Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Justice for the poor and oppressed: The law, the prophets and Matthew (towards a biblical theology of justice)

Micah 6:8 is a well known verse about justice. But do you realise that it is echoed by Jesus in one of his seven woes against the Pharisees and the Scribes? The very people who are supposed to know the Scripture and are in relatively high religious and social positions fail to understand God's purpose and his value system.

And do you realise that the words of Micah can trace back to the Law of Moses, and that Jeremiah has something profound to say about it? Indeed, both the Law and the prophet Jeremiah talk about the circumcision of the heart (or the lack of it) when they talk about the people's failure to seek justice for the poor and marginalised.

I think a careful study of these Scriptures will help us understand God's love for the poor and oppressed - that from ancient times he wants his people to live in such a way that will reflect his character.

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)

And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God ask of you but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the LORD’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good? To the LORD your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. Yet the LORD set his affection on your ancestors and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations—as it is today. Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. Fear the LORD your God and serve him. Hold fast to him and take your oaths in his name. He is the one you praise; he is your God, who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes. Your ancestors who went down into Egypt were seventy in all, and now the LORD your God has made you as numerous as the stars in the sky. (Deuteronomy 10:12-22)

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. (Matthew 23:23)

This is what the LORD says: “Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength or the rich boast of their riches, but let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the LORD. “The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will punish all who are circumcised only in the flesh— Egypt, Judah, Edom, Ammon, Moab and all who live in the wilderness in distant places. For all these nations are really uncircumcised, and even the whole house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart.” (Jeremiah 9:23-25)

A careful look at these passages will reveal that they are connected with the following themes and biblical stories.
  • Yahweh is the Creator God and hence the Genesis story, and hence all praise goes to him
  • The Exodus story, in which the righteous, just and faithful God graciously rescued his people from social, economical, racial and political oppressions
  • The Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, which is of course the greatest commandment according to Jesus, "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength." - And note how the next verse makes the heart the location of this love and how it is to be expressed, "These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts."
  • The new (renewed) covenant foreshadowed by Jeremiah and Ezekiel, that one day God would circumcise the heart of his people through the outpouring of the Spirit
  • This in turn has now been fulfilled through Jesus the Messiah and the indwelling Spirit in the life of the Christ-community, who seek to follow Jesus and his self-giving and love-filled way of life.
We can see how these passages can form the basis of a biblical theology of justice for the poor and oppressed. It is about the loving and faithful God, his gracious saving acts, and the demand for faithful discipleship on the part of the Jesus-followers.

(All of these passages are taken from the NIV2011)


Anonymous said...

I like how you've shown a common thread through multiple sections of Scripture. Have you read Tim Keller's Generous Justice? This is a great overview of why and how the Church should do justice, from an OT and NT perspective. He picks up some of the same things you did. Most of all I love the book's by-line "How God's Grace Makes Us Just". I think this is what's really at the heart of it.

SF said...

No, I haven't read it, Josh. I hope I will get to it one day. What I have written, I guess, is the result of some years of research on the Bible, reading on development literature, and years of personal experience of poverty. But of course I am not always right and so your comments are welcome.

How about this? In addition to"How God's grace make us just," add "How God's embrace inspires us to embrace; How Christ's sacrificial love compels us to love; How God's Spirit empowers us to love and embrace; How the future consummation of Shalom prompts us to live out his Shalom in our communities." We can add more. I think it takes more than one sentence to summarise the Scripture on this topic.