What is justice?
The theme of justice is pervasive in the Bible but also is widely misunderstood by its readers. Commonly, people depict justice as a harsh judgment or deserved punishment, portraying God as the ultimate punisher or executioner.
But if we look closely in the Bible, this is not how God practices or brings about justice to the world. For God, justice fundamentally has to do with right and good relationships, with fostering and encouraging wholeness and wellness for people and their interactions. The end goal of justice is to make things right by redeeming not destroying.
The ultimate example of this is when it is written, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son to save the world through faith in him…” God was redeeming the world through Jesus, and for all practical and theological purposes, through this God brought justice by loving all people and not wanting anyone to perish but have eternal life. Jesus did not come to condemn us but to save us, to give us peace. That is God’s justice.
The Book of Jeremiah presents us with the biblical context to learn how this applies to us as people of God.
Consider Jeremiah 7:1-7:
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.”
For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.
This text summarizes the issues that Jeremiah address throughout the book of Jeremiah.
The historical context is that in the days of Jeremiah (ca. 600 B.C.), the people of Israel were facing threats from foreign powers. The northern kingdom of Israel was history, taken into Assyrian captivity. Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, had defeated Assyria and was making his way into Judah. The threat was imminent, they had nowhere to run, and they were soon to be crushed and taken.
The question that I ask when I read this part of Israel’s history is: how did they get there? Did not God promise them a land of honey and milk, and to bless them? Indeed. God said: I will bless you to be a blessing (Genesis 12); you will be my treasured possession out of all the peoples, a priestly kingdom and a holy nation (Exodus 19).
So, what happened then?
Beginning with Abraham, the people of God (Israel) had entered into a covenant with God to be blessed with the purpose to bless others and to minister God’s love to all people as a missional agency. They were supposed to be different: priests, holy, a blessing, on a mission alongside God to bring healing to the world from sin. They were constituted to join God in “all that God is doing in God’s great purpose for the whole of creation and all that God calls us to do in cooperation with that purpose.” (N.T. Wright)
But over the years, they forgot time and time again who they were meant to be and went from blessing to suffering to oppression, from a Promised Land to a wasteland, for they stopped being the missional agency of justice in the world. Their religion became an oppressing behavior rather than a missional faith. They became unfair, uncaring, selfish, and unjust; oppressors of the alien, the orphan, and the widow, and shed innocent blood (7:6; 19:4).
And this is what the book Jeremiah is all about. As they were facing another threat from a foreign army, Jeremiah was sent to call them out. He, along with other prophets, tried to warn Israel about their sins and the consequences of not keeping God’s covenant.
Ironically, they did not listen to Jeremiah because they felt safe by having the temple in their midst –that which was meant to remind them of their covenant with God. But the opposite was the case. For them, the temple had become an icon of invincibility, and they thought that by having the temple in Jerusalem their lives and nation would be spared. They had a superstitious religion with empty displays of fasting and prayer, but that lacked any inward reality of faith and commitment to God.
Their confidence for their survival was in the Temple, not in God, to which the Lord responded, “Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” They had been deceived by the false witness of false prophets and God is telling them, “the temple has no power to save you.”
So, the prophetic word of Jeremiah is basically about two main concerns: their idolatry by putting their trust in the temple, and their disregard for the well-being of their neighbor.
For this, Jeremiah, along with many other prophets like Isaiah and Amos, were calling out Israel because they had forgotten their calling. And even after hearing the prophetic word of the prophets they were still not getting it. They were worshiping the temple, while God was telling them,
For if you amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever. (Jeremiah 7:5-7)
This is clear, there is no room for confusion, yet they were still not getting it. I mean, how much lower did they need to fall to figure out that they were wrong? Stop worshiping the temple and attend to the needs of those around!
This is the prophetic word of Jeremiah to the people of God that is essentially a wakeup call that demanded from them, as well as from us, to love God and act justly with all people.
What do we make of this? How does this prophetic word speak to us today?
Well, Jesus spoke about some of the same concerns in Matthew 25:35-40. He said,
I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Matthew 25:36-40
Let’s make sure we are getting this right.
