This past Wednesday night I was leading our group through a process of meditation on scripture taken from a book on the topic by Avery Brooke. It’s a simple process that involves reading through the scripture three times during a 15 minute period, moving from a broad view of the text toward discerning a single revelation from God for that particular moment. It’s a great way of leading folks into thinking about the possibility of Christian mediation/contemplation and I’ve used it with pretty good success over the years.
Anyway, this past Wednesday we were using the story of Philip and the Ethiopian (Acts 8:26-40) as our text for reflection. As we went through the process, I saw many different things in the text, from the identification of the Ethiopian as a God Fearer, to his resolve to be baptized once the gospel had been explained to him. However what jumped out at me the most was a single phrase in the passage from Isaiah that the Ethiopian Eunuch was studying:
In his humiliation justice was taken away from, him…
(Isaiah 53:8a Common English Bible)
The passage which refers to the suffering servant has been interpreted by the church throughout the years as referring to Jesus, the one “…led like a sheep to the slaughter…” who “…did not open his mouth…” on his way to the cross. Certainly, the passion of the Christ is understood within the tradition as a movement toward resurrection, and yet also a time when Christ was utterly humiliated — not simple executed, but executed in a fashion that was designed to be shameful and reject all aspects of human dignity.
I knew all this, of course, having sat through far too many “cross talks” in Young Life which focused on the gore and sacrifice of Christ. “Jesus was humiliated for us,” we were told in round about ways, “…so don’t you think you should sacrifice your own sense of “cool” and follow Jesus too?” I’ve never seen the passion as a triumphal event, but one of degradation which only finds redemption in the event of the resurrection.
What never jumped out at me before, however, was the interconnection between humiliation and justice, leading me to think both about the work of
Grace and the ways that we deprive others of justice because of our inability to recognize the connection between the two.
Of course, the irony of the gospel springs forth in this description, for the one who came to proclaim the day of the Lord, the day when justice shall roll down like a river, was denied justice himself through his humiliation. Our redeemer offers to us that which we would not give him, and then expects us to do likewise. God’s grace, the unmerited gift of love, forgiveness, and justice, has been, and always will be, amazing, and we are well served to remember that grace as we try to walk in the way of Jesus.
It’s in walking in Jesus footsteps that gets us though, for the fact is that we often aren’t truly ready to take up our crosses and suffer the humiliation of the passion. And, more troubling to me, in our desire to help the alien, the homeless, those who are down on their luck, we sometimes fall into traps of requiring the humiliation of the other, thus likewise depriving the least of these of the justice they deserve.
It’s a tough call, for difficult situations often call for tough love, and Jesus certainly didn’t mince his words as he went about teaching and healing. There is a fine line between speaking the truth in love, and requiring those seeking help to bow and grovel for their crust of bread, and very often we find ourselves falling from truth into requiring tribute for our service, humiliation for our love. Any time we engage in ministries to others that fail to respect the dignity of the other, we risk the sin of humiliation and in some way actually deprive that person of justice rather than offering them the respect and fairness they deserve as a child of God.
I think of a couple of homeless ministries I know. One takes justice seriously, recognizing their clients as “guests,” and while being tough at times, maintains a certain respect for those often difficult persons who come through their doors. The other, filled with good and well meaning people, makes demands on their client base that fill these persons with dread, leading to a space that has become the place of last resort for those living on the streets. One understands that humiliation and justice are connected. The other hasn’t quite recognized that what they are offering may not be as connected to Christ as they think.
To connect humiliation with justice is to rewire one’s thinking about how we serve others. Understanding that justice is withheld when the other is humiliated leads me to rethink how our congregation is engaged in service to those in need around us, leading (I hope and pray) to recognizing the dignity of all that needs to be respected.
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