The Rule of the Most Perfect Christianity

Peter Eichten July 7, 2019

Text: Book of Wisdom 6:12–14; 8:7

Wisdom is brilliant, she never fades. By those who love her, she is readily seen.
By those who seek her, she is readily found.
She anticipates those who desire her by making herself known first.
Those who seek her will not be disappointed.
For if it is justice you love; virtues are the fruit of Wisdom’s labors.
Since it is she who teaches temperance and prudence, justice and fortitude;
And nothing in life is more useful than these.

Please pray with me in silence.

*             *             *

I want to start by thanking Paula and Beth for giving me this opportunity; for those of you who don’t know me, let me share a bit about myself. I have had some experience preaching. I do actually have a degree in theology, and with that I spent much of my career as an administrator in churches. And it was in that capacity that I was occasionally called upon to share some thoughts and to do a bit of preaching. I must admit I both love and hate to preach. As an introvert it takes a great deal of energy for me to stand in front of a group of people and talk, and I get very nervous—yet, as an educator and amateur theologian, I love being able to share some of the insights that I have gained from my studies, from the Scriptures and from my life’s experiences.

Here at Plymouth, I am currently the chair of the Board of Outreach, I am a charter member of the Racial Justice Initiative and I’m on the Ministerial Search Committee. Like many of us here at Plymouth I am passionate about achieving social justice—hence my involvement with Outreach and racial justice.

I teach part-time at Metropolitan State University, and one of the courses I teach is a course called Public Ethics and the Common Good. In this course we jump into the issues of the day, as we look to create a public ethic that has a chance to increase the common good. So, the common good is part of what I want to talk about today. The reading we heard from the Book of Wisdom is a reading about justice. As we have just come off celebrating the Fourth of July, I want to also talk about that. I’m going to try to put the common good, justice and the meaning of the Fourth of July into the context of Wisdom. Well, let’s see how that goes.

The Book of Wisdom was probably written around 100 BCE, shortly before the Christian era. Much of the book talks about the Wisdom of Solomon. Solomon ruled Israel in the 10th century BCE—hundreds of years before the Book of Wisdom was written—but Solomon was known for his wisdom, and thus Solomon’s wisdom is influential in the Book of Wisdom. The reading we heard today is Solomon reflecting on Wisdom.

He’s reflecting on it in the context of being the leader of his country. You see, Solomon greatly loved Wisdom, and he understood it to be about justice. And he also knew that being a good leader meant having justice as his guide. So, Solomon is very clear in this reading, and throughout the Book of Wisdom, that Wisdom is about justice. But it raises the question, “What do Solomon and the Book of Wisdom mean by justice?”

There are many types of justice—there’s judicial justice, there’s public justice, procedural justice, distributive justice—to name just a few. But justice from the biblical perspective is always about making the world a better place—and making the world a better place is about the common good. Because the common good is:

  • about valuing people over property;
  • valuing people over profit;
  • valuing people over the material goods of the world.

John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople in the fourth century, wrote: “This is the rule of the most perfect Christianity, its most exact definition, its highest point, namely, the seeking of the common good . . . for nothing can so make a person an imitator of Christ as caring for their neighbors.” When we just take care of ourselves, and our group, and our tribe, and our side, and our country, we will be in big trouble soon. But when we decide that we need take care of each other, and when we begin to ask, “Who is my neighbor?”—which is a common gospel question—that, it seems to me, is the beginning of the common good.

All of the world’s great religions have at their core something like “love your neighbor as yourself.” This means that my wife, Jane, and I can love our five children and our five beautiful grandchildren more than we could ever imagine; but it also means that we are to love other people’s kids and grandkids as well –no matter who they are; no matter where they are; no matter where they come from.

As I participate in our American society, I long for the Wisdom of Solomon to become a reality, because I see the common good as being almost totally abandoned, not only by many of our political leaders, but by the general population. Because, in fact, what our society teaches us is that we are to just take care of ourselves, our group, our tribe, our side and our country. And as the common good is abandoned people suffer.

We just celebrated the Fourth of July—the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence that set our country free, made us a sovereign nation. Of course, we had to fight a war to make that ultimately happen, but it’s a celebration of our freedom.

