By Ted Grimsrud
In the Christian tradition, “justice” has often been seen as something far removed from Jesus’ life and teaching. Influential theologian Reinhold Niebuhr famously wrote of Jesus providing our ideals, the “impossible possibility” of loving our neighbors and forgiving seventy time seven. However, when we enter the “real world” of politics and the balancing of egos that the political process necessarily involves, the best we can hope for is a kind of “rough justice.” This kind of justice finds its sources not in the message of Jesus but in the common sense of power struggles, coercion, and necessary violence and punishment.
Niebuhr’s reflections often were filled with wisdom, especially when he challenged socio-political absolutisms that fostered holy wars and a loss of awareness of one’s own selfishness and pride. However, by positing a polarity between Jesus’ message and justice he undermined both our ability to understand justice in more redemptive and restorative terms and our ability to see in Jesus a political approach that indeed did directly speak to the “real world.”
If we read the gospels through the lenses of restorative rather than retributive justice, we see that Jesus’ message in fact has a close connection, not a stance of tension, with justice.
Jesus and God’s Healing Strategy
In chapter four, we looked at the Bible’s story of God’s healing strategy—God’s work to bring healing to creation, centered on communities of people who know God’s love and share that love with other human beings. Several Old Testament terms describe this healing strategy—shalom (peace), hesed (loving kindness), mispat and tsedeqah (righteousness/justice) prominent among them. These terms often cluster together in a mutually reinforcing way.
Just a few examples include Micah 6:8 (“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness?”), Psalm 85:10-11 (“Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; justice and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and justice will look down from the sky.”), and Psalm 89:14 (“Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.”).
Jesus plays the central role in the biblical story of God’s healing strategy. He understood himself (and was confessed thus by early Christians) to fulfill the message of Torah. He makes the call to love neighbors, to bring healing into broken contexts, and to offer forgiveness and restoration in face of wrongdoing central.
The gospels tell of Jesus’ own witness to God’s love, a witness that centers precisely on problems of violence, brokenness, conflict, and alienation. As Jesus stated, he did not come to minister to those who are well but to those who need healing (Mark 2:17). In doing so, he saw himself in continuity with Moses and the prophets and with the healing message of Torah.
The gospels add to the Old Testament story in several ways—a message of fulfillment and continuity, though, not a message of discontinuity. Jesus announced the presence of God’s kingdom in a new and powerful sense. To give evidence of this presence Jesus offered direct forgiveness apart of Temple sacrifices. Jesus healed people of diseases that had alienated them from the faith community (such as leprosy, bleeding, and blindness). And Jesus freed people from their bondage to the powers of evil through exorcisms. In these ways, Jesus affirmed the message given from the start of God’s healing work.
However, echoing what happened with agents of healing earlier in Israel’s history, Jesus met with intense opposition. The religious and political leaders collaborated in arresting and executing Jesus. The prophet of healing justice found himself unjustly accused of blaspheming Israel’s God. God then acted decisively, raising Jesus from the dead—demonstrating once and for all that the God of justice means to bring healing not condemnation, inclusion not exclusion, forgiveness not punishment.
Jesus’ message may be summarized thus: God has created what is in love. God’s commitment to love allows for human rejection, and the rejection may lead to alienation. God actively witnesses to the need to turn from the alienation and to turn back toward God’s mercy. This witness finds expression in the lives of those who do turn to God and themselves witness to God’s love in the midst of alienation and brokenness. God’s justice finds expression in this costly witness whereby God’s people bring healing amidst brokenness.
God’s son clarifies his healing vocation in face of temptations to fight injustice with coercion and violence. In rejecting these temptations, Jesus makes clear that genuine justice has not to do with punishing wrongdoers and a kind of holiness that cannot be in the presence of sin and evil. Rather, genuine justice enters directly into the world of sin and evil and seeks in the midst of that world to bring healing and transformation—a restoration of whole relationships.
Jesus’ acts of justice involve not only healing the hurting but also confronting those who have been doing the hurting. The powers-that-be retaliate. The religious and political leaders do have a kind of justice on their side—justice in the sense of the self-interests of people in power and their laws and policies that act to sustain their power. Jesus did violate this kind of “justice” and so retribution by the powers-that-be followed.
In raising Jesus from the dead, God definitively undermines the claims of the powers-that-be to act on behalf of God’s justice in their punitive practices. These practices do not serve genuine justice but rather only an unjust “peace and order.” Jesus conveys clearly the message that the leaders of the rebellious human structures do not serve God’s justice after all. This point in the gospels reiterates the Old Testament. There both the empires (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon) and the Israelite nation-state serve unjust powers, not the just power of God as they claim.
