Ask a friend to define justice, and chances are good you will hear some words about fairness. If you press further, you are likely to hear an exposition of what it means for people to get what they deserve. 

Our most familiar symbol for justice, which goes all the way back to ancient Greek mythology, is Lady Justice. We know her as the blindfolded woman holding a pair of scales and a sword, often situated over the entry doors of courthouses across the land. There she sits sentinel over all who enter, reminding them that justice is supposed to be impartial, detached, fair and sometimes punishing. 

Living under the terms of a democracy, we have grown accustomed to language that emphasizes equality or parity. Equal rights, equal pay for equal work, equal opportunity in employment and all people being created equal — these are everyday phrases in our court system. Affirmation of such concepts is natural since so many people owe their liberation to the rule of law.

Yet justice in the Bible has a very different shape than our cultural focus on fairness. The Bible never speaks of the pursuit of equality or parity. When God gets involved with justice, it’s about making things right in God’s own way. Despite our enthusiasm for fairness, where all good is rewarded and all bad is punished, God does the favor of going beyond fairness when dealing with us. We end up receiving something far better than our due, more generous than what the law requires. We wind up with a gracious love we do not deserve. 

This blessing is the result of a God who keeps justice and love held closely together. God’s love keeps God’s justice from becoming too harsh. And, God’s justice keeps God’s love from becoming too sentimental.  

For his part, Jesus never seemed to hold much interest in people getting what they deserve. Far more important to him was providing people with what they need. In other words, righteous play trumps fair play. The parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), where the father behaves extravagantly toward his younger child in a way that disregards fair play, is a perfect example. So is the parable of the hired laborers (Matthew 20:1-16). Some 11th-hour workers are paid a wage not commensurate with work they have done, but commensurate with their needs. “No one has hired us.”

This grace- or mercy-filled idea of justice flows freely through the pages of Scripture. More than simply getting the rules right or meting out punishment, divine justice seeks the rightful distribution of the fruits of the earth to all the earth’s inhabitants. 

We like to speak of the difference between charity and justice. Charity gives bread to people who are hungry. Justice addresses the systemic causes behind their hunger. In English, a gesture of charity can’t be an act of justice, nor can an act of justice be a gesture of charity. We require two separate words to describe these two realities. 

In Hebrew, however, there is a word that combines the two. Tzedakah, often translated as “righteousness,” means that everyone has a basic right to the essentials of a dignified life. It’s different from the straight rule of law, or mishpat. “I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness (tzedakah) and justice (mishpat)” (Genesis 18:19).

We ought to challenge our churches to embody tzedakah in a world that is in love with mishpat, or people getting what they deserve. You might start by looking at your congregation’s annual report. I’m sure there is plenty of page space devoted to offering receipts and budget expenses, and to the lists of baptisms, deaths and membership changes. If the nursery was painted or a new Sunday school curriculum was put in place, I’m guessing that is noted as well.

But is equal page space given over to what has been done (or not done) for the hungry, the thirsty and the poorly clothed? Is there mention of your congregation recognizing that the poor need affordable housing, jobs training and a solid education? You might take a look. Think tzedakah and Matthew 25:31-46 as you read.

Peter W. Marty
Marty, a pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church, Davenport, Iowa, and publisher of The Christian Century.

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