Justice and the Christian: Justice and My Neighbor
Smith Hopkins | February 21, 2018
Now that we have a biblical basis for understanding justice, we turn in our series to doing justice. In this post we will explore who we are to do justice for. Much of this post is drawn from the writings of Timothy Keller in Generous Justice and Ministries of Mercy.
Why is doing justice for the poor and vulnerable difficult for us? Scripture's clarity on doing justice doesn’t always translate into our activity. Why not? What internal objections do you hear yourself saying?
They aren’t starving, the government gives them enough. He’s got a nicer cell phone than I do!
I have nothing to spare. After all we've done, we just can't do any more.
They got themselves into this mess. We’ve given too much for her to just waste it.
They need more than I can give.
My list could go on. Have you ever thought something similar? But the more I evaluate my objections, the more I realize that my problem with doing justice for the vulnerable is, more than anything and anyone else, a problem with me.
Who is my neighbor?
Who am I supposed to do justice for? Jesus was asked a similar question in different words. “Who is my neighbor?” The question may reveal more about us than the answer.
It seems to me that our problem is not that we don’t know the answer to this question. It’s that we’re afraid of it.
The simple answer is “everyone.” There’s obviously some truth to this. God will do justice for all. It’s simple, but that’s not easy. It’s overwhelming. It’s too big. So it can be paralyzing.
But there are more difficult, nuanced answers as well. For instance, as we’ve seen throughout this series, God’s justice is for all, but it’s especially for the vulnerable and the weak. God’s justice and his justice laws often single out for extra focus the disenfranchised of a society, such as widows, orphans, immigrants, and the poor. As the legendary puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards argued, “I know of scarce any duty which is so much insisted on, so pressed and urged upon us, both in the Old Testament and New, as this duty of charity to the poor.” This, too, is overwhelming and difficult to our sensibilities.
It’s not just the scale of God’s call to justice that’s fear-inducing; it’s the specificity of God’s call that scares us too. Everyone is more than I can help; the vulnerable are often those I'd rather not help.
In Jesus’ reply it was a Samaritan (see Luke 10:25-37). Keller captures the significance for us, “By depicting a Samaritan helping a Jew, Jesus could not have found a more forceful way to say that anyone at all in need—regardless of race, politics, class, and religion—is your neighbor. Not everyone is your brother or sister in the faith, but everyone is your neighbor, and you must love your neighbor.” From a kingdom of God perspective, the call to “love your neighbor as yourself” includes strangers, immigrants, and even enemies (cf. Matt 5:43-44; Luke 6:25-35; Rom 12:13-21; 13:8-10).
In this post I’d like to examine biblical principles and priorities for who the Christian is to do justice for.
The Church or the World?
Is the Christian to do justice for the church or the world? If necessary, which group should be prioritized? Obviously there are many factors involved here, but let’s focus in on the who rather than the what and why for now. Who, all things being equal, should be prioritized?
There is in Scripture a unifying principle in the OT and NT. Relationship means responsibility. Many passages command God’s people to prioritize caring for our own families first. For example, the OT concept of a kinsman redeemer shows that the nearest relative has responsibility in case of vulnerability and poverty (e.g. Lev 25:25). In Paul’s instruction concerning who Timothy’s congregation should prioritize, he writes, “if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim 5:8). Even widows, who clearly fall into the biblical category of vulnerable and worthy of generous justice, should be seen through the principle. Paul urges the church to require families to care for families, saying, “if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God” (1 Tim 5:4). What about widows with no family and great need? Well, that’s different (1 Tim 5:5ff). In those cases, the need is a matter of priority.
If families are our first priority, the family of God may be our second. In the OT, Israelites are commanded to step up and help “one of your brothers” who becomes poor. In this instance, brother refers not to the nuclear family but to the wider family of God (Deut 15:7). Israel’s laws were generous to outsiders, but they still prioritized covenant members in many areas. The NT does the same. For instance, many of the passages which call on Christians to do justice and mercy are specifically directed to “brothers and sisters” in the family of God.
- Jesus taught his disciples saying, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” When? “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matt 25:35-40, emphasis added).
- Paul makes the point plainly, “as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal 6:10, emphasis added).
- James writes, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (Jam 2:15-17, emphasis added).
- Or consider John’s words, “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17, emphasis added).
However, we must clarify the question we’re answering. We are asking, if all things are equal, who should we prioritize given our limited resources? In reality, things are never equal. In reality, there are greater and lesser needs, more and less immediate needs. As in the case of widows in 1 Timothy 5, priority of need often tops priority of relationship. It must also be said that our resources are rarely, if ever, as limited as we make it seem. We can easily make logical and biblical arguments about principles and priorities, meanwhile we have sufficient resources of time and money to help far more than we currently do.
