[Note: This is the prepared text for a Bible Study given to the Portland, Oregon congregation of the United Church of God on January 25, 2023.]
There are few subjects that our contemporary age is as interested in talking about and as terrible in achieving as justice is. It is not our point today to talk about the aspects of society’s view of justice that are defective, but rather to provide some fundamental lessons about biblical justice. It is unsurprising that the Bible talks about justice a great deal, and from that discussion about justice from the point of the Bible we can gain a perspective that allows us to understand what differences exist between justice as it is commonly discussed and justice as the Bible defines it.
Before I begin my message properly, I would like to discuss something about the approach I am going to take with regards to the subject matter. We are going to begin with a discussion of fundamental biblical writings about justice, and we will explore these texts and their meaning and the principles that can be drawn from them. Whenever we come to an area where the application is a challenge, we will leave aside the subject for future discussion–or for others to discuss–who have the expertise to deal with the thorny issues of application, and then we will continue talking about biblical texts and the widely applicable or even universal principles that can be drawn from these texts. It is in going through this material throughout the Bible that we will cover the basics of biblical justice and discuss a variety of principles that can be drawn from throughout the scriptures.
Let us begin with a scripture that is well-recognized as a memory verse that details the importance of justice to God. We find this scripture in Micah 6:8. Micah 6:8 reads: “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” There are several threads that we will draw from this familiar verse. First, let us note that God states that he has shown mankind what is good. It is from God and His word that we draw what is good, and not from our own subjective opinion, which is certainly relevant when it comes to the subject of justice.
Let us spend a bit of time here as well to discuss what the Bible means by justice. The word used in Micah 6:8 for justly is mishpat, meaning according to the divine law or the verdict of a court. We are used to justice being associated with laws and courts, and so it is little surprise that we find here that the word for behaving justly relates to God’s law and the heavenly courts where justice may be found.
Since we will be spending a considerable amount of time in the New Testament as well, it is worthwhile as well to look at the word for just in the Greek to see the equivalent for the Hebrew and what it means as well in the scriptures. Let us turn to Matthew 1:18-19 and look at a signal example of a just man in the Bible, Joseph, Jesus’ stepfather. Matthew 1:18-19 reads: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly.” The word used for just here is the Greek word dikaios, meaning just, holy, and righteous. It is interesting to note that when we compare this passage with Micah 6:8, we see that Joseph was a just man, and in his justice acted mercifully–thus combining justice and mercy. We will have more to say about this combination later on, but let us note it here that the Bible tends to combine justice and mercy in discussions. Let us also note that both the Hebrew and Greek words for justice include not only what we may consider to be abstract justice, but also righteousness. We will have more to say about this shortly
Let us follow, though, another thread first. We noted in Micah 6:8 that the Eternal requires mankind to act justly. Justice is not something that is nice or worthwhile to add to our righteousness, but is required of us. We owe justice to other people. Micah’s statement of this is by no means an isolated example of this principle in the scriptures. We find a fuller discussion of the justice that is required of mankind in Deuteronomy 10:12-18. Deuteronomy 10:12-18 says: “ “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord and His statutes which I command you today for your good? Indeed heaven and the highest heavens belong to the Lord your God, also the earth with all that is in it. The Lord delighted only in your fathers, to love them; and He chose their descendants after them, you above all peoples, as it is this day. Therefore circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer. For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality nor takes a bribe. He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. “
It is interesting to note that the more familiar verse in Micah we began with is a summary of this passage which appears in God’s law. What God required of ancient Israel was very straightforward–it was to walk in obedience to God’s ways, to keep His statues and commandments and laws, to circumcise the foreskin of their hearts and walk in humility before God, and to act with justice and mercy towards other people, especially those people who were vulnerable to being exploited and taken advantage of.
When we look in the New Testament, we similarly see that obedience to God’s ways is something that we owe to other people. We find this written in Romans 13:8-10. Romans 13:8-10 describes the obedience to God’s ways that we owe to others in the following way: “Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not bear false witness,” “You shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” The love to others that is described by the Ten Commandments and amplified by the rest of God’s Word is something that we owe to other people simply on account of others being human beings. Also, let us note that in stark contrast to the sort of love that people tend to describe as their actions, all that is defined as love in scripture does no harm to a neighbor. We will stop with this thread here, since it would move us too much into application to look in detail about how it is that we are to apply our debt of obedience to the ten commandments when it comes to other people.
