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A Biblical view of Justice

Art Wright

Background for leaders:

The word “justice” can mean a lot of different things to different people. For some, the word evokes ideas of  lawyers, the court system and the criminal justice system. For others, the word calls to mind social justice movements and issues, especially with respect to wealth and poverty, equal rights, and healthcare. Of course, justice is at the core of the biblical message. Throughout Scripture, God displays a deep desire for a just world, which reflects God’s love for all people. Genesis alone suggests that each person is made in the image of God. And Genesis casts God’s call of Abraham as a desire to extend God’s blessing to all the people of the world. And yet, the world in which we live is marked by gross inequalities. What role should we play, as Christians and as churches, in creating a world that reflects divine justice? The goal of this lesson is to help youth understand biblical notions of justice and think carefully about how, as followers of Christ, they can help create a more just world.

Discussion starters:

Leaders: You could have a large group discussion with these discussion starters, or you could have participants turn to their neighbor and share one-on-one for a couple of minutes, before sharing with the large group.

Ask: What do you think of when you hear the word justice? Feel free to share all ideas that come to mind!

Ask: Can you think of specific examples in your life of unfairness, whether at school, in your community, or in the world at large? What are they? How did they make you feel? (These examples can be when theyve encountered unfairness or seen others experience unfairness.)

How was justice understood in the biblical world?

The Hebrew word for justice is mishpat. Like nowadays, the word “justice” could be used to describe different things in the biblical world. For example, justice (mishpat) could refer to legal cases, and meant judging and punishing (or acquitting) persons according to fair standards. Justice also meant living in right relationship with one another, with God, and with creation. At its core, justice meant providing each person what they were due, or what they deserved.

Time and time again in the Old Testament, the word mishpat is used to express God’s special concern for certain groups of people:

“The poor”

Orphans

Widows

Strangers (which could be translated variously as “immigrants” or “refugees” and refers to non-Israelites who were living among the Jewish people for various reasons)

Aliens (not extra-terrestrials, but “foreigners” who had settled among the Israelites)

“The weak”

“The needy”

“The oppressed”

“The hungry”

A few sample verses (Leaders, you could have youth look up and read these verses and then build the list above together, based on their reading):

Exodus 23:6

Deuteronomy 10:17–19

Deuteronomy 27:19

Psalm 68:5

Psalm 82:2–4

Psalm 103:6

Psalm 140:12

Psalm 146:5–7

Isaiah 1:17

Isaiah 10:1–3

Jeremiah 5:27–28

Taken as a whole, this list of people represents the most vulnerable members of society in the Old Testament world. In most cases, they were largely powerless, lacked means to provide for themselves, and were unable to live at subsistence level without support from others.

Among other things, justice in the biblical world meant caring for these members of society as an expression of God’s care and concern for them. They, too, are bearers of the image of God; they, too, are deserving of stability, kindness, blessing, love, and wholeness. But because of circumstances of birth, war, famine, illness, exploitation, or otherwise, they find themselves barely able (or unable) to sustain themselves.

When God originally called Abraham, so that Abraham and all of his descendants might extend God’s blessing to the whole world. One part of this blessing includes extending justice to all people:

“I have chosen [Abraham], that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice; so that the LORD may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.” (Gen 18:19)

The Jewish society was judged by God based on whether or not they extended “justice” to these groups of people. Did they care for them as God desired? Or did they ignore or exploit them?

Ask: When you think about our community and the world today, who are the most vulnerable members of our society? How are they often portrayed in our culture (both positively and negatively)?

Profits, Prophets, and Justice

We’re going to turn to see how one particular Old Testament prophet responded to injustice in his time. First, a little bit of background on prophets in the Old Testament.

Old Testament prophets did not necessarily predict the future; nor were they “fortune tellers.” Rather, they were people who saw the world through God’s eyes and would speak out when people were not living up to God’s vision for the way the world should be. They saw reality for what it was, and tried to help people envision a better world, one that reflected God’s love for all people more fully. Often, that meant “speaking truth to power.”

Turn to Amos 5.

The prophet Amos lived in the 8th century BCE, and probably was active as a prophet around 760–750 BCE. During that time, King Jeroboam II reigned, and Israel as a nation was enjoying a period of peace and prosperity. Yet this period of prosperity did not benefit all: there were significant disparities in wealth and social status. Wealthy, urban elites leveraged their power and land ownership to exploit farmers and others. The elite members of society were able to wield their power to send farmers into debt, and then used that debt to take hold of the poor farmers’ land.[1] Wealthy members of society were using their power to take advantage of poorer, weaker members of society.

Ask: Amos 2:7 claims that the wealthier, more powerful members of society trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth.How does this image make you feel? Knowing what you now know about biblical justice, how does this image line up with Gods concern for the most vulnerable and Gods desire to extend justice to them?

(OPTIONAL): There are several places in Amos where the prophet gives clues to what he sees that he is concerned about. Read Amos 5:11–12 for one such example. Here we see “the poor” and “the needy,” the most vulnerable members of society, being exploited by those with wealth and power. This stands in sharp distinction to God’s calls for justice, and God’s desire to extend the divine blessing to all people.

Read Amos 5:2124 aloud together.

May need to explain some of the following:

  • “Festivals” and “solemn assemblies” probably refer to the special religious festivals celebrated by Jewish people. In particular, there were three specific pilgrimage feasts prescribed by Jewish law (mentioned in Exodus 23:14–17 and elsewhere).
  • The sacrifices described in v. 22 (burnt offerings, grain offerings, etc.) are prescribed by Scripture itself (see, for example, Lev. 7:8–14).

Ask: What do you think Amos is trying to communicate in this passage? What key points stand out to you? Do you think God would find the festivals and sacrifices favorable if the people of Israel were treating everyone fairly and making sure to care for the most vulnerable members of society?

Amos is not trying to disparage the Jewish faith or religious practices as a whole. The point Amos is making is that the typical religious observances mean nothing if they are not also accompanied by acts of justice and righteousness among people of faith.

Ask: Where do you see examples of injustice in the world today?

Ask: What do you think a just world would look like? How do you think your school, or your neighborhood, or your town or city would look different if we actively tried to share Gods blessing and care with all people?

Ask: How do you think you can help make a more just world? How can you and your church participate in Gods desire for justice? Try to be specific: maybe even pick one practical thing you think you can do in the coming weeks.

If your youth are stumped, here is one response, suggested by Tim Keller (https://relevantmagazine.com/god/what-biblical-justice/):

“Rectifying justice, or mishpat, in our world could mean prosecuting the men who batter, exploit and rob poor women. It could also mean respectfully putting pressure on a local police department until they respond to calls and crimes as quickly in the poor part of town as in the prosperous part. Another example would be to form an organization that both prosecutes and seeks justice against loan companies that prey on the poor and the elderly with dishonest and exploitive practices.

 

“Primary justice, or tzadeqah, may mean taking the time personally to meet the needs of the handicapped, the elderly or the hungry in our neighborhoods. Or it could mean the establishment of new nonprofits to serve the interests of these classes of persons. It could also mean a group of families from the more prosperous side of town adopting the public school in a poor community and making generous donations of money and pro bono work in order to improve the quality of education there.”

[1] The New Oxford Annotated Study Bible, Third Edition, p. 1302.