Justice, Jesus and the Sustainable Development Goals by Margot R. Hodson

• On Monday 8 January 2016, Oxfam announced that the richest 62 people in the world own as much as half the entire population on the planet.
• On Wednesday 10 January, the Met Office, NASA and NOAA jointly confirmed that 2015 was the warmest year on record – and 9 of the 10 warmest years have been in this century. This flags up an environmental crisis that threatens the future of humanity as we know it.
• We have war and tensions fuelled in many places by religious extremism and political extremism. And this has precipitated a refugee crisis not seen in Europe since the Second World War. Many are now in the midst of a freezing winter with inadequate shelter, food and clothing. On Friday 12 January there was another sickening report of a sinking of a number of refugee boats in the Mediterranean, this time killing at least 45 people, 17 of whom were children.
• West Africa has only just come out of a major health crisis with Ebola.
• And human trafficking and modern slavery is destroying the lives of millions of people, again many of them children.

Faced with this litany of crises how should we respond?

Luke 4:14-30 NIVUK (Bible Gateway) is an account of a sermon given by Jesus and looking at it in 2016, his words seem both relevant and challenging. Jesus had returned to his home town after a major speaking tour and on the Sabbath went to worship in his local synagogue. He must have been respected because he was asked to read one of the lessons:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

He read this passage from Isaiah, but he added explanation as he went along. When he had finished he sat down to teach. A few years ago I went to a wedding in Holland at a Dutch Reformed Church. We were asked to stand to pray and sit to sing the hymns. I got jolly confused! Jesus did not teach by standing up and giving a sermon. Jewish teachers of his day would sit and a group of people would gather around them. What would have followed would have been more like a seminar: the passage was discussed by question and answer.

Jesus began with the provocative words: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Clearly this led to discussion, but surprisingly it did not immediately lead to conflict. It seemed that thus far, Jesus’ neighbours were in favour of him claiming this as his mission. It is the second part of our reading that is the really controversial part. Jesus provoked his audience not by claiming that he was called to respond to the challenges of poverty, illness, captivity and injustice, but by saying that God’s concern to heal the sick and feed the hungry is not only for his own people but for everyone throughout the world. It was that outward looking statement that caused Jesus to be rejected.

How do we respond to our global contemporary challenges? What happens when we place these words of Jesus in the light of the litany of problems that we face in our world today? We can point to many places where there is a substantial response to these needs. Our universities have considerable research in many relevant areas: climate change; poverty alleviation; migration; and sustainable development.

The Church worldwide is responding to the many new challenges as well as older ones. On environmental issues we can point to the Pope’s Encyclical last year. Laudato Si’ especially encouraged a response to climate change. On Tuesday 26 January 2016, St Paul’s Cathedral hosted the launch of “Eco Church” with Rowan Williams as the keynote speaker. This is an initiative led by a Christian organisation called A Rocha that is seeking to respond to environmental challenges. Christian Aid and Tearfund are both partners on this project as they seek to make a holistic response to the inter-related issues linking the environmental crisis, human poverty and injustice.

In January 2016 some of the world’s most influential business, political and cultural leaders met in Davos, Switzerland for the 46th World Economic Forum. One of the issues that they considered was how to finance the new Sustainable Development Goals. These are designed to replace the Millennium Development Goals that were aims for the first 15 years of this century.

The 17 new goals have a greater emphasis on tackling the growing environmental crisis and set the agenda for the next 15 years. They provide us with an opportunity to be outwardly focused, to face the global challenges and to work together to bring about solutions. Davos marked the launch of ‘A Global Commission on Business and Sustainable Development’, making a business case for the eradication of poverty and the stabilising of our environment.

So there are good responses. Like those neighbours of Jesus we can approve and support the many worthwhile initiatives that are planned and are happening. But like those neighbours, we want to go to our homes feeling that we are putting the world to rights, and there are some good people around who are doing it. Jesus will not leave us to go our way quietly. His words echo down through the centuries to us. How are we going to respond?

Margot Hodson is a vicar in Buckinghamshire and author of several books including “A Christian Guide to Environmental Issues”. She will be chairing the upcoming JRI day conference on the Sustainable Development Goals, at Bournville College, Birmingham UK on 5 March 2016.

This blog is based on a sermon given at the Chapel of New College, Oxford on 24 January 2016.

In the desert of Ethiopia three camels drink from a water well while resting from their caravan. The ‘Three Camels’ image is used under license from Shutterstock.com (Copyright: James Michael Dorsey)