From Submissive to Subversive

Like many of the “frozen chosen,” I grew up reading the Bible, or at least the parts from which most of the preaching and teaching came. I heard plenty about wives being submissive to their husbands, the great dramatic stories of the Old Testament like Noah and the flood and Sampson and Delilah, and the death and resurrection of Jesus. But what is remarkable to me is what I didn’t hear, even through college Bible classes and adult Bible studies. And I’ve come to think that what I didn’t hear is mostly what the Bible is all about: God’s justice.

Wait! Don’t stop reading yet. I didn’t say “social justice,” I said God’s justice. And I definitely didn’t say anything political, nor will I. But I have come to believe that justice in the Bible is not primarily about retribution for bad behavior, as I was taught, but rather about just treatment and living conditions for the neighbor.

How I came to this understanding has to do with a subversive pastor who dared challenge us all to read through the Bible again, which I did. I say subversive because I think he might have wanted to challenge the prevailing understanding of what the Bible is all about. I think he might have wanted us to see something else: The persistent ringing cry for God’s justice for the neighbor.

That cry begins in the wailing of slave laborers whose bodies and spirits have been broken before an unyielding Pharaoh who demands more and more in the service of his lavish building program. It pervades the stories of kings who abandon the care of the widow, the orphan, the alien, and the poor – the “quartet of the vulnerable,” as Nicholas Wolterstorff calls them in his book, Journey Toward Justice. (Another subversive pastor put that book in my hands.) The cry for justice also appears in psalm after psalm. But it is heard most clearly from those wild men of the Old Testament, the prophets, who I had always assumed only made it into the Bible because they foretell Jesus.

Jesus, who was steeped in those Scriptures, takes up the cry for God’s justice for the neighbor early in his ministry, quoting Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19). He settles for all time the question of who is the neighbor in the parable of the Good Samaritan. And near the end of his life he lays the charge of pursuing justice for the neighbor on his disciples, including us, when he tells us whatever we do for the “least of these,” we do for him. (Matthew 25:31-46)

Some of us are about to begin a study of a book by Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann. Brueggemann is very clear that neither conservatives nor liberals invented or define God’s justice. He says, “Behind the call for justice (by the prophets) is the articulation of God as an agent and character in the world, and justice is simply a requirement of this God who is an agent.”

What a subversive idea, that God not only wants justice for the neighbor, God requires justice. In God’s kingdom, proclaimed by Jesus as having arrived, God’s justice will prevail.

And so I have come a long way in my understanding, to believe the Bible teaches us less about submissiveness and more, much more, about the subversive call to seek God’s justice for the neighbor.

  -Melanie Rodenbough


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