Biblical Justice

social-justice

Justice is a big deal to God. He spends a lot time in the Bible dealing with it. Oddly enough, most of us don’t think of God in terms of His justice. Forgiveness, compassion, mercy, holiness, and righteousness are all words we routinely use when we think about the wonder of our God. If we happen to hear about God being just, it’s almost always linked to His being faithful, as in, “God is faithful and just.” Rarely do we stop to think about God’s justice. Isaiah 58 is a chapter that deals with God’s idea of “justice.”

What God really wants

In the first few verses of Isaiah 58, we read about a group of seemingly impressive believers. Any pastor would love to have members who are as diligent and as serious about their church attendance as the folks being described. They never missed a service. They never showed up late. They always gave offerings. They always stayed awake during the sermon. Yes, these people took their worship seriously. And yet, something was amiss.

They come to the Temple every day and are so delighted to hear the reading of my laws—just as though they would obey them—just as though they don’t despise the commandments of their God! How anxious they are to worship correctly; oh, how they love the Temple services! (Isaiah 58:2 TLB)

These people were positively astonished to learn the truth: they had deluded themselves. They thought they knew what God wanted from them, but they were wrong.

“We have fasted before you,” they say. “Why aren’t you impressed? Why don’t you see our sacrifices? Why don’t you hear our prayers? We have done much penance, and you don’t even notice it!” (Isaiah 58:3 TLB)

In fact, God wasn’t impressed at all with His people. While they were worshipping Him they were taking advantage of their neighbors. They were treating each other with contempt. This selfish, narcissistic behavior was intolerable to God. Instead of their apparent fastidious worship and attention to the legalistic details of their religion, God wanted something else from them: Biblical justice.

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? (Isaiah 58:6, 7 NIV)

God must have shocked His people with that statement! But they shouldn’t have been shocked because the Old Testament is full of verses that speak of God’s sense of justice and how important it is for His people to practice it. Verses like these:

Anyone who oppresses the poor is insulting God who made them. To help the poor is to honor God. (Proverbs 14:31 TLB)

When you help the poor you are lending to the Lord—and he pays wonderful interest on your loan! (Proverbs 19:17 TLB)

When God set His people free from their bondage in Egypt, the first thing He did was give them His Ten Commandments, a document upon which their new society was to be built. That document is all about Biblical justice, that is, all the commandments related in some way to how the Israelites treated each other. Even the commandments that dealt with their relationship to God ultimately impacted how they behaved toward their neighbors. This idea is carried on in the New Testament when Jesus taught things like this:

The righteous will then answer him, ‘When, Lord, did we ever see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we ever see you a stranger and welcome you in our homes, or naked and clothe you? When did we ever see you sick or in prison, and visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘I tell you, whenever you did this for one of the least important of these members of my family, you did it for me! (Matthew 25:37 – 40 GNB)

It’s inescapable but true: a Christian cannot claim to love God without loving Biblical justice. That’s hard to do in our age because our modern idea of justice is not Biblical justice. Biblical justice has to do with a single Hebrew word: shalom. Tim Keller gives this illustration of what shalom means:

If I threw a thousand threads onto the table they wouldn’t be a fabric. They’d just be threads laying on top of each other. Threads become a fabric when each one has been woven over, under, around, and through every other one. The more interdependent they are, the more beautiful they are. The more interwoven they are, the stronger and warmer they are. God made the world with billions of entities, but He didn’t make them to be an aggregation. Rather, He made them to be in a beautiful, harmonious, knitted, webbed, interdependent relationship with each other.

That’s the essential meaning of shalom and Biblical justice: God’s people living, to the best of their ability, at peace with each other, helping each other out, and even treating strangers as though they were members of their own family. Does that seem a bit extreme to you? Read again Isaiah 58:7, and pay particular attention to the final few words of the verse:

Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

The “wanderer” referred to is not necessarily a “homeless person,” as some modern translations suggest; he’s an alien – a stranger; a foreigner who is far from home. To this person, the Israelites were to open their homes and their hearts as though that alien were part of their very own “flesh and blood.” That’s the essence of Biblical justice.

