The Hebrew word for justice, mishpat, occurs more than 200 times in the Old Testament. It relates to the equitable treatment of all people, regardless of social status or race. In Old Testament times, neglecting the needs of the vulnerable was a violation of mishpat. I think the sheer number of times it’s mentioned shows that God is kind of crazy about justice! It’s central to the character of God and, therefore, love. That means:
- God is fair and impartial (Job 34:12).
- God can and will judge between right and wrong (Romans 2:6).
- God hates the mistreatment of the things which He has created (Proverbs 6:16-19).
- God takes up the case of the vulnerable (Psalm 140:12).
And he commands the same of us. Micah 6:8 says:
“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?” ESV.
God has given humanity a massive duty of care when it comes to His creation, and unfortunately we are not always the most responsible line managers. Even as Christians we do not always behave in a way that lines up with God’s just character. But as we seek to be more like Jesus, we should be looking for opportunities to fight for justice. We must consider that as Christians we are walking, talking demonstrations of who God is. We proclaim the Gospel with our lives. Many people never open up a Bible or listen to a sermon. So they won’t know that God sets the oppressed free unless they see Christians doing it. When we turn away from issues of injustice, what does that say about the God we follow?
Our society is not particularly compassionate to the poor. Poverty is either a) unfortunate but inevitable (i.e. there’s nothing I can do about it), or b) your own fault (i.e. sort it out yourself). Find me an example of Jesus taking those attitudes. Jesus loved the poor. It was the poor He preached the Gospel to (Luke 4:18). In fact, Jesus’ very purpose on earth was to pull us all out of our own impoverishment – that of the spirit. He didn’t point a finger at us and say “you’re not trying hard enough to step out of sin, you could if you wanted to, you’re just lazy”. He didn’t say “awww, that is absolutely heartbreaking, I wish there was something I could do”. He stepped down to our level and gave us the ultimate leg-up, laying down His life in the process. We’re all needy in one way or another. Are we to sneer at, or simply ignore, another person’s need just because it’s different from our own?
And we mustn’t be cute about this issue; if God’s siding with the poor and the downtrodden, then He’s siding against those that are doing the down-treading! In the Book of Amos, God explains that He’s stopping the people from flourishing because they’re doing it at the expense of others. In chapter 5:11 He says:
“You trample the poor,
stealing their grain through taxes and unfair rent.
Therefore, though you build beautiful stone houses,
you will never live in them.
Though you plant lush vineyards,
you will never drink wine from them.” NLT.
It shows that God’s not afraid to take action in His defence of the vulnerable. And never make the mistake of thinking you’re blame-free because you’ve never personally trampled the poor.
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” Desond Tutu
That’s something to think about. Especially since God’s going to be looking at how we’ve handled injustice right up to His final judgement. We’ve established that God stands with the oppressed. He takes on their plight and includes Himself amongst their number. So however we treat them, that’s effectively how we’re treating God:
“I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.” Matthew 25:45. NLT.
Think about what that means for a moment, in terms of your own efforts. Praising God but standing back and allowing suffering is kind of hypocritical, right? That’s not lost on God, either. Back in Amos 5 (v.21-24), He says:
“I hate all your show and pretence—
the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies.
I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings.
I won’t even notice all your choice peace offerings.
Away with your noisy hymns of praise!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice,
an endless river of righteous living.” NLT.
God would much rather you enact justice than sing Him songs, so much so that He’ll put His fingers in His ears while the band’s playing! We see God’s priorities clearly displayed here, but ask yourself: is justice the priority in your Christian life?
Injustice is a many-headed beast that you cannot possibly fight all of. And we’re all different people bringing different things to the table, so my fight probably could not – and should not – look the same as yours. But there are always things we can do. It could be using your time, money, skills or authority. It could be a huge problem thousands of miles away – like women’s rights in the developing world – or it could be befriending that lonely person no one seems to have time for. If you prayerfully ask and are willing to step out, God will give you eyes to see the needs around you, a heart of passion for particular issues, and doors of opportunity to make a difference (Philippians 2:13).
For many of us in the West, a key thing is changing our material consumption so it’s more ethical. So much of our affluent lifestyles indirectly supports injustice, like unfair employment in supply chains. The Book of James (5:1-4) has some powerful words on that topic:
“Look here, you rich people: Weep and groan with anguish because of all the terrible troubles ahead of you. Your wealth is rotting away, and your fine clothes are moth-eaten rags. Your gold and silver are corroded. The very wealth you were counting on will eat away your flesh like fire. This corroded treasure you have hoarded will testify against you on the day of judgement. For listen! Hear the cries of the field workers whom you have cheated of their pay. The cries of those who harvest your fields have reached the ears of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.” NLT.
The language is strong, but the more of the Bible you read the more you realise that’s just how intensely God feels about injustice. He condemns it over and over again, He instructs us to fight it over and over again. It should cut us up big time, and all too often it really doesn’t.
So I challenge you to look around you at the world and see Jesus in the face of every suffering person. And then don’t just say “that’s sad”. Do something about it. And remember that whatever you do to work for mishpat, you’ll have the most powerful force in the universe on your side.