Justice in a passage from Luke’s Gospel
I was working on a sermon earlier this week, on a text from Luke’s Gospel.
37 While Jesus was speaking, a Pharisee invited him to dine with him; so he went in and took his place at the table. 38 The Pharisee was amazed to see that he did not first wash before dinner. 39 Then the Lord said to him, ‘Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. 40 You fools! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? 41 So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you.
42 ‘But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practised, without neglecting the others.
The phrase that caught my eye was this: But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God.
They are just paying lip service to the command to love their neighbour. It struck me that when Jesus uses that phrase ‘Justice and the love of God,’ he is using another way of summing up the whole law – Love God and love neighbour. In other words, the idea of bringing justice to someone is what it means to love them.
Justice in Psalm 119
‘Coincidentally,’ earlier in the week, I had a part of Psalm 119 in my daily prayers and noticed that word justice again.
Psalm 119 is in 22 sections of 8 verses for each section, each section starting with one of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
The message of the psalm is about the beauty and sufficiency of God’s law. It’s a comprehensive treatment of the importance of God’s law – demonstrated by the way that the psalm is structured using every letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
In each section there are 8 verses, and in each verse there is a word that represents the law. So the law is descibed in the following ways: Promise, Statute, Decree, Commandment, Word, Precept, Ordinance, Ways.
As far as I can see, nearly every verse in the psalm (with just a few exceptions) includes one of the words above, and interestingly I noticed the word justice crops up in two sections. (Below)
148 My eyes are awake before each watch of the night,
that I may meditate on your promise.
149 In your steadfast love hear my voice;
O Lord, in your justice preserve my life.
150 Those who persecute me with evil purpose draw near;
they are far from your law.
Salvation is far from the wicked,
for they do not seek your statutes.
156 Great is your mercy, O Lord;
give me life according to your justice.
157 Many are my persecutors and my adversaries,
yet I do not swerve from your decrees.
On these two occasions, I wonder if justice is intended as another word to stand in for ‘law’ etc. to remind us that justice is central to God’s law.
So, meditating on these instances of the word justice led me to the thought that justice is central to the law of love.
So what do we mean by justice ?
Walter Brueggemann has spoken about justice as “Sorting out what belongs to whom, and returning it to them.”
The word return implies that people have had things taken away from them, or do not have what rightly they should have.
The plight of the Palestinian People
A few years ago now, we became aware of the reality of life for the Palestinian people. A key part of their story goes back to May 14th 1948, when at midnight the British mandate of Palestine ended, and the State of Israel was proclaimed. Over a short time, this resulted in over 700,000 Arabs either fleeeing or being expelled from their homes.
There are families who two generations later, still have the key of the door to the house that they lived in. Maybe grandparents have handed the key on to successive generations to keep alive the hope that one day justice may come, and they will be able to return. To mark this period of time in the history of the Palestinian people, May 15th became a annual reminder of this forced expulsion, and was named Nakba Day. (Nakba means catastrophe)
Justice is about sorting out what belongs to whom and returning it to them, but the injustice of land grabbing is still happening today in many parts of the world, including Israel, where Israelis are illegally taking land from Palestinian people that has been theirs for generations, to build Israeli settlements.
The Skyline Drive
In 2009, I had a sabbatical, and spent part of the time studying at Eastern Mennonite University doing some of their Summer School modules. I was fortunate enough to also be able to spend 10 days with my wife and son travelling around the state of Virginia in the USA.
One day, we found ourselves driving on the Skyline Drive, a 105 mile route that runs through the Shenandoah National Forest, from Front Royal in the north to Waynesboro in the south. In order to set up the national park back in the 1930’s, the federal government had to buy the land, which involved resettling hundreds of people who were living in the area. Many of these people did not want to move, and there were numerous court cases as they challenged the right of the government to move them off their land.
Justice is about sorting out what belongs to whom and returning it to them. Sadly, those families lost their homes and in many cases their livelihoods. Even though they were resettled, they had been forcibly uprooted from homes they had known in some cases for generations.
The widow, the orphan and the stranger
Another take on justice runs right through the Old Testament. It’s not so much about giving people back what they have lost, but enabling them to enjoy what everyone else enjoys. The current word is ‘agency’ – justice is when the poor have agency to access the things that I take for granted – food, shelter, lack of violence, work, community, healthcare ….
In the Old Testament the people who most often need justice were widows orphans and strangers. That’s because they were the people who did not have anyone to speak on their behalf.
In that patriarchal society, a married woman would need her husband to get justice, but a widow is on her own in that world; an umarried woman would have her father to speak for her, but an orphan is on their own. They have no one to speak for them. Similarly a stanger – that is, a foreigner living within Israel would be on their own.
It is these people, above all, who should be cared for. The way to show that we love neighbour is how we treat the weakest in our society, those who have no one to advocate for them.
What comes to mind now, are the people in my community who are working for justice:
Gloucester City Mission, who work with those who have no home to call their own. At one time, they did have a home, but for whatever reason, they are now on the street or in temporary accommodation. GCM are working to return a home for the homeless.
Emmaus Communities are also working for justice for the homeless – to help people in getting back what we should all have as a human right – a home.
Gloucester Food Bank. I pray for the day when all the food banks will have closed. When there will be no one who is going without another human right – food to sustain them. But until that day, we thank God for those who are working for justice for the hungry. To give back what has been taken away
And lastly GARAS – Gloucestershire Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers. They are working with those who have had so much taken away from them. Country, Community, Home, Job, Family, Dignity … Justice is about giving back to them what every human being should enjoy by right.
For Jesus, justice and love are part of the same law. The command to uphold justice for the weakest is central to the DNA of the church. Without justice we are empty, we have nothing. Without justice we are just making a noise
But when we work for justice, we are serving those who have no protection, no one to speak for them, the ones without a voice – working to include them and embrace them so that they, like us can share in the bounty that God has given us all to enjoy.
Grace, Peace and Justice.