We spoke earlier when looking at the words the Bible uses for just about how it is that in the Bible justice, holiness, and righteousness are combined. We do not tend to think of justice this way, and it is one of the main reasons why our views of justice fall short of the biblical standard. In our contemporary culture, people would think themselves to be models of justice without making any pretensions about living in obedience to God’s laws or being focused on holiness in the eyes of God as it is defined in the Bible. Yet in the Bible what we find is that justice cannot be pursued without righteousness and holiness being at the base of it. We have just seen, for example, that the ten commandments are at the core of what is owed to others, and it does not take too long to understand how it is that justice and righteousness are combined in the biblical view.
We find this in a familiar place, by looking at the two great commandments in Matthew 22:34-40. Matthew 22:34-40 shows Jesus Christ answering a question from a scribe about what the greatest commandment is, and His instinctive reply is to give the greatest two. Matthew 22:34-40 reads: “‘But when the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.””
As we have seen earlier, we owe others the obedience of the ten commandments, and these commandments hang on the two great commandments, which point to the two directions in which the laws of God operate, and also point to the relationship between justice and righteousness and holiness. Righteousness is defined by the laws that God gives us, and some of these laws relate to what we owe to God and what we owe to other people as a result of their being created by God in His image and likeness. We owe God the obligation of total obedience to His ways, and this relationship of obedience makes us holy in God’s sight. We cannot, though, act in a way that is pleasing to God by behaving unjustly towards other people. Similarly, what justice means in our relationship with others is itself dependent on God’s own laws, so we cannot pursue justice while also remaining rebellious and disobedient to God.
This is made clear in several ways in the Bible. Most obviously, the Bible tells us outright that we cannot be right with God without being right with other people. We see this, for example, in 1 John 4:20-21. 1 John 4:20-21 reads: “If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also.” This passage is straightforward and direct, and lets us know that we cannot neglect our relationships with other people if we want to live in a way that is pleasing to God.
We see similar statements in, for example, Isaiah 58:1-4. All of Isaiah 58 and 59 is interesting when it comes to examining the standard of justice and righteousness that God expects of us. But even the first four verses of Isaiah 58 are enough for us to understand the connection between our relationship with God and our relationship with other people. Isaiah 58:1-4 reads: ““Cry aloud, spare not; lift up your voice like a trumpet; tell My people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins. Yet they seek Me daily, and delight to know My ways, as a nation that did righteousness, and did not forsake the ordinance of their God. They ask of Me the ordinances of justice; they take delight in approaching God. ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and You have not seen? Why have we afflicted our souls, and You take no notice?’ “In fact, in the day of your fast you find pleasure, and exploit all your laborers. Indeed you fast for strife and debate, and to strike with the fist of wickedness. You will not fast as you do this day, to make your voice heard on high.” Here we see that ancient Israel, like our present society, desired to think of themselves as just, and yet their overly inflated view of their own sense of justice and righteousness coincided, as our own evil generation does, with the exploitation of other people and strife and wickedness. If we want to be right in God’s eyes, we must do what is right by those around us.
One of the ways in which contemporary society faults the Bible is in the issue of slavery. People in the world wonder how it is that the Bible could allow slavery when they think of the cruelty that slaves in the United States and the other parts of the Americas suffered under the system of plantation slavery there. While it is not our intention to discuss the whole contrast between slavery as it is defined in scripture and allowed in the Bible and how it was practiced in the American South, a subject I would like to cover in greater detail in the future as an extension to this topic of biblical justice, it is important that we understand where the Bible is coming from and how the Bible is vindicated in questions of justice that are of interest to the contemporary age.
In Philemon verses 15 through the first half of verse 19, we see how Paul’s sense of justice operated in the matter of the slave Onesimus, whose freedom he sought from a slaveowning member of the church of God in Colosse, Philemon. Philemon :15-19a reads: “For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. If then you count me as a partner, receive him as you would me. But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account. I, Paul, am writing with my own hand. I will repay.” It is interesting to note that in Paul’s mind, and therefore in the biblical position, justice was owed to the slaveowner as well as to the slave. Onesimus was to be treated as a beloved brother–and obviously that would affect the treatment that he could receive at the hand of Philemon, but Philemon’s property rights were to be respected as well. Our age is not used to giving justice to slaveowners.
