There is a catch-all word in the Bible that describes the heart of God. Here is one of the 200 times it is used in the Hebrew Old Testament: “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8b.)
The word is “justice.” In the Old Testament, justice means giving people their rights.
Consider these passages:
“… defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Prov. 31:9b.)
“8 And the word of the Lord came again to Zechariah: 9 “This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. 10 Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other’” (Zech. 7:8-10.)
In the time of Zechariah, four groups had no social power: widows, orphans, foreigners, or poor people. They lived from day to day. Today that would include the refugee, the migrant worker, the homeless, the single parent, and elderly people.
So the justice of the society from the scriptural point of view is evaluated by how the society treats these groups. Indeed, neglect is not only called a lack of mercy but a violation of justice.
Listen for to the words of Psalm 146:7–9:
7 He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free,
8 the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous.
9 The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.
Do these words evoke memories of proclamations of Jesus? I think about Jesus and the book of Luke when I hear them.
As God plans out his government in Israel in the book of Deuteronomy, he offers his wisdom. Let me present them to you in bullet form:
* God is the defender of the poor.
In Deuteronomy 10:17–18 we read, “The LORD your God… defends the calls of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the immigrant, giving them food and clothing” (Deut. 10:17-18.) NIV
While we have passages showing the objectivity of God (such as Deuteronomy 1:16–17, “16 And I charged your judges at that time, “Hear the disputes between your people and judge fairly, whether the case is between two Israelites or between an Israelite and a foreigner residing among you. 17 Do not show partiality in judging; hear both small and great alike. Do not be afraid of anyone, for judgment belongs to God. Bring me any case too hard for you, and I will hear it”) we never see the Bible describe God as the defender of the rich. Yet, many times he is called the defender of the poor.
While there are texts in Scripture calling for justice for members of the well-off classes, the number of passages calling for justice for the poor outnumber these 100 to 1.
Of course, rich people can be treated unjustly. Still, think about history; think about human nature. It is easier to act unjustly toward people without money or social status, who have no means to defend themselves, than it is to act in such a way toward those who can.
Do you remember (or have you read about) the O.J. Simpson trial? There was a great deal of debated and nervous energy during that time period. Obviously, there were racial overtones. People of all races weighed in with opinions. But now that we have almost 20 years perspective, notice, no one of any race embraces O.J. Simpson. He quickly became an outcast to all of society—the object of derision.
So what was the fuss all about? The fuss was about money and justice.
A number of people at last felt vindicated because O.J. Simpson had the means to pay for the best legal counsel costing millions of dollars. Millions felt that O.J. Simpson was guilty, but his legal counsel got him off the hook. And many, who had been frustrated by the perceived “injustice” of the judicial system, felt vindicated. You could almost hear millions of people say, “See! We told you money gets its way in the judicial system.”
Now, out of the courtroom and back to everyday life in Deuteronomy. Here is another pointed expression of what God thinks in Deut. 27:17 “Cursed is anyone who moves their neighbor’s boundary stone.”
Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”
18 “Cursed is anyone who leads the blind astray on the road.”
Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”
19 “Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.”
Then all the people shall say, “Amen!””
* God hates bribes.
Ever been asked to pay a bribe? If so, you will appreciate the words of Deuteronomy 16:19, “Do not pervert justice or show partiality. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the righteous.”
I can't tell you how much it undermines the morale of people when you're traveling in countries where bribes are prevalent. It makes God even more angry. Incidentally, who can afford the bribes that offer the illegal incentives to government officials, lawmakers, and judges? Of course, it is the rich and the powerful.
* God’s good life emphasizes the pursuit of justice.
What you see in the Old Testament over and over and over again is God's concern about what is happening to the poor. Israel is told that they should keep God's commands so that all the nations of the world will look at the justice and peace of their society based on God's laws, and, consequently, be motivated to give their God glory (Deut. 4:6-8.)
I find it notable that when Job seeks to justify his life before God, he offers his recollection of how he lived up to these teachings later expressed in Deuteronomy and the rest of the Old Testament. For example, Job 29:11–17:
“11 Whoever heard me spoke well of me, and those who saw me commended me,
12 because I rescued the poor who cried for help, and the fatherless who had none to assist them.
13 The one who was dying blessed me; I made the widow’s heart sing.
14 I put on righteousness as my clothing; justice was my robe and my turban.
15 I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame.
16 I was a father to the needy; I took up the case of the stranger.
17 I broke the fangs of the wicked and snatched the victims from their teeth.
(Contemplate also Job 31:13–28.) Job knew this was how you were supposed to live.
That was then. What is now?
Today living a life that honors justice means that you assist battered women. You reach out to them.
You work with those coming out of prison.
It could also mean respectfully supporting and encouraging the local police department to respond just as rapidly to calls and crime scenes in parts of town that are poorer as those that are rich and prosperous.
It is a public spirit that watches out for businesses, who are not only cheat and are unethical, but also prey on the poor and exploit them.
Frankly, justice is one of the reasons I am against the lottery. It is exploitive of the poor. Now, I am not saying that in a free society it should be outlawed; what I am saying is the government—whether it is local, state or federal—should not arouse false hopes and dreams in a person who cannot afford to purchase a ticket (or tickets!) that is statistically worthless.
In various locales I have seen retired teachers offer educational tutoring opportunities to children from poor families and broken families—families with limited resources that typically generate troubled and uneducated adults.
* Justice is rooted in the character of God.
Want to know what God takes delight in? “23 This is what the Lord says:
‘Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength or the rich boast of their riches, 24 but let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,’ declares the Lord” (Jer. 9:23-24.) NIV
The character of God never changes.
