The Bible and Justice

This post was inspired by and credited to Nicholas Wolterstorff's book Justice: Rights and Wrongs

To begin, it needs to be understood that the major difference between a philosophical approach and a biblical approach to justice is that the Hebrew scriptures have nothing to do with "theory." The bible is a highly diverse book filled with poetry, proverbs, oracles, narratives, legal codes and more. It is many books inside of one. All of Israel’s speech about God in the book is one of testimony and not theory; they are not offering esoteric or apologetic arguments about who God is. They are offering testimonies about the One who freed them from Egypt and their talk about him deals a lot with what is just and unjust. Never at any point do they articulate a conception of justice. So like Nicholas Wolterstorff says, “It is we that are the ones that have to extract the underlying patterns of thought.”

A striking feature of the Old Testament has to do with the quartet of the vulnerable. The frequency in which the writers connect primary and rectifying justice with the widows, orphans, resident aliens, and the poor is very notable. This group often gets special attention when justice is being talked about in the Hebrew scriptures. In Isaiah 1:17, Isaiah renders to the community in Jerusalem: “Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” This quartet would have been to as the "low ones" or the "bottom ones" in the Ancient Near East. They were located at the bottom of the social hierarchy and would have been the weakest and most powerless. For the prophets and the psalmists in the Old Testament practicing mishpat (Justice) would have looked like “lifting up the lowly” or alleviating their plight. Most often in Israel’s writings, the plight of the low one’s was considered a case of injustice.

The intention of the Mosaic law was the redistribution of social goods; the society had a vision for distributive justice. Israel was supposed to understand itself as a community of people bound by membership to each other so that each person-as-member was to be treated well enough to be sustained as a full member of the community. Israel’s writers must have believed that when they looked at the actual condition of the poor, orphan, widow, and alien and compared it with the other social classes they would discover that the quartet are not only disproportionately vulnerable to injustice but are disproportionately victims of injustice. Injustice was in fact not equally distributed. Israel’s religion was not a religion of contemplation or abstract practices. Israel’s religion was one of imperative command. They were to do what Yahweh commanded and that was to seek justice and undo the ties of injustice. This was a religion not of escape from earthly existence but a religion of salvation from injustice in this earthly existence.

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The question to be answered is this: Why does justice matter to Yahweh? God loves justice not because its presence makes a society to be admired but because God loves the members of the society. He loves them not with admiration but with benevolent desire. God desires that each of these members would experience his shalom and flourishing. Injustice is the perfect impairment of this shalom. That is why God loves justice because God made each human being in his image and likeness (Imago Dei) and created them to flourish. When injustice is present, human being’s inherent rights are violated. Human worth and rights come from God. When human beings rights are wronged, that itself is an act against God.

So how does this tie into the New Testament? Well, Jesus was the Spirit-anointed Messiah who came proclaiming justice for the poor and oppressed. This was His self-identification in the book of Luke.

The reason we miss this is because we've mistranslated one of the most prominent Greek words in the New Testament: the Greek word dikaiosune. Most often this word is translated from Greek to English as righteousness. The issue is that our present-day idiomatic understanding of righteousness is very different from justice. A question to ask that brings the meaning to light comes from the beatitudes where Jesus says, “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for dikaiosune.” From the perspective of the Jewish listeners, would Christ of been saying "blessed are those who hunger and thirst for social justice?" Or "blessed are those who hunger and thirst for personal moral rectitude?" How could the Hebrew testimony of God move from an understanding and prominence of justice and righteousness as mishpat and tsedeqa to one of personal moral rectitude? This is why it is clear that dikaiosune should be understood within the Hebrew framework of justice.

With that framework in mind, we can now move to seeing how the paradigmatic examples of the low-ones in the Old Testament change in the New Testament.  In Matthew’s gospel the just ones are those who give drink to the thirsty, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and prisoner; they are the blessed ones at the end of time. One of the most prominent themes of the New Testament and Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of Heaven is the vision for what I'll call "social inversion." In the Gospels, it becomes very clear that raising up the lowly ones while leaving the rest the same is not good enough. There must be something done to those at the top. Justice for the downtrodden requires casting down the ones who made them downtrodden. Justice is a painful event in the gospels. Jesus’ message of social inversion is woven throughout the entirety of the New Testament.

Justice in the Gospels looks like humbling those who exalt themselves and exalting those who humble themselves. The arrogant must be cured of their arrogance and the powerful must be cured of their attachment to wealth and power, and only then is justice possible for all. The most powerful and dynamic aspects of the New Testament is that Jesus expands the Old Testament idea of what justice looks like. Jesus stretches the Old Testament vision for the downtrodden beyond the orphan, widow, alien, and the poor to those who were excluded from full participation in society because they are defective, malformed, lame, or seen as religiously inferior, and He requires that they be lifted up too. The most distinguishable and pervasive message of Jesus’ justice is the exclusion of those who regarded others as religiously inferior. This is so notable in the Gospels to the point where Jesus is identified as spending most of his time with those who were regarded as religiously inferior.

The revolutionary nature of the gospels ought to reveal what is morally imperative for those who follow the Jesus and the Judeo-Christian teachings. Jesus not only came proclaiming a vision for social inversion but he revealed the inherent dignity of the least by who he spends his time with and the miracles he does. Jesus was not at all impartial between the humble and the arrogant; he favored the humble and denounced the arrogant. But between the humble, he played no favorites. He spent time with the ritually unclean, the malformed, those with illicit or unsavory occupations, Roman tax collectors, women, gentiles, the wealthy, the poor, he freely conversed and ate with the whole lot of them. The coming of the Kingdom of heaven requires us to fight for justice and seek the dignity for those who are forgotten and vulnerable.