Come Immanuel: God’s Reign of Righteousness

Come Immanuel: God’s Reign of Righteousness

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Published:
December 23, 2015

The prophetic quest for “judgment and righteousness” is the quest for fairness and justice upon the earth.  It represents the collective sigh of the oppressed, downtrodden, marginalized and stigmatized.  It echoes throughout history as the voice of the few, brave enough to “do unto others” and to call others to do the same.  It is the essence of hope – the messianic hope - hope that God’s reign of righteousness will finally come upon the earth. 

The prophet Jeremiah, in the midst of his anguish over the injustice and corruption in the government of Israel says:  “Behold, the days are coming,’ says the Lord, ‘that I will raise to David a branch of righteousness; a King shall reign and prosper, and execute judgment and righteousness in the earth’.” (Jeremiah 23:5)  In the same vein of hope Isaiah points to a king who will continue the Davidic kingdom “with justice and with righteousness.”(Isaiah 9:7)  He proclaims that a young woman will give birth to him, “and shall call him Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14) 

When the Hebrew prophets speak of righteousness they often use a twin terminology mishpat and tzedekah.  Bible translations vary in their rendering of these terms:  “judgment and righteousness”, “Justice and righteousness” and “fairness and justice”.  It is difficult to distinguish between the two terms, but both terms mean justice.  Mishpat is retributive or even-handed justice.  It upholds rules that settle disputes based on “right rather than might.”[1] It ensures that all receive what is rightly theirs so that no one may pursue their own interests at the expense of others.  Tzedakah cannot be pinned down in law because it is a timeless ideal, based on the particular circumstance, in response to social, political and economic inequities.[2]  Thus when the prophets use both terms together in the quest for the ideal community, they hardly distinguish between the two, but allow the terms to define each other.  The New Testament Greek equivalent of Tzedekah is dikaiosunē.  Though translated “righteousness”, it carries the same meaning as Tzedekah – “justice”. 

Often when faith communities speak of righteousness, they speak of a body of dogmas and rituals based upon traditions that must be maintained by the individual in order to attain or display some kind of piety.   It often turns out that such righteousness is not based on what is right, but on what the community accepts to be right.   These ideas of righteousness are often superficial in that they relate to what people wear, what they eat, what holidays they observe, how they divide labor and construct hierarchies and social boundaries, and so on. Often they bring the sacred text into the service of these traditions so that actions are not based on the principles of justice in the scriptures, but upon the human traditions in the scriptures that often fall short of the ideal of justice.  The prophetic voice constantly challenges the accepted practices that violate human dignity in the interest of the status quo.  This was precisely the nature of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.  “You have heard it said” (in scriptures)….”but I say” (principle of justice). He challenged the literal rendering of scriptures that left a community devoid of any sense of what it really means to do righteousness (Matthew 5-7).  Let faith communities heed the voices of those who cry out for justice rather than search tradition and scriptures for reasons to squash them.

The pursuit of justice defines the prophetic task.  It does not advance an evacuation theology that turns a blind eye to and even enables social injustice, in anticipation of the end of the world.  When Jesus after his baptism, filled with the Spirit returned to Galilee to begin his ministry, he went into the synagogue, he stood up and read from the scroll of Isaiah (61:1-2a): “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  According to the Gospel writer Luke, Jesus then hands over the scroll and declares: “Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”   Jesus took up from where the Hebrew prophets left off in the quest for justice in the world.  Luke continues the prophetic story in the book of Acts with the account that the Spirit fell upon Jesus’ followers – men and women who gathered in Jerusalem to pray. (Acts 1-2).  The church is to continue the prophetic quest from where Jesus left off.

The apostle Paul was the major prophetic voice in the primitive Church. He championed this quest for justice as he advocates against a cultural literalistic reading of scripture that gives only one group of humanity access to God.   He preached that because of Messiah’s faithfulness all humans female as much as males, non-Jews as much as Jews have direct access to God’s justice without having to become Jewish males.  This is the strict contextual application of the term dikaiosunē Theou dia pisteōs…. (righteousness of God through faith….).  (Romans 3:22) 

The coming of Messiah heralds the coming of God into the world.  The word Messiah is from the Hebrew Masiah which means “anointed”.  The Greek equivalent is Christos translated “Christ”. In Isaiah 45, King Cyrus of Persia is God’s Masiah – agent of righteousness who brings justice to Israel by ending their Babylonian captivity, returning them to their land to rebuild, with money and the sacred vessels that were plundered from the first temple.  The Hebrew kings were expected to be God’s agents of justice, which is why the prophets cried out and often despaired when rulers advanced or enabled injustice.  Jeremiah and Isaiah speak of the hopeful expectation that God’s agent of justice will break into Israel’s history to demonstrate the very presence and reign of God (Isaiah (9:6-7).  When those who call upon the name of God before the world while practicing what many see as injustice, degradation and disrespect for the life and dignity of others, they make mockery of God.  God cannot be fully experienced in a world or community that practices injustice and any manner of inequity.  Such is the message of the prophets.

Matthew applies the oracle in Isaiah 7:14 to Jesus of Nazareth. (Matthew 1:23)  He goes further to define for his audience the meaning of the name Immanuel, noting that it means “God is with us”.  All four Gospel writers demonstrate this concept of Immanuel “God is with us” in the Jesus story.  What is truly profound in their accounts is that “God is with us” is also the human story that Jesus tells.  It plays out in the gospels in the following ways:

1.       Mark and Matthew tell us that Jesus is the Messiah “the righteous king” for whom Israel has long yearned since the Babylonian captivity who will reestablish the David line in God’s kingdom of justice. (Mark 1:1-11; Matthew 1:17)  He does this not through political might but through suffering (Mark 10:32-38) and humility (Matthew 21:5).  In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) Jesus says “seek first the kingdom of God and his Justice…” (6:33) This seeking works itself out in love for one’s neighbor.  This love is justice distributed: “Therefore, concerning everything whatever you wish that humans do to you, do also to them” (7:12).  In this way one becomes perfect as God is perfect (5:43-48).  Divine perfection resides in the heart and the world where justice reigns.  

2.       Luke tells us that Jesus is the son of Adam who is the son of God. (Luke 3:38) Luke’s profound genealogy of Jesus is a call to humanity to recognize in every human being the son (daughter) of God that Messiah is and thus assume our vocation as God’s agents of Justice in the world.  When we pursue this call we become like Christ and through us God comes to the world.  Luke’s second volume Acts emphasizes justice in action through the primitive Church where long established social walls begin to dissolve. (Acts 2:17-2; 10:34-35)

3.       The Gospel of John says that Jesus Messiah is the incarnate logos of God (John 1:1, 14) who prays that his followers be one as He and God are one, and leaves with them a new commandment to love one another (John 17:21).  John further says that when we love one another we abide in God and God in us (1 John 4:13); through love the logos incarnates in us.  

As we celebrate the birth of Messiah, many look for the end of this world of evil and confusion.  Prophecy is not applied in the biblical sense as a call and a hope for justice; rather it has become a cacophony of sensational predictions of the end of the world and the return of the Messiah.  Many of these predictors preach and practice divisiveness, hatred and intolerance - the very antithesis of the prophetic ideal, and the very condition they seek to escape.  But what if our yearning for Immanuel becomes a prophetic resolve to root out every semblance of evil - inequity and injustice within and among us?  What if Christians consistently and progressively seek to live out the prophetic narrative of the Gospel?  Will God’s kingdom come? Will Immanuel come?

“Oh come oh come Immanuel”

Set us free to be all that we must be.

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