Posts Tagged ‘prejudice’

According to the Scriptures there are two kinds of trials that we go through in our lives. 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 difficult situation that tests whether or not we will remain faithful to God.

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 (or wealth) and  also what I’m 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 a part of a group that’s favored by others. 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 or 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?” And more specifically, “How do you treat those weaker than you?” People who are vulnerable to being taken advantage of and dishonored. My point today is that the answer to this question reveals what’s in your heart – whether you’re righteousness or unrighteous.

It reveals the kind of moral character you have

Scripture teaches us in many places and in different ways that 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 (or mistreat) anyone, but . . . gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment.”

The righteous use their power and strength, not just for themselves, but also for others. As we’ll 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 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 (or mistreats) the poor and needy.”

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

1. If you’re a boss or business owner, how do you treat your employees? Are you fair or not? Do you pressure them to work too hard or in unsafe conditions?

James 5:4 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.”

God is watching and listening! Are you a righteous employer?

2. If you’re 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 have to bless and build up your wife. Are you a righteous husband?

3. If you’re a parent, how do you treat your children? They are both socially and physically weaker than you, at least when they’re 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 in various ways, given our status as their parents.

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’re 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 man on the road.”

This teaches us not to take advantage of or dishonor such a person. And we see God’s point of view on this come through quite clearly. Are you righteous in how you treat the disabled?

5. If you’re 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 not taking care of the elderly in Mark 7:10-13, talking about one’s 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 seniors?

6. If you have what you need (and perhaps a whole lot more than you need), how do you treat the poor?

We have already seen in Ezekiel 18:7 that the 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 advocate 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 if we make fun of the poor.

Are you righteous in how you treat the poor?

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

  • For instance, widows and orphans often fell through the social support networks of the ancient world. And so, Exodus 22:22 says, “You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child.” But not 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. And this had to be dealt with by the apostles.

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 do have at work? For those in school, are you a bully who uses physical strength and intimidation to dishonor and take advantage of others? Or are you “popular” – a part of an in-group – who uses that popularity to put down and exclude others?

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, 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 you merciful to your animals?

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 God has given you? How do you treat those weaker than you?

I’m calling you to imitate God in all this. This comes out clearly this Christmas season in Mary’s expression of praise to God, after learning that she would give birth to Jesus the Messiah in –

Luke 1:46-55

Let’s read it responsively and please notice as we read how God uses his power (underlined):

L: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior

P: for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.

L: For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

P: And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

L: He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;

P: he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate

L: he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.

A: He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.

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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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Series: Paul to the Thessalonians

Our text today is a second section of thanksgiving to God. I have given you a handout where you can see how this second thanksgiving parallels the first one in a number of ways.

Our focus today will be on the latter part of this passage that talks about judgment on “the Jews,” which has been read by some as a justification for anti-Semitism.

But first a few words about –

Paul’s thanksgiving

“13And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.”

Paul is giving thanks here again, that they received the gospel. As we saw last week, it was not the word of some charlatan, but God’s own word that they received. And God’s word is alive and active, as Paul says it is still at work in them transforming them.

“14For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews . . ..”

Here Paul cites as the chief evidence of the validity of their faith that they underwent suffering for it. And just as in the first thanksgiving, where Paul talks about how they became imitators of himself and Jesus in their faithfulness in the midst of suffering, so here he talks about how they have become imitators of the churches in Judea who suffered faithfully.

So Paul is seeking to encourage them. They may be outcasts because of their new faith, but they are connected to a larger body of believers who have suffered – the church in Judea.

Next we come to our focus for today –

What Paul says about “the Jews”

  • He talks about “the Jews 15who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets . . ..” The prophets here probably refers to Christian prophets like Stephen and James the son of Zebedee who had died for their faith.
  • “and drove us out . . ..” This refers not just to what happened in Judea, but also Paul’s own dealings with some of the Thessalonian Jews who chased him out of town.
  • “and displease God and oppose all mankind 16by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved . . ..” Note that he says this specifically because they are hindering the progress of the Gospel.
  • “so as always to fill up the measure of their sins . . ..” The idea of filling up the measure of one’s sins is talked about in several places in Scripture (Genesis 15:16; Matthew 23:32; Daniel 8:23). God is patient with all who rebel against him, but he sets a limit. And when the measure is full, then comes judgment.
  • Which is what Paul talks about next, “But wrath has come upon them at last!” There is punishment coming soon, or that has even already started.

This is the question that faces us –

Is Paul being anti-Semitic here?

That is, is he making a blanket negative statement about all Jews, that they displease God, are opposed to humanity and deserve God’s wrath? So that this is what we should think of all Jews? I want to take this issue seriously because there has been much hatred and oppression of Jews over the last number of centuries, often in the name of Christianity, in part, based on a certain reading of texts like these.

There has been horrible persecution, evil and cruel stereotyping, and just a generation ago, the holocaust where millions of Jews were systematically killed for no other reason than that they were Jews. It pains me beyond measure to think that any of this hatred could be based upon the New Testament – which teaches us to love even our enemies. But many have done just this. And not just crazies or fringe elements, but renowned Christian leaders in centuries past have said things that have contributed to this. And so I want us to attend to this today with some vigor.

