This question has been gnawing at me for days now. Sitting in a crowded little room on Tuesday night, I listened as Daniel recounted his story of working to end human trafficking, particularly in the commercial sex industry. It was his question “what does it mean to know the Lord?” or more accurately, his answer, that grabbed me.
He read from Jeremiah 22; where Jeremiah is decrying generations of unjust leaders and unjust practices. And, as is usually the case: as go the Kings, so go the people. It is a nation of exploitation and injustice. Jeremiah indicates in this chapter that all the people had forsaken him. The King had led his people away from God.
Jeremiah invokes the memory of an earlier leader, the righteous King Josiah, saying he, “‘defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?” declares the LORD.
There it was: to know God is to defend the cause of the poor and needy. How had I not seen this before?
This morning, my fingers took me again to this passage. I wanted to sit in it again, letting the passage take even deeper root in my heart. As I read, the words seemed to jump off the page to me.
The Lord was weary of his people’s faithlessness. He was tired of their sin. He’d had enough of their self-centeredness.
He said, “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice, who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing, and does not give him his wages, who says ‘I will build myself a great house with spacious upper rooms’…Do you think you are a king because you compete in cedar?”
The injustice of these Kings was rooted in their attempt to maintain a comfortable life at the expense of the most vulnerable. The King, as well as his people, were taking advantage of the poor in their midst simply to expand their lavish lifestyle.
I am no king, and neither are you. But, since we live in a nation where so many (including me) want to live like a king, I’m wondering if it is possible that we are doing the same thing today, toward the most vulnerable populations around us, particularly our immigrant friends and neighbors?
For example: we know that we can buy things on the cheap, like produce, because they have been picked by low wage immigrant workforce. It is our ability to buy things in bulk and for incredibly low prices that allow us to maintain much of the comforts many of us have grown accustomed to. The reality is that many of us would be unwilling, or unable, to pay the actual cost of our tomatoes. (Not without adjusting our lifestyle anyway). Granted, our economic systems today are far more complicated than in Jeremiah’s time, but doesn’t the principle remain the same?
The fact is, I participate in this economic system by my simple everyday transactions. It is difficult to discern what I should do about it. Does this mean I can no longer shop at the supermarket? I don’t know the answer to that, but shouldn’t it at least get me to ask the question?
Perhaps we do need to adjust our lifestyle so as to treat the vulnerable in our midst more justly.
It seems to me that as long as we want to live like kings, we will probably continue to need people to serve us as such. As long as we are content to lay the stability of our comfortable prosperity on the backs of our most vulnerable neighbors, we won’t be able to listen to God either. Perhaps we need more leaders, like Josiah, who help us see how we can fashion a way of life built on the foundation of righteousness and justice, even in the deep complexities of our day.
God is still speaking today: Do justice, do no wrong to the alien, the orphan and widow. Is this not what it means to know me?
Reflecting on Jeremiah, it seems that it is not enough to say we desire to know God. Knowing God requires a particular way of life.
The question is-do we really want to know God?
Adam Gustine is a pastor at First Evangelical Free Church in Brooklyn, NY and serves on the board with Immigrant Hope-Brooklyn. You can follow him on Twitter @adam_gustine.
Please note that the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of everyone associated with G92 or any institutions with which the blogger may be affiliated.
If you’re interested in writing a guest blog, contact [email protected].