The final element of God’s healing strategy as expressed in the story of Jesus is a continuation of the centrality of the community of God. Jesus’ followers know God’s justice, share it widely, and in that way bless all the families of the earth. Jesus called together a community and equipped followers to “go … and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that [he] commanded [them]” (Matthew 28:19-20).
Jesus and Old Testament Justice
When we understand justice in the Old Testament in line with Amos’s message, we may easily see how Jesus’ ministry echoed what Amos meant when he equates justice with life-sustaining water in the desert.
Amos’ words about justice spoke to Israel’s failure to embody Torah’s concerns for the wellbeing of all people in Israel. Amos calls for turning back to Torah and away from the injustices that favored the wealthy power elite over the vulnerable poor. This turning back involved a recovery of genuine justice as the community stands for life for everyone. The call to justice went out as a call to avoid judgment; justice was not the judgment but the way to avoid it.
Jesus’ proclamation followed the same logic. Jesus began his public ministry with a call to repent (Mark 1:15)—turn from injustice and alienation and turn toward life. The kingdom of God (the rule of God as presented in Torah of old) is present. And in this kingdom, God has special concern for the wellbeing of the vulnerable, the excluded, and oppressed (see also Luke’s version of Jesus’ opening words in Luke 4).
As with Amos, Jesus proclaims “repent” intending to encourage a positive outcome. Turn toward life. However, a failure to turn will lead to further alienation and separation. The “justice” for which Jesus calls his followers to thirst in the beatitudes (Matthew 5:6) speaks of life, of reconciliation, the restoration of relationships with God and with one another (same as the “justice” the Old Testament links with peace and steadfast love). Note, however, that Luke’s version juxtaposes those who do hear and respond to Jesus’ message with those who do not—and woe to the unrepentant rich, echoing those of Amos’s day (Luke 6:24-26).
Jesus incarnates Old Testament justice. The prophets preached a message of justice where God enters the brokenness of fallen humanity and brings the possibility of healing—blessing all the families of the earth. Hosea captures the essence of God’s justice when he speaks for God: “My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath” (Hosea 11:8-9).
God’s holiness motivates God’s compassion. God in the midst of God’s people practices compassion not punishment. Certainly we have evidence of other understandings of God’s holiness in the Old Testament. However, for Christians who believe Jesus fulfills the core message of Torah, Hosea’s proclamation conveys the most fundamental meaning of God’s holiness. Jesus, now confessed as God incarnate, follows precisely the pattern Hosea presents.
As the Holy One in the midst of humanity, Jesus brings a message of compassion and healing, not condemnation and punishment. God as seen in Jesus is “holy” not in the sense of being unable to be in the presence of sin and evil but in the sense of willingly entering directly into the reality of sin and evil with a message of compassion. Matthew 8–9 gives a series of healing stories that illustrates this type of holiness. Jesus heals all sorts of unclean and excluded people—touching their uncleanness with transformative love.
In the midst of these healings, the Pharisees challenge Jesus directly on our point. They confront Jesus’ followers. “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus hears this and responds: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” Then he makes a direct link with the message of the prophets, quoting Hosea 6:6—“Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (Matthew 9:11-13). The justice of God (God’s response to wrong-doing) has to do with the logic of mercy, not the logic of retribution that requires violence to balance the moral scales.
Amos points ahead to realized restorative justice (9:11-15). Jesus embodies this promise. For Jesus, too, God’s will as expressed in Torah includes a direct challenge to injustice and oppression. However, this will means to include everyone, sinner and just person alike, in a reconciled community that heals the wounds that lead to the oppression and injustice. Even those who put Jesus on the cross deserve forgiveness (Luke 23:34).
Jesus’ Own Use of “Justice” Language
These points about Jesus and justice have been obscured in the history of English-speaking Christianity by the decision of New Testament translators to render the Greek word dikaiosune and its derivatives as “righteousness” (and “righteous,” “unrighteous,” “wicked,” and “wickedness”) instead of as “justice” (and “just,” and “unjust,” and “injustice”).
I will not go into a philology debate here. Rather, let me simply say that the translations clearly can go either way. Our main concern should be to resist the tendency of such terms to be understood in terms of present-day meanings for words such as “righteous” and “wicked” (and, of course, “justice” and “injustice”) and then reading that meaning back into the biblical text.
I want to suggest that we use “justice” (and derivatives) consistently to make clear that often words with the dik- root are being used together in ways that our English translations may make unclear. Given the use of dik- words in the Septuagint to translate Old Testament justice language, we may justifiably read these words as “justice,” “injustice,” “just,” et al.