God’s calling of Israel and consequently of the church through Jesus is for the blessing of the nations, of all people, particularly those who are vulnerable, oppressed, and marginalized. When our mission becomes anything else, we are in the wrong.
What’s our story? What about us? Are we getting it or are we missing the mark too? God is advocating for those in our midst who are invisible to most, for those who are vulnerable and oppressed. Are we acting justly? Are we helping heal and redeem those who are hurting?
Let me give you a specific example to really challenge us today.
Let’s take the widow and the orphan as an example. For all practical purposes, they are also the single parents and their children living in poverty, who have been abandoned by husbands or wives, and are raising their children by themselves. Many of them struggle every day to provide for their children for they need to work twice as much just to provide for the basic needs of their children. Things like childcare, food, clothing, and transportation are barely met. Just think about how much they need to work when daycare cost is at least $1,000 for two children. Add to that rent or mortgage, food, car expenses, clothing, etc. Single parents are fighting for their children with little to no help. How does this make you feel?
Furthermore, consider how little quality time they get to spend with their kids and the side effects of this unjust situation. Next time you see a kid getting into trouble, and you ask, “where are their parents?” Maybe the answer is, “his parent is working two shifts that day while being threatened to be evicted if they can’t afford to pay the balance of their rent, while at the same time trying everything she can to keep her boy in school, so he can have a better future.”
Don’t you think God hurts when God sees his children been treated and judged unfairly, with no regard for their struggles and well-being? God cares and advocates for single parents and their children.
In many ways, this was my experience too. I was raised for several years by a single parent. My mom had me when she was 18 and had to work day in and day out seven days a week to provide for the needs of my brother and me. We were raised by our grandmother in our early years because my mom was almost always working. We never lacked anything because my mom was a hard worker, but we missed many things and time with her too. I am proud of her. I thank God for how she cared for us, but I wish I had more time with her.
Today we are reminded of our calling through the prophetic word of Jeremiah. I am here because my mom was brave and strong. But I am also here because churches – people – went into the community, to children like me, and brought Vacation Bible School, worship, and so on into my community. I did not go to church; church came to me.
Where is our church going today? Or have we settled? Can we not just focus on us, on our temple, but also on what is happening around us in our community?
What are we known for?
Are we known at all?
Can we bring our minds, hearts, and strength together and see our ministry of reaching out to others with at least the same passion we have when we are taking care of ourselves? I know we can, but will we?
Ask yourself: What is driving our vision for our church? What kind of church do we want to be today, and what do we want to leave behind to our children?
The book of Jeremiah is about this kind of stuff. The Gospel of Jesus is still about this stuff. Even James echoed Jeremiah and Jesus when he wrote, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress.” (James 1:27) And yet still, people before Jesus and after Jesus remain concerned about the wrong things.
Our vision must be about real life: tangible, practical, redeeming, and healing justice. “The notion that the Church is a place only for spiritual deepening, character-building, mutual care and service ignores Jesus’ core message… the inauguration a new reign of justice and peace.” (Storey, preface) We don’t just pray for justice and peace; we act on it. We don’t ask God to send someone to do something about it, we say here I am, Lord, send me.
To all of us, we need to be more intentional about engaging with those God cares about, those who God is naming before us today. Remember that biblical justice is about aligning with God’s commands and faithfully keeping God’s covenant which then, in turn, is reflected in how we treat our neighbor: our aliens, orphans, and widows… our single parents and their children.
We have the mandate to make our world better not just for us but for those who are hurting and in need. We can’t honestly represent God and be Christians if we don’t care about this. Our lives and faith must be in agreement.
The people of Israel were promised a future if they amended their ways of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God (Micah 6:8). So are we: we are promised a future too.
Does our corporate church and each one of us as individuals and disciples of Christ have a voice in favor of those God names in our Bibles and commands us to care for? Would our church speak up and act?
My friends, today God is challenging us to think outside the box – literally – to hear to voices beyond this holy space of worship; to practice God’s justice –a redeeming justice that is concerned about contributing all that is good and kind to others.
Storey, Peter John. With God in the Crucible: Preaching Costly Discipleship. Abingdon Press, 2010.
Wright. The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission. Zondervan, 2010.