“With Liberty and Justice for All”
Week Three: Justice
Friday night America lost one of the great icons of the Civil Rights Movement. Rep. John Lewis of GA died at the age of 80 after a 7-month battle with pancreatic cancer. Regardless of one’s political persuasions, we can appreciate and honor Rep. Lewis, known by his colleagues as “the Conscience of Congress” for his great work in helping to secure equality and justice for the African American community.
Rep. Lewis was part of the Freedom Riders, the sit-ins, and the 50-march from Selma to Montgomery AL in what became known as Bloody Sunday. One of Lewis’s greatest achievements was the part he played in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He was an unrelenting warrior for justice and freedom, even while battling cancer during these challenging days.
New and varied conversations about racial injustices have surfaced in the wake of several unnecessary deaths of African Americans: Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and Breonna Taylor. Civil protests as well as violent ones erupted as a result. Many individuals and activist’s groups are rightly demanding justice for these senseless deaths.
But on Monday following our nation’s Independence Day weekend, we learned of new outbreaks of violence, destroying lives and families from one end of our country to the other. This time, many of the victims were MUCH younger and the perpetrators of the crimes were NOT the police or hateful white supremacists. For the most part, these senseless deaths were intentionally or accidentally committed by mostly African American citizens against other African American people.
One news article put it this way: The bloodshed marred a sunny Independence Day weekend throughout the US, including in the Big Apple, where the number of shootings tripled over the past week compared to last year, and Chicago, where police reported 87 shootings and 17 deaths. Nearly a dozen of the victims were children caught in the crossfire, including:
- 8-year-old Royta Giles Jr. was shot in the head at the Riverchase Galleria Mall.
- A 6-year-old boy died after being shot in the chest on Sunday afternoon, one of five shootings in five hours in Philadelphia.
- 11-year-old Davon McNeal, 11 was shot and killed in a drive-by shooting in Washington, DC.
- 7-year-old Natalia Wallace was shot while playing outside her grandmother’s house in Chicago’s West Side
- 8-year-old Secoriea Turner of Atlanta was killed in her mother’s car near the Wendy’s fast-food restaurant where Rayshard Brooks was shot.
There has been a call for justice on the part of tens of thousands of protestors for those killed at the hands of the police; and far fewer protestors for those victims killed during the July 4th weekend. Why is that? Is wrongful death still not wrongful death?
And what about the senseless death of another population group—our unborn children? According to one CBS News report, abortion demands have been on the rise amid this pandemic. While many “essential” procedures were suspended early during the outbreak, abortion clinics in nearby Memphis never closed.
Using Planned Parenthood’s 2019 data, that one organization has killed 172,836 babies in the first six months of this year. These clinics are generally located in lower income minority communities. I ask you, where are the cries for justice regarding all those innocent lives who never had a chance! Black Lives Do Matter. ALL Black Lives Matter.
Here’s another area of injustice. I’ve known a number of men incarcerated for all kinds of crimes. In most cases they are serving time for crimes they committed. In rare cases they are not. And in some cases, these men are serving long sentences for what many of us would say are reasonably small crimes. Often, because of lack of competent, affordable counsel, these men took plea deals when the may have not been guilty of the crimes the way they were charged.
Today’s message is not a pro-life message, although it could be. Nor is it a call for racial justice, though that is certainly warranted. It’s not a demand for criminal justice reform, but that, too, is important. There are literally countless examples of perverted justice, systemic political corruption, and unfair corporate practices to discuss till the cows come home.
Rather, today’s message is a look at God’s view of justice and our response to it. When we look at God’s character of righteousness and justice…when we see what God says about acting justly, then we should be moved to adjust our lives accordingly.
So, where do we begin? The Hebrew word for justice or judgment (mishpat) is used nearly 200 times in the Old Testament. It’s one of the attributes of God. Psalm 89:14(NIV) puts it this way: Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; love and faithfulness go before you.
And when our God was forming the new nation of Israel, here’s what he says about how his people should live according to Justice and Mercy in Exodus 23:1-9:
1“Do not spread false reports. Do not help a guilty person by being a malicious witness. 2“Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd, 3and do not show favoritism to a poor person in a lawsuit. 4If you come across your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to return it. 5If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help them with it. 6“Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits. 7Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty. 8“Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds those who see and twists the words of the innocent. 9“Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.
There’s so much in this passage that translates to any society at any time. Israel was to be God’s special possession, reflecting His nature and character in the world. They were to be a city on hill…a light to the nations, drawing all peoples to the God of Israel. As such, the way they worshipped only Yahweh mattered. The way they treated one another in their own community mattered. And the way they treated those who were NOT part of their community mattered!
