Justice and righteousness are about a radical, selfless way of life.
Like in the book of Proverbs, what does it mean to “bring about just righteousness?”
“Open your mouth for those who can’t speak for themselves.”
And what do these words mean for the prophets, like Jeremiah?
“Rescue the disadvantaged, and don’t tolerate oppression or violence against the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow.”
And look in the book of Psalms. “The Lord God upholds justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry, and sets the prisoner free, but he thwarts the way of the wicked.” Woah. He thwarts the wicked?
In Hebrew the word wicked is rasha’, it means “guilty” or “in the wrong.” It refers to someone who mistreats another human, ignoring their dignity as an image of God.
So is justice and righteousness a big deal to God?
Yes, it’s what Abraham’s family, the Israelites, were to be all about. They ended up as immigrant slaves being oppressed unjustly in Egypt, and so God confronted Egypt’s evil, declaring them to be rasha’, guilty of injustice. And so He rescued Israel. But the tragic irony of the Old Testament story is that these redeemed people went on to commit the same acts of injustice against the vulnerable, and so God sent prophets who declared Israel guilty.
But they weren’t the only ones, there’s injustice everywhere.
Some people actively perpetrate injustice, others receive benefits or privileges from unjust social structures they take for granted, and sadly, history has shown that when the oppressed gain power, they often become oppressors themselves.
So we all participate in injustice, actively or passively, even unintentionally; we’re all the guilty ones.
And so this is the surprising message of the biblical story: God’s response to humanity’s legacy of injustice is to give us a gift: the life of Jesus. He did righteousness and justice, and yet he died on behalf of the guilty. But then God declared Jesus to be the righteous one when He rose from the dead. And so now Jesus offers His life to the guilty, so that they too can be declared “righteous” before God – not because of anything they’ve done, but because of what Jesus did for them.
The earliest followers of Jesus experienced this righteousness from God not just as a new status, but as a power that changed their lives, and compelled them to act in surprising new ways.
If God declared someone “righteous” when they didn’t deserve it, the only reasonable response is to go and seek righteousness and justice for others. This is a radical way of life, and it’s not always convenient or easy. It’s courageously making other people’s problems my problems.
This is what Jesus meant by loving your neighbor as yourself. It’s about a lifetime commitment fueled by the words of the ancient prophet Micah: “God has told you humans what is good and what the Lord requires of you: is to do justice, to love Mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”