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Summary: we have a biblical imperative to work for social justice

According to the New Oxford American Dictionary social justice is "justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society". Aristotle, in The Politics, said ‘justice’ ensured that individuals both fulfilled their societal roles and received what was their due from society. Over the years, these benefits and rights have come to include public education, access to health care, social security, the right to organize, and a broader spectrum of other public services, progressive taxation and regulation of markets, to ensure fair distribution of wealth, equal opportunity, equality of outcome, and no gross social injustice. A progressive tax structure and regulation of markets have been developed to help distribute wealth more equally and give more people access to property ownership and job security

Joseph Joubert, a French moralist and essayist, said “Justice is truth in action”.

Who could be against justice? If there's one thing that the laws and prophets – especially Jesus –agree on, it's justice for all, regardless of background or social status.

According to N. T. Wright, in "Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense", our longing for justice "comes with the kit of being human." Unfortunately, although we all strive for justice, we often fail to achieve it. As Wright further states,

“You fall off your bicycle and break your leg. You go to the hospital and they fix it. You stagger around on crutches for a while. Then, rather gingerly, you start to walk normally again … There is such a thing as putting something to rights, as in fixing it, as getting it back on track. You can fix a broken leg, a broken toy, a broken television. So why can't we fix injustice. It isn't for lack of trying.

And yet, in spite of failures to fix injustice, we keep dreaming that one day all broken things will be set right. Wright contends, "Christians believe this is so because all humans have heard, deep within themselves, the echo of a voice which calls us to live [with a dream for justice]. And [followers of Christ] believe that in Jesus that voice became human and did what had to be done to bring it about."

The Hebrew word for “justice,” mishpat, occurs in its various forms more than 200 times in the Hebrew Old Testament. Its most basic meaning is to treat people equitably. It means acquitting or punishing every person on the merits of the case, regardless of race or social status. Anyone who does the same wrong should be given the same penalty. Mishpat, then, is giving people what they are due, whether punishment or protection or care. This is why, if you look at every place the word is used in the Old Testament, several classes of persons continually come up. Over and over again, mishpat describes taking up the care and cause of widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor—those who have been called “the quartet of the vulnerable.”

In pre-modern, agrarian societies, these four groups had no social power. They lived at subsistence level and were only days from starvation if there was any famine, invasion or even minor social unrest. Today, this quartet would be expanded to include the refugee, the migrant worker, the homeless and many single parents and elderly people. The mishpat, or justness, of a society, according to the Bible, is evaluated by how it treats these groups. Any neglect shown to the needs of the members of this group is not called merely a lack of mercy or charity but a violation of justice, of mishpat. God loves and defends those with the least economic and social power, and so should we. That is what it means to “do justice.”

Why should we be concerned about the vulnerable ones? It is because God is introduced as the defender of these vulnerable groups. The biblical writers introduce God as a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows (Psalm 68:4-5).

This is one of the main things God does in the world: identify with the powerless, take up their cause.

Indeed, we should have a strong concern for the poor, but there is more to the biblical idea of justice than that. We get further insight when we consider a second Hebrew word that can be translated both as “being just” and “being righteous” – for in Hebrew, understanding to be one is to be the other. The word is tzadeqah, and it refers to a life of right relationships.

When most modern people see the word “righteousness” in the Bible, they tend to think of it in terms of private morality, such as sexual chastity or diligence in prayer and Bible study. But in the Bible, tzadeqah refers to day-today living in which a person conducts all relationships in family and society with fairness, generosity and equity. It is not surprising, then, to discover that tzadeqah and mishpat are brought together scores of times in the Bible.

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