Justice, Life, and an Ethic of Relationship
Eighth Sunday After Pentecost • July 30, 2017
Reading: I Kings 3:16-28
Rev. Alisha Gordon, M.Div.
Our scripture text, 1 Kings 3:16-28, references the story of two women, the bible calls them two prostitutes; we may call them “sex workers,” who were seeking justice from King Solomon. This is a tough text, a difficult Old Testament text, and many of us like to skate over it, but not today. We’re going to deal with it. And we’re going to use the text to talk about What Is Justice?, how do we explore God as a just God, and, what does justice look like in the context of our world today?
Webster’s dictionary defines justice as “a maintenance of administration of what is just.” I thought that was an interesting word choice, “maintenance.” You ever get a car, if you drive, you have to get maintenance on the car so it doesn’t break down. It says “justice is a maintenance or administration of what is just, especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting plans. It is a quality of being just or impartial.” I like to back to the 1828 Webster’s dictionary, its available online. The 1828 dictionary says, “justice makes a distinction between distributive justice – which is like from a higher court, or higher power down to mankind and communitive justice – which is between people.”
Of course, I had to go to Facebook and Twitter to crowdsource and see what people thought justice was. 50 comments later, I had a range of definitions of what justice is, what it is not. There were difference answers but there was a thread of equity and community in all the definitions people gave. Our definitions of justice are vast, and they are contextual. They are heavily dependent upon our experiences, where we live, how we grew up, how we understand our community and how we understand God. So, this notion of God is a just God makes me wonder, “how do we know that God is just?” How do we know when justice is being exacted in the Earth?
God’s divine justice is directly tied to God’s Divine law. This correlation between justice and the law go hand in hand. In order for justice to have its place, there has to be some kind of law or mandate that is established. Without the law, there is no place for justice to rule or to reign. The point of the law is to help implement justice, so there is this relationship between the two of them. The caveat here is we have these laws in our cities, states, countries and across the world where our laws are intended and written to cover every person, we know that the laws are not always interpreted the same and that our biases impact the way the laws are carried out, and whether or not justice can even be served. It is highly contextual. It reminds me of a case in 2013, a case of a young man named Ethan Couch, a 16 year old white male of an affluent family, who was charged with vehicular homicide after he killed four people in a drunk driving accident. So, I don’t know anywhere in the United States where the law is not clear about vehicular homicide. I looked it up, did some research and generally speaking, what we may find as justice for vehicular homicide can range from 2 – 20 years, plus the fines up to $10,000. That’s a law across the board. But, in this particular case we saw his lawyer brought into the social space this term called “Affluenza.” He said, the boy suffered from “affluenza” because he was affluent, he simply did not have any ability to really ascertain the impact of his decisions. The judge agreed with him and sentenced him to ten years probation for killing 4 people. Though the law was clear across the board, there was bias in privilege, in social context, which really determine what justice looks like.
So, we return to the text of 1 Kings 3 and see these two women who are seeking justice from King Solomon. They are living in what are considered concentric circles of marginalization (the concentric circles go from smaller to larger); so, they had their genders - women, sex workers, socio-economic – the text tell us they are living in the same house, giving birth to babies in the same house; the scripture doesn’t tell us that but when we assume, people share space based on resources. And, I’m going to read my own experiences into this and say they are single parents, single moms. The scripture doesn’t tell us they have husbands or a man there to care for them. There are many layers of conceptual and concentric circles of marginalization. Both mothers come before the King and give their versions of the truth. They are both seeking after justice.
When we dig into the text, we often praise the response of the mother of the living child and we demonize the woman who said ‘death was a form of justice.’ If we take a moment to really explore, to dig into the narrative of the mother of the dead child we understand how justice plays out in the lives of the broken hearted. The mother of the deceased child, though we villainize her for her subsequent response to cut the baby in half, we have to ask why did she death as a form of justice? When was there a time for this grieving mother to attend to her emotional well-being? I cannot imagine what it is like; I am a mother of a 12 year old daughter and I could not imagine what it would have been to have a new born and wake up one morning and she was dead because of my own doing. The mourning, the rage, and the disappointment that comes with that, we never really deal with the kind of emotional stress that this woman was under in this text. Her idea of justice was sincerely fueled by heartbreak. Often in our, in the name of our brokenness and pain, we call for a form of justice that snuffs out life – because it mirrors our own pain. This is what this woman, I believe, is dealing with. The mother of the deceased child is willing to let a child die in order for the other woman to feel the same pain, the kind of equalizing pain, the would have been justice for her. I feel this pain, these have been my experiences, and this is what it means to justify this – cut the baby in half. But, that was a form of justice for her…which was deeply contextual, deeply reflective of her experiences.
