To understand what Jesus means about the weightier matters of the law, today we will break down the components that Jesus mentioned, and look at them individually. What is justice? What is mercy? What is faith?—as they are taught by Jesus? Our focus will be on the first of these, on justice—where it comes from, what it is, how we get it.
At this moment in our nation’s history, with mass protests against racial injustice triggered by the evident murder at police hands of yet another African American, much is being said about the subject of justice. If you were to ask anyone “Are you in favor of justice?” virtually everyone would agree that it is a good thing. They expect justice and they certainly want it for themselves. But what is justice for one man is often viewed as an injustice for another. One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.
“Making things right,” which is a very simplified definition of justice, inevitably strikes people the wrong way. Nobody is actually against justice, but justice that calls for systemic change in something very often leads to conflict. Why would a concept such as justice, which seems as if it should be a unifying concept, turn out to be so divisive?
From Wo/Man’s perspective, justice can be classified as natural, economic, social, political, legal, distributive and corrective. These are all based on the concept of making things right, of leveling the playing field; and on a “get what you deserve” mentality, a cause and effect construction. We learn from scripture that justice is a fundamental character of God. The psalmist David wrote:
Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne;
Lovingkindness and truth go before You. (Psalms 89:14)
The word translated from the Old Testament Hebrew as “justice” in our Bible appears more than 200 times in the Old Testament, and is the same word as used in Psalm 89, where righteousness and justice are mentioned together as foundational elements of God’s throne. Righteousness and justice are mentioned together more than three dozen times in the Old Testament. And, in fact, the Hebrew words for righteousness, judgment and justice are all quite similar.
In English we tend to link righteousness with a divine concept and justice with a more secular idea. But in the Bible, they’re essentially synonyms. And as we see in Psalm 89, they are core attributes of God. The word justice is linked, obviously, to the word justification—the idea that we can be made somehow righteous through the grace of God. Paul wrote that the gospel is synonymous with justice and righteousness:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “But the righteous man shall live by faith.” (Most translations read: “… the just man shall live by faith.”) (Romans 1:16-17)
Here we see the gospel linked to the weightier matters of the law, righteousness, Justice and faith. The common notion that somehow God’s justice is what meets out heavenly bliss for those who are deserving, or eternal damnation for those who are not, is false. This key passage reveals that the justice of God is in truth, the same thing as the gospel of Jesus. Justice is the ordering of things according to God’s will. The divine order of things is violated by things which God does not condone, such as poverty and oppression.
Over and over in the Old Testament, God refers to justice for widows, orphans, the poor, and immigrants; sometimes referred to as “the quartet of the vulnerable.” God is said in Psalms 68:4-6 to be the father of the fatherless, the Defender of the widow. For God, justice is the end of widowhood, the end of orphanages, the end of poverty and oppression.
In the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25) judgment rests on whether the judged took care of the quartet of the vulnerable. Did they feed the poor and, and take care of the orphans and the widows? God contrasts his concept of justice and righteousness with Wo/Man’s viewpoint in some of the strongest words in Scripture, reminiscent of the words that he uses with the Pharisees. He says:
“I hate, I reject your festivals,
Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies.
“Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
And I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings.
“Take away from Me the noise of your songs;
I will not even listen to the sound of your harps.
“But let justice roll down like waters
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21-24)
Solomon says that:
The righteous is concerned for the rights of the poor,
The wicked does not understand such concern.
Paul also links justice and judgment and righteousness together:
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing. (2 Timothy 4:7-8)
“The crown of righteousness from the righteous judge” could also be read as “the crown of justice from the justice judge.” Why is justice such a divisive concept? God’s credentials, both qualitative and quantitative, as a righteous judge are enumerated here:
Behold, the Lord God will come with might, With His arm ruling for Him.Behold, His reward is with Him And His recompense before Him. Like a shepherd He will tend His flock, In His arm He will gather the lambsAnd carry them in His bosom;He will gently lead the nursing ewes.
