What Is the Lord's Justice?

EXECUTE: TO ENACT OR DO. Having grown up in inner-city Chicago, I have fond memories of red fire hydrants, swinging jump ropes, and church robes. During summer, the fire department would open the hydrants. Parents granted the petitions of children to run through the streams of water, soaking our clothes and cooling our backs. And while I never achieved the rhythmic agility to jump Double Dutch, I loved to recite the rhymes, which eventually helped me gain a verbal dexterity like that of my pastor. I wanted one day to have a robe like hers—one that signaled that the words I spoke revealed the reign of God.

Turn the clock back. Some children would hold very different memories of fire hydrants, ropes, and robes. In Birmingham, Ala., in1963, the force of the water injured petitioners for freedom. During the American Revolution, a Virginia justice of the peace named Charles Lynch ordered extralegal punishment for Loyalists to the Crown. The swinging rope became the tool of mob violence. And the “hooded ones” continue to use the label of “Christian” to make a mockery of the vestments of clergy.

Fire hydrants. Ropes. Robes. Execute: to eliminate or kill. Meaning conveyed to the hearer may not at all resemble the intention of the speaker. Often communication requires suspension of what we think in order to listen to the context from which the speaker shares. Reading is no easier a task. Sometimes the same letters forming the same word present entirely different meanings. Justice executed. What does it mean?

The context for the next four weeks exposes what the Lord’s justice requires.

Joy J. Moore is associate dean for African-American church studies and assistant professor of preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary in California.

[ February 2 ]
Fighting God in Court
Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12

IN A SHORT essay, firefighter historian Bruce Hensler laments our failure to acknowledge the moral courage of the Birmingham firefighters who, in 1963, refused to turn fire hoses on protesters. Many of the images we will see during Black History Month will remind us of America’s failures in much the same way as the first eight verses in Micah 6 recount the failures of ancient Israel. And rightly so. Often we focus so much on the verdict in verse eight (“do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly”) that we miss the evident failures in the 8th century B.C.E. practices that brought Israel into God’s court.

The controversy, presented as a complaint brought against God’s people by God, exposes the broken relationship between God and Israel and the broken community within Israel. The plaintiff questions: What has been done to so weary the people? The defendant is not the one described in Psalm 15, who can stand blameless in the presence of God. Instead, the defense catalogs all the sacrifices of the people of God—practices that in fact destroy the very essence of family, a metaphor often used to describe God’s relationship with Israel. Cruising along in the cultic customs of worship without authentic reverence for God’s covenantal faithfulness, the people have forgotten their past. This amnesia signals the irony that the one who brings the complaint has in fact enabled the freedom, independence, and secure life the people experience.

The scene plays out again in the first century C.E. John the Baptist serves as the accuser, and Jesus pleads the case of the guilty. Exposing the first century religious leaders as the “brood of vipers” who bear no fruit worthy of repentance, John pronounces them guilty (Matthew 3:8a)—as guilty for the “exploitive policies that generate wealth at the expense of the vulnerable,” says Walter Brueggemann, as those in Micah’s 8th century B.C.E. Yet the unexpected twist of Micah 6:8 recurs in the words of Jesus in Matthew 5. Jesus elaborates on Micah 6:8 when he describes what is good—to execute justice, to favor generosity, and to live in a way that demonstrates the reign of God.

[ February 9 ]
Are Lives Changed?
Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 112:1-10; 1 Corinthians 2:1-16; Matthew 5:13-20

SOMEBODY OUGHT to say something, demands the prophet Isaiah. A mere reporting of events is not enough, nor is the teaching of “doctrine” or other easy responses. Like ancient Israel in the midst of exile, today’s community of faith requires a word that, as Marvin McMickle puts it, “points out what we have become as a people ... [and] challenges us to return to the ways of our God, the way in which we had long ago promised we would walk.” The text describes a community whose religious rituals have divided them into combative factions (58:4). Someone must announce that disenfranchising those in need of welfare and ignoring the suffering of children and the elderly, even while keeping devotions and fasts, is rebellion in the eyes of God.

Even the words of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians discount the observations of the holders of conventional wisdom in favor of tangible evidence of God’s presence and power. Readily available one-size-fits-all programs reduce God to acceptable adjectives, diminish doctrines to political postures, and limit the gospel to propaganda. The characteristic of Paul’s effectiveness lies in a “demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Corinthians 2:1-5). Brad Kallenberg describes this as practical rather than theoretical. “[T]he evidence that Paul’s message was true was the changed lives of the Corinthian believers.” The mind of Christ exhibited in the character of the believer threatened the oppressive, hedonistic, idolatrous conventions of the culture.

