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  • Writer's