What sort of justice was owed to slaves, though? Was the system of slavery allowed in the Bible the same kind that we find when reading about the American South or the Caribbean sugar islands? In Exodus 21:26-27, we find a law that is of particular interest when we look at the subject of slavery and the treatment of slaves. Exodus 21:26-27 reads: ““If a man strikes the eye of his male or female servant, and destroys it, he shall let him go free for the sake of his eye. And if he knocks out the tooth of his male or female servant, he shall let him go free for the sake of his tooth.” Earlier in the chapter, there is another law that indicates the vulnerability of slaves to heavy discipline, which we find in Exodus 21:20-21. Exodus 21:20-21 reads: ““And if a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished. Notwithstanding, if he remains alive a day or two, he shall not be punished; for he is his property.”
What we take from these two passages put together is that slaves were subject to discipline at the hands of their masters, and this discipline could be harsh. Slavery under any system is not something that we would find enjoyable or pleasant. That said, in the biblical system there were limits. A slaveowner who beat his servant to death would be punished accordingly–the slave still had some rights despite his degraded position as property in the biblical system of justice. Similarly, a master who was abusive towards his slaves would have to let his slave go free, without any payment of compensation to the master, if a slave lost a tooth or an eye, signifying a master who cruelly maims a slave. Punishment was acceptable, but abuse was not. The general principle we gain from this is that someone who cannot control their temper and curb their violence and their anger, even towards a slave, forfeited the right to have control over another human being. There are obviously some worthwhile implications and applications of this principle even for believers today, but we will leave this matter aside for the present discussion.
What we see from the discussion of slavery in the Bible is that the biblical standard of justice stands opposed to the cruelties we find in slavery as it was in antebellum history. Even if slavery in any form qualifies as one of those matters that God allowed out of the hardness of men’s hearts, and not reflecting God’s ideals, even the permitted institution of slavery was to be limited by the right that even a slave had to having his life and his or her body being respected by a master. A slaveowner in the biblical system did not have absolute power over a slave, and this absence of absolute power means that in some sense, justice was owed even to slaves, and if even slaves had rights which had to be respected by masters, no one was without rights of some kind, and no one was without some sort of respect and honor. The standard of justice we find in the Bible is what allows us to find the wicked and corrupt ways of the world to be unjust. Justice is not a matter of our subjective opinion, but is rather an objective truth that we can gain through a thorough study of the Bible, as we are conducting today.
Since matters of economic justice are also of interest to our contemporary age, it is worthwhile to consider at least a little bit what the Bible has to say about matters of economic justice. In Deuteronomy 25:13-16, we find a discussion of weights and measures that is worth some explanation. Deuteronomy 25:13-16 reads: ““You shall not have in your bag differing weights, a heavy and a light. You shall not have in your house differing measures, a large and a small. You shall have a perfect and just weight, a perfect and just measure, that your days may be lengthened in the land which the Lord your God is giving you. For all who do such things, all who behave unrighteously, are an abomination to the Lord your God.” What does this mean? Why is it important to have a just weight and measure from an economic standpoint, so much so that having different weights and measures to use in different situations is said to be an abomination to God, obviously not something we want to be.
Let us take this situation to be similar to that of a middleman who owns a shop that both buys and sells. This situation is one where the highest temptation exists to have different weights and measures. When we are buying grain or wheat or flour from someone who is selling us raw materials, the temptation is to have a heavy weight, so that we may buy more goods for the same price. Similarly, when we are selling those same supplies to others, the temptation is to have a light weight so that the customer buys less for the amount that we are being paid by weight. As a result, by having different weights for what we buy and what we sell, we make money on both ends by taking advantage of those we work with. This is obviously unjust, and it is an abomination in God’s eyes for us to take advantage of others by having different standards that allow us to profit in a given situation at the expense of others.
What is the standard of justice that we find in the Bible? The most striking and obvious thing to note about the biblical standard of justice is its strict reciprocity. Since we are already in Exodus 21, we find this strict standard of reciprocity given in Exodus 21:22-25. Exodus 21:22-25 reads: ““If men fight, and hurt a woman with child, so that she gives birth prematurely, yet no harm follows, he shall surely be punished accordingly as the woman’s husband imposes on him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” The principle we see from this law is very clear, and that is that people who inflict harm on others are to suffer that harm in equal proportion themselves. We tend to think of this sort of tit for tat justice as being harsh and unmerciful, but it formed the basis of the biblical view of justice.
