The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached in November 2021*
Sermon Audio: Do Justice (Micah 6:6-8)
Our culture is incredibly serious about justice. While every culture is serious about justice—you’ve never seen someone out protesting because there was too much justice—it seems like our culture today has elevated it up to the stratosphere. We now have the ominous phrase batted around commonly today: this is a justice issue. Everything from what businesses you support, to what kind of flag you have waving in front of your house, to what kind of response you have the moment a national tragedy strikes—all of these now are commonly filtered through the lens of “justice.”
This week we have witnessed one of the most fascinating examples of how fraught conversations about justice have become in our country. Kyle Rittenhouse is on trial for shooting three men, killing two of them, last Summer in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Rittenhouse, who was 17 years old at the time, claims he was acting in self-defense—that he was being attacked by a group of people (one of whom was armed with a gun) and feared for his life. Thus, to charge him with homicide, which could put him in prison for the rest of his life, his attorneys argue would be unjust. On the other side, the prosecutors claim that Rittenhouse travelled across state lines to come to Kenosha, illegally possessing an AR-15, with the intent of shooting protestors, thus the act was premeditated, deliberate. They claim that Rittenhouse was the aggressor, pointing his rifle at protestors, that this wasn’t merely self-defense, and thus to acquit Rittenhouse would be unjust.
But zoom out one degree and you’ll see even more confusion. Rittenhouse claims he travelled to Kenosha to protect property from being looted or destroyed. A few days prior, Jacob Clark was shot by police officers, fueling city wide protests, riots, and looting. To Rittenhouse, wanton destruction and looting of property by rioters and protestors was wrong, was unjust. So unjust, that he believed he should go out of his way to stop it. But, to the protestors pouring into Kenosha after the shooting, another example of white police officers shooting another black man—when the summer had seemed to be nothing but one African-American being shot or killed after another—standing idly by while more George Floyd’s and Breonna Taylor’s continued to happen was unjust. So unjust, that it warranted them sending a message that as long as there was “no justice” there would be “no peace.”
And the deeper you continue to push into this issue, the more of a divide you see. There are those who defend the police officers in the shooting as being those who upheld justice, who believe the shooting of Clark wasn’t only permissible but right. And there are those who believe with just as much certainty that it is a prime example of injustice, that it demonstrates that our society is undergirded by systems and structures that are unjust. I am not attempting to wade into the details of those arguments or evaluate what is happening in the court room this week, I only want to demonstrate the complexity of this issue for us today. Here we have two groups of people, both of which claim to be motivated by justice, and yet arriving at completely opposite conclusions. This is because “justice” in many ways is an empty concept, meaning it cannot be appealed to without definition. Everyone believes that they are motivated by justice.
So what are we to do? In the book of Micah we have seen how the nation of Israel, particularly its leaders, have been perpetrators of injustice, and this has warranted God’s judgment. What has been particularly heinous is that these prophets and priests and judges have been crushing the vulnerable underneath them, ignoring God’s commands to act justly, but still patting themselves on the back because they continue to make offerings at the temple, so God must be happy with them, right? Wrong. God is not pleased by perfunctory religious acts while Israel’s hands are stained with blood. Let’s turn to Micah and see if God’s Word may provide some guidance to us to discern what a Biblical vision for justice looks like.
With what shall I come before the LORD,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Temple worship is worthless if devoid from justice, kindness, and humility. God is not interested in our spirituality, our religiosity, if it is separated from the weightier matters of the Law. A passage that has been immortalized in our country’s mind from the reverend Martin Luther King Jr. details this:
“I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
I will not look upon them.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Micah tells us what is “good,” what the Lord requires from us, and part of that is to do justice. But if we are to pursue justice, this requires us to ask, what justice is.
One of the reasons there is great confusion today is because, like I said, the term “justice” is an empty concept. There is a fairly shared assumption that justice is “giving someone what is due them.” But the sticky part comes when we try to decide what, exactly, are people due?
This is the dilemma our society is in today: we assume that what people are due is immediately obvious to everyone, but it isn’t. Michael Sandel, a Harvard Law Professor, in his book Justice, explains that in modern society today there are basically three competing visions of justice. One could be called the “Maximizing Welfare” view, and it believes that justice is whatever maximizes the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people. Another view would be the “Individual Liberty” view, which believes that true justice is permitting the greatest amount of freedom to the individual, so long as they don’t impinge on the freedom or rights of others. Lastly, there is the “Virtue Ethic,” which explains that justice occurs when people act as they ought to act, in accordance with what is moral or virtuous. Each of these different visions of justice lead to sharply different conclusions about what is just, about what different persons are due.