Is Paul being anti-Semitic here? The answer is no, because –

Paul is referring to a particular group of Jews

The word “Jew” comes from the word “Judea,” a reference to the old southern kingdom of Israel based in Jerusalem, named after Judah, one of the 12 patriarchs. The word “Jew” can refer to 1) anyone who is Jewish/Judean in religion or culture – who upholds the law of Moses, and is connected to Abraham. And there were many different kinds of Jews: Essences, Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, followers of John the Baptist, Diaspora Jews living outside the land of Israel. Or it can refer to a sub-group of Jews 2) those in charge in Judea – the political and religious authorities of Judea and the temple. These “powers that be” were made up of a loose coalition of Sadducees and Pharisees and any who aligned themselves with them.

Here is why we know that Paul is referring to the latter:

– Paul was himself a practicing Jew in the religious sense. Paul says plainly enough in Acts 22:3, “I am a Jew.”

– Jesus, his Lord, was Jewish down to wearing the tassels on the corners of his garment (Matthew 9:20) in accordance with the Law of Moses.

– Most Christians at this time were still practicing Jews. Indeed all the writers of the New Testament were Jewish, except Luke.

– And in our text itself the churches in Judea who are being persecuted by “the Jews” are also Jews!

We have to understand that just as there were Pharisees and Sadducees,  and so forth, so Jesus’ followers were another form of Judaism – the “Jesus movement” or it was sometimes called – “the way,” made up of both Jews and Gentiles in Christ.

So the point here is that Paul can’t be condemning all Jews. He and his fellow Jewish Christians are Jews. (This is also the case in the gospel of John where the phrase “the Jews” most often refers to the Judeans in power.)

So what we have here is in an inter-Jewish conflict over what it means to be faithful to God, focused on whether Jesus is the Messiah or not. And it was all–out. The Judean “powers that be” condemned and persecuted the Jesus movement. And the Jesus movement condemned them for failing to receive the promised Messiah. (For similar kinds of inter-Jewish prophetic condemnations see 2 Chronicles 36:14-21; Jeremiah 22:1-9; Hosea 5:1-4, etc.)

This is the context of this passage. Paul is talking about judgment coming on these Judean “powers-that-be” and those that align with them. These are precisely the ones who killed Jesus and the prophets and have opposed the preaching of the gospel, as he says in these verses.

Let’s reread this passage with this in mind – “For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Judean ‘powers that be’ who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all mankind by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved—so as always to fill up the measure of their sins. But God’s wrath has come upon the Judean ‘powers that be’ at last!”

It’s also important for us to understand that he is not just talking about a particular group of Jews –

Paul is referring to a particular judgment

He is quoting Jesus from Matthew 23, reminding them of the Jesus traditions he has handed on to them. You have a handout so let’s look at this briefly.

Both talk about 1. Persecuting the prophets

  • Paul speaks of “. . . the Jews who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out . . .” – vs. 14-15.
  • Jesus said to the Pharisees, “Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town . . .” – Matthew 23:34.

Both talk about 2. Hindering the gospel

  • They “displease God and oppose all mankind by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved” – vs. 15-16.
  • “Woe to you . . . for you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.” – Matthew 23:13.

Both talk about 3. Filling up the measure of sin

  • “ . . . so as always to fill up the measure of their sins.” – v. 16.
  • “Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers” – Matthew 23:32.

Both talk about 4. Coming judgment

  • “But wrath has come upon them at last!” –  v. 16.
  • “Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation” – Matthew 23:36.

So Paul is referring to Jesus’ speech in Matthew 23. The point here is that the judgment that Jesus speaks of is the judgment that Paul is talking about. In Matthew 23 Jesus is talking about the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple within a generation. This is what he refers to in Matthew 23:38, “your house is left to you desolate” and this is expanded on in chapter 24.

Paul is saying that this judgment is already breaking out against the Judean ‘powers that be.’ He most likely saw this in several activities on the part of Rome – opposing the Judean leadership (the expulsion of Jews from Rome and various conflicts with Cumanus the new Roman governor at this time).

And in fact this judgment did happen in 70 AD, within a generation of Jesus’ prediction. The Sadducean/Pharisaic coalition that played a role in killing Jesus and persecuting his followers was wiped out and their political and religious base was no more. Why do I share all this with you? The judgment Paul is talking about has already happened! This is why these Judean powers don’t exist anymore. They were judged and set aside forever. These verses don’t apply to any other Jews.

Christian anti-Semitism!?

So listen to me this morning. We must decisively renounce hatred of any people group, whether religious, racial or cultural. We must put aside any hint of prejudice or bigotry. God has called us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

Yes, we will disagree in religious matters with various groups and in the midst of persecution we may point out that there will be judgment on our oppressors – like Paul does here. But we are also called to love our enemies and this excludes hatred, bigotry and prejudice.

Now the temptation for many today in America is to hate Muslims. But the call to love our neighbors includes all people.

But for Christians to be prejudiced against Jews makes no sense! It’s like being prejudiced against your mother. That’s where we came from! Do you understand this?

  • Christianity is a form of Judaism, that includes both Jewish believers and Gentile believers in Christ.
  • And we serve a Jewish Messiah, our Lord Jesus.
  • And we claim Abraham as our father and honor Moses as a saint.

Do many Jews not believe? Yes. Do many Gentiles not believe? Yes. And we are called to love them all!

Let’s end by hearing what Paul says in Romans 9:1-5. Here Paul is not focused on encouraging those who are being persecuted and assuring them that there will be justice from God. Here we see his heart for unbelieving Jews, some of whom are the very ones who have persecuted him and the Thessalonians.

“I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.” Hear his heart in this. He would even give up his salvation for them to turn to Jesus!

“They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.”

William Higgins

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