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Posts Tagged ‘injustice’

Sin is insidious. It stealthily works its way into every nook and cranny of our lives, affecting every part of us and how we interact with others bringing pain and brokenness all around. We’re looking at just one aspect of this, this morning –

The sin of prejudice

Prejudice is when we treat people unfairly because of how they are different than we are or are perceived to be different

  • I was raised in the South – mostly Alabama and Georgia – and so I’m certainly aware of prejudice based on something as simple as the color of someone’s skin. And, of course, I mean white people treating black people unfairly. And this still goes on despite the way white people enslaved and brutalized African Americans – a monstrous sin that still today stands as a giant scar on the soul of America.
  • Prejudice can also be based on differences of culture, region or country. Some people treat differently, dislike or even hate those who come from a different group than they do. Jesus notes this human tendency when he says that Gentiles only greet those who are like them in Matthew 5:47.
  • Prejudice can also be based on gender, and almost always this involves men mistreating women.
  • And prejudice can also be based on social class; usually involving wealth or the lack thereof. James talks about this in the second chapter of his letter and how when we favor the rich and dishonor the poor, we sin (James 2:1-13).

Prejudice can be based on any differences between people.

And it’s especially dangerous when those who are different are a minority among a majority population that has social and political power all the way from school yard cliques of popular kids who pick on those who are different, to the kind of oppression, including ethnic cleansing that happens among nations when one group gains power over another.

Next, let me say, and I believe we will see this in our Scripture text today, apart from conscious, willful acts prejudice can be as simple as the majority not being aware of or taking into account the needs and concerns of the minority, so that they’re left out and thus treated unfairly. Right? We’re doing fine, so everyone else must be too. And that’s often not true.

I do not doubt that many of you have experienced prejudice in various ways. Just to take one example, although I was not raised Mennonite, I know that Mennonites have always been a religious minority and our views, especially on loving enemies, have brought prejudice and persecution at various times in history.

I want us to look this morning at –

Acts 6:1-6

– to see what we can learn from how the apostles responded to an example of prejudice in their midst.

The church at this time was still all Jewish. But nevertheless there were differences among them. And where there are differences, prejudice often lurks in the human heart.

And sure enough there was prejudice in their midst

1Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.

The Hebrews were the dominant group in Jerusalem – they were Aramaic speaking and culturally Palestinian. The Hellenists may or may not have been born abroad, but Greek would have been their first language and they would have had more affinity for aspects of Greco-Roman culture.

We learn earlier in the book of Acts that all these different groups had come together and were caring for each other’s needs, so that “there was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:34). This was a beautiful example of love and unity among people from all different Jewish backgrounds.

But here we see that something has gone terribly wrong. The Hellenist widows were not getting their fair share of support, and this is how they fed themselves and met their basic needs. This is how things worked back in that day. The Hebrews, who were in charge, including the Apostles, have treated them unfairly.

Now, we don’t know the details of what happened. Was there willful, overt prejudice on the part of some? Or was it that, as the majority, they simply weren’t careful to watch out for the needs of the Hellenists? Given the response of the community, that we’ll see in a minute, it looks more like the latter.

In this story we learn that the apostles did three things:

1. The apostles listened to those who had a “complaint.” This is evident in v. 1, that we just looked at. They heard the “complaint” of “neglect” of the Hellenists about their widows, the substance of which was that an injustice has happened.

Now the apostles were overseeing the setup that was being unjust to widows. So even though they may not have been personally involved or have had any willful prejudice themselves – they are a part of the problem.

Again, you can be involved in mistreating others even when your heart’s in the right place or if you’re not personally prejudiced in your attitudes. The apostles were in charge (Acts 4:34-35) and so were implicated.

And so it would have been really easy for the apostles to get defensive. ‘Well, I’m not prejudiced’ or ‘I wasn’t the one overseeing giving out resources for the widows!’ and so forth and so on. But they didn’t do this, they genuinely listened to the complaint and the pain of the widows. And the pain wasn’t just that they got less than others, it’s that they were treated as less than the other widows; they were disrespected.

2. The apostles saw the prejudice as a very serious problem. 

 2And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples . . .

In other words, they stopped everything and brought everyone together to deal with it. They saw prejudice for what it is, which is sin. And so they purposed to take action to correct things, which is the next point.

3. The apostles made changes that empowered those who were mistreated.

Picking up the last part of v. 2 –

. . . and (the apostles) said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3Therefore, brothers and sisters pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”

 Two kinds of “service” are contrasted in these verses. In v. 4 it says literally the “service of the word” and in v. 2 “table service,” which has to do with meeting practical needs.