For instance, if a woman is contemplating lying to her husband about an affair, the Maximizing Welfare view will weigh the consequences of the action itself—will lying lead to the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people? Perhaps she believes it will, so she decides not to tell him. But the Individual Liberty view looks at the dilemma differently—does lying impinge on her husband’s freedom and respect his rights? And the Virtue Ethic looks at it even more differently; it doesn’t matter about the consequence of the action, is the action itself right? The dilemma underneath all of this, of course, is the need for a definition of what is right, what is good.
This is why in the Bible the understanding of what is just, what is right, relies not on human speculation but on divine revelation. Look back again at Micah 6:8, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” He has told you. What does that mean? It means that God has laid out in His Word what “good” is, so if we want to understand how to do justice, we need to look at what God has said.
In the Old Testament the word for justice is the word mishpat. It is a holistic term that can sometimes simply refer to a rule or law, sometimes to a judgment or a verdict, and sometimes to what is correct or right. It often has the sense of the common understanding of justice: rendering to someone what is due them, giving them what they deserve. But there is a more abstract meaning—when Micah tells us to simply “do mishpat,” it doesn’t refer to doing the act of judging or practice what is technically correct. It is referring to a grander notion of what justice holistically looks like. Let’s look at God’s Word to illuminate this for us.
Justice Begins with God
Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” – Gen 18:25
This is a foundational text. This is where Abraham hears that God is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, and he pleads with the Lord to spare those in the city who are righteous. Abraham is confident that the Judge of all the earth shall always do what is right, what is just, what is mishpat. So here we see obviously that to put the righteous to death with the wicked would be a violation of justice, but more importantly we know that whatever God does is just. And His justice is displayed in rendering to each what is due—which meant the sparing of the righteous, Lot and his family, and the destruction of the wicked (Sodom and Gomorrah).
The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he. – Deut 32:4.
If we are to know what justice is we must find that in God and His ways. His character is the perfect disclosure of what is right, of what is good. So we shouldn’t think of justice as something arbitrary that God has chosen, the way you may set up rules for a gamy on a playground—the rules of the game aren’t just in themselves, they are just the rules you have chosen. God has randomly set up certain laws and rules as just; they are rather a disclosure of His own goodness. And on the other side, we shouldn’t imagine there being a standard of “justice” above God that God conforms His laws to, the way you may look at a object as you attempt to trace it on paper. God’s laws, His standards for justice are not just because there is a standard God is tracing—they are a disclosure of God’s character, His ethical and moral purity, His own goodness. This is the answer to the classic Euthyphro dilemma that confronts Socrates. Is an act pious or good because God has arbitrarily chosen it to be so, or is it good because God has conformed His Law to a higher ideal of “goodness”? God has not arbitrarily chosen what is just and He has not conformed His notions of justice to some higher ideal which He has submitted to. Rather, God’s standard for justice is a disclosure of His own character as it is revealed in His Word. Thus, a more expansive definition of justice could be: God’s goodness in response to a fallen world, rendering to each person what they are due in punishing wickedness and rewarding righteousness.
Justice and the Image of God
Obviously, God is our Creator, we are His creatures, so we have an asymmetrical relationship. We shouldn’t think that since everything God does is just, that means that whenever we do exactly what God does, it too is just. While it is just and right for God to receive praise and worship, it would be profoundly unjust, unrighteous for you or I to try to do the same. So, justice for God is a disclosure of His goodness in rendering to each person what they are due in punishing wickedness and rewarding righteousness. We obviously cannot practice justice in the exact same way that God does—we do not have the authority to reward and punish in the same way God does. But what then does it mean for us to “do justice”? If justice is displayed in God’s character, then we should expect our efforts of justice to mirror God’s ways to some degree. In fact, there is precisely a kind of mirroring, or imaging of God’s justice found in the doctrine of the image of God. We are told in Genesis that all humans are made in God’s image (Gen 1:26). The image of God is both an inherent quality that each person has, and an inherent vocation that all people are called to.
