Justice

Preaching and Worship Resources about Justice

Justice in a society is a state of affairs in which the members of the society "enjoy the goods to which they have rights." (See Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice: Rights and Wrongs, Princeton University, 2008, p. 10. This essay depends on Wolterstorff.)

In Scripture

Harvest "When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God" (Lev. 19:9-10).

Depriving of justice "You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow's garment in pledge" (Deut. 24:17).

"The Lord loves justice; he will not forsake his faithful ones" (Ps. 37:28).

"The Lord lifts up the downtrodden; he casts the wicked to the ground" (Ps. 147:6).

Your prey "Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey!" (Isa. 10:1-2)

"Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?" (Isa. 58:6-7)

Anointed to carry out justice "The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn . . ." (Isa. 61:1-2).

"Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" (Amos 5:24).

What does the Lord require of you? "He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8).

Beatitudes "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for [justice] for they will be filled. Blessed are those who are persecuted for [justice's] sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:6, 10)

"He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty" (Luke 1:51-53).

Anointed "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" (Luke 4:18-19).

A banquet "`All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.'" He said also to the one who had invited him, `When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you . . .'" (Luke 14:11-14).

No distinction "Now, apart from law, the [justice] of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the [justice] of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction . . ." (Rom. 3:21, 22).

Points to Ponder

Distributive justice verses retributive justice Writers on justice, including Nicholas Wolterstorff, often distinguish distributive justice from rectifying or retributive justice. In distributive justice people receive the goods to which they have a right. In rectifying justice, people who have been deprived of distributive justice regain it, or something like it. In the case of criminal justice, for instance, the perpetrator often cannot make the victim and society entirely whole (the murder or assault undone), but "pays a debt" to the victim and society by loss of his own freedom. The victim and society regain "something like" the distributive justice they had lost.

God is injured by human injustice. If I violate my neighbor's rights, I injure not only my neighbor, but also God, who made, loves, and has imprinted his image on my neighbor. Unjust practices are wounds of God as well as of my neighbor.

Oppressors are allergic to the language of justice. They may greatly restrict, deny, or even remove the rights of the oppressed, while also publicizing their occasional charity to the oppressed.

Redemption from injustice Some Christians think that in the New Testament love replaces justice, but a survey of the NT, and especially of the gospels, shows that it does not. Especially in Luke, the prophecies of Jesus' coming (e.g., by Mary and Zechariah) and Jesus' own self-identification in Luke 4 when he inaugurates his ministry — these prophecies and this self-identification fall squarely in the justice tradition of the prophets. Jesus brings the kingdom of God (the just kingdom) much nearer. Jesus is the Savior — the One who redeems people from injustice, including their own.

Righteousness verses Justice One of Wolterstorff's main insights is that readers of the New Testament have often been blocked from seeing how much of it is about justice because, for some reason, the relevant Greek word (dikaiosune═×) often gets translated "righteousness" when "justice" is just as likely a choice. Righteousness is a personal virtue. Justice is a state of affairs. And people are, perhaps, more likely to be persecuted for seeking justice than for being righteous (see Matt. 5:10).

Those who need justice In Jesus' self-identification and in the prophets, there are particular kinds of people who are especially likely to need justice. Wolterstorff calls them "the quartet of the vulnerable," namely, widows, orphans, resident aliens, and the poor. They are "the bottom ones, the low ones, the lowly ones" and therefore vulnerable to being stepped on, or "downtrodden" in older versions of the Bible. Justice for them consists of their being "lifted up" as in Psalm 147:6 . The quartet of the vulnerable are in particular need of justice because they don't have powerful advocates and defenders — which is why God has to become their advocate and defender.

A minefield of politics Today's preacher of justice walks in a minefield. He or she who dares to speak of justice may be thought "political" or biased or "a bleeding-heart liberal." The preacher's recourse is to stand with the Word of God and say, "You are quarrelling not with me, but with God's Word." And God's Word is so often a call to justice because, of course, justice is a central ingredient in shalom and in its New Testament equivalent — the coming of the kingdom of God in its fullness.


Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.