Who has measured the waters in the hollow of His hand, And marked off the heavens by the span, And calculated the dust of the earth by the measure, And weighed the mountains in a balance And the hills in a pair of scales? Who has directed the Spirit of the Lord, Or as His counselor has informed Him? With whom did He consult and who gave Him understanding? And who taught Him in the path of justice and taught Him knowledge And informed Him of the way of understanding? Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, And are regarded as a speck of dust on the scales;… (Isaiah 40:10-15)
We need to examine justice more thoroughly in the Scripture, we need to look at the story of justice in the book of Nehemiah. We need to relook at the parable of the unjust judge told by Jesus in the book of Luke. We will also examine justice in the Bible by looking at the story of Job but let’s hear your thoughts on the subject of justice. Why is justice a weighty matter? How can something of such weight be so controversial? What is the relationship after all between justice and judgment? How can you and I live justly? And if we can live justly, can we live justly without judgment? What are your thoughts about the subject of justice and injustice and the weightier matters of the law?
Donald: The person who actually holds the keys is suggested to be the one that makes the call of judgment. The one that makes the decision, the one that has the authority, isn’t usually connected to the word “justice.” Justice is the one that’s actually being judged, it seems. So that means the vulnerable person is always going to be thought of when justice is being considered. So, if you think of injustice, it just means that the person that’s making that judgment call isn’t being fair, isn’t managing the decision process fairly. But if you hold the keys, then you don’t really worry about it. Because you’re the guy.
So then, then the term judgment becomes a very important concept that we have to tie together. We talk about creed, sexuality, gender, equality. We say all these words. But then when I saw sexual orientation… is there justice there? Or do we make a judgment? Even we make judgments. So when do we think we have the right to make judgments?
Beverley: We all think we have the right to make judgments, in some subjects anyway, in some area of life. We all feel we have the right to make judgment on something. It’s just struck me that justice is a clamor of those who feel they’re not being treated right. The people who think they have everything aren’t concerned about justice, for the most part, unless they have some conscience that is stimulated by a moral code. It’s not a concern of those who are have everything they want.
Jay: As human beings, we definitely view the concept of justice basically, through our own eyes and our own experience. We frame it in a context of what would be justice for me. What would I want justice to look like for me, or for my children? When we can move beyond those kinds of time- and culture-bound biases we can really start looking at what justice would be like for others. And that is a hard thing to do. This is the justice that God is talking about. I don’t think God is concerned with what would be justice for Him, or that He needs justice. But the justice that God speaks about has a universal component to it. If that is what justice is, if it is one of these characteristics of what God is, then we have to think about justice not in our personal context but in the context of others, which I think is a really hard thing to do.
Beverley: If we have adopted a Christ-centric frame of reference, which I think most of us here have, I think we know what is just for others. Because we have a code that we have adopted as part of our being because we have accepted Christ and we have accepted his way of evaluating and looking. Our lens has changed. We can see as Christ would see. I’m not saying that we’re perfect, but I think once we have accepted that moral code, we know what is just for others.
Now whether we act on it or not (there are many excuses for not doing so) I think we know what is just, given our Christ-centric perspective. Now if a person does not adopt that perspective, then anything goes. Who knows what their center is, what their core is? And then you’re going to have trouble.
Donald: There’s probably moral justice. And that’s a very large umbrella. But even within a family, I don’t know if you’d use the word justice but you would you have a code, a set of barriers or limits. And when somebody breaks that, then justice is served. So if in a church, you all agree upon a particular set of parameters (which is not the big umbrella but it’s a pretty good sized one) and then someone doesn’t live within the parameters you’ve agreed upon, is it fair to say that that person cannot be included in that organization? Or is justice really the big picture only and not smaller subsets?
Clinton: I can’t believe that justice is not bound by how we feel. It is an unchangeable, supreme, transcendent value that is pronounced by God. It is really treating God or people more fairly. And so it has nothing to do with how we feel, or what circumstance we find ourselves in. It’s a universal value. It is how may we be fair in the way we treat in a situation?
Beverley: And in a Christian-centric sense, the only thing that trumps justice is mercy. Justice is basically getting what you deserve. And that is based on some kind of code which we all accept. That’s why you have that code. And justice is simply getting what you deserve based on the code. But in the Christian-centric model, we don’t get what we deserve, because of mercy. And there’s a tension between the two, of course, but mercy in God’s scheme of things always trump’s justice. But once we accept the principles taught by Christ, we know what is right and what is just. But we may have reasons for not applying those; and that’s a different thing.
Jay: In the kingdom of heaven, you don’t get what you deserve in a human aspect. That God’s Mercy, God’s grace seems to tip the scales or turn things upside down. The judgment scene seems to have some correlation to justice. The people who fed the hungry and clothed the naked and gave water to the thirsty are extraordinarily surprised by the mercy and the grace that they’ve given people. And so the tension between mercy, grace and justice is really hard for the human being to grapple with because the human being wants to default to natural justice. You put your hand on a hot stove, you’re going to get burned. That’s a natural consequence. Yet the parent intervenes if a child tries to touch the hot stove. The parent shows mercy, the parent shows grace, and disrupts the natural justice of things. So the relationship between justice and mercy, justice and grace is very intriguing.
Beverley: But what about what morals? I understand the issue of intervening to prevent a child doing something harmful, but what about the setting in which we are currently living? You would have to be living under a huge stone not to realize that right now, in the United States in particular, the issue of justice is an extremely huge mountain, and perhaps always has been, and we just are not able to even start climbing it. There is an inability in Wo/Mankind to address the issue of justice.
It isn’t because we don’t know what is just. There are other issues that are preventing us from addressing the subject because we are incapable of seeing that individuals get justice, get what they deserve. If justice were apportioned to individuals, then we would at least have made the first step. but we are not there, even as Christians, so I think perhaps we need to start thinking what is it that prevents us from seeing to it that justice is applied to all women and men?
The answer is quite clear. You smack your child’s hand away from the stove because you know it would get burned otherwise and you love your child and don’t want it to suffer. So maybe the answer is that we don’t love each other enough. Instead, we use every excuse available, we pretend not to see, or we look the other way. We behave as though we are unaware that justice is not being applied in our society. Once we get to the justice points, we can perhaps start talking about mercy, but we’re not even there in justice.
David: We speak as if justice is something that has to be applied, to be done. But there is something missing. Jesus said the two most important things of all to do are to love God and love your neighbor as yourself. The Bible is clear that we should follow the Golden Rule and “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” If we could do that, then justice would follow automatically. We wouldn’t have to think about justice as a separate concept. It’s part of love. It’s part of the Golden Rule.
Justice automatically follows if you love your neighbor and do unto your neighbor as you would have done unto yourself. That’s where we seem to have gone astray. When we stop someone in a car and harass them, we don’t ask ourselves: “Would I want someone to do this to me?” We fail to do that. If only we would remember the Golden Rule, then we might have much better justice in the world.
Don: Is justice a learned behavior? Can you teach it?
Beverley: I think justice has a basis upon which it is launched; a code of ethics, a moral code, what Christ teaches, the Golden Rule. Not everybody adopts it, unfortunately. But even then, even when someone does not profess to accept Christ’s teaching or the biblical teaching or the biblical platform, I think God has instilled in all of us a basic knowledge of right and wrong.Those of us who have raised children know that the youngest baby crawling around knows there are certain things they’re not supposed to do. They’ll do it anyway, but they’ll kind of look sideways to see if you’re watching. God has planted in us a basic understanding of right and wrong, but we shut it out, we put it aside. In a Christian home, we strive to nurture it, but we can also root it out by our parental behavior. God has put there the basic seed, but its plant is tender and delicate. It can either grow and be trained, or it can be rooted out, crushed and trampled upon.
Adaure: A friend and I were in a thrift store yesterday. A dark skinned customer was sitting at a chair, talking fairly loudly in what may have been Arabic into his phone. Another customer, a white woman, came up and told him: “You can’t sit there. You’re not allowed to sit on the chairs here.” There ensued a big back and forth between the two of them. The woman eventually said, “Well, I don’t know whether you’re black or not. But wherever it is you came from you need to go back.”
She said that he was insulting her and eventually a store attendant came. One Caucasian customer said he’d been there the whole time and that he saw the man provoke the woman, which was not true. Another man spoke up for the foreign-looking man and explained just what had happened, how the woman had provoked the man. It ended with the both of them being escorted out of the store.
Don: Is such behavior as exhibited by the woman in the store learned behavior? And if so, can it be unlearned?
Beverley: I think that particular scenario is probably based on a dislike for a particular way somebody looks, which I think is learned. I think it’s learned because I remember once when touring a Zulu village in South Africa we saw a little white girl, maybe four or five years old, also with the tour group, hugging and touching a very black boy of about the same age from the village. Obviously, both were surprised but delighted at the sight of each other. They’d never seen anyone like one another before. But it was not a negative reaction: They were enthralled with their difference.
