bethany, they went back to the same temple. The following morning. That means the actions that follow were premeditated.
We understand now that Jesus is worked up about restricted access. Justice is about correcting the systems and structures that marginalise. Jesus did not just invite the blind in – he also turned over tables. He didn’t only serve those victimised by the system – he also called the system what it was and then bent it toward justice. And he calls us to do both mercy and justice – just as he did both mercy and justice.
Jesus does both, and he calls us to do the same. But what happens when we do one without the other? What happens when we serve the victimised with one hand while benefiting from the system that victimises them with the other? What happens when the cultural status quo becomes the lens through which we view Jesus rather than Jesus being the lens through which we interpret the culture and society around us? Staton say this, “when (we) practice mercy without justice, we’re treating the symptoms while ignoring the disease. We’re caring for the victims of a corrupt system without turning over the tables of the system that put them there in the first place.”
In fact, Staton’s third and final point is that Jesus was staying with a leper at the time of this temple tirade. Making himself not just unpopular but ceremonially unclean during the holiest of holidays (Passover).
Now if you are not in a place where you want to give food to the poor and needy, then giving to an organisation is a good option for you. If you want to give, but only in the context of a relationship – I challenge you to not to let another person suffer because you do not have the time to engage. Ask that person if they can meet you back there at a time when you can engage. If they don’t pitch, fair enough. If they do, you get to listen and see what you can offer. If your spirit is generous and willing but your wallet is empty, give your time by volunteering to serve organisations who are doing work that contributes to irradicating the root of the causes that break your heart. Or listen to the person who breaks it. It’ll be hard, no doubt about it, but you might learn. Ask questions that you’d ask new friends. Ask about family, memories, hometowns and how they like their coffee. You do not have to be the fixer if you are seeking to build a relationship. But the way that Jesus behaves has me thinking that the only wrong thing to do is to remain paralysed by fear or uncertainty. He see’s something that pains him, he sleeps on it and then acts decisively.
The final thing I’ve been challenged about is outcomes – it’s not mentioned by Staton, but it’s a big thrust in most developmental theory on charity. A lot of the time we want to be sure that our money or donation is being put to good use. And there is a lot of theory that will tell you that this is wisdom. And in some senses, it is. But as I was reminded in writing this that the Bible speaks more about giving generously than wisely. So, if outcomes form part of your convictions around giving, then the risk of idolatry should be closely examined too. A thought I had about this point; I thought about my monthly budget – and how sometimes my books don’t quite balance. Anything less than around R100 is normally not a cause for too much concern (which is a clear indication of my privilege), so why am I haggling over a R15 expenditure to give an image bearer a loaf of bread? What is wrong with me, that when I can’t account for R100 or I spend it unwisely, I let myself off the hook? But when I give money to someone in need, I feel a real sense of necessity to see it used in a certain way. Control is an idol. Jesus help me!
Why is it so important to you that you know how your money is being spent? That money isn’t yours anyway. Once you have given it, release it. Whether it is spent on something you approve of or disapprove of is near impossible to know. When in doubt, I think our compassion can be a weapon not a weakness, but our apathy is a really dangerous or hurtful response.
So, what do we do with that? I think we can start by asking for God’s forgiveness, for all the times we avert our eyes and fail to see his image before us, in all people. I think we can devise a kind of rubric for giving, that allows us to sit down and discern what we believe the scriptures and life and words of Jesus instruct us in. But the crucial part is what comes next – which is to actually do it. Like Staton says, we must connect our personal righteousness with public justice. Any less, and we are missing the call from Jesus.
We must find ways to act with compassion and mercy towards those in need and we have to move decisively to dismantle the systems that got them there in the first place; homelessness, addiction, racism.
But here is the kicker. If something feels too big for you, like dismantling a system or structural inequality for example, find something that you can manage. Can you manage a comforting sandwich and glass of water to the person ringing your doorbell? Can you manage a donation (once off or regular) to an organisation that is focused on building relationships you don’t have the time for, and helping people in need? Don’t let the magnitude of the entire situation detract from the specific situation before your eyes. If the systemic order that enables the situation is overwhelming and you simply can’t overlook it – then there is work to be done, whether it’s being an advocate yourself or supporting advocates however you can.
What I am saying is, there is no room for excuses. If you think that some abstract system is to blame, move towards it, understand it and find the people who are doing the work there that gives you hope. Back those efforts. Release the donations you make with joy, whether they are into the hands of a person or organisation. The money was never yours to begin with anyway.
If you’d like to hear the original message from Tyler Staton, it comes highly recommended by us – you can tune in here and it even comes with a Community Guide that you could use in your life group or Bible Study