Justice


If you were a preying mantis, it would be socially acceptable to devour your mate. And if you’re a honey badger, you have no regard for other animals. You don’t care. If you’re a panda with twins, it’s normal to abandon one to take care of the other. But if humans do any of these things, we would call it “wrong”, “unfair” or “unjust”. Yeah, why is that? Why do humans care so much about justice? The Bible has a fascinating response to that question. On page 1, humans are set apart from all other creatures as “the image of God”. Yeah, God’s representatives who rule the world by his definition of good and evil. This identity is the bedrock of the Bible’s view of justice. All humans are equal before God and have the right to be treated with dignity and fairness, no matter who you are. That would be nice, if we all did that. But, we know how the world really works. The Bible addresses that too. It shows how we are constantly redefining good and evil to our own advantage at the expense of others. Yeah, self preservation. The weaker someone is, the easier it is to take advantage of them. So, in the biblical story, we see this happening on a personal level, but also in families and then in communities and in whole civilizations that create injustice, especially towards the vulnerable. But the story doesn’t end there. Out of this whole mess, God chose a man named Abraham to start a new kind of family. Specifically, Abraham was to teach his family to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice. Doing righteousness, that’s a Bible word I don’t really use. But, what comes to mind is being a good person. What does that even mean, “being good”? The biblical Hebrew word for righteousness is “tsedeka”. It’s more specific. It’s an ethical standard that refers to right relationships between people. It’s about treating others as the image of God. With the God-given dignity they deserve. This word “justice” is the Hebrew word “mishpat”. It can refer to retributive justice. Like if I steal something, I pay the consequences. Exactly. Yet, most often in the Bible, mishpat refers to restorative justice. It means going a step further, actually seeking out vulnerable people who are being taken advantage of and helping them. Yeah, some people call this “charity.” But mishpat involves way more. It means taking steps to advocate for the vulnerable and changing social structures to prevent injustice. So, justice and righteousness are about a radical, selfless way of life. Yeah. You find this idea all over the Bible. Like here, in the book of Proverbs. What does it mean to “bring about just righteousness”? Open your mouth for those who can’t speak for themselves… And, what do these words mean for the prophets, like Jeremiah? Rescue the disadvantaged, and don’t tolerate oppression or violence against the immigrant, the orphan and the widow. And like here, in the book of Psalms: “The Lord God upholds justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry. and sets the prisoner free. But he thwarts the way of the wicked.” Whoa, he thwarts the wicked? Yeah, in Hebrew the word “wicked” is “rashah”. It means “guilty” or “in the wrong”. It refers to someone who mistreats another human, ignoring their dignity as an image of God. So justice and righteousness is a big deal to God? Yes, it is what Abraham’s family, the Israelites, were to be all about. They ended up as immigrant slaves being oppressed unjustly in Egypt. So God confronted Egypt’s evil, declaring them to be “rashah”, guilty of injustice. So he rescued Israel. But the tragic irony of the Old Testament story is that these redeemed people went on to commit the same acts of injustice against the vulnerable. So God sent prophets who declared Israel guilty. But they weren’t the only ones. There is injustice everywhere. Yeah, some people actively perpetrate injustice. Others receive benefits or privileges from unjust social structures they take for granted. Sadly, history has shown that when the oppressed gain power, they often become oppressors themselves. So, we all participate in injustice, actively or passively, even unintentionally. We’re all the guilty ones. So this is the surprising message of the biblical story. God’s response to humanity’s legacy of injustice is to give us a gift: the life of Jesus. He did righteousness and justice and yet he died on behalf of the guilty. But then God declared Jesus to be the righteous one when he rose from the dead. So now, Jesus offers his life to the guilty so that they, too, can be declared righteous before God, not because of anything they have done, but because of what Jesus did for them. The earliest followers of Jesus experienced this righteousness from God not just as a new status, but as a power that changed their lives and compelled them to act in surprising new ways. Yeah, if God declared someone righteous when they didn’t deserve it, the only reasonable response is to go and seek righteousness and justice for others. This is a radical way of life. It’s not always convenient, or easy. It is courageously making other people’s problems my problems. This is what Jesus meant by loving your neighbor as yourself. It is about a lifetime commitment fueled by the words of the ancient prophet Micah, God has told you, humans, what is good and what the Lord requires of you. It is to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

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