“Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother. And in his name all oppression shall cease.”
When grappling with the unspeakable injustices that stain our world, my default is to vacillate between a naïve and idealistic triumphalism (“We can do this!”) and a self-righteous and narcissistic cynicism (“Why even bother?”).
Further, I have an addiction to productivity: I must make a measurable difference, preferably today. And I also get life-threatening allergic reactions to failure: if I can’t win, why fight?
Together this addiction and allergy pretty much ensure that whatever injustice I would seek to “fight,” my efforts will be short-lived and my impact superficial, even harmful.
Now meet Zechariah and Elizabeth, the elderly couple with whom Luke begins his gospel. Luke introduces them as “righteous in the sight of God.” This word “righteous” can readily—even preferably—be translated as “just.”
That is, Luke says Zechariah and Elizabeth, now “advanced in years” had spent their lives in the pursuit of justice. Just what did that look like?
Psalm 112 provides us with a beautiful picture of those who are “righteous in the sight of God.” Their lives are marked by…
– joy in God’s commands: they “find great delight in his commands”
– generosity: they are “generous and lend freely” and have “freely scattered their gifts to the poor”
– justice: they “conduct their affairs with justice”
From Psalm 112 it’s obvious that to be “righteous in the sight of God” involves more than personal private piety. Zechariah and Elizabeth had (literally) spent their lives investing in those in need (generosity) and engaging in their vocational and political/juridical spheres to enable their community to flourish (justice).
And what were the results of their lives of generosity and justice? What impact did they make?
Well, Luke doesn’t say. Perhaps this is because, whatever the results were, they were completely dwarfed, drowned out by the gross injustices of their day.
In their day Israel’s princes and priests—those whom Scripture called to be agents of justice and righteousness (see, e.g., Jer. 22.3-5; Ezek. 45.9-10)—embodied oppression and exploitation.
As a priest, throughout his adult life Zechariah would have traveled five times a year (for about a week at a time) to Jerusalem, where he would fulfill his priestly duties in a temple being constructed by a man known to history as Herod the Great but known in his day for three things: his political brilliance, his amazing building projects and his unrestrained brutality. Herod began constructing the temple in Jerusalem partly to legitimize himself as the rightful heir to David’s throne, though he had neither the piety nor the pedigree (he was Iudemian, not Jewish).
Zechariah served in a temple constructed by a man who had ordered the murder of all male infants under two in Bethlehem.
And because Herod was the one constructing the temple, he was also the one (primarily) controlling the temple: he had appointed men as high priests who were politically loyal to him, men who (like Herod) had neither the required piety or pedigree: unlike Zachariah (and Elizabeth) they were not descendants of Aaron.
Serving in the temple, Zechariah would have witnessed all of this. He would have returned home to Elizabeth to grieve these things together throughout their entire adult lives. They would have been painfully aware that, in the face of such gross injustice and deeply rooted corruption, their lifelong pursuit of justice wouldn’t even make a dent.
They would have felt very outnumbered and alone. Together they would have wondered, “Can there ever be justice, if it’s just us?”
This is a question asked by all who have devoted their lives to battling injustice of any kind, regardless of their religion, ideology, or way of life.
For Zechariah and Elizabeth, the answer was obviously “No.” In the face of these injustices, they knew their efforts were futile: there would never be justice in their lifetime (or the next).
In fact, in a sense they embodied this futility. Luke tells us that they “had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both very old.” Their infertility embodied their futility.
But this futility didn’t stop this elderly couple. It didn’t lead to cynicism, self-righteousness, or self-preservation.
Why? What was it that led them to persevere in generosity and justice, so that in their old age Luke describes them as “righteous in the sight of God”?
In response to the question, “Can there ever be justice, if it’s just us?”, they firmly answered, “No, because it’s not just us.”
Along with a remnant of their day, they still believed the ancient prophets, who spoke of the future “coming” of Israel’s God. This divine “coming” was a way of speaking of Israel’s God intervening in history in decisive, game-changing ways. Like the father who yells to his bickering children upstairs, “Don’t make me come up there!”, this “coming” had a strong judicial character to it: Israel’s God, Yahweh, would come to set things right—i.e., to bring justice.
Psalm 112, which describes the “righteous” person as pursuing both generosity and justice, also speaks of the righteous person’s joy in God’s commands. Grasping how these commandments bring flourishing to any community, the righteous person delights in them (e.g., the law that forbids passing over one’s grapevines a second time in the harvest season, so the poor can glean what has been missed).
But even more so the righteous delight in God’s commands, because they recognize that God’s actions and opinions are final and forever, and they want to be on board with what he is doing in the world. When He comes bringing justice, they want to be on the side of justice, regardless of who just happens to be the prince or priest at the time.
Therefore, the righteous are freed from any addiction to productivity: being realistic about how deep-seated injustice is in both self and society, even as they aspire for justice in their day, they do not expect it. For this same reason, they are free to “fail,” to labor all their lives engaged in agendas of justice that will never bear fruit in their generation or the next or the next.
God will come, bringing justice at a time, place, and culture of his all-wise choosing, and that need not be theirs. Why should they be so self-centered, so ethnocentric as to demand, much less expect, the Creator to act in game-changing, history-altering ways right in their own cultural backyard?
For the righteous, the greater the injustice of their own day and the greater the temporal and cultural distance between them and God’s coming in history, the more extraordinary is their courage and sacrifice in the face of horrific, systemic injustice and the more God-glorifying is their service. Truly, they are people of whom the world is not worthy.
In a sense the true heroes of Advent are not, first and foremost, the likes of Zechariah and Elizabeth. The very fact that their last days were the first days of the great coming of God—the return of Yahweh to Zion—pushes them down the list of true heroes of justice. Why is that? Because they lived to see firsthand the extraordinary events that precipitated the advent of our Lord. They would actually live to see the day when God would “remove their reproach among men.”
Deeply rooted, oriented, and motivated by the stories of ancient Israel’s Scriptures, Zechariah and Elizabeth would almost immediately have interpreted the angelic announcement of the miraculous birth of John the Baptist not (primarily) as a personal, private symbol of God’s mercy to them but, in parallel with the great matriarchs of Israel Sarah and Hannah, as a public, programmatic sign of a (if not the) climactic and cataclysmic coming of Israel’s God.
By his extraordinary grace, they had been caught up in Something Really Big. And because of that, they would be forever immortalized.
No, the true heroes of Advent, the greatest champions of justice, are the unknown generations prior to Zechariah and Elizabeth, who, no less than this famous elderly couple, were “righteous in the sight of God,” living for generosity and justice yet dying in obscurity, enshrouded in their reproach among men, never receiving the things promised—men and women of whom the world was not worthy.
Imagine a church full of such persons. They would be fiercely committed to generosity and justice, humble enough to let God bring his justice in the place, people group, and period of his good pleasure. They would be bold enough to tackle the intractable injustices of our day, yet free enough to “fail.” They would be neither naïvely triumphalistic, expecting the revolution to happen tomorrow, nor self-righteously cynical, believing the revolution to be a lost cause.
This would be one very dangerous crew.
They would be “righteous in the sight of God,” filled with faith in Him who will return to bring justice to the nations, the One in whose name all oppression shall cease.