Indeed, even the New Testament itself discusses on multiple occasions the issue of strict reciprocity. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 7:1-2, we read the following statement about standards of judgment. Matthew 7:1-2 reads: ““Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.” What Jesus Christ is saying here is that the standard of justice we use to criticize or condemn others will be used on ourselves in strict reciprocity. By the same standard we judge others, we will be judged, and Jesus implies in the rest of the passage that people often make judgments and condemn others as hypocrites and those dealing in double standards. This is, unsurprisingly, the same thing we often find in the modern world, where people who claim to be just individuals refuse to accept for themselves the same treatment and the same standard that they seek to enforce upon others.
Indeed, this lack of reciprocity is automatically a falling short of the standard that God sets for our behavior. If we drop a few verses here in Matthew 7 we find this principle expressed in Matthew 7:12. Matthew 7:12 reads: “ Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” The treatment we give to other people communicates to them how we wish to be treated ourselves by them in turn. How we behave towards others sets the standard for how others are supposed to behave towards us. The respect we give to others communicates to them the respect that we desire to receive from them. The criticism we give to others communicates to them the criticism we are willing to accept from them. The love we give to others expresses the love we want to receive from others in turn.
This is a hard matter, but it is something that the Bible speaks about repeatedly in different aspects to make the point. If we look at the first half of Proverbs 18:24, we find this principle of reciprocity stated when it comes to friendship. Proverbs 18:24a reads: “A man who has friends must himself be friendly.” This is obvious; if we want to have friends, we must be friendly towards others. If we do not behave in a friendly manner towards others, we will not receive friendliness from others. This is justice, and we have no cause to complain about receiving justice, because we have simply gotten from others and from the world at large what we have deserved by our conduct. If this is not entirely satisfactory to you, and you desire to be treated better than you deserve, then you should not give to others strict justice without mercy either, and that is something we will talk about in more detail before too long.
The Bible contains some sobering discussions of the standard of judgment that we will be held to as believers, and it is worthwhile for us to recognize this standard so that we may behave according to it. We find one such passage in Matthew 25:31-46. Matthew 25:31-46 contains an extended discussion on sheep and goats: ““When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’ “Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’ “Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’ “Then they also will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?’ Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.””
There is a lot to take in from this passage, but from the foregoing discussion we have had about the reciprocal standards of justice it ought to be basic enough to understand. The standard of justice that we exhibit as people is the lowest standard of treatment and care that we provide to others. The worst treatment we give to others is the treatment that we tell others–and God–is deserved by people simply for being people. Our standard of justice is what we consider ourselves to owe to others simply because we are both beings created in the image and likeness of God. It is not the standard that we give to people we wish to flatter or charm, or who we consider to be higher in status and position than the common herd of humanity, but rather how we behave towards someone who we view as being the most contemptible and least honorable of people in existence. Rather shockingly, Jesus Christ Himself claims that the worst of how we treat other people is how we treat Him. How do we treat others at our worst? What is the least love and the least respect that we show towards others? Is this how we wish for Jesus Christ to view us? I leave it to you all to determine that for yourselves.
Even in our desire to receive mercy from God there is a strict reciprocity involved that the Bible makes very clear, especially in the Gospels. For example, the point that if we want to receive mercy from God, we must be merciful to others is so important that it is made twice in a single passage in the sermon on the mount, one which ought to be familiar to all of us. Let us turn to Matthew 6:9-15, the section of the Bible known commonly as the “model prayer.” Matthew 6:9-15 reads: “In this manner, therefore, pray: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen. “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
The point that Jesus Christ is making here could hardly be more plain. If we wish to be forgiven for our debts, the result of our sins against God and others, we must be willing to forgive those who have sinned against us. And if that point was not plain enough as part of the regular pattern of prayer that we should engage in, the passage ends with a sobering reminder that if we forgive others of their trespasses against us, God will forgive us, but if we do not forgive the trespasses of others against us, God will not forgive our own. This sort of strict reciprocity is not particularly complicated. It does not require a deep or particularly subtle understanding of the Bible to see. All it requires, and that is enough, is to take the Bible seriously as it is written. To the extent that we want God to be merciful and forgiving towards us, we need to cultivate the same patterns of behavior towards others, specifically those who have wronged us personally. It is not hard to know what the just standard of the Bible is for us to follow, just hard to do it.