Relationship means responsibility. Family is our first priority, followed by the family of faith. Then, in Paul’s words, “let us do good to everyone.” Christians have a duty to help the poor, not just of our own families and churches, but of the world. The mission of God reminds us that God loves the vulnerable and those far from him. The Gospels show Jesus as constantly seeking the outsider, engaging with enemies and strangers, such as the people of Syria (Matt 4:24), the long-time enemies of Tyre and Sidon (Luke 6:17-18), Samaritans (cf. John 4), and all nations. We carry on the mission of God and his Son not only when we care for those we are in relationship with, but when we pursue those far from God with restorative relationships.
Conditional or Unconditional?
Are Christians to do justice conditionally or unconditionally? In other words, who deserves our justice? When you put it like that, no one. Surely not me. I do not deserve God’s generous justice, and yet I have received it. No one deserves it, and yet he still gives it in the cross of Christ (2 Cor 5:20-21).Our justice, then, must be unconditional because God’s justice for us is unconditional. Freely received, freely give.
On the other hand, there are many times where actions of justice and generosity are given conditions. For example, Paul’s rule in Thessalonica is, “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” (2 Thess 3:10). Work is a condition even for widows. Paul says that widows must have “a reputation of good works” and must be “devoted to good work” (1 Tim 5:10). It’s not employment he’s looking for but integrity and service. Paul gives conditions at times to guard against abuses of generous justice—he is guarding against injustice.
But what do with these two opposing sides? Let’s keep in mind the goal of gracious justice. The end of justice is restoration. The act of justice is for transformation. If justice is moving people into a restored relationship with God and others, then it would actually be unjust to help someone in a way that deepened their selfishness to God and others. Our justice must initially be freely and generously given, but many times justice will require us to withdraw and place conditions, conditions for the goal of restoration.
We must let mercy limit justice. It’s too easy for me to let me limit justice. My own self-righteousness and selfishness can easily get in the way of working for the good of others. But if mercy limits justice the motive is still restoration. For any parents who’ve struggled to love your adult children well, you may know this better than anyone. Keller makes the point in Ministries of Mercy, “We may cut off our aid only if it is unmerciful to continue it. It is unmerciful to bail out a person who needs to feel the full consequences of his own irresponsible behavior.”
Answering Our Objections
What internal objections do you give? What holds you back from doing justice? Here’s a little exercise for you to practice. For every objection you raise, ask yourself two questions in response. 1) Am I loving as myself? 2) Am I loving as Christ?
They aren’t starving! This likely is closer to false than true anyway, but that’s beside the point. I would not treat myself this way, and Christ certainly did not. He empathizes with my weaknesses and reaches down in solidarity.
I have nothing to spare! Once again, this is closer to false than true. What we mean is that we can’t help without feeling a little pain ourselves. We can’t help without change or some modicum of sacrifice. By suggesting this objection I have proved to myself how I would want to be treated. Thank God that Christ did not look upon me in the Garden and say, "I have nothing to spare (without it affecting me)."
They got themselves into this mess! Are you sure? Once again, this is likely closer to false than true. God’s providence gives some sight and others blindness. Some have high functioning brains, and strong family support, with great schools and opportunity, and others do not. Through no choice or fault of their own, many people do not have the opportunities that I have enjoyed. Where I see misfortune for my mistakes, it's easy to see malice for the mistakes of others. But that’s actually beside the point. This is in no way how I would want to be treated, nor is it how Christ treated me.
Edwards answers these objection in his sermon, “The Duty of Charity to the Poor.” He writes, “Christ loved us and showed us great kindness though we were far below him so should we show kindness to those of our fellow men who are far below us. Christ denied himself to help us, though we are not able to recompense him, so should we be willing to lay out ourselves to help our neighbor, freely expecting nothing again. Christ loved us, was kind to us, and was willing to relieve us, though we were very evil and hateful, of an evil disposition, not deserving any good, but deserving only to be hated, and treated with indignation; so we should be willing to be kind to those who are of an ill disposition, and are very undeserving. Christ loved us, and laid himself out to relieve us, though we were his enemies, and had treated him ill.”
They need more than I can give. Yes they do. This is absolutely true. But you can help them take a step toward wholeness, toward the Giver of all good things. The goal of doing justice is to help move them toward the restoring relationship they need with Jesus Christ. And that is something you can give.