Mission: The Gospel of Social Justice, PT 1

justiceThe social justice movement is nothing new in the church- actually, it is part of what we do.  However, I’ve noticed a trend that I first saw in me and that is a terribly bad one at that:  I noticed that I had super-imposed a mission on the church that God did not.  As a result everything i did flowed from that mission.

Christians today often define “mission” in a plethora of ways and a big trend is to promote that the church’s job is to confront injustice and relieve suffering, and to redeem and restore the creation.
Others argue that  we could be in danger as a church for focusing too much on doing good in the world.

Like everything, especially everything Bible-based, there HAS to be balance.

Over the next several posts I want to go through the Gospel of Social Justice, and maybe see where we would’ve gotten off the road in our application of some of the texts of Scripture.

There are several flagship texts championed by proponents of the social justice buzz going around:

Leviticus 19:9-18
Leviticus 25
Isaiah 1
Isaiah 58
Jeremiah 22
Amos 5
Micah 6:8
Matthew 25:31-46
Luke 10:25-37
Luke 16:19-31
2 Corinthians 8-9
James 1, 2, 5

My personal aim is to go through these text and see what they’re really saying on the subject of social justice and how we apply them.

Let’s kick this off with Leviticus 19:9-18:

9 “‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.11 “‘Do not steal.“‘Do not lie.“‘Do not deceive one another.12 “‘Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the Lord.13 “‘Do not defraud or rob your neighbor.“‘Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.14 “‘Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the Lord.15 “‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.16 “‘Do not go about spreading slander among your people.“‘Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the Lord.17 “‘Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt.18 “‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.

This is probably not the most “famous” social justice passage by any means, but I’ve heard it brought up enough times to see it is significant.  The apex of this passage is really verse 18b:

but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.

Now, most of us know Jesus refers to this is Matthew 22:39 and Mark 12:31 as the “second greatest command,” right?  Paul and James also see this setting the pace of the rest of the “law” (Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14; James 2:8)

According the the NT, love is what fulfills the law – Love God, Love others.  Love is what we should extend tot he poor and to everyone else.  Leviticus 19 is amazing because its a loving God spelling out specifically how we should love. This isn’t pretty like 1 Corinthians 13.  People aren’t writing songs about this passage. People don’t release doves at their weddings to the reading of this passage.  It’s just practical stuff.

Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert see this passage applying love to five different areas of life, all of which are actually marked off in sections with the concluding remarks, “I am the Lord.” Let’s check it out.

1) Loving Others with Our Possessions (vv 9-10)

19:9-10 summarize a concept in the Old Testament known as gleaning – leaving some of your harvest remaining in the fields or vineyards so that the poor and immigrants could gather what was left over

The genius thing about gleaning is that it requires not only generosity on part of the land owner, but work ethic on the part of the poor. This isn’t a case of what we’d call a handout (though there is a place for that too), but rather it was an opportunity to work to eat.

I have to point out that it would be wrong to make the “gleaning laws” nothing more than a moral lesson on personal responsibility and work ethic.  The biggest takeaway for God’s people is that we are to be generous.  The principle at work here is this:  We must deliberately plan our money and resources so that there first off is extra left over, and second off, to give to those in need.

Don’t “reap to the edge of your fields.” Don’t spend everything just on you.  Think of those who have less than you and let some of your wealth go.  Don’t get every last grape off the vine for you, but leave something for others to benefit from.  Don’t be stingy.  Paul says we should work hard so that we, “may have something to share with anyone in need” (Eph. 4:28).

2)  Loving Others with Our Words (vv. 11-12)

Part of loving is being honest.  We see in this passage 2 scenarios where honesty is quintessential and sometimes less abundant than it should be.  The first command here is to not steal.  But the context suggests that the stealing is taking place because of lying – people were dealing dishonestly with each other as in a business-type setting. In contrast, God wants His people to love others by telling the truth in our transactions. Don’t cheat people. Don’t use faulty scales or weights or measures (vv. 35-36)

The other scenario is a courtroom.  Especially in a day without surveillance and DNA evidence, everything depended on witnesses. Here’ s why “bearing false witness” is such a crime in the Bible.  In this time period someone’s life might literally be on the line or ruined by a lie.  Love – whether for our neighbors or our enemies – demands we are careful and honest with our words.

3) Loving Others by Our Actions (vv. 13-14)

Verse 13 gives a classic and all-to-common example of oppression in the Scriptures:  not giving the agreed upon wage at the agreed upon time. Oppression was not the same as inequality. Oppression occurred when day laborers were hired to work for the day and at the end of that day the land owner stiffed on their pay. This was a really bad offense to a neighbor and before God, no least of all because the day’s wages was literally someone’s “daily bread.”  Their survival depended on making money for that day to feed their family THAT NIGHT.

The broader purpose in these 2 verses is that God’s people do not take advantage of the weak.  Don’t curse the deaf, even if they can’t hear you.  Don’t trip up the blind, even if they’ll never know who did it.  God knows.  If others don’t know the language where you are, or don’t understand the money system the be compassionate.  Don’t make a buck at someone else’s expense.

4) Loving Others in Our Judgments (vv. 15-16)

Verse 15 is an important verse to establish the fact that justice in the Bible, at least as far as the court system is concerned (but beyond as well), is a fair process, not an equal outcome.   “You shall do no injustice in court.  You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.” Again, this doesn’t mean we don’t care when people have less than we do.  This doesn’t mean we should be apathetic to the disadvantages many people have in life through no fault of their own.  However, it does mean that justice applies the law equally, where judges judge without partiality. It means you don’t take bribes or favor one over another.  You are honest, have integrity, and character, striving for justice, not just something that benefits you or one party – NO FAVORITISM.

Social justice in the Bible is reached through equal treatment and fair process, whether in court or in  a business.  No bribes or backroom shady deals.  No slanderous judgments.  No breaking promises or taking advantage of the weak. This, in my opinion, is what the Bible teaches about social justice. Ideally, justice is supposed to be blind, right (think of the statue of Lady Justice on the courthouses and US Supreme Court) with her eyes covered.  In fact, on the US Supreme Court the words “Equal Justice Under Law” are etched into the building.  Justice means there should be one standard, one law, for all people, not differential loopholes that favor or punish different people.

5) Loving Others in Our Attitude (vv. 17-18)

Love is real.  It’s tangible.  Its not ethereal or abstract. “You shall not hate your brother in your heart.”

It’s not enough to be polite on the outside while cursing on the inside or full of anger.  If you are angry or hurt with someone you should speak to them honestly but gracefully (Matt. 18:15-17).Work things out.  The brass tacks is that you are to love as you would want to be loved (didn’t Jesus say something like that?)  So we’re responsible not just to treat our neighbors right, but to make necessary provisions in our own lives and minds so our heart can feel rightly toward them too.

So in the end this great commandment to love your neighbor as yourself  (which is quoted in the NT more than any other) boils down to 5 basic, common-sense commands:  share, tell the truth, don’t take advantage of, be fare, and talk it out.

Simpler than I thought…but easier said than done.

I’ll talk about the Year of Jubilee next time!


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