God's Heart for Justice and the Power and Responsibility of the ChurchBy Jonathan Greer on July 5, 2017
Editor's Note: Today, we are featuring an article written by Dr. Jonathan Greer, professor of Old Testament at GRTS. This article was originally published in the Cornerstone University Alumni Journal. As we celebrate the founding of the U.S. this week, the topics of justice, power and our duty to love our neighbors sacrificially are worth reflecting on.
In response to the question "what is the greatest commandment?" in Matthew 22:35-40, Jesus summed up the Bible He knew as a two-fold commandment: love God with all your being and love your neighbor as yourself.
Our Lord's words here provide a profoundly simple guideline for all of us seeking to live "justly" as the Church. If our focus is on serving God, rather than self, then the importance of serving the other, rather than the self, becomes a priority—this is the foundation for a biblical view of what "justice" is. When this understanding is applied to our reading of the Bible in its corporate context, it helps us understand the "injustice" we should seek to dismantle as Christians. Injustice is not the feeling we who regularly eat pie experience individually when someone else gets a bigger piece of pie than we do (that's loving self); it's the reality that exists when others don't get any pie at all due to systems we've created through our own power, which should evoke a corporate response to right the wrong (that's loving others).
Indeed, what is striking about biblical texts in both the "Law" and the "Prophets" concerning God's heart for justice in loving others is that they are primarily addressed to people in positions of power. The Old Testament "Law"—or better "instruction" (a better rendering of torah)—was given to ancient Israel as a window into the heart of God. It was a picture of what His justice looks like in context given to make a statement about who He is, the Divine Instructor, and to provide a guideline to "go and do likewise" for the kings, priests and people of means leading the way. Consider the intended audiences for instructions from the Torah, such as:
- "Don't glean the edges of your fields" (Leviticus 19:9, 23:22; Deuteronomy 24:19-21)
- "Don't withhold wages" (Leviticus 19:13; Deuteronomy 24:14)
- "Don't oppress the immigrant" (Exodus 22:21, 23:9; Leviticus 19:33-34)
- The reiterations of these instructions in the woes of Prophets addressing those who rob the poor and needy, widows and orphans, or immigrants (Isaiah 10:2; Amos 2:6-7; Zechariah 7:9-10)
The hearers for such instructions, then, are people with fields, employees, a home country, wealth and intact families. In the New Testament, too, while the audiences were often diverse, Jesus instructs the wealthy to "sell everything and give to the poor" (Luke 18:22) and condemns those religious leaders who "devour widows' houses" (Mark 12:40), while Acts and the Epistles describe care for the poor by the community in the early church (Acts 4:32-35; Romans 15:26; Galatians 2:10) and James has harsh pronouncements for the rich who withhold wages (James 5:4; cf. 1:27; 2:1-8).
In our context of American evangelicalism, we have grown accustomed to reading such texts as some sort of call for personal morality, and, in the process, we have often distanced ourselves from "those powerful oppressors." While justice certainly begins with a reorientation of our hearts toward God and should be manifest in our personal encounters of loving our immediate neighbors as ourselves, there is danger in stopping there. In doing so, we fail to consider the privileged positions of power we may hold and fail to ask how we might benefit from—or even prop up and perpetuate—systems of injustice in our churches and in our local, national and global communities as people of power.
How do we reflect God's heart for justice in loving our neighbors as ourselves in light of present realities of poverty, homelessness, inequity in food, housing, healthcare, racial disparity in our criminal justice system and ensuing police violence, human trafficking, undocumented immigrants, gender inequality, sweat shops and slave labor to name a few pressing issues at home and abroad?
When we seek God's heart for justice as manifested in biblical texts addressed to people of power and understand our own privilege and power, whatever it may be, such questions deserve concentrated thought and decided action.