Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.
Today I arrived at the church to find a used needle and the remnants of a crack pipe on the back porch. It’s not a common occurrence, but it wasn’t a surprise, either. My momentary annoyance quickly gave way to—what?—compassion? grief? pain? sadness? The weather last night had been awful—the worst downpour of the season so far (I know, because I had to ride my bicycle home through it). To have to be out in that for any reason was bad enough, but to have to find your fix in that deluge, find a place to shoot up, and then stumble off into the sodden darkness in a chemically-induced stupor must be just plain miserable. The back porch of the church provided enough light, shelter, and privacy to do what needed to be done.
I like to think there was another reason why she (I assume “she” because the paraphernalia were in a battered old purse) came to shoot up at the church. Most of the drug users I’ve known also know the story of Jesus. They know about his suffering compassion, and especially his compassion towards people the rest of us don’t want to know. In choosing to shoot up on our back porch, she was choosing to spend some time with the one person who understands her. We don’t get it, the neighbours don’t get it, and a lot of our politicians don’t get it—but Jesus does get it. Not that Jesus thinks it’s a really good idea to inject chemical crap into your bloodstream, but he does understand loneliness, despair, pain, and compulsive behaviour.
That deep compassion for the people we don’t want to know flows from a vision at the heart of God—a vision that the hungry should have enough to eat, that the homeless should have shelter, that poor should have clothing, that no-one should be deprived of the essentials of life and dignity. That was the vision proclaimed by the prophets and it was the vision that drove Jesus from one impoverished village to the next, telling people that the vision was not just a distant dream, but a present reality, called the kingdom of God. The word for that vision is “justice”.
When we speak of justice, we are most likely to be thinking about criminal justice, which is not the sense in which the prophets and Jesus usually talk about justice. When we speak about justice, we are most likely to be concerned about punishment, about requiring people to pay for the wrong they have done. Punishment, we feel, evens the score. Punishment links justice to violence, and meets violence with violence. There are many people who believe that the drug user on our back porch is a criminal, and ought to be punished.
Jesus talks a lot about justice, but very little about what we call criminal justice. In fact, he seems to be disappointingly soft on crime generally. One’s definition of “crime” depends upon one’s rank in society. What looks like anti-social criminal behaviour to people near the top of the social pyramid, looks like survival to those near the bottom. When nations and governments do it, it is called “diplomacy”. When impoverished peasants in first-century Palestine do it, it is called “banditry”. And when junkies on the street do it in twenty-first century Vancouver, it is called “crime”. Jesus and many of his followers lived close enough to the bottom of society to understand that. In fact, Jesus lived so close to the bottom of society that he was executed as a criminal. Jesus has a problem with what we usually call “justice”, because what we usually call “justice” is what killed Jesus.
What we call “justice” is based on violence. Jesus offers an alternative—justice based on compassion. Instead of waiting for people to take by force what they need for survival, why not give it to them freely? If someone is hungry, feed him. If someone is naked, clothe her. If someone is isolated or neglected, take care of him. Do not allow an alienated underclass to form. Do not allow people to become so desperate that they will resort to desperate measures simply in order to secure the essentials of life. In a world that only understands justice as a violent response to human despair, Jesus proclaims justice as a compassionate response to human need.
That is the Reign of Christ that we celebrate as move toward the season of Advent. It is a motley assortment of misfits, outcasts and regular old sinners, with a condemned criminal for a king who enjoys hanging out in back alleys with drug users. This year, we might consider keeping Advent by spending some time with people we don’t want to know. In their company, we would discover the kingdom prepared for us from the foundation of the world.
This is the text of a sermon to be preached by the Rev. Michael Batten at St David of Wales, Vancouver, on the Feast of the Reign of Christ.