The psalmist reminds us that generosity and justice will irritate the wicked, but those who favor mercy will “rise in the darkness as a light for the upright” (verse 4). It will not be claims of piety but practices of justice that evoke God’s blessing. According to Matthew, Jesus said the acts of grace that reminded Israel to practice justice will enable the world to glimpse the righteousness of God’s reign.

[ February 16 ]
Fire or Water?
Sirach 15:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8;1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

THE MORE THINGS change, the more they stay the same. Courthouse complaints continue to be lobbed between God and the people, as Paul now finds himself accused by the Corinthians of failing to instruct them properly. Paul’s response demands an entirely new understanding of spirituality. Turning their attention away from the pastors and teachers whose doctrines they follow, Paul names God as the one to whom all service is due. In his metaphors for the church, Paul does not describe an institution, but instead a “concrete community of people in a particular locality,” as Richard Hays writes. Hays cautions that “[w]herever ... apparently spiritual concerns fracture the community into special-interest caucuses or lead people into self-absorption with their own spirituality, the word of the cross needs to be spoken to recall the community to ‘the mind of Christ.’”

But the people lack the maturity that should distinguish followers of Christ from the merely religious. As misguided as their ancestors, they reveal their immaturity in programs and practices that gain the respect and favor of the rulers of the age. In Matthew, Jesus interprets the law and the prophets and extends the commandments even further than conventional wisdom holds. But why? Because God’s reign is about repairing relationships. Violent anger is more common than murder and such anger kills love (5:22). (Sirach 34:25 links with brutal elegance murder committed by the wealthy who take bread from the poor.) When we carry our anger to church (5:23-24), it is impossible for us to truly worship. As Warren Carter writes, “Worship without reconciled relationships is not possible.” Jesus exercises authority over the household laws and customs to call to account male privilege and lust. These sins, which start in the heart, cut to the most-intimate relationships. Choose wisely. Act rightly.

The instruction in both Sirach and the psalm asserts that to happily “walk in the law of the Lord” (Psalm 119:1) is as obvious a matter of choice as choosing between fire and water. The statutes of God are practices, not pronouncements.

[ February 23 ]
Neighborly Justice
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119:33-40;1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48

THE LORD SPOKE to Moses. So begins the Hebrew scripture reading from Leviticus, a book seen by many over the years as having little or no significance to Christians. As far back as Origen, interpreters avoid the seemingly alien and unwelcoming character of Leviticus, ignoring its practical instruction for ethical living that parallels both the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. On this single occasion where the lectionary encourages a glimpse into this ancient text, we see the pattern of God’s statutes in reverse sequence. In summary, human practices that reflect the holiness of God are those that execute justice for the marginalized, favor kindness toward neighbors, and consequently honor the reign of God. Could it be that the statutes that turn the psalmist’s eyes from personal vanity (119:37) are practices of neighborly justice?

Jesus tells us to “be perfect” as God is perfect; his words seem troublesome for those seeking to practice Christ-like behavior. Conventional wisdom chooses clan, tribe, or affinity group over the family member who affiliates with the wrong political faction, the victim of societal inequities, or the child whose lifestyle compromises our values. Does Jesus expect 21st century cordiality to extend to the unrighteous as well as the righteous? If one religious caucus attacks another’s beliefs, are they to resist online ranting while enabling legislation that provides for the homeless, hungry, and hurting?

It may be easier to avoid the cultural particularities of Leviticus and Matthew in favor of spiritualizing the charge to the Corinthians. But to do so is to be deceived. As Richard Hays reminds us: “Paul ... is not merely calling for epistemological humility, and the cultivation of an inquiring mind. Instead, he is calling his readers to take upon themselves the obedience of faith.” Such wisdom as Paul describes does not negotiate in the halls of power or trade in the marketplace of ideas. It practices a justice that enables the poorest to eat, avoids slander, and does not refuse the beggar. 

“Preaching the Word,” Sojourners’ online resource for sermon preparation and Bible study, is available at sojo.net/ptw.

Image: Hurricane lamp lights a wooden judge's gavel and Bible, justasc / Shutterstock.com

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