Not Satisfied Until Justice and Righteousness Flow
Jan 28, 2024
4th Sunday after Epiphany/RIC Sunday
Text: Amos 5:21-24
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
In September of 2020 Faith Lutheran Church became a Reconciling in Christ (RIC) congregation after an overwhelmingly positive congregational vote to adopt the Welcome Statement that is published in the Weekly Beacon each Sunday. That statement is: “In response to God’s unconditional love and grace, the people of Faith Lutheran Church seek to follow Jesus’ commandment to love God, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We express that love in our commitment to racial equity, and in our welcome of people of all ages, races, economic status, intellectual and physical abilities, sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions, along with their families and friends, to join with us as we worship God, grow in faith and offer hope.”
Also, twice each Sunday, we condense that Welcome Statement and include it in the announcements to remind members and visitors that being a welcoming community is important to us as followers of Jesus. It’s so important that we repeat it again and again so that those new in worship hear it and the words and their meaning become second nature to us. We want to be a place where justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Those words often are associated with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who used them in his “I Have a Dream” speech during the historic 1963 March on Washington. “No, no,” he said, “We are not satisfied and will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Dr. King was quoting the Old Testament prophet Amos, one of the earliest prophets whose writings appear in the Bible. He once told one of his opponents that he was not a prophet but a farmer who raised sheep and tended fig trees. Yet, Amos speaks in the language of a prophet; his use of the Hebrew language is rivaled only by the psalmists. (Introduction to Amos: Lutheran Study Bible)
When Amos first spoke today’s text to the people of Israel, they were anticipating the Day of the Lord as a day of deliverance from their enemies, a day of light and brightness. In the verses that immediately precede what we read Amos told them that would not be the case. Instead, it will be a day of darkness, not light.
Then he used this vivid simile, “It will be as if someone fled from a lion and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall and was bitten by a snake.” There is no hope from them; it is as if they were God’s enemies.
But how can this be? These are people who loved to worship; they did all the right things in their worship, and yet God did not accept them, did not look at them favorably. As one commentator said, “God holds his nose, shuts his eyes and plugs his ears,” when it comes to receiving their acts of worship.
Why? It’s not that they did not do the right things in worship; they did. It’s their daily lives that were the problem; their lives were not characterized by justice and righteousness. They did not flood the community with acts of justice and righteousness, like a steam that never stops flowing.
Amos’ message is difficult to hear; unless you practice justice on behalf of the vulnerable, your worship is wasted. Worship should be evaluated as least as much by what happens outside the sanctuary as by what happens within. (1)
So, if justice and righteousness are so important, what exactly is their meaning? In Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, justice is equity, fairness and caring, particularly for the vulnerable. Justice is paired with righteousness, which is doing what is right, especially for widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor, the most vulnerable members of society in the Old Testament. Righteousness is tangible acts or relationships that produce the qualities of equity, fairness and caring.
In the familiar story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus is asked by a lawyer the way to inherit eternal life; the answer is “to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” But, then, wanting to justify himself, the lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?”
That’s when Jesus tells a parable about justice flowing down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. I will not go through the story in detail, but I will remind you that a Samaritan, who was viewed as an outcast, a heretic by the Jews, is the one who offers excessive caring to a man who, for all he knows, may be a Jew, and thus his enemy. But the man is as vulnerable as any person could be, having been beaten and left for half-dead.
So, the Samaritan responded with fairness, with mercy, treating the victim in the same way he would have wanted to be treated had he been in the same situation. Jesus then tells the questioner to “Go and do likewise.” Justice and righteousness are what love looks like.
Prophet Amos’ words were aimed at a community. He was warning them that their corporate activity lacked justice and righteousness; they had rejected God’s gifts of justice and righteousness and had not allowed it to flourish. Therefore, their devotion had been rejected by God.
We can be thankful to be people who have been saved by God’s grace in Jesus and who live the reality of Romans 8, that God is with us, loving us through our suffering, and that God has not, and God will not reject us, abandon us, or desert us.
That Good News is our motivation to, as Jesus commanded us, “Go and do likewise.” That is, to strive toward making equity, fairness and caring – that is justice – our guiding vision and righteousness the way we live as a faith community. This is especially the case as we welcome those who often have not experienced either justice or righteousness, including those who we name each Sunday: people of all ages, races, economic status, intellectual and physical abilities, sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions, along with their families and friends.
May we too not be satisfied until justice flows down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. AMEN
“Commentary on Amos 5:18-24” by Terence E. Fretheim, www.workingpreacher.org