Rev. Dr. Alyn E. Waller – Sr. Pastor, Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church
Philadelphia is a city with a rich history and limitless potential, but like many cities it has ignored—and often perpetuated—persistent systems of injustice that afflict the poor. It’s a city replete with faithful churches that are not working together.
Loud voices of division are increasingly prominent in our nation, and many of our problems can appear intractable, but I am convinced that there are untapped resources in the Bible, and that God is calling his church to come together around the Bible so we can serve the common good.
The Bible is clear—and unique in human history—in teaching that there is no division between love of God and love of neighbor. Service to God requires justice for all, and especially justice for the vulnerable, “the least of these.” In recent years I have started to ask what it would look like if we looked at love—and our City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection—through the lens of justice.
In the winter and spring of 2019, Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church produced two performances of the off-Broadway hit musical Godspell. The production, directed by Eryka Waller, drew talented performers from several area churches. It was intended to catalyze conversations about Jesus’ teachings on justice and to revive connections among pastors and churches and other groups who are busy with their own good efforts.
As part of the process, we invited a group of pastors from around the area to come for a series of breakfast meetings to get to know each other better in conversation around the biblical emphasis on justice. The resource you are now reading is one of the outcomes.
We have different backgrounds, different political preferences, different theological emphases. But the Bible is something we can all rally around. Several of the pastors whose work is featured in this
resource have seen their own lives and public ministries shaped by encounters with these parables.
DEFINING A PARABLE
Jesus came proclaiming the “kingdom of God,” but if we’re honest, we often wonder what that phrase even means. The Bible shows us that Jesus frequently taught with parables to help us understand what God’s kingdom is like—what the king is like, what life inside looks like, and what the king asks of his people.
A parable is a story or word picture that takes something familiar to help us connect with something new. Each parable of Jesus features something familiar from Palestinian village life—a farmer sowing, family inheritance battles, beggars and rulers and collaborators. Sometimes Jesus explains the connections to his disciples. Sometimes the connection is left to the hearer. Jesus is a master of this genre. Starting with something familiar, he adds a twist that will surprise or even shock his hearers. He directs our attention to a single point and often a single question. Then he leaves the story openended. Will the rich man’s family repent? Will the older brother relent and join the feast?
We’re left to ponder what’s going on and what it might mean for us. You can try to summarize a parable in a principle or a moral (and you will certainly find principles for living in these inspired words), but there’s always something left over, something unforgettable. Something that helps us recognize the Kingdom of God. Something that invites us to enter that Kingdom. Something that inspires us into action to make that kingdom of love and justice visible to our neighbors. A small seed that will grow—if you let it.
When you read the parables today, you’ll find them asking questions of you. And you can ask questions in return. What questions does the
parable leave open? How does the focus of this parable apply to my contemporary experience? Where do I fit in? What do I need to do?
RIGHTEOUSNESS IS JUSTICE
I’m honored that this distinguished group of pastors from around Philadelphia is helping us ask these questions, and in particular is helping us see something that we can easily miss. The more the church understands the Word of God the more it gets lived out. In the Greek language of the New Testament, the word we translate as “righteousness” is also translated “justice.” Same word. Same concept. There is no division in biblical thinking between our personal character and our public action.
Jesus’ words apply not only to our individual lives. He speaks love and justice at the level of family, church, neighborhood, city, and nation, union and nonprofit, corporation and professional association, educational and correctional institution. Whether public sector, service sector, marketplace, or home, he cares about the individuals, and the systems that they inhabit.
Our public and personal response to the teaching of Jesus are inseparable. If we try to separate them, people notice, and they feel the injustice.
ABOUT THE RESOURCE
Jesus’ Parables on Justice is based on eleven parables of Jesus recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke in the Bible, which make up the bulk of the libretto for the musical Godspell.
We provide two or three reflections on each parable. The pastors are focusing on helping readers understand what the biblical text is saying so that we can hear Jesus’ words and consider how to put them into practice. Some of the pastors were asked to explain the context of their parable and others to focus on helping us apply the stories to our lives and our city.
These devotionals are intended for use in personal or group Bible study. The resource can also be integrated with a sermon series during Lent or at other times.
It has been my honor to partner with my fellow pastors and with American Bible Society in helping the people of Philadelphia engage more deeply with the Bible.
Churches full of people living out the Bible are already serving individuals and challenging unjust systems in Philadelphia. May their stories become more visible over the coming months and years, and may our increased collaboration help rebuild our communities and make the good news of God’s kingdom a visible reality for the richest elites and the poorest beggars, the self-righteous and the prodigals, ungrateful servants and outcasts.
May we all be as persistent as the widow of the parable in calling out for justice—and may the King when he comes catch us doing what he has commanded. ■
The Persistent Widow
Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to teach them that they should always pray and never become discouraged. “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected people. And there was a widow in that same town who kept coming to him and pleading for her rights, saying, ‘Help me against my opponent!’ For a long time the judge refused to act, but at last he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or respect people, yet because of all the trouble this widow is giving me, I will see to it that she gets her rights. If I don’t, she will keep on coming and finally wear me out!’ ” And the Lord continued, “Listen to what that corrupt judge said. Now, will God not judge in favor of his own people who cry to him day and night for help? Will he be slow to help them? I tell you, he will judge in their favor and do it quickly. But will the Son of Man find faith on earth when he comes?”