When Isaiah says, “Cleanse yourselves,” do you and I immediately think of justice for the poor and marginalized? I usually don’t. Instead, I think of my pet sins and my personal battle against them. In our last post we talked about judgment, and how to pray in light of it. Today’s post addresses God’s justice, and how to live in line with it.
This past Sunday I was reminded (once again) that my thoughts are not God’s thoughts. While I’m preoccupied with personal struggles, we might say God is “preoccupied” with the needs of those who can’t defend or provide for themselves.
Surprised? So was I. But it’s right there in Isaiah 1 for us all to see. First let’s read Isaiah 1:16:
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
This sounds like normal God talk. He wants us to be sincere about our faith, not just going through the motions, right? He must be upbraiding the readers for religious hypocrisy. So I start to examine myself. Why did I eat that yesterday? Gluttony sins. Why did I think that yesterday? Greed or envy sins. Why did I do that yesterday? Anger or laziness sins. I start my confession.
But wait. Isaiah doesn’t stop there. He doesn’t even pause:
…learn to do good;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause.
God is calling his people to account for community sins. Yesterday’s sermon, God of Justice, People of Justice, challenged my individualistic reading of Scripture in three ways. In doing so God’s word began to expand my heart to be more like his.
First, It’s Not Just About Me, But the Common Good
When you hear “seek justice,” do you think American politics? Probably your answer–like mine–is yes. We’re only a few weeks past a bitter election, and we can still taste it. But Isaiah is not talking to Republicans or Democrats. He’s addressing God’s Old Testament people. As his New Testament people, we, too, should sit up and listen.
Not only is God talking to us, he is indicting us! Yes, this is a courtroom drama. The Judge has summoned his people before his bench to question them: Why do you ignore the poor and needy about whom I care deeply? Why is your heart so small?
The answer for me is the same as for most Americans. I’m individualistic. I don’t naturally think in terms of “us” but rather in terms of “me.” It’s my default way of thinking, therefore it’s also my default way of seeing and hearing what is around me. When I read “you” plural, I always think it’s “you” singular, not just because of English grammar, but because of my individualism.
Who is God concerned about? A certain segment of “the common good”–the fatherless, the widow, the poor, and the needy. These ones fall through the safety net of society. They are often hidden, even invisible. They live on the edges, and are often treated as insignificant.
How do we know that justice for these folks matters to God? By how often he talks speaks of them:
- justice is mentioned 600X (5X in chapter 1 alone!)
- widows, 60X
- fatherless, 45X
- refuge, 50X
- the poor, uncountable 100’s of times
But God didn’t just talk about the poor. He came to live with them. Jesus was born to a carpenter, not a nobleman. When his parents presented him as their firstborn at the temple, they brought the sacrifice of the poor, 2 young pigeons (Luke 2:22-24, see Leviticus 12:8), because that was all they could afford.
Second, It’s Not Just Law, But the Heart
God calls his people from an individualistic faith to a communal faith. But that’s not all. He also calls his people from a legalistic faith to a generous faith. We are not to be stingy with our care for the poor, dotting every i and crossing every t. Instead we are to be lavish–as generous as possible, and even beyond what is possible.
We are to practice Generous Justice, the term Tim Keller used to join those two concepts into one. We might think “justice” sounds poles apart from “generous,” but in the believer’s life they are glued together. Why? Because when he bore our sins on the cross, Christ generously poured out his life to God’s satisfy eternal justice. As one reviewer said of Keller’s book:
God’s work of graciously justifying a person will inevitably result in the believer’s desire to be just and to do justice.
Legalistic faith is stingy and results in stingy obedience. Stingy obedience reveals the heart of a Pharisee, because it doesn’t reflect the lavish grace of our saving, justifying God. Saving faith doesn’t sit on the surface of our lives, but burrows into our hearts, unlocking and opening them.
Gratitude opens both our mouths and our pocketbooks. One New Testament example is the church in Macedonia. Although they were financially poor–as that mountainous region still is today–they were rich in faith. Why? Because God’s grace to them was so radical, it produced a radical response.
The God of grace didn’t delegate his saving work to anyone else, but clothed himself in flesh to enter our world. This lavish act of giving both motivates and energizes our own generous justice:
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.
2 Corinthians 8:9
The God of justice births a people of justice. It is the family resemblance. And then he sends us into an unjust world.
Third, It’s Not Just Charity, But Justice
Our gifts of money or goods to those in need are often called charity, coming from the Latin charitas which means love. We all know there are differences in how and what we donate to charity. Love might not have much to do with it. Sometimes we’re just cleaning out our closets, getting rid of things we no longer use.
Sometimes, however, our charity is more costly. We might strip down our possessions to the point where we have to do laundry more often to get by. Or when we purchase new items to donate or give sums of money large enough to cramp our lifestyle in some way. When love hurts, it feels more like the real thing.
An interesting contrast is the Hebrew word for this kind of action. It isn’t “charity,” it’s “tzedakeh,” usually translated “righteousness or justice.” According to the Centre Daily Times, “Some having plenty while others starve is a cosmic injustice. Regardless of our feelings of love for the poor, justice and righteousness demand that we help them.”
This is what we mean when we say, “It’s only right that I give this.” We are thinking of the dignity of the one receiving it. We are picturing them as an equal, a fellow human being created in God’s image.
How we treat them is how we treat the One they image.
I hope this meditation has expanded your heart as well as your understanding of Scripture this Thanksgiving Week. Our generous God has satisfied Divine Justice by giving his One and Only Son to bear our sin.
Having received this great gift of justice, may we learn to be a people of justice in this unjust world.
And may thanks be multiplied and passed around with the mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce!