Justice with a Capital “J”

[NOTE: Today is my last full day of my “recovery week” between Round One and Two of chemotherapy. My mind is clear, I have no nausea… it seems like a pretty good time to write!]

Sitting in church this past Sunday, Rev. Karen preached mainly from the gospel reading for the day, Luke 13:10-17…

Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

As she discussed the legalism of the religious leaders whom Jesus was passionately criticizing, Karen challenged us to apply the question “When does mercy trump law?” to various aspects of our own lives. There was much to think about.

As Christians, we’ve reframed our understanding of words like Mercy, or Grace. They have a deeper, and much more profound, meaning for us, a richness that becomes attractive to us–we want to do likewise and extend mercy and grace to others.

What struck me next was my own journey around understanding the equally important concept of “justice.” It is such a common word, and yet it has multiple meanings which can confuse and even conflict with each other. I might even say the word “justice” has become weaponized. And in light of Karen’s question, I need to be very circumspect and clear in how I understand and extend justice.

We might think of justice as law-and-order, as in “bringing the criminal to justice.” In this case, it’s a word pertaining to the law, to right and wrong, to “locking up the bad guys.” You broke a law, you pay the price; that’s justice. I used to understand justice in this way and this is what many people mean when they use the word.

But, in light of Jesus’ teaching in the passage above and in numerous others, I would now say that’s justice with a small “j.”

What changed for me? I’ve shifted my understanding and now see the preponderance of images of “biblical justice” not as the retributive justice found in the “eye for an eye” laws, but instead on the equality, care for strangers, and distributive justice found in the many passages in both the Old and New Testaments, plus the even more powerful example of Jesus’ actions as in the gospel reading above. I won’t try to detail those passages here; I think anyone who has hung around Jesus and the Bible for a few decades must admit deep down that this is the great biblical theme of Justice with a capital “J.”

But as Mark Twain purportedly quipped: “It is not the things which I do not understand in the Bible which trouble me, but the things which I do understand.” For those of us at the top of the global food chain, it can be scary to consider the implications of stories such as Jesus’ parable of the beggar at the rich man’s gates… because I know who I more closely resemble in that story.

This is the meaning of ‘Justice’ we’d really prefer to not think about too deeply. Frankly, focusing on small ‘justice’ is safe for us… if I’m a law-abiding citizen and I support enforcement of those laws, then I’m doing my part for ‘justice.’ But this just doesn’t jive well with what Jesus focused on, and deep down we know that. And that’s a real challenge to those of us who claim to be his followers.

So how do we break through to this larger biblical meaning of Justice? How do we help create a more “just” society, a more just world? The first step for me was to quit hiding behind this word which deserves a bigger and better meaning, which deserves to be capitalized. We capitalize “Jesus.” We often capitalize “Bible.” Both Jesus and the Bible have always challenged the understandings of comfortable legalists throughout history, including us. When we think about how the very touchstones of our faith describe the fullness of this magnificent yet scary concept, perhaps in our minds we should also capitalize Justice.

Then we can begin afresh to humbly extend it to others.

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.

    And what does the Lord require of you?

To act justly and to love mercy

    and to walk humbly with your God.

                        –Micah 6:8


August 2019


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