Exodus 20:16

You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. (NIV)

This is the ninth of the Ten Commandments. Before we look a little deeper into this admonition, it’s important to remember what God was doing when He gave Moses His Ten Commandments to give to the people. God was not establishing a new religion, but a founding a new society. The religious aspects of this new society would come later, but for now, consider the Ten Commandments the “founding document” of Israel, much like the Constitution is the founding document of America.

With this in mind, it’s easy to see how each Commandment given, even the ones dealing with how the individual was to relate to God, encouraged a peaceful, ordered, and ultimately free society.

The ninth Commandment forbade two things: lying in court and lying in general. But really, this Commandment is all about always being truthful. First, the courtroom interpretation. Scholars, both Jewish and Christian, are certain that this interpretation is not the main one; that being truthful in general is what God had in mind. However, being truthful under oath in court is essential if justice is to prevail. Under Jewish law, lying while under oath was considered such a heinous crime that if the perjurer was found out, his punishment would be equal to the punishment of the crime he lied about. In other words, if a witness in a murder trial told a lie and was found out, his punishment would be death. That’s how serious God views preserving justice in the courts.

But this Commandment is mainly about being truthful in general; in everyday life. There are many important values an individual and a society may hold, but truthfulness might very well be the most important. Compassion, goodness, and kindness are wonderful values you would want in a neighbor, for example, but are they the most important values you want your community at large to hold? Probably not. The most important value for a functioning, just society to cherish is being truthful. A society can survive many things but it cannot survive a contempt for the truth. Slavery, Nazi totalitarianism and communism are all evils based on lies, but there were slave owners, Nazis, and communists who were very compassionate in their personal lives; they loved their children and their flag. Yet all of them believed a lie and spread that lie in both word and deed. Slavery, for example, in the early years of America was generally accepted because many people believed the lie that black people were inferior to white people. In Nazi Germany during World War 2, the Holocaust was allowed to happen because so many Germans believed the lie that Jews were inferior to the so-called Arians. And communist totalitarianism is completely based on lies – that the state is superior in every way to the individual and that the state is the custodian of all truth, and is therefore never wrong. When objective truth is held is such low regard by the majority, there cannot be Biblical justice because Biblical justice is based on the objective truth of God’s Word.

In a society, only so much damage can be done by individuals bent on committing acts of evil. A sociopath with a knife can only kill for so long before he’s caught. A nihilistic-narcissist may make life miserable for a few people, but unless he’s the president, he can’t harm a whole country. But in order to, say, take advantage of or harm vast numbers of individuals, vast numbers of otherwise normal and decent individuals must believe a lie. In a society, large-scale evil is committed not because most of its citizens are evil, but because most of its citizens were lied to, thus believing the evil to be good.

Justice: The end justifies the means? NO!

Objective truth is essential if Biblical justice is to thrive. Without objective truth, even very good people might be tempted to lie – or tell non-truths as they say in politics – in order to advance their very good cause. A classic example of this occurs in the media all the time.  When a politician (who is usually conservative) goes under the microscope and a particularly nasty incident from his past is magically unearthed, it makes headlines for days.  When, after closer examination, that incident turns out to be a lie, that same media may print a retraction (though not as a headline, of course) yet won’t let go of the lie. They keep repeating it; it’s “the seriousness of the charge,” they say.  That politician’s character has been ruined.  It’s okay, though, because he’s a politician.

There are scores of other examples that could be cited, from bogus medical claims to bogus crime statistics, but the point is the same for all of them: lying on behalf of good and just causes is destructive. Lies hurt the reputation of all good and just causes and even good and just people. How many times have you heard, or maybe even said, “Used car salesmen are all crooked,” or in the case of politicians, “They’re all the same; they’re all liars.” Claims like that are all exaggerated, not accurate, but are the result of lies.

The Lord understood that the foundation of a just society must be truthfulness. When we are truthful, we will treat others, even strangers, the way we ought, the way God wants us to.  When we do this, we will be treating people justly, even as God does, and our society will be a (Biblically) just society.

 

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