* Justice in Israel included debt forgiveness.
One of the most challenging places to look for what God’s society of justice is supposed to look like is Deut. 15. There one finds two verses that seem to be in tension with each other. Look first at verses 4-5, “4 However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, 5 if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.”
Compare that with verse 11, “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.”
Now, look at 15:1–2, “At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the Lord’s time for canceling debts has been proclaimed.”
All of this addressed the Israelite who fell into debt. He was to be forgiven those debts every seventh year. Not only were his creditors to no longer demand payment, but they were to release the pledges of collateral taken on account of the debts. Collateral often was using a portion of the land from which produce could have been used to repay the loan. This law of release was a powerful public policy aimed at removing one of the key factors causing poverty–long-term, burdensome debt.
Now, full disclosure here. I am not a communist. I am not even a socialist. I am not telling you what to do. I realize a lot of variables involved in 21st century United States public policy. I am just simply reporting, you decide.
What we should seek to answer is this question: what is the character of God and how does this character relate to government? And how do we live this out?
Look at some of the following adverbs I have highlighted out chapter 15:
4 However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, 5 if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today. 6 For the Lord your God will bless you as he has promised, and you will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. You will rule over many nations but none will rule over you.”
7 If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. 8 Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need. 9 Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: “The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near,” so that you do not show ill will toward the needy among your fellow Israelites and give them nothing. They may then appeal to the Lord against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. 10 Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. 11 There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.
This policy is more than a handout. (For that matter, it was not even administered per se by the national government—individuals administered it.) What you have here is the call to relate with the poor, walk with the poor, and help the poor until their need is eliminated.
Look at 15:7–8, “7 If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. 8 Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need.”
Again, in ancient Israel, the idea was not to offer handouts; the idea was to offer a hand. Credit was to be extended to the poor to help him become self-sufficient. God's concern for the poor was so strong that he gave Israel a bunch of laws that, in practice, would have severely reduced the amount of people who were poor.
* Having said that, Israel did have handouts!
Here is another law to help those in need: the laws of gleaning. What that meant was that the farmers and landowners were voluntarily limiting the amount of their profits to help the public good:
19 When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. 20 When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. 21 When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. 22 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this Deut. 24:19-22.)
* Yet, the poor were not to take advantage of the privilege of gleaning:
“24 If you enter your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat all the grapes you want, but do not put any in your basket. 25 If you enter your neighbor’s grainfield, you may pick kernels with your hands, but you must not put a sickle to their standing grain” (Deut. 23:24-25.)
They were only to take enough.
Interesting, isn’t it? The rich were to care for the poor, but the poor were not to be greedy, either. The rich were not to be “villains” and the poor were not to be “Robinhoods.”
* Every third year, one tenth of what people made was put in to public storehouses so that the poor, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows would receive them (Deut. 14:29.)
* Every seventh year servants and slaves were to be freed (Deut. 15:12-18.)
* Every 49 years was a year of jubilee.
In that year, the debts were to be forgiven and the land reverted back to its original tribe and family allotments. It was assumed that some families would economically do better and acquire more land, while others would fare more poorly and would have to sell their property. However, every 50 years the land was to go back to his original owners (Lev. 25:8–55.)
It is almost as if God was giving the people of Israel a Monopoly game. If you struggled for a year or two, somebody would loan you money to keep you in the game. After 49 years, you put everything back in the box and you would start all over again with what you originally had: two $500s, two $100s, two $50s…
(If you hate the concept of Jubilee, think about his. Play Monopoly with your kids, beat them badly, and keep the same game going day after day. See how much they like that!)
Regarding these Old Testament practices, Greg Bloomberg writes, “Here… on average, each person or family had at least once in a lifetime the chance to start fresh, no matter how irresponsibly they could handle their finances or how far they have fallen.”
Now, again, I am not trying to get all “socialistic” on you. Still, I am saying let’s let the Word of God work on our imaginations. How can we make this a better world, and, in the process, bring more people to Jesus because we are reflecting the character of God?
Undergirding our view of justice is spiritually committed heart in a material world. “Relationship” must interface with most of the aforementioned activities. That remains the biggest obstacle to government programs. They typically lack relationship.
You know what is doing more to destroy poverty and the discrepancy between classes in India? It is not the United States handing over to India billions of dollars saying, “Pass this out randomly to your people.” Rather, it is businesses and corporations freely and relationally engaging with the people of India, hiring them to perform important tasks.
We can joke all we want about the operator in India taking our calls for the consumer product we purchased in the U. S., but ponder this: India is ascending from poverty. The major factor has been relationship and employment, not mindless charity and associative distance.
The Bible offers principles defining justice; we cannot necessarily enact laws today like those of Israel. (Evidence indicates that Israel itself never practiced the year of Jubilee.) Furthermore, one cannot tie what the Bible says about social justice to any one political system or economic policy. Indeed, there is always tension in trying to pursue justice. For example, balancing between compassion and accountability is hard. Consequently, there is something to be said for two political parties holding the American people in tension. I, like most people, am often frustrated with politicians and government officials. Nevertheless, if we can harness the energy of the political process, allow the poles of politics to assist us in gauging what is a humane, balanced public policy, I believe we can squeeze out of our democracy an effective method of healing people economically sickened by a fallen world.
Still, this will not be true, biblical justice, and that is where churches come in. No government can address all economic ills just as no medical practice can address all physical ailments. In both cases, you must address the spiritual facet of humanity as well. Any effective governmental policy should recognize the role of religion in the pursuit of justice; that is another blog for another day.