Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Finding Justice in the Bible - Part 5

What I’ve been trying to do in the first few posts is form a Biblical notion of justice that is rooted in the image of God. Justice, so far, is rooted in what it means for us to be human and how we honor that humanity. First and foremost, justice acknowledges that everyone, male and female, is made in the image of God. Second, the image of God is a vocation; it is a calling to join with God in creating order and beauty in the world. Justice makes room for everyone to express their creative talents and desires freely in the world because God has invited us into that freedom. To be clear, injustice is anything that denies someone is made in God’s image. That denial often takes on various forms of slavery (chains, debt, addiction, etc.) or fails to draw out of people the creative abilities that God has given them (poor education, lack of basic needs, etc.). If this tree of justice is rooted in humanity, we also find that it reaches to the heavens.

Psalm 82 begins like this: God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

This is a powerful picture and a clarion call for justice. Like the surrounding cultures, this Psalm pictures the gods of the various nations convening for one reason or another. Like the surrounding cultures, the Hebrew Bible imagines its God to be the leader of the rest. Unlike the surrounding cultures, the concern is not with the failure of humanity to serve the gods. Rather, God bemoans the failure of the gods to serve humanity; to honor the image in which they have been made. In particular, the weak, the orphan, the lowly, the destitute, and the needy have been slighted by the gods. The gods have failed to judge justly, to give justice, to maintain rights, to rescue, and to deliver those who have been dishonored. As a result, God has been dishonored.

The picture is vivid for us now. When humans fall into desperate or lowly situations, justice demands that they not be allowed to stay there. As today, the world can be cruel especially to those who have fallen on hard times. Whether because of poor decisions or bad luck, there are always those who will have labels piled on top of them to add to their burdens. The gods see no reason to ease their needs because there seems to be little value with them and little that they can offer in return. “Not so!” says God, “Buried underneath all those labels and all those burdens is an image, my image. Do not withhold justice. Do not deny them their freedom to create with me.”

Once again, God is not like the other gods. The gods have no use for those who have fallen into poverty, who come to the table without great intellect or affluence. They have no honor in the gods’ eyes. In fact, the gods would rather honor the wicked because at least they are able to offer great sacrifices and wealth. God shows great concern at this state of affairs. His concern is for justice. That concern stems from the fact that some people are being denied their vocation to create freely in God’s world. God has gathered the gods to condemn their cold-heartedness and stir up their compassion. This would not be the last time that God calls for justice.

Echoing this heavenly scene of the Psalms, are the earthly voices of the prophets crying out before the kings and priests of the day. We will listen to their common refrain in the next post. It is my hope that you will see justice, not as a secondary notion, but as the primary desire of God’s suffering heart. God will not tolerate injustice and no ritual of worship is going to appease him. This is a crucial point to grasp and the prophets make it abundantly clear.

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