- We can’t lie about other people.
- We can’t go along with the crowd if they crowd is doing wrong. [Just as we were taught in childhood, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”]
- We are to treat ALL people fairly and honestly, whether they have money or not.
- We even are treat our enemies with kindness.
- When someone is on trial for murder, we must do all we can do to make sure we got the right guy. The innocent shall not be put to death. And if they are guilty, we can’t let them off the hook.
- We can’t look the other way at a crime just because the promise us something in return.
Justice upholds right living and condemns/corrects wrong living. I heard a radio host on AFR, Meeke Addison, say this last week: “You can’t put lawlessness on a leash and treat it like a pet. Lawlessness must be destroyed.” That’s what justice seeks to do.
I could cite many other OT passages about justice and the importance of exercising it, such as Leviticus 19:15, Amos 5:24 which reads “but let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, Zechariah 7, Jeremiah 9:24 and 21:12, and Isaiah 61:8 to name few.
But I want to mention one more passage from the OT that perhaps summarizes how the followers of Yahweh are to live. It’s found in Micah 6:8. In this little prophetic book, we learn that God is angry with religious ceremonies that lack sincerity of heart, transforming the hearts of worshippers into the character of God. You’ve heard this before, but it’s worth hearing again: 8 He has told you, O man, 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?
How much better would this world be if those who call themselves Christ-followers would live according to this three-fold approach?
So, what about the New Testament? Glad you asked. Let me interject that I owe this next part of my message to the studious work of Dr. Terry Tramel, former professor of Bible and Theology at Southwestern Christian University and current director of Global Outreach and Leadership Development at the International Pentecostal Holiness Church.
Justice is a primary theme in the New Testament from Matthew to Revelation. Jesus began his public ministry with a call to repent (Mark 1:15)—turn from injustice and alienation and toward life. The kingdom of God (the rule of God as presented in Torah) is present. And in this kingdom, God has special concern for the wellbeing of the vulnerable, the excluded, and oppressed. In the earliest stage of His ministry, Jesus announced that His mission was going to be directed toward the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19). It is clear early on that Christ’s heart would be toward the lost, the least, and the last.
In Tramel’s article, Understanding God’s Justice and the New Testament, he points out that many Bible readers fail to grasp the importance that the Scriptures place on justice. One of the reasons for this involves the translation of Greek term dikaiosune. Most English translations render this word as “righteousness.” However, a strong case can be made that “justice” may be a more accurate term in many passages.
For example, in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5-6, He expresses this language over a half a dozen times, therefore making justice a dominant theme. Consider these examples:
- “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of justice, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
“For I tell you that unless your justice surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
“But seek first his kingdom and his justice, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
Rendering the word, dikaiosune, as “justice” rather than “righteousness” provides clarity to Matthew’s over-arching message about the Kingdom that Jesus brings. The Lord’s words in the Sermon on the Mount and His subsequent ministry provide a glimpse of what His kingdom should look like.
It makes sense, then, when we read so many examples of Jesus’s ministry to those who were on the margins of society. His sense of justice not only extended to women in general, it reached to a Canaanite woman who sought Him on behalf of her sick daughter (Matthew 15:21-28) and to a Samaritan woman whom He encountered in need (John 4).
Jesus not only touched ostracized lepers; He specifically touched a Samaritan leper (Luke 17:16). He not only ministered to a thief; He redeemed a dying thief (Luke 23:32-33). It is this caring for the poor, the abused and abandoned, the ill and the immigrants, the widows, and orphans, that constitutes justice in Christ’s kingdom.
According to Jesus, justice is not only for the oppressed who need it and His followers who show it, it will also be meted out to those who oppose it and withhold it from others.
The Virgin Mary expressed this sentiment in part of her response to the news that she would give birth to the long-awaited Messiah. Luke 1:52-53 says: “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.”
This sense of everyone receiving proper justice can be seen in Jesus’ story about the rich man who selfishly lived in extravagance while Lazarus dwelt in poverty and pain (see Luke 16:19-31). It was at death that the inversion of their status took place, for the rich man went to hell while Lazarus arrived in paradise.
Jesus emphasized this truth in His last sermon in Matthew 25, known as the Olivet Discourse. His Parable about the Shepherd dividing the sheep from the goats speaks of His standard of justice. The great separation in eternity is determined by how people responded to the hungry, the thirsty, the strangers, the naked, the sick, and the prisoners. Those who ministered to them will be granted entrance into His future kingdom while those who did not will be banished.
