Thought for the Week 27th September 2020

Divine Justice?

(by Rev Paul Graham)

Read Acts 12:19-25

“It’s not fair!”

The cry of the unjustly treated rises to the heavens once again. From the playground to Parliament, from work places to the dining table, we sense injustice from an early age. Our sense of fair play, particularly when we are the ones being wronged, starts as soon as we become aware that someone is getting something that we aren’t. Whether that’s a toy, or a biscuit, or a bit more attention, we start feeling aggrieved that we’re missing out.

As we get older, we might start to perceive injustice and unfairness that affect others and this will lead us to stand up for their rights. Protests, whether quiet or loud, can lead to changes that have far-reaching effects for good or ill. Standing up for our own sense of fairness or standing with others in the fight for theirs is a freedom that we continue to enjoy in our democratic society. Sitting by whilst others protest even if we don’t agree with them is more difficult but is also the fruit of that same system. Sometimes silence can mean complicit agreement, but it can also mean that we leave the same space to protest that we expect when it’s our turn – another issue of fairness, in fact.

Protests are only one way of bringing injustice to the attention of those who can affect change, but it is again the one that we learn the earliest. Though petition writing and the tradition of the “strongly worded letter to The Times” is laudable and can be very effective, I think we would all agree that the average toddler, without recourse to pen and paper, is more effectively served by bringing attention to the imbalance of things as they see them by opening their mouths and giving off a mighty yell of anger. If the object at the centre of the unfairness is within reach, a quick grasp of the offending article gives a clear message: I want to play with that fire engine/doll/smartphone* as much as my sibling/friend/bitter rival* (delete as applicable). Oh, the joy of the temper tantrum…!

Once we develop our language, we can explain ourselves better – or at least we hope that we can. But not always very well, or at least not convincingly. That’s because the problem with justice is that it can be open to perception and context. What is seen as injustice by an older sibling because their newborn baby sister is getting the lion’s share of their parents’ attention is likely to be a mix of a) perception – they will both be lavished by the same love but shown in very different ways and b) context – when they were the only child in the house, there was no-one to share attention with. The only reasonable answer to this is: “suck it up, kiddo.”

That’s not to say that this is always the answer either. For example, the recent protests over racial injustice are neither based on perception nor context. They are about addressing an ancient wrong and trying to put it right. Don’t forget, these protests have not just started in the last few months, they’ve just got bigger and more high profile. And they might finally bear fruit.

Our reading today is one that when considered in the light of justice takes us down an intriguing path. The story itself is an interesting one anyway; why does Luke attribute Herod’s death to God? Luke gives his reasons for Herod’s demise as a lack of deference and reverence to God, but I’m not convinced that as a medical man he would commit to this when issuing a death certificate in the course of everyday life, though of course “Act of God” has long been a common cause cited in insurance claims.

We might want to suggest alternative explanations, to do with underlying health conditions, or the sudden rush of endorphins and adrenalin enhanced by the adulation of the crowd around him inducing heart failure, but that would require us to have access to Herod’s medical history and a post-mortem, neither of which are available 2000 years after the event.

So, there’s no real harm in taking Luke’s word for it that Herod went too far.

But, hang on a minute, this is where the justice question raises its head. Let’s take a sneaky look back at the start of the chapter (as we did last week) and see what it says:

It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. When he saw that this met with approval among the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Festival of Unleavened Bread. After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover. (Acts 12:1-4)

Herod gets involved in the persecution of the church, having previously been a by-stander while the pre-Damascus Saul and his Pharisee cronies had been getting their hands dirty (and bloodied). What had been an in-house struggle within religious circles became a politicised movement against the fledgling church.

And Herod’s first act was to kill one of the founder members and imprison another, with the intent of rocking the very foundations of the movement. “Don’t mess with me”, is the message, “it won’t end well”.

But this leads me to a question of justice; why did God not get on with his smiting duties once the first blow was struck? Surely if the ultimate outcome for Herod was the same one that he inflicted on James wouldn’t it have been fairer if God had dealt out the punishment that better fitted the crime? Wouldn’t that have been justice swiftly served and, let’s face it, have saved Peter from a sojourn in prison?

I wonder if the disciples, when they heard of Herod’s death and Luke’s diagnosis, felt that it wasn’t fair that James had died, or that Peter had been arrested, or that they had continued to live in fear of Herod’s soldiers bursting in and arresting or killing them. I wouldn’t blame them if they had said “it’s not fair.”

But that misses the wider context of what happened. When Herod entered the fray, the persecution of the church evolved into a much bigger issue. This became a fight not between who had the biggest church but who had the biggest god.

Luke even alludes to this as the crowd are witnessed venerating Herod, declaring him their god. A bad move on many levels, not least for the one who believed the hype. The Old Testament is littered with the bodies of those who turned their backs on God towards other idols and gods; it never ended well for them, so we shouldn’t be surprised that it didn’t end well for Herod. But then again, it was common for kings and those in ultimate authority to see themselves, or be seen by others, as deities, right up there with the gods of their cultures and kingdoms.

Is this God’s justice? Stand against him and expect death, instant and (according to the independent account from the Jewish historian Josephus[1]) agonising. Or is God’s justice better served by focussing not on the disputed death of Herod (again, referring to Josephus’ account, it was an owl that started it), but rather the result for the church as we read in its full simplicity in verse 24: But the word of God continued to spread and flourish.

Whatever caused Herod to die is less important now than the clear message that God’s justice is served through the continuing spread of the gospel and the growth of the church. And it did so even under the threat of further persecution, as opposition evolved further as the gospel travelled to further and wider communities. But we’ll find out more about that at another time.

From all this we learn what exactly? That God’s sense of justice isn’t the same as ours? Probably. That God doesn’t like it when rivals set themselves up as poor imitations to take his place? Very likely. That we ought to leave these things up to God and trust him to know best? Absolutely. That instead we need to get on with what we can do to spread the good news of grace and salvation, that there is one God and to follow him isn’t a case of competing but rather humbly learning that we’re no better than anyone else who is also created in his image and that justice starts and finishes within the building up of holy community? Definitely. We just have to work out how to do that and to do it better…

Amen.


[1] https://www.bible-history.com/herod_agrippa_i/herod_agrippa_ijosephus_account_of_agrippas_dea.htm


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