“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image,” Gen 9:6. Why is it wrong to commit murder? (1) Because we are made in God’s image, and God does not wrongfully take life (murder)—so when we murder we are not imaging God, we are not reflecting His mishpat. (2) Because the one murdered is made in God’s image, so when we do violence to other image bearers, we in some way do violence to God Himself. When David sins by sexually assaulting Bathsheba and then murdering her husband, Uriah—serious, serious sins against both Bathsheba and Uriah—when David later repents and writes Psalm 51, he explains: “Against you, you only, have I sinned,” (Ps 51:4). Of course, he sinned against both Bathsheba and Uriah, but in his sin against them David sees that by sinning against these image bearers He has sinned against the One whose image they bore. So, if justice is a disclosure of God’s goodness in giving people what they are due, either in rewarding the good or punishing the bad, and we are made in God’s image, this means that we should render to each one what they are due, either in rewarding the good or punishing the evil.
This is why one of the most significant indicators of true justice in the Bible is impartiality. True justice is rendering what one is due—good or bad—in accordance with God’s own goodness, His own standard. But if are partial we do not let God’s standard, His goodness serve as our guide, but our own preferences. Listen to Deuteronomy’s warning:
You shall appoint judges and officers in all your towns that the LORD your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous. Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the LORD your God is giving you. – Deut 16:18-20
Justice can be perverted, which means that image bearers are deprived of what is due them, which means God is sinned against because we sin against image bearers and we because we fail to rightly mirror God’s own character. “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe,” Deut 10:17.
Justice for the Vulnerable
The supposed impartiality of justice we see presents an apparent problem with what the rest of the Bible tells us about God’s particular care for the most vulnerable. For instance, the rest of Deuteronomy 10 says:
For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. – Deut 10:17-19
Does this contradict the idea of God being impartial? Why does God so often speak about justice for the vulnerable? “You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in his lawsuit,” Ex 23:6. Or, even more strongly, “‘Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen,’” Deut 27:19.
Shouldn’t we be worried about perverting justice for all people? It is common sometimes today for people to believe one of two opposite extremes. One, they can believe that any inequity of outcomes are necessarily evil and must be remedied. This is the view that understands any minority must be a victim who has been oppressed and therefore needs special, preferential treatment to tilt the scales in their favor—this view really cares about minorities, but seems to contradict the idea that justice should be impartial. The other opposite extreme denies that minorities or marginalized people groups aren’t at a disadvantage in society or are not necessarily prone to be victims of injustice anymore than anyone else. Therefore we shouldn’t be giving any preferential treatment to minorities, or the socially disadvantaged. This view really cares about impartiality, but seems to lose sight of the emphasis the Bible places on the vulnerable.
The Bible doesn’t teach that anyone who is a minority is inherently more righteous or deserving of a special partiality where justice is bent to favor them. “You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the Lord your God,” Lev 24:22. But the Bible does teach that all people are made in God’s image, and the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant are most likely to be treated as if they are not made in God’s image, are most likely to be victimized because they lack the power, wealth, or social station that others may have.
How you treat those at the bottom of the social heap reveals what you believe about whether or not you believe people are made in God’s image. This is why Proverbs tells us:
Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him. – Prov 14:31
A righteous man knows the rights of the poor. – Prov 29:7
How you treat those at the bottom of the social heap reveals whether or not you really are just. You don’t need to believe people are made in God’s image to treat the wealthy and powerful well, but you do for the poor. So, the Bible does not provide a vision for justice that is lopsided towards giving preferential treatment towards those who are disadvantaged to the detriment of others, but rather puts particular emphasis on those who are far down the social ladder so that they may be protected from the most common and worst abuses of injustice that happen, to keep them from being treated as if they are not made in God’s image.
Justice and Grace
“You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge, but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this,” 24:17-18.
Israel is to recall that they were once slaves set free, and this is why they are to “not pervert” justice to the immigrant, to the fatherless, or the widow. It is the past display of God’s grace towards them that motivates them to pursue justice. Likewise, Paul tells us, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly,” – Rom 5:6. Jesus teaches us that it is the poor who are blessed, it is those who hunger and thirst who are filled. We are to remember our own poverty, weakness, desolation and look at how God responded to us–He welcomed us in, paid our debts, and made us a part of His family. And in light of the abundant grace, we now are to go out to the most socially disadvantaged, the poor, the homeless, the single mothers, and we are to draw from our own experience of receiving grace as a means by which we then extend justice and aid to those around us.