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Ordinary Time: Ecclesiastes 8
The classic image of justice is of a woman, holding an old scale of two small, suspended plates, which as the scale of justice are meant to weigh any matter. In addition, she is blindfolded, so that the judgment weighed upon the scales is objective. Unfortunately, we know this is not the way the world is, and so did the Teacher. All too often, justice is perverted in this world, the wicked living long and wealthy lives, and the righteous being mistreated or marginalized. At least 1 in 20 of those convicted of crimes in the United States are innocent every year; those with wealth regularly get away with crimes, even in our society but definitely throughout time; and there are clear disparities in criminal sentencing between different racial groups. In the early church, there was no mistaking that often the faithful would be actively persecuted and even killed by those with power and might of arms. Such is the way of the world.
“Then I saw the wicked buried; they used to go in and out of the holy place, and were praised in the city where they had done such things. This also is vanity. 11 Because sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the human heart is fully set to do evil.” Evil is not punished instantaneously, all too often. Even those who go into the “holy places” are often hypocrites. The sexual abuses of the Catholic church, the SBC, evangelical churches, and yes, even in Anglican churches, prove that evil can all too often find its way into our own midst. Human hearts, already set to do evil, are all the more willing to do so when they see even those supposed to be holy being evil. And we wonder why people leave, critique, or sneer at the Church?
And yet, then the Teacher dials this back somewhat. The empirical facts of the case are, there is no guarantee that the world will reward you for doing good, or punish you for evil; if you’re clever enough, you can get away with many things. But that doesn’t mean evil wins forever. “Though sinners do evil a hundred times and prolong their lives, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they stand in fear before him, 13 but it will not be well with the wicked, neither will they prolong their days like a shadow, because they do not stand in fear before God.”
The gospel does not promise immediate destruction of evil and death. The war has been won, though the battles still rage, against sin and evil desire. But the gospel does promise the final and eventually complete destruction of evil and death. The Teacher’s empirical observation is, there is no true pattern to unravel, but sometimes the evil prosper and the good suffer. However, there is also the observation of faith, of seeing that while the world seems to show one thing, God has promised another. And we cannot look at this as some kind of vague promise, without substance; because we know Jesus Christ existed, in history, and did things in history, and those things mean something. If what he claimed of himself is remotely true, then his death and resurrection, which also has historic evidence, are the proof positive that God will not let injustice persist forever. It will ultimately be well for those who fear God.
We cannot, however, pretend that this clarifies the reasons why the world is currently this way, or why God continues to allow evil of this kind to persist. There are many plausible and important reasons we could go over; suffering produces endurance and faith; we have created this problem, and thus are to still labor under the curse; God waits so that as many people as possible can be given the gift of the gospel, to hear it and live along the grain of the kingdom of God; and more. But for now, what we need to see is the dictum of the Teacher, who sees clearly: we don’t and can’t fully know why things continue this way, but we do know how to live within this world.
Enjoy the things you have been given, because despite even our pursuit of wisdom, we can never fully know the ways of God or the answer to the question as to why God continues to let it continue this way: “However much they may toil in seeking, they will not find it out; even though those who are wise claim to know, they cannot find it out.” We are so hubristic, so arrogant, when we pretend to interpret the ways of God. I encountered this as a history teacher and student of theology sometimes. Christians believe God directs history through providence, but somewhat ironically, that is where we have to stop. “Oh, this event was so providential!” Well, if it had gone a different way, would it not have been providential? Providence is too often weaponized, people saying the things they agree with are God’s work, but unfortunately that is beyond our knowledge and our judgment.
It is human arrogance to presume that we can know the ways of God, beyond what he has revealed. God has revealed what we need to know in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Scriptures, but I assure you, it is quite limited. We know what is needed for our faith, our salvation, our purpose and meaning in life. Important, yes, but many things left out. And when we claim to know the ways of God too closely, too precisely, we begin to venture into very dangerous territory, a road that leads to legalism, abuse, and unrighteous control.
The wicked sometimes prosper. But not forever. The righteous sometimes suffer. But not forever. The ways of God cannot be known, not fully. But more can be known, slowly, and one day, more than we can ever imagine will be revealed. Right now, we have been given the gift of Christ’s work, to believe in faith, to hope with confidence in his return to complete God’s work, and to love as a result of the lives of humility and joy we have been given in the Spirit. The scales of justice may waver, and all too often dip the wrong way, but God does not have a blindfold like lady justice. Trust, and hope, and love, that the work of God may be made perfect in you. Amen.
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