If we were under any doubt about how the Bible understands the relationship between what we have to be forgiven of by God and what we are required to forgive others of, Jesus Christ gives a very sobering parable about precisely this matter in what is known as the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. We find this parable in Matthew 18:21-35. Matthew 18:21-35 reads: “Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt. “But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.””
This passage ought to be the sort of biblical passage that keeps us awake at nights making sure that we do not hold onto hostility and resentment against other people, if we take its message seriously. We begin this passage in the state that all people whose debts have not been forgiven by God find in judgment, namely that we owe God a sum that is impossible to repay, only for God to generously forgive us of it. It is worth stopping to consider how big this debt is. A talent of gold is seventy pounds, and each pound of gold is sixteen ounces. As I was writing this message, the price of an ounce of gold amounted to $1,928.20, which means that ten thousand talents of gold amounts to a current price of $21,595,840,000. This is an impossible sum to repay for any of us watching this message right now, I would expect. If we take the value of the debt to be based on the purchasing power at the time of the first century, the amount of the debt is even higher, as a single talent of gold would require 6,000 denarii, and one received one denarii for a single day of labor, meaning that it would require roughly twenty years of labor to pay off a debt of a single talent, or 200,000 years of work to pay off the servant’s debt of 10,000 talents. None of us, no matter how long we live, will have even a percent of that time to pay off the debts we owe to God before we face Him in judgment. In light of that impossible debt, it is absolutely monstrous foolishness that we would jeopardize God’s willingness to forgive us of truly staggering sums of debt because of our unwillingness to forgive a fellow servant for 100 denarii of debt, or a debt that is at most in the realms of $10,000 or less, however much that may seem to us. This parable’s sobering warning is that if we demand justice of other people, God will demand justice of us, and we are not remotely able to pay God what we owe Him for a lifetime of sins and transgressions.
If it was not clear to us before, it ought to be clear to us at this point that we do not really want justice for ourselves from God if we have any amount of self-knowledge about what that means, what Matthew 18:34-35 refers to as being delivered to the torturers if we do not forgive others. What we want from God and likely from other people, is mercy. And here we have come full circle. We noted at the beginning when we began with Micah 6:8 and later when we discussed Matthew 1:18-19 that the Bible frequently combines the matter of justice and mercy. A righteous person recognizes the level that they fall short of God’s perfect standard, and as a result behaves with mercy towards others. We find this principle clearly stated by James in James 2:8-13. James 2:8-13 reads: “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you do well; but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. For He who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”
As a society, our problems with justice are many, but the basic aspects of biblical justice are straightforward enough, as we have seen today. Justice is connected with obedience to God’s whole law, which is owed by us both to God and to everyone else, and in the Bible, one cannot be a just person without being a righteous person. God’s standards of justice pay close attention to those who are vulnerable to being exploited and taken advantage of, and no one is beneath the applicability of those standards, no matter how degraded or low a status they may have. Similarly, our standard of justice is the worst treatment we give to anyone, the lowest standard of our conduct, which amounts to what we consider someone to be owed by us in terms of love, respect, concern, and care when we have nothing to gain selfishly speaking by treating them well. God’s standard of justice and mercy both apply on a standard of strict reciprocity, such that what we give to others, we will be repaid back, and what we do not give to others, we will not receive ourselves. To the extent that we are aware of our own personal need for mercy by God and others, when we recognize how we have fallen short of God’s perfect standard often in our conduct, our pitiless and harsh application of justice should be tempered by mercy, out of self-interest if for no other reason.
There are many complicated aspects of justice, especially in the application of biblical principles in our lives and relationships, but today we have covered the basics, and hopefully made it more clear why justice is so elusive for us, and why it is so much easier to think of ourselves as being seekers of justice than to actually be just in our dealings with others. God willing, we can avoid the obvious and flagrant injustices we see in the corrupt and wicked world around us that calls itself by the name of justice, with His help, and live lives that are both holy and just as well as merciful to the failings of those around us.