Readings: Malachi 3:1-5, Matthew 6:24-34
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his 1941 inaugural address asserted that America was fighting in World War II to protect four freedoms: freedom from fear, freedom of worship, freedom of speech, and . . . some of you might remember, and others might guess . . . freedom from want. Seven years later these freedoms were incorporated into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which laid the cornerstone for all human rights laws. To implement this declaration of fundamental rights and freedoms, in the next three decades two covenants were written, approved by the UN General Assembly, and then ratified and adopted by most of the nations of the world.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights seeks to protect the rights that Americans generally agree are human rights. The United States has ratified this treaty, but it has done so with reservations. If there is a conflict, US law rather than international law applies. However, the United States has not ratified the second major covenant developed through the United Nations to implement the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The International Covenant on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights is international human rights law, because it has been ratified by most nations. But in America, there is little support for this human rights treaty.
Now, this is a sermon rather than a lecture on international human rights law. So, we should take note that Christians around the world support human rights law as an expression of their faith – that every person is a child of God and deserves to be treated as such. In America, however, many Christians believe that only civil and political rights are really human rights. International legal standards about economic, social and cultural rights are seen by many Americans as claims, rather than rights, and as not being justified either by the Bible or by our American heritage.
Until the twentieth century, Christian ethics was about duties, not rights. In fact, Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox churches (with a few exceptions) actively resisted the various rights movements that began in the 18th century — movements that have given us democratic government and most of the rights we take for granted. This changed, however, in the middle of the twentieth century after World War II. The newly formed World Council of Churches lobbied in support of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and after Vatican II the Catholic Church took the lead in troubled parts of the world in defending fundamental human rights.
Does the Bible endorse human rights? Not specifically. Yet, there is a concern throughout scripture for the plight of the poor and for their protection, as children of God, from oppression by priests, rulers, and wealthy landowners. We hear echoes of this in Malachi 3:5, which announces the LORD’s judgment: "I will be swift to bear witness," says the LORD of hosts, "against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, [and those who oppress] the widow and the orphan, [and] against those who thrust aside the alien."
Certainly there are passages in the New Testament that have been used to justify accepting poverty, either as God’s will or simply as the way things are. Three of the New Testament gospels contain a rebuke by Jesus to disciples, who complain when he allows a woman to anoint him with expensive ointment, rather than selling the ointment and giving the money to the poor. Furthermore, these gospels attribute to Jesus the seemingly harsh statement: "You will always have the poor with you." (Jn. 12:8, Mt. 26:11, Mk. 14:7) Yet, in these gospels Jesus also explains why his anointing is worth the use of the expensive ointment, and he tells the complaining disciples they can always be kind to the poor. When we remember this passage, we tend to forget the challenge we always have to be kind to the poor.
However, showing kindness is not the same as recognizing human rights. Moreover, the famous "lilies of the field" passage in Matthew 6:24-34 also provides no grounds for human rights in general or any grounds specifically for the "fourth freedom" – freedom from want. Yet, in the gospel of Luke, Jesus clearly proclaims God’s concern for the poor and the oppressed. In Luke 4:18 Jesus begins his ministry by reading Isaiah 61:1 in the Nazareth synagogue: "The Spirit of the LORD is upon me, because [the LORD] has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. [The LORD] has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, [and] to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor."
Although the parable of the Great Judgment in the gospel of Matthew emphasizes care for the hungry and the imprisoned (Mt. 25:31-46), the first beatitude in this gospel says: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (Mt. 5:3) However, the gospel of Luke renders this beatitude with a different emphasis: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God." (Lk. 6:20)
There is no way to know which gospel author is quoting Jesus correctly, or if either are. Nor can we know if Jesus actually added the following words, which are recorded only in the gospel of Luke: "But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation." (Lk. 6:24) Nonetheless, we can say that in the gospel of Luke, Jesus proclaims that the kingdom of God is good news for the poor and bad news for the rich, who will be judged for their lack of kindness.
Perhaps the only miracle reported in all four gospels, the feeding of the five thousand, should be understood in this light — more as a symbol of what the atoning ministry of Jesus represents than as a magical, supernatural event. Five thousand hungry people, who follow Jesus, are fed! "Blessed are you," Jesus says in Luke 6:21, "who are hungry now, for you will be filled."
Might we also understand the "lilies of the field" teaching in this way? In the gospel of Matthew the passage ends: "So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today." (Mt. 6:34) That general lesson holds for rich and poor, and every stress management book published makes the same point. But listen to how the gospel of Luke concludes the "lilies of the field" passage: "Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Lk. 12:32-34) This message, we may presume, is also for rich and poor, but it is far more demanding. No stress management book I know makes this claim on our lives!
Are we called by God in Christ to ensure "freedom from want" for all people? If we are, we should support not only civil and political rights, but also economic, social and cultural rights. What would the church look like, if it took this calling seriously? Would our lives be any different, if we embraced this call? Surely, these questions deserve our faithful response. Amen.
September 1, 2002