DOING RIGHTEOUSNESS AND JUSTICE
A sermon by Justin Clavet for the Seventh Sunday After Pentecost, Preached at New Hope Lutheran Church, Geneva, Illinois and Renewed Hope Church, La Grange Park, Illinois, Genesis 18:17-33 and Luke 11:1-13
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
In today’s reading from the Old Testament, God and Abraham are standing on a peak overlooking the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah in the valley below them. The Lord asks: ‘Should I hide what I am about to do from Abraham, or should I tell him?’ If he will be the founder and leader of a great nation of people, he should surely get a peek behind the curtain. And so, God takes this opportunity to teach Abraham how “to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice” (Gn 18:19). Abraham in turn must teach such things to his children and so on. After all, how could the Israelites ever have kept what they were given by God if they did not know how to render justice?
Abraham asks: “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” (Gn 18:23) ‘What if there are 500 good people in the city? Will you save the whole valley?’ ‘Yes,’ God answers. Abraham boldly questions the Lord further: ‘What about 45 … 40 … 30 … 20 … 10?’ Each time, the Lord answers: ‘Yes.’ And he is patient with Abraham. This is a teaching moment after all.
We know what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah. Besides Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family – to whom the Lord showed mercy – not a single worthy individual could be found within. Fire and sulfur rained down upon the cities, destroying them and everything that lived in the valley. But this was not the first time God’s creatures caused him great pain and heartache, leading to their own destruction at the hands of their Maker.
Just 12 chapters earlier in the book of Genesis, God had decided that justice must be rendered to the whole world for the sins of mankind: “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them’” (Gn 6:5-7).
And it was three chapters before this that Adam and Eve’s sins in the garden were punished. After disobeying God and believing the lies of Satan, “the LORD God sent [Adam and Eve] out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which [they were] taken” (Gn 3:23).
On the day after his lesson on righteousness and justice, “Abraham went early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the LORD. And he looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah and toward all the land of the valley, and he looked and, behold, the smoke of the land went up like the smoke of a furnace” (Gn 19:27f).
I can’t imagine how Abraham felt in that moment, having just plead for the lives of his family mere hours before and not knowing if they had indeed been spared. Looking down from that peak upon the cities reduced to charred rubble, I presume that he found himself asking this question: Did the Sodomites and the Gomorrans really deserve what they got? I presume this because I find myself asking the very same question. God’s lesson to Abraham is an invaluable one and can bring us a long way towards finding the answer. But what are these things – righteousness and justice – that we hear so much about? Do we really understand them?
Justice can be adequately summarized by Isaac Newton’s third law of motion: for every action there is an equal but opposite reaction. You get what you deserve. When this happens (and on earth, it doesn’t always happen), justice has been rendered. In Exodus 21 we read: “you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (vv. 23f). In other words, the justice you render should be proportionate to the crime; do not execute a man for stealing your goat. Jesus, however, would later prescribe to his followers a different attitude towards justice: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Mt 5:38f). St. Paul begged the same of the church in Rome: “Repay no one evil for evil … never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ … Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rm 12:17, 19, 21). So, as is usual, God reserves for Christians a higher calling, that they may be “the light of the world” (Mt 5:14).
Righteousness is related to justice. Roughly, it is moral justification. Justice has been rendered for your sins. Your debt has been paid. You are free and clear. There are two kinds of righteousness: 1) in the eyes of God – called Christian righteousness; and 2) in the eyes of the world – called civil righteousness. One kind depends on what we do. The other depends on the actions of another.
These two kinds of righteousness are also related to the two uses of the Law. The first use is to curb the evil that has been within us since the time of the Fall, to rise above our animal urges, and to allow a society to coalesce. This leads us to righteousness in the eyes of our neighbor. The second use of the Law is to show our complete inability to uphold it, to show us how desperately we need the grace and mercy given to us through faith in Jesus Christ. In this way, we see that we can do nothing on our own to gain righteousness in the eyes of God. Our relationship with this kind of righteousness is entirely passive. God does all the work.
We return now to our earlier question: Did the Sodomites and the Gomorrans really deserve what they got? Did the early descendants of Adam and Eve really deserve to be destroyed by the deluge? Did God really have to banish the first man and woman from paradise?
The Word of God tells us unequivocally and unambiguously ‘yes.’ In Romans 6:23, we read: “the wages of sin is death.” To the townspeople that witnessed his miracles and heard his preaching yet still did not believe, Jesus added: “it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you” (Mt 11:24). There you have it. Our sins, according to the Law, are all punishable by death and unbelief will be judged even more harshly than the sins of Sodom. From the moment we are born into this world, under the Law of God, we are as good as dead. But death does not have the final word. Though the Law is a curse, nothing can overcome the blessing that we receive through faith in Christ. Romans 6:23 contains both a threat and a promise: “For the wages of sin is death, but” the verse continues, “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
This lesson that God gives to Abraham is to “to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him” (Gn 18:19). And what was promised to him is that “all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him” (Gn 18:18). Namely, it was a blessing among his descendants that would bless all the earth. Jesus Christ – a direct descendant of the patriarch Abraham – is that blessing.
The evangelist John tells us “to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (1:12). And if we believers are God’s children, will he not show us grace and mercy? “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children,” Jesus said to his disciples, “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Lk 11:13)
Thanks be to our Lord Jesus Christ, God does not deal with us justly. He does not give to us what we deserve. No, indeed! Our righteousness in the eyes of God is based not on anything we do or could ever earn on our own, but based upon what Christ has won for us; on the cross he has conquered sin, death, and the devil. All of our sins are forgiven for his sake. And because we have been baptized into Christ’s death (Rm 6:3), we too will “walk in newness of life” (Rm 6:4).
May the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.