Let Justice Flow Like Rivers

(This is an introduction that scratches the surface of a big subject)

Richard Burgess, 14.06.2020.

We are living in critical, complex and strange days. What happens in one part of the world can quickly impact another. What’s important in one part of the world doesn’t make the headlines in another. 

  • We think of the Coronavirus pandemic which rapidly spread around the globe, the unlawful killing of George Floyd in the United States and the subsequent protests that have spread across the Western world, 
  • at the same time there are things that don’t make the headlines, like the increasing persecution of Christians and the destruction of churches in China as well as in other places, the latest ebola outbreak in the DRC, so we could go on… 

At the same time in the self-centred west we are living at a time where 

  • there is an ever increasing focus on me and my rights, with one persons rights frequently trumping anothers. 
  • increasing polarisation within society with discussion and debate descending into a farce as opinions are shared with no holds barred on whatever outlet is available, and hash tag wars.
  • when those who we disagree with are cancelled out by shouting them down, name calling, demeaning them or smearing their character by every means possible and demanding their silence. 

There’s nothing new under the sun

In Psalm 120 the psalmist talks about the distress and anguish of suffering from the words of deceitful people, people who have no desire for resolution but a fight where their intention is to trash you and thrash you – “Rescue me from liars, and from all deceitful people… how I suffer… it pains me… I am tired of living among people who hate peace. I search for peace, but when I speak of peace all they want is war.” And in verses 3 and 4 he speaks about how such behaviour backfires on such people, “O deceptive tongue…  you will be pierced with sharp arrows and burned with glowing coals.” In modern language, gun fighting breeds gun fighting, you live by the sword, you die by the sword. “The violence of the wicked will drag them away, because they refuse to do what is right.” Prov. 21:7. 

For all our advances in so many areas, there seems to be increasing division in how we think about life and do life together at so many levels – sadly that has been the nature of life throughout human history as generations come and go and new generations arise. 

The cry for justice

In the midst of it all across the generations there arises a cry time and time again, a cry for justice, justice for the poor, justice for the downtrodden, justice for the black, justice for the persecuted, justice for…. 

The great cry of the prophets of the old testament was frequently one of justice, perhaps the most familiar being in the words of Amos, “let justice flow like rivers and righteousness like an ever flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). In other words, ‘O let there be a free flowing abundance of it, not just a bit here and a bit there’.

Israel of all people were meant to be an example to the nations, a place where, under God, the poor, the despised, the neglected, the foreigner, the shouted down, the ‘cancelled out’, were recognised, honoured, and treated as fellow humans with the same opportunities, not like dirt, or nobodies. 

Jesus and justice

When Jesus began his public ministry like the prophets of old he raised the issue of justice as he proclaimed “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim the release of the captives, and that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lords favour has come.”

The problem for us is that we’ve made the gospel all about me and Jesus, me and my salvation, and there’s a place for that, the gospel initially addresses you, me, personally, it confronts us with our sin, sin that separates us from a holy, righteous and just God, sin that ruins our lives and that impacts the lives of those around us. It addresses our need to humble ourselves and repent, and put our trust in Christ as the only one who is able to save us because he came and lived the life we should have lived and died the death we should have died, and is alive today and able to save all who come to him….  Yes, Jesus is for all those who are busted up and broken by sin… you don’t have to get better, you come as you are… there’s mercy and grace in abundance for you….

That’s first base, and vitally important, but the gospel is far more than that. Its about a kingdom, a place or domain where God reigns, where his will his sought, and lived into, a kingdom that involves others, people from every tribe and tongue and nation, and all stratas of society, it is God’s new society. 

At Christmas we hear the words of Is 9:6,7, “For unto us a child is born, a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulders, his name shall be called…” then it goes on to speak about how he will uphold justice and righteousness… Then in Is 42:1-4 we read, “Behold my servant… he will bring forth justice… He will not fail or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth.” God is concerned about justice, And when he comes in Jesus it’s a big part of his kingdom manifesto. 

One of our problems is we see justice frequently in terms of punishment whereas in scripture its largely restorative justice, restoring dignity, worth, productivity, shalom… 

The Sermon on the Mount stands in the way of OT prophetic utterances calling people to not just being right with God, but living righteously and justly.

