One of my favorite preacher/writer/thinker is Timothy Keller, who is the founder/pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. I am still upset that I did not visit him when I was in New York City in June of 2011. I have read King’s Cross (now published as Jesus the King), Prodigal God, and The Meaning of Marriage by him, as well as having practically read The Reason for God. I’ve listened to almost all of the sermon podcasts available on Redeemer’s app. Point is, I love this guy! I finished reading Generous Justice last night and I thought I would share my thoughts on the ideas in it.
Generous Justice has the tagline “How God’s Grace Makes Us Just” which made me think the book would mainly be about how grace leads us to act just or righteous and then perhaps a general Biblical view of justice. The book is about that but it is better, the book’s thesis is how “grace leads us to act just” as I thought it would be but it is more directly tied to how we, as Christians, seek justice toward the poor, the widow and the immigrant. More importantly the book goes into God’s view toward the poor, the widow and the immigrant. It is a blueprint for how to solve poverty if I ever read one. Now, I tend to have a very callous perspective when people talk about those in poverty or struggling with hunger. I very much believe that “If anyone is not willing to work, neither should he eat.” as 2 Thessalonians 3:10 says. I have long suspected that I have been brain washed by my conservative political philosophy on this issue and this book confirmed that. I struggle with how to balance compassion toward the poor while also stressing how important I think personal responsibility is – thankfully, this book makes the case for both. Early in the book Keller shows how God is intimately interested in justice toward the poor and marginalized members of society. Psalm 146:7-9 shows this, “He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind,the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.” and Deuteronomy 10:17-18 “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribe. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.” Keller mentions these verses throughout the book. The second chapter of the book is titled “Justice and the Old Testament” which goes into great detail how the Mosaic Law was set up to prevent injustice toward the poor. Despite having grown up in a Bible teaching church I can’t ever say I heard a sermon based on the Mosaic Law and it’s relationship toward the poor and marginalized members of society. So this was news to me and I love learning something new. I won’t go into detail with the Mosaic Law but I will mention that there was a law on farmers about “gleaning.” I quote page 27 in Generous Justice, “Landowners could not gather all the grain their land could produce. They had to leave some of it for the poor to gather themselves(Leviticus 19:9-10;23:22). In other words, they were to voluntarily limit their profit taking. Gleaning was not, however, what would ordinarily be called an act of charity. It enabled the poor to provide for themselves without relying on benevolence.” I just love this, God provided a way for the poor to be able to provide for themselves.
Keller talks about the underlying problems that cause poverty and what the Bible has to say about them. He lists various verses supporting each reason listed below,
– unfair judicial system
– loans with excessive interest
– unjustly low wages
– natural disasters (famine, floods, fires)
– personal moral failings
As you can see, the Bible neither places all the blame on the rich and powerful or on the individual himself for why people are in poverty.
One thing that Keller talks about in GJ that I greatly appreciated was our obligation to help the poor before they are destitute. Keller shares how one of his parishioners objected to a sermon he taught about helping the poor by saying, “All the poor people in my part of town have nice TV sets. They aren’t starving.” I completely relate. Annually the church I grew up in hosts a Thanksgiving feast for the families involved in their inner city ministry. 70% of those families are obese, perhaps more. I’m kind of sitting there thinking we’re enabling unhealthy diets in the name of Jesus. This is what I’m talking about when I say I lack compassion toward the poor. Perhaps what I really mean is that I don’t see any poor people. When you’re overweight and have a cellphone you instantly have graduated from the “poverty” category. Keller answers this objection splendidly by sharing the thoughts of Jonathan Edwards, “Edwards says that this hardheartedness is not in accord with the Biblical command to love your neighbor as yourself. We don’t wait until we are in “extremity” before doing something about our condition, he argued, so why would we wait until our neighbor is literally starving before we help?” Edwards also talks about Christ’s love for us, as well as talking about the command to “carry one another’s burden” as reasons why we shouldn’t wait until people are starving or destitute to help them. This thinking made me think of where I would be in life if God decided to only give me success or blessings when I’m literally down to nothing. God blesses me on top of other blessings. What if God decided to only give you success at something when you failed at 5 previous things? Keller mentions that Christ saved us “while we were still sinners” we don’t become sinless and then accept grace. We accept grace and are seen as Christ, without sin. This whole concept of helping the poor before they are destitute really fascinated me and convicted me of just how much compassion I lack.
One of the last chapters Keller devotes to talking about justice in the public square(or lack thereof). He is simply brilliant. There is also a case study of various communities where justice was sought after and those are fascinating. All in all I love Timothy Keller and I loved this book. It has been fierce approved.