Justice is a biblical mandate, a command from Scripture, an imperative from the LORD, a prophetically proclaimed expectation for God’s people.
In the Bible, the issue of making justice available is a centuries old, repeated request from the LORD to God’s people. The need for justice is echoed by prophets repeatedly and proclaimed as a “weightier” matter by Jesus. To read more about this “weightier” matter, read part one of this article series at this link.
What is justice?
A first issue we need to understand is that readers of *this* article [published in 2019 by a largely United States-based congregation] have historically-framed and life-long-enculturated Western (& American) ways of discerning justice. What the “average American” understands as “justice” is discerned differently when compared to the weightier matters found in the Bible’s total social-&-community understanding of justice.
In Western culture and in America, our governance for life includes separate and clear “divisions” of power and authority. Not only do we have separate “branches” of government, within the “justice” branch we have diverse categories including: law enforcement personnel (e.g., the Sheriff or police); the court personnel (e.g., attorneys, judges, bailiffs, and more.) Clearly, these persons are involved in the *modern practice* of our American cultural discernment of the concept of “justice.”
Scripture does not have these “branches” of government nor does Scripture contain these specific cultural “officers” within this branch. Said differently, Jesus and biblical prophets were not proclaiming *this* kind of justice.
The limits of space in this article do not permit a full explanation, though, in short, while justice for Israel certainly did include judgment for “wrong-doers” and “punishment” for poor decisions, this limited conception is a very small portion of what the Bible really means when it conceives of Justice.
Biblical justice was understood to include daily life habits engaged by all members of society, not just for some who had “special offices.” Biblical justice was about making matters right, fair, and equitable in daily matters for every community member *more so* than it was about correcting the wrongs of only some community members. Biblical justice was and is the equitable distribution of God’s total-life resources such that harmonious relationships of mutual flourishing might enable all of God’s people to prosper in every sphere of life.
Let me try to characterize this for us.
- Picture in your mind a 16-year-old, healthy boy.
- Picture, too, standing alongside this young man, an 8-year-old healthy boy.
- And, standing alongside these two boys, a 4-year-old healthy boy.
If we wanted to create a world that was “just” for these three boys, we would need to frame unique life resources so that each could prosper in mutual ways.
Let’s say for example, it is meal time. If we wanted to treat “everyone equally,” we would give each of the three boys the same 8-inch-sized-personal-pan-pizza. Served equally, this pizza would not be enough for the large appetite of the 16-year-old, as it would leave him hungry. The 8-year-old would have a balanced portion size. And, it would be too much pizza for the 4-year-old, wasting some of his food. To create a framework modeled on the biblical idea of justice for these boys in this situation, we would need to take a portion of the 4-year-old’s pizza and distribute it to the 16-year-old. This more equitable allotment (not equal, equitable) would allow for “justice” as the food would be distributed so that each boy would have enough for mutual flourishing within harmonious relationship. And yet, note well, the 16-year-old “got more” in the pizza allotment, the distribution was still more in line with the biblical concept of justice.
Let’s offer another example, the same three boys.
Each boy is given the task of watching over a flock of sheep within a rock-hewn walled shelter. To aid each boy in their task, we give each of the boys an “equal” (not equitable) use of a two-foot-tall block to stand upon to see over the wall. The 16-year-old would not need the block, as he should be tall enough to see over the wall. The 8-year-old could, perched on his block, see over the wall to keep watch. The 4-year-old, though, even standing on the block could not accomplish his task, as he would be staring at the wall, not at the sheep within the enclosure. To make this task equitable, the 16-year-old would need to give his block to the 4-year-old, such that the 4-year-old could stand on two blocks to watch the flock. Clearly, in this arrangement, the 4-year-old (not the 16-year-old as with the Pizza) “got more” from the block allotment, when the resources were shared toward an equitable arrangement of justice.
In these scenarios, with the same three persons, an unequal distribution of different resources was necessary in differently equitable ways to make the situations just.
This kind of nuanced and tailored arrangement of goods and resources, for shared flourishing among God’s people, is the kind of justice that God advocates for God’s people.
When the Israelites first eat of God’s provision in the wilderness after having escaped Egypt, God provides just enough leaven so that for the one who gathered much and the one who gathered little, everyone had enough! (Exodus 16). It was not equal, yet it was equitable. The same kind of distribution is in view when Jesus breaks bread and God blesses it so that 5,000 are fed, and “all ate and were satisfied” (Every Gospel uses this phrase! Mark 5, Luke 9, and Matthew 14).
When God commands the 50-year redistribution of property in Leviticus 25, which Isaiah heralds in Isaiah 61, and Jesus reads as fulfillment of his life’s purpose in Luke 4, God intends that the provision of God’s resources for life are shared in equitable ways! God’s life resources are justly for all! The fruitfulness and flourishing of the Creator’s creation are not for a few! The Creator’s *good* creation is to be shared with justice for the common good of All.
This *kind of* care of God’s provisions for fruitfulness is within the biblical vision of justice. Justice within Scripture is not for a courtroom and is instead for every community, for the distribution of all goods to all persons, equitably.
At the start of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 11), Jesus announces God’s justice is now made available to the blind, deaf, lame, lepers, and poor – those who need extra care and a “step-up” in life given by a just community. Jesus models how God’s people in the world, as God’s image-bearers, are to be justice care-takers for the world. At the end of Jesus’ ministry (Matthew 25), Jesus announces that the “inheritance” of God’s Kingdom given to the “righteous” is for those who administered justice. This promise is not given to attorneys nor to judges and is instead proclaimed as the inheritance for any person who, like Jesus, works in their local communities among persons in every sphere of life to create an equitable social system of care. The promise of life with God is for those who make the Scriptures’ view of justice a reality by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, nursing the sick, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoners and providing a welcome to immigrants in their homes.
Justice, which God expects, is for every Christian to enact.
Justice, which God proclaims as necessary, is for every person to make possible.
Justice is made possible when a person’s biblical faith understands that within every believer’s sphere of control, we are each called to work towards justice as the equitable distribution of God’s total-life resources such that harmonious relationships of mutual flourishing might become a reality for all of God’s people in every sphere of life.