It talks about those who hunger and thirst for righteousness/justice… who are they? The people on the margins, those at the edges of our communities in need of care, the overlooked, the downtrodden… There is a world out there longing for justice even as they did in Jesus’s day. 

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you” (Matt. 6:33). The problem is we’ve interpreted these words to mean, I need to be a kingdom seeker so that I can be blessed – that I don’t think was the intention of Jesus. He wanted us to have a far bigger picture. 

The problem perhaps is in the way most of our western translations of the Bible translate the Greek word for righteousness (dikaiosune – de ki o soonay). This is a big word and translators have to work out how best to translate it. It can cover being right with God (that legal action whereby God makes us right with himself), living righteously (holy living), or justice. The noun and verb forms of this word occur seven times in chapters five and six of the Sermon on the Mount. So this is important. 

You see justice is an ‘others’ word. It’s not about you, me, it’s about the other person, my neighbour, my colleague, the down trodden, the despised, the persecuted, the rejected, the homeless, the abused, etc. no matter the colour of their skin, their social status, or their education. 

And so another way to read this verse could be, “seek first the kingdom of God and his justice and all these things shall be added unto all of you.” Its not then about my personal blessing, but the blessing of others. 

All that is said by Jesus in the Sermon against, anger, lust, divorce, retributive violence as well as proactively loving our enemies arises from God’s restorative justice, where reconciliation, restoration and renewal are the goal. 

Three things… 

1. Justice is important because we have all been made in the image of God – forget that and we are in trouble. Sadly we are living in such a world where God is not wanted, he’s been taken out of the story…. Justice in a godless world is a difficult subject, we have no one and nothing to guide us. 

This is first base in regard to justice. Everyone has been made in God’s image and is loved by God. 

Your husband, your wife, your neighbour, colleague, the police officer, the politician you disagree with, whoever… each are made in the image of God and as such we begin by honouring all no matter the colour of their skin, no matter their social class, no matter their education… no matter. 

2. Justice will always be something we wrestle with because we live in a fallen world, and even though we as Christians are new creations we are still carrying old programming and the possibility of a virus getting in. We can find partiality and prejudices creeping in and taking hold. I know it, I’ve felt it, I’ve done it. 

The temptation to respond in the world’s way. Jesus at times was tempted to respond in the world’s way by coercion and violence, but he rejected them. Genuine justice enters the brokenness of a sinful world and seeks from within to bring about healing and transformation, the restoring of lives and relationships and communities. 

3. Justice is something we should all be striving for… “Seek first the kingdom of God and his justice…”

Something we should deliberately seek. A kingdom thing. 

Remember the parable of the Good Samaritan, how he was robbed, stripped, beaten, and left half dead, then the ppriest then the levite, came along and passed by on the other side. Then a Samaritan..  The shock is the Samaritan is the hero not a Jew. What the Jew (and religious ones at that) should have done the Samaritan did. 

We need to… 

  1. Search our own hearts: In Psalm 139 David asks God to search his heart and see if there is any wicked or hurtful way in him. Do we have any prejudices lurking there? 
  2. “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for human anger does not produce the righteousness of God…” James 1:19. So easy not to listen properly just waiting to share our opinion…. 
  3. Seek justice wherever you can. Scripture says, “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, and plead the widow’s cause,” (Isaiah 1:17). And again, “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?” (Micah 6:8).  

Action points

  • Honour all! honour all as those made equally in the image of God…. Your husband, wife, parents, colleagues… Before you say or do anything, ask yourself, do I honour this person…
  • Listen, really listen… to listen is to love, and to listen is to learn. 
  • Think before you speak… put your brain into gear before you engage your mouth, or tweet that thought, or put it on Facebook, message that person, write that email etc…. Think twice, leave it overnight, read it again… 
  • Pray, ask God to search your heart… root out any prejudice… pray for the other person… 
  • Spend time with people who differ in thought, background, culture… enter someone else’s world… their culture… seek to understand… 
  • On larger issues, do the research… 

We have only scratched the surface of a very big topic, my prayer is that it will be a stimulus to discover and learn more, that we might seek first the Kingdom of God and his justice more effectively in order that others may be all that God calls them to be.

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