So it is isn’t innate. It isn’t intrinsic in being human to dislike somebody because they look different. We don’t hate a flower because it is yellow or red, or a rose or a carnation. The petals may be different, but we don’t have a negative gut reaction to their differences. I think in the case of human beings, it’s taught. If it weren’t taught these two little babies would not have found each other so intriguing.
Kiran: I’m not a good person. For me to be just, I need to know as much about the other person as I know about myself. Second, I need to love them. And third, executing judgment also requires some sort of sacrifice on my part. I have to say, Okay, I don’t have to have this comfort for myself. And I’m about to let someone else change the way I live. In situations where I should execute judgment, I am frozen because either I don’t know anything about the other side or I’m rushing to judgment; or I’m not willing to make the sacrifice.
Every time I feel bad about the way I’m behaving, I think of how Jesus dealt with the woman about to be stoned to death for adultery. He knew her heart. He understood her side and he understood her accusers’ side, and told them: “Go ahead, if you’ve never committed a sin yourself.” He forced them to look inside.
It takes the sacrifice of a lot of effort and time to look inside myself, to consider the way God treats me despite the stuff I do, and then put myself into other people’s shoes. I don’t love people as much as I love myself, and I’m not willing to make that sacrifice. I wish I could change. I am limited but God is infinite in His ability to understand both sides.
Beverley: Justice and judgment are different. Judgment is God’s prerogative because He knows everything. And in the case of a courthouse, of course, you have the flushing out of facts, and the judge makes a judgment, but I think the application of justice does not require knowing all. It doesn’t really matter whether you know how a woman became an adulterer, especially in biblical times, when there were rules that required her to be stoned to death. But if, for example, somebody has been a thief for 20 years, you don’t need to know that fact when you see him in a particular situation being treated unjustly. That particular point in time does not require prior knowledge. We don’t get to be unjust simply because somebody has a past. The application of justice to an individual is within the context of the situation. Not because when he was 10 he stole candy from Walmart or doctored his grades when he applied for college.
The application of justice in a point in time has to do with the circumstances that you see and observe. And it is not and should not be colored by what happened. So, in other words, you don’t get to punch and beat and kill and brutalized someone in a moment because he was a thief 10 years ago or five years ago. The justice we are required to ensure is to deal with the situation in which we find ourselves. Now, if he was a thief, and he’s been thieving for years upon years, that’s where you take him to the court, and all the facts are laid out, and the judge who is appointed makes a judgment. But the particular situation is not applicable.
And therein lies the problem in America right now. We believe that if somebody is unjustly treated, we have to go dig up the past and try to find something to show that an injustice was applied in that moment. “He deserved it because he had been earning it all these years.” You don’t need to know who I am if you see me sitting on a chair in a store, and somebody who has no business, doesn’t know anything, walks up and says “You have to get up and you need to go back to where you’re from.” Whether he was a crook or a saint, the man does not deserve that treatment in that moment in time. The injustice is in the situation you’re observing.
Chris: I think that gets to the heart of how we see justice. We have a very hard time separating justice and judgment. Justice is not associated with judgment, but with mercy and with faithfulness. I don’t think you have justice without mercy and without faithfulness. They were not meant to be separated. They are meant to be kept together. There is nothing in Matthew 23 that mentions judgment; it is about those three things, justice, mercy faithfulness. They go hand in hand.
David: The danger is in getting bogged down in the detail, of trying a case and looking at all the extenuating circumstances. None of that is necessary. Jesus doesn’t call for it. He simply says it’s a matter of introspection: Look inside yourself, and if you find no sin there, go ahead and cast the first stone. And he went one further, in asking us to ask ourselves whether (guilty or not) we would want to be stoned? He reminded us of the Golden Rule.
It’s as simple as that. Once we start to start breaking these cases down into their constituent bits we’re getting into the judgment business, where we don’t belong. We have no business there, and we can’t do it. It’s really, really simple. And as Beverley pointed out, the knowledge of what to do is inside. It’s inherent. It’s not taught. It’s the inner light, the Holy Spirit, it’s the eternity set within our hearts. We know it is there, but too often we smother it with a blanket. As Kiran suggested, it’s inconvenient.