But then we have the mother of the living child who understood justice in another way, a way that was relation. Her willingness to give the child to the mourning mother was reflective of her relationship with the child. If preserving the life of a child is of supreme importance, the relationship of the child to both mothers is essential to understanding how justice is determined. Relationship is essential to understanding how we proclaim that God is just. The mother with the relationship to the child was willing to preserve life while the mother without the relationship was willing to discard it. This is what brings us to this notion of an ethic of relationship, and how relationships shape and form our understandings of justice in a communitive way and justice in a higher power. We all have experiences which have shaped our experience of justice but what is of critical importance that I want to leave with you today is that if justice does not lead to life in all its form, it is not justice.
I used to be a 9th grade high school English teacher, and one of the things that was really important was bringing in a practical application – bringing in very high notions of justice and of God, and of self, into a practical way. So, we think about this ethic of relationship and how our relationship to each other and to God help us exact justice by prioritizing life. Prioritizing life. These discussions we have, see on tv and in the media about health care – to ensure that people can take care of themselves, people have a working/living wage, that our transgendered brothers and sisters can fight for our country if they choose; people hold the police accountable, protect the rights of our Muslim brothers and sisters, ensuring that children have rights to access education, all those things are about pointing toward life. Our understanding about what’s happening in our world, and the decisions we make when we go to the voting booth, church, passing each other on the street. All of our understanding about justice on a relational level is deeply committed and understood through our relationship to one another. So, we ask the question, we ask ourselves in daily encounters – do the things that I say, that I do lead to life? We get bogged down in the details of the law and what God has mandated for us to do. We can even get bogged down from a social standpoint – what things are coming down the pipe, how the church is trying to change the law – we get bogged down in all those things but God is calling us to ask the question is what I’m saying, what I’m doing, how I’m engaged, spending my money…does it lead back to life?
Matthew 5:17 – I love this because Jesus went on a rampage and was letting people have it!
In Matthew 5 Jesus is talking to the disciples and says in verse 17 “Don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the law and the prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them.” So, Jesus said that I didn’t come to do away with the law, not to discharge you from your responsibilities – Jesus came to give the law new meaning, and to give it life. Jesus was talking about inserting grace into and to fill the broken, empty places the law could not fill. Jesus brought in Matthew 5 the law of love and relationship as it connected to this law.
So, do our interpretations of the law or our ethical and moral interpretations and understandings when being forced on others – do we ask the questions does it lead to life? A just God points us back to life. If we think about all of creation and we look at the book of Genesis where God is speaking life over the Earth, the sky, the animals, over Adam and over Eve. All this life giving, when Jesus before he went up to the ever right hand of God sent down the spirit to be in in us, above us, around us and below us – to give us life, a renewed mind, renewed heart to fill the broken places. Our relationships really do fuel justice. They do that because our relationships help us dismantle the social structures that keep us apart. When I think about the relationships I’ve had with people of different experiences, when it’s time to let my words speak justice, let my actions speak justice, or the way I engage in community or conversations online – I think about the relationships I have. I’m thinking about those relationships that fuel me, should fuel us to speak life, to live in a way that pushes life as priority.
These two women in 1 Kings 3 had different understandings of justice. Justice was contextual but what was most important in distinguishing the two is that only one of them had relationship with the baby. It was because of that relationship with the baby that this mother was willing to give her child over to the mother of the deceased child, even at her own expense, in order to maintain life.
There is a book I really love called Doing Christian Ethics for the Marginalized and he really offers some great responses to this idea of relationship being a critical part of our understanding of justice. He says, “The love that liberates can be known and experienced only from within a relationship, established upon acts of justice.” He goes onto say “Relationships with each other and with God become a source for moral guidance capable of debunking the social structures erected and subsequently normalizing by the dominant culture.” Finally, he says, “It is the least among us, demonstrated through relationship founded on justice that manifest love for God. Only by loving the disenfranchised, by seeing Jesus among the poor, we can learn to love Jesus who claims to be marginalized, to love the marginalized is to love Jesus. Making fellowship with God possible as one enters into just fellowship for the disenfranchised.”
At the beginning of the service and during our songs we saw some images on the screen. There were three questions about “who/what do we see, what is their story, and how does their story connect to our own?” This ethic of relationship is what drives us toward a faithful response, toward understanding God as a just God whose priority is life.
We are called to be in relationship with one another, we are called to be in relationship because that is where justice lives.