Christians who do not think that their mission as Christians entails social and political work have not read the Bible, or have read it strangely.
Psalm 146, one of the great psalms of praise that conclude the Psalter begins with “Praise Yah!” It ends with “Praise Yah!” (“Yah” being a shorter form of the divine Name revealed to Moses and used in the Hebrew Bible wherever your English Bible says “LORD” in small caps).
In between it says who not to trust (any leader, anyone, other than Yah) and why (because they are they don’t last, and neither do their plans).
And it says why to trust Yah: because of what he has done, and because of what he habitually does.
Notice: The basis for praise of Yahweh is Yahweh’s identity, which is known not through abstract metaphysical speculation, but through Yahweh’s deeds toward us.
Similarly, we might infer, we make known who were are not through abstract metaphysical or theological description but through the things that we do. That thought might startle some preachers and believers who have read Paul’s letters abstractly, but it will not startle those who have taken care to read Paul’s letters in a way that is consistent with the teaching of Jesus himself and the teaching of, for example, the epistle to James or the Old Testament prophets.
who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them,
who keeps faith forever
Who is Yahweh? Only Yah (Yahweh, the LORD) has created of everything. Only the LORD keeps faith (truth, emet) forever.
If we want to be followers and imitators of the Lord, we will be intently focused on faithfulness, which is truthfulness, which has something to do with truth, i.e., which avoids saying words that do not correspond to realities, and especially avoids saying things but not doing them.
who executes justice for the oppressed
If we want to be followers and imitators of the Lord, we will be intently focused on justice, judgment, mishpat, and not as an abstract principle, but specifically in for the interest of those who are oppressed.
And who are the oppressed? Not those whose ideas are disagreed with, who in some abstract way may deem themselves to be oppressed because being disagreed with feels emotionally oppressive to them, but . . . well, we keep reading.
who gives food to the hungry
We know who “the hungry” are, right? If not, we get a clue from what the Lord does for them: give them food. If we want to be followers and imitators of the Lord, we will give food to those who do not have food. The one who feeds the hungry is doing the Lord’s work. The one who talks about spiritual hunger and does nothing is not.
The LORD sets the prisoners free
Robert Frost was onto something when he said, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” You can’t read the Bible without concluding that the Lord really dislikes fetters and bondage and walls. People were not created to be bound and confined. The person who protests mass incarceration is singing the Lord’s song, and the person who works to solve the problems that result in the imprisonment of so many people is doing the Lord’s work. The one who talks about spiritual bondage and does nothing about all kinds of bondage is not.
the LORD opens the eyes of the blind
When people can’t see, the Lord wants them to be able to see. If we are followers of the Lord, so well we. Take it literally. Take it figuratively as well, but take it literally. The ophthalmologist who restores sight to one who has lost it is doing the Lord’s work.
The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down
People are bowed down when they have to carry heavy things and their bodies are too weak to bear them. You lift them up by strengthening their bodies or by removing their burdens or both. This is the Lord’s work.
the LORD loves the righteous
Funny how this is slipped in there. It clues us in, as do so many other texts in Scripture, that the biblical authors—ultimately, if you are reading the Bible as Scripture, the Author, which is the Spirit, which is God—reflexively identify the poor and the oppressed as the righteous, the just, the ones who are right with God—and identifies the ones whose actions result in their poverty as something else. The Bible does not blame the poor and the oppressed for their own degraded condition. This is worth pondering. (Chronological hint: the Scriptural authors were not under the influence of Karl Marx.)
The LORD watches over the sojourners
These are the gerim, the people in the midst of the Israelites who are not ethnically Israelites. They are foreigners—immigrants or refugees, seekers of asylum (and finders thereof, because of course the people of God do not turn away seekers of asylum). The Lord watches over them. Whoever watches over them is doing the Lord’s work.
he upholds the widow and the fatherless
Women who don’t have husbands and children who don’t have fathers. The Lord upholds them. Upholding them is the Lord’s own work.
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin
Now “the wicked.” Compare “the righteous” several lines above. We have to decide: Is the Scripture incoherent? Randomly inserting words with moral and spiritual valence into contexts where they don’t belong? The alternative would seem to be: Scripture is telling us something about God’s own evaluation of those who are oppressed and impoverished, God’s assumption that the oppressed are not oppressed because they are oppressing themselves, that the impoverished are not impoverished because they are impoverishing themselves. And that others bear some responsibility, that others will either be doing the Lord’s work of lifting up the oppressed or else may be allied and categorized with those who are doing the oppressing.
Of course all these phrases are available also for spiritual interpretation. There is such a thing as spiritual poverty, spiritual blindness, spiritual oppression. It is the Lord’s work also to relieve those spiritual hardships.
But what are we to make of people who want to claim for themselves the label “Christian” and the spiritual benefits, and perhaps even offer the spiritual benefits to others, while declining to share in the Lord’s literal, physical work? What are we to think especially of the spirituals who blame and denounce other Christians for focusing intently on the literal, physical, work of bringing justice for the oppressed, food for the hungry, freedom for prisoners, welcome and care for immigrants and refugees? Who, regardless of what they say about their own motivation, call them names other than “Jesus-follower” and describe them with adjectives other than “Christian” and “righteous”?
Have they not read Luke’s Sermon on the Plain along with Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount? Have they not read how Jesus announces and characterizes his mission in Luke 4? Have they not believed James when he says that faith without works is dead?
Have they not prayed this psalm?
In Scripture, the Lord encourages us to define and understand him according to what he does. We should fully expect to be evaluated in the same way. To be clothed in Christ’s righteousness is to put on the uniform he graciously issues to us—and be about his work.