Truth is, some wrongs will not be made right until the final Judgment. But, in the end, the only time we can know for certain that everyone will receive their proper justice is when Jesus Returns to judge the living and the dead.
But the New Testament makes it clear that we are not to be content with just waiting for the Lord’s return to bring justice to this earth. The letter of James declares that the church has a responsibility to live now as we will then in the coming kingdom of our Savior. James warns against showing favoritism toward the rich, while mistreating the poor (1:9-10; 2:1-10; 5:1-6). He admonishes believers to demonstrate “works” along with their faith, specifically citing taking care of the hungry and destitute (2:14-18).
In a single statement, he captures the essence of justice this way: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27).
We should strive to treat all people with equity, with justice and mercy. And we should fight for those who do not have it, even if it means we may be persecuted as a result. Right is always right, even if it means we are wronged in the process.
Finally, the Book of Revelation confirms that justice will be eternally established at the consummation of all things. In Revelation 20:11-12 we read that everyone at the Great White Throne will be judged “according to the works they have done.”
And in Rev. 21:4 we read that the hour is coming when God Himself will wipe away all the tears from the redeemed who will live forever without sorrow, pain, or death.
Let me point out one last scene from Revelation 15:1-3à I saw in heaven another great and marvelous sign: seven angels with the seven last plagues—last, because with them God’s wrath is completed. And I saw what looked like a sea of glass glowing with fire and, standing beside the sea, those who had been victorious over the beast and its image and over the number of its name. They held harps given them by God and sang the song of God’s servant Moses and of the Lamb: “Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. Just and true are your ways, King of the nations.”
John sees a company of victors in heaven who had been put to death by a coming world ruler. Then he hears them singing a triumphant song that includes lyrics praising the Lord for His works and ways. These martyrs are not blaming God or asking Him why they had to suffer so on earth. Instead, they are praising Him because His ways are “just and true.” One day, all the saved from every generation who experienced injustice on the earth will worship the Lord and proclaim that the King was and is faithful and true, even in the midst of their difficulties.
We think our troubles are insurmountable and never-ending. It appears this pandemic will go on forever. Just when we think it’s safe to come back together, we’re told we shouldn’t. Just when stores are opening up, we’re told everyone must mask up.
We’ve been entangled in justice and equality issues for centuries. Today’s crime bill never seems to solve tomorrow’s injustice. Today’s victory over saving one unborn baby from being aborted doesn’t stop tomorrow’s.
But we know the end of the story. We’ve read the back of the book. God wins and he sets right all the wrongs. Until then, every call for justice and every act of mercy in the name of Jesus serves as a foretaste of His coming kingdom when it will be on earth just as it is in heaven.
So what are we to do? The first thing is to make sure WE are right with God. Remember, God is a God of justice. The consequence of sin HAS to be dealt with. Thankfully, Jesus paid the penalty for our sin—thus justice was served—so that we might be set free from the penalty and guilt of our sin—thus mercy was offered to all who repent and believe the Good News.
All the good deeds on earth won’t punch your ticket to eternal life. Only faith in Jesus Christ as your Savior can do that. He became sin so that we might be the righteousness of God. Have you repented of your sins and believed the Good News?
Second, what are the circumstances around you where wrongs need to be made right? Are people not being treated fairly at work? Is there an income disparity between women and men, or Black and White, in a school system or a workplace?
Has someone been victimized but the system makes it hard for them to get justice? Are people trying to make a go of things, but can’t catch a break? Do you see people around you with too much month and not enough money? Can you do something about it?
It’s easy to look the other way; but should you? Especially since Scripture is pretty clear that God seeks to offer justice and mercy to those who need it and metes out his judgment on those who withhold that same justice and mercy. [Remember in Matt 18 Jesus’s parable of the man whose enormous debt was forgiven but refused to forgive another man’s very little debt?] How else will people receive justice and mercy on earth if it is not through human beings as instruments of God’s grace?
In this series, With Liberty and Justice for All, we spent three weeks breaking down those three ideas. First, we looked at what it means to be unified in diversity. Then, on July 4th weekend, we saw how liberty was not just a national ideal; it was God’s idea first. And our freedom in Christ doesn’t necessarily grant us the freedom to do as we please to others.
Finally, we’ve considered the importance of justice from an Old and New Testament perspective. Our God cares about what happens to all of us, especially the marginalized. We, too, were on the margins because of sin, but God justified us through faith in this Son, Jesus Christ. In response, we show mercy others and come to the aid of those who are being pushed to the margins.
It’s a tough order; but no one ever said being a follower of Jesus would be easy, only a just and right thing to do. Let’s pray.