Here are the famous words from this document:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Frederick Douglass in 1852 was asked to give the annual Fourth of July speech at a celebration in Rochester, N.Y. Douglass was a freed slave; this speech is given nine years before the beginning of the Civil War and 11 years before the Emancipation Proclamation that set the slaves free.

Douglass wonders about the value of the Fourth of July from the slaves’ perspective—of course, for a slave the Fourth of July is a joke. Have things changed much in the past 167 years since Douglass gave his speech? I would maintain that in many ways they have not.

Liberty for all? We have always had, in this country, an economic system that depends on slavery. The slavery that exists in the 21st century is not defined only by color, even though color defines much of it; it is also defined by class—which includes people of all colors. Just look at the wealth disparities our system has created. Today, the top 1% owns 40% of the nation’s wealth. The next 19% owns 50%. The bottom 80% of our population owns the remaining 10% of the nation’s wealth; today the median amount of wealth for a black family is $3,500; for a white family it is $147,000—more than 40 times as much.

Liberty for all? We continue to see how the made-up “war on drugs” incarcerates black and brown people at six to seven times that of whites—even while it has been documented that whites use and sell drugs at the same rate as Blacks and Hispanics.

Liberty for all? How many white families have to give their sons and daughters the talk? The talk is a conversation about how to behave and not to behave with police—here’s what a taxi driver from Washington, D.C., tells his children: “Keep your hands open and out in front of you, don’t make any sudden movements, shut your mouth, be respectful, and always say, ‘Sir.’”

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

In 1776, “all people” meant white men who owned land. Today “all people” means just that, all people. To love our neighbor as ourselves means all people, with no conditions. Can we actually do that?

I understand that our Declaration of Independence is aspirational; but we flaunt what it says like it’s a reality, when in fact it is quite clear that all are not equal and that those unalienable rights of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness are far from being universal in the United States of America.

So, I turn again to Wisdom and the words of Solomon:

For if it is justice you love; virtues are the fruit of Wisdom’s labors.
Since it is she who teaches temperance and prudence, justice and fortitude;
And nothing in life is more useful than these.

If we are to make life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness a reality for all Americans then we have to work for the justice that Solomon talks about. But, now, I want to ask: What does justice mean for us today?

Justice is the work needed to change the systems and the structures that make it necessary for us to do charity work.

You see, the common good will increase when the charity work that we need to do decreases. The charity work we need to do decreases when justice is being realized.

As the chairperson of Board of Outreach, I can tell you that Plymouth as a congregation does an incredible amount of charity work, great work that is necessary and important. However, we do very little justice work: work that will change the systems and the structures that oppress; the systems and the structures that keep the income and the wealth gap strongly in favor of white people; systems and structures that keep blacks and Hispanics locked up at six or seven times the rate of whites; systems and structures that so often as white people we have a difficult time even seeing.

I think we have a great opportunity here at Plymouth in the coming months to make some systemic changes as we dive into the Action Plan that deals with the embroideries. I’m hoping that all of us can participate and be open as the Action Plan goes into effect. I think it will help us to see more clearly our biases as white people; it will give us a chance to do some reconciliation work for the great oppression that we as white people have, and continue to, put on people of color. It will be a time to reflect upon how the structures and systems within these very walls are oppressive and afford us opportunities to make some changes.

Our Declaration of Independence puts forth a monumental challenge—Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of happiness for all people. The Wisdom of Solomon offers us way to accept that challenge with justice. Let’s accept that challenge with the love of neighbor that the common good calls us to. Amen.

Let us go from this place with a new openness to work for justice—a justice for all people no matter who they are or where they come from.

References:

Survey of Consumer Finances—Washington Post, Feb. 8, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/us-policy/2019/02/08/wealth-concentration-returning-levels-last-seen-during-roaring-twenties-according-new-research/

Jim Wallis, On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2013).

Economic Policy Institute: https://www.epi.org/blog/the-racial-wealth-gap-how-african-americans-have-been-shortchanged-out-of-the-materials-to-build-wealth/

© 2019 Peter J. Eichten. All rights reserved