Concluding the escape from Egypt, the Israelites led by Miriam sang a song of praise, starting with this:
I will sing to the Lᴏʀᴅ, for an overflowing victory!
Horse and rider he threw into the sea!
The Lᴏʀᴅ is my strength and my power [or song];
he has become my salvation.
This is my God, whom I will praise,
the God of my ancestors, whom I will acclaim.
The Lᴏʀᴅ is a warrior;
the Lᴏʀᴅ is his name. (Exodus 15:1-3)
There’s a simple lesson here which we can apply: praising justice in the world is a beautiful thing. Sometimes Christians talk as if they are opposites, with some churches preferring to focus on social justice and others focusing on worship gatherings. To look at it in terms like those Jesus used in Matthew 22:36-40, we could say that some emphasize love of neighbour (I admit I’m in that camp) while others emphasize love of God. It’s pretty natural to gravitate to one or the other. Yet Jesus, like Miriam, saw them as inextricably linked.
Centuries later, Mary the mother of Jesus would similarly praise God for the justice that would be brought through her son:
He shows mercy to everyone,
from one generation to the next,
who honors him as God.
He has shown strength with his arm.
He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty-handed.
He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
remembering his mercy,
just as he promised to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever. (Luke 1:50-55)
Faith and works are not enemies. One without the other is incomplete. As James says, “faith without works is dead” (James 2:14-26). Works without faith is a similarly empty striving on your own effort. We connect with God corporately and individually through worship and we live out of this relationship by acting in ways that honour God in the world. And of course, worship is not limited to musical praise, although that is a very powerful manifestation of worship for many people, and one of the best ways to worship is precisely to be a part of God’s social justice vision.
For those like me who tend to focus on the social justice, when you see justice being done in the world – whether great or small scale – we may need to learn to use it as an opportunity to return to the God who is working to restore this world. For those who tend to focus on a personal relationship with God, it is important that their personal connection never becomes an individual connection; rather, that love of God must always overflow to those around us.