Let’s focus on Matthew, the gospel that uses this language more often than the other gospels. Matthew calls Joseph, the husband of Jesus’ mother Mary, a “just” man (1:19). When he learns of her pregnancy he wants to protect Mary’s reputation and “dismiss her quietly.” Then, as a more authentic expression of his justness, Joseph takes to heart the words of the angel in dream and realizes that Mary has the Lord’s blessing and he stays with her.
Matthew reports Jesus’ lengthy discourse known as the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus outlines the basic characteristics of his message, presenting this message as an updated Torah. He begins with a statement of the kind of people who will be most at home in this kingdom he is bringing nearer—including those who hunger and thirst for justice (5:6). Such people will “be filled.” As a programmatic statement, Jesus here links his message directly with the Old Testament prophets and their reading of Torah—and promises that justice will be done.
Yet, for the time being, the doing of justice will result in persecution (5:11). The status quo, founded on injustice, will not welcome the work of Jesus’ friends but will fight it tooth and nail. Again, Jesus links his followers and their work for justice and its consequences with the prophets of old (5:12)—and promises God’s vindication.
Jesus calls his followers to a justice that surpasses that of the Pharisees (5:20). This follows a strong affirmation of Torah. His debate with the Pharisees concerns what constitutes the key elements of Torah. Jesus sees himself in continuity with Moses. His ministry of justice embodies the message of Torah—a message we will later hear summarized as love of God and neighbor. The ministry of justice centers on love of neighbor. Jesus will issue a blistering critique of the Pharisees precisely on his view that their application of Torah does not center on love and genuine justice (two closely linked motifs for Jesus and the prophets).
Jesus challenges his readers to avoid preoccupation with material possessions can too easily govern one’s loyalties. God knows we need to eat and have a place to sleep. We may trust God for these provisions. Our preoccupation, though, should be with “the kingdom of God and its justice” (6:33). As we trust in God and share God’s priorities (God’s healing strategy of restorative justice), God will meet all our other needs as well.
Matthew tells of Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees over hungry people gleaning food and Jesus’ healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath—a conflict over the meaning of Torah. Is Torah about “mercy” or about “sacrifice” (12:7, quoting Hosea 6:6)? Matthew follows this encounter with a paraphrase from Isaiah 42:1-4 about the chosen servant of God (said to be fulfilled in Jesus) who, at the heart of his ministry (linking back to Genesis 12:1-3 and Isaiah 2:2-4) “proclaims justice to the Gentiles.” The servant’s ministry of non-coercive love will “bring justice to victory….In his name the Gentiles will hope” (12:18-21).
Jesus gives another lesson on the meaning of justice in his parable of the laborers in the vineyard in Matthew 20. He tells of a landowner who hires some workers and promises to pay them a “just” wage for their work (20:4). In the end, he pays them what he promised. However, to the chagrin of the first workers, who worked all day for their wage, the owner paid the same amount to some workers hired later in the day. Jesus suggests here that justice has not to do with strict fairness but also includes a kind of generosity that goes beyond what is expected—without short-changing the original commitments. He challenges those who would question of justice of such generosity: “Are you envious because I am generous?” (20:15).
Matthew links justice and generosity toward those most in need again in a confrontation between Jesus and chief priests. “The tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom ahead of you,” Jesus asserted. “For John came to you in the way of justice and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him” (21:31-32). The “way of justice” here refers to restorative not retributive justice, a kind of justice that is inclusive and effects healing not a kind of justice that is exclusive and effects alienation between the haves and have-nots.
Jesus again reiterates the Old Testament sense the key elements of Torah complementing one another: mercy, justice, and shalom. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (23:23).
A final example from Matthew comes when Jesus speaks of the “end of the age.” He concludes this teaching with an account of the great separation between those deemed to be just and those deemed to be unjust. The decisive factor in this life or death expression of justice turns out to be acts of generosity and compassion: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and your welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (25:35-36). Such acts embody genuine justice and echo the words of Jesus about his own vocation in Luke four: freedom for the oppressed, sight to the blind, good news to the poor.
The final item on Jesus’ account in Matthew 25 of the just life ironically contrasts with what we saw above in chapter two concerning the practice of retributive justice in our society. For our society, such “justice” involves locking people up under horrific conditions and essentially condemning them to a life sentence of shame and alienation. In contrast, for Jesus genuine justice involves visiting prisoners—displaying welcome, hospitality, and healing.