The apostles’ call was to the ministry of the word – preaching and teaching. And, given what happened, they feel that they can’t both do this and oversee taking care of the widows in the community, especially as the group was getting bigger and bigger.

So they ask the community to pick qualified people to perform what they call, “table service.” Table service might mean literally tables where food was distributed or it might refer to handling and distributing the money needed for this.

In any case, they made structural changes to put in place the first deacons. The system wasn’t working well so it had to change.

5And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.

And so here the community does what the apostles ask them to do – and what they do is quite amazing. Every person chosen has a Greek name! Now, some Palestinian Jews had Greek names, but that all of these deacons have them shows that most, if not all of them are from the Hellenistic group. They are now in charge of the care of all the widows. And these were commissioned by the apostles to do just this.

So their response to the injustice was to empower those who had been mistreated, in part to make sure that it didn’t happen again.

Well –

The church still struggles with prejudice

If there was prejudice in the church overseen by the very apostles of Jesus, you can be sure that we have these problems among us as well. And I’m not just thinking of our congregation but of congregations throughout the world.

  • God calls us to be his new people made “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9) united in love under allegiance to our Lord, Jesus.
  • God calls us to be “a city set on a hill,” as Jesus talks about (Matthew 5:14), that shines the light of a better way, in this case, of a community that welcomes all and values all equally under Jesus’ lordship.

But, sisters and brothers, as you know, we do not always live up to this calling! We often look just like the world around us with all of its divisions and hatreds. And this should not be so! It cuts at the very core of who we’re called to be as followers of Jesus; a people marked by love and reconciliation.

I’m not saying that Acts 6:1-6 teaches us everything we need to know about dealing with prejudice, but I am saying that it teaches us three very important responses that we should put into practice in our church communities.

1. We need to listen to those who have been mistreated. Like the apostles we need to listen and hear the person’s or the group’s perspective and pain. Just as we would want to happen, if we were mistreated. And we need to do so even if the person or group is angry with us. We have to listen and not be defensive.

2. We need to take prejudice seriously. It is sin in our midst and like any sin it must be dealt with.

3. We need to make changes that empower those who are mistreated to make sure it doesn’t continue.

And as I close, let me also say that we should also respond to any prejudice we see in the world in the same way. No one should have any doubt about where we stand!

In love we listen to those who are mistreated, we call out prejudice as sin and we support the encouragement and empowerment of those who are mistreated. This is who we are as God’s people.

Sisters and brothers, this world has enough hatred and bitterness. So let’s be God’s beacon of light of a better way; the way of love and respect for all.

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According to the Scriptures there are two kinds of trials that we go through in our lives. 1) What we usually think of as a trial has to do with suffering some kind of lack – a lack of food, a lack of health, money, a job, or protection from say, persecution. And this lack puts us in a really difficult situation that tests whether we will remain faithful to God, or not.

2) But to have an abundance of something can also be a trial. Deuteronomy 8 talks about how we can be tested with an abundance of material blessings from God. This too can be a really difficult situation in that it can be a stumbling block to our faithfulness to God. It might make us forget the Lord, or act in ways that are wrong toward others.

Today, we are talking about a test in this second category; one that has to do with abundance – in this case of power or strength. This includes physical strength, economic power, and also what I am calling social power: the influence or sway we have over others. This might come from having a certain position or office in a group that gives you authority and power or it can be more informal – you might be well-liked or popular in a group. This is social power.

I believe that all of us have power in one way or another in our lives. In other words, it’s not that some are strong and some are weak, each of us are strong and weak in different areas and at different times in our lives. And so all of us face this test at some point in our lives.

The question in such a test is ‘How do you use the power you have?’ ‘How do you treat those weaker than you, people who are vulnerable to being dishonored and taken advantage of?’ My point today is that the answer to this question reveals what is in your heart; whether you are righteousness or unrighteous. It reveals the kind of moral character you have, or don’t have.

Scripture teaches us in many places and in different ways that 1. Those who use their strength for the weak, are righteous. In fact, this is a chief character trait of a godly person.

Ezekiel 18:7, says that a righteous person (v. 5) “does not oppress anyone (that is, doesn’t take advantage of the weak) but . . . gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment (that is, helps the weak in their need).”

The righteous use their power and strength, not just for themselves, but also for others. As we will see in a moment, they use it to help, to stand up for, and to honor the weak

On the other hand Scripture teaches us that 2. Those who use their strength against the weak, are unrighteous. This is a chief character trait of an ungodly person.

In parallel to what we saw before, Ezekiel 18:12 says that an unrighteous person “oppresses the poor and needy (that is, doesn’t’ help them, but exploits them).” The unrighteous use their power and strength for themselves, for their own self-interests, not others. As we will see, they use it to take advantage of, dominate and ridicule the weak.

Let’s look at some examples, some of which are cast in a positive light – do this, and other are cast in a negative light – don’t ever do this.

1. If you are a boss or business owner, how do you treat your employees? Do you verbally degrade them? Are you unfair? Do you pressure them to work too hard or in unsafe conditions?

James 5:4-5 speaks to bosses who take advantage of their employees financially. It says, “Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.” This is pretty intense! Are you a righteous employer?

2. If you are a husband, how do you treat your wife? Through most of history wives have been socially weaker than their husbands, although not really in our culture today. But wives are almost always physically weaker. So we’re talking about domestic violence here – verbal and/or physical abuse.

Ephesians 5:25 says, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Just as Jesus had power, but used it not for himself but for us, so husbands, use whatever power you do have to bless and build up your wife. Are you a righteous husband?

3. If you are a parent, how do you treat your children? They are both socially and physically weaker than you, at least when they are young. We are certainly not to mistreat them through verbal or physical abuse. And even if they are older we can hurt and wound them given our status.

Ephesians 6:4 speaking of younger children says, “do not provoke your children to anger,” that is, by mistreating them. We are to love and care for them and raise and nurture them to be godly people; being above all an example to them of this kind of life. Are you righteous in how you treat your children?

4. If you are of able-bodied, how do you treat the disabled? Whether it be a physical or mental/emotional disability, the disabled are more vulnerable to being taken advantage of and dishonored.

But listen to Deuteronomy 27:18. It says, “Cursed be anyone who misleads a blind person on the road.” This teaches us in general not to take advantage of or dishonor such a person. Are you righteous in how you treat the disabled?

5. If you are young and strong, how do you treat the elderly? They can be physically and sometimes socially weaker than you.

Not only does Jesus warn against taking advantage of the elderly in Mark 7:10-13 here talking about one’s elderly parents,  we are to honor those older than us. Leviticus 19:32 says, “You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man.” Culturally this is an expression of honor. Are you righteous in how you treat the elderly?

6. If you have what you need (and perhaps a whole lot more than you need), how do you treat the poor? We are talking about economic power here.

We have already seen in Ezekiel 18:7 that a righteous person “gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment.” And there are many other passages that speak of lending at no interest, and giving food, clothing and shelter to help the poor get back on their feet again.

We are also to stand up for the poor – Proverbs 31:9 says, “open your mouth . . . defend the rights of the poor and needy.” And we are not to put down the poor. Proverbs 17:5 says, “Whoever mocks the poor insults his Maker.” We insult God when we make fun of the poor.

Are you righteous in how you treat the poor?

7. If you are socially secure, how do you treat those on the margins of society?

For instance, widows and orphans who often fell through the social support networks in the ancient world. And so Exodus 22:22 says, “You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child.” But, nNot only are we not to mistreat them, we are to stand up for them. Isaiah 1:17 says, “bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause”

Another example is immigrants who are vulnerable being in a different place without support systems. Leviticus 19:34 applies the second greatest commandment to them – “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself.”

In a similar way, minority groups can be vulnerable to being taken advantage of by the majority because they have less power. In Acts 6:1 the Greek speaking widows were overlooked in the daily distribution of food in the church, in favor of the Hebrew speaking widows. There were different cultural and national differences between these groups. And this had to be dealt with.

Are you righteous in how you treat the marginalized?

There are many other examples that could be given.

  • Even if you’re not a boss, how do you use the power you have at work?
  • For those in middle or high school – are you a bully who uses physical strength and intimidation to put others down and take advantage of them? Or are you “popular,” a part of an in-group who uses social power to put down and exclude others?
  • How do we treat the not yet born, who are the weakest of all?

Scripturally this issue even extends beyond the human realm to how we treat animals, who are lower and weaker than us in many ways. If you have animals under your care professionally or as pets, how do you treat them? Proverbs 12:10 says,  “Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel.” Are we merciful or cruel?

The principle in all this is straightforward: How you use power reveals your character. Those who use it to take advantage of, dominate and dishonor the weak are among the unrighteous. Those who use it to help, stand up for and honor the weak are among the righteous.

Examine yourself. How do you use the power you have? How do you treat those weaker than you? Where is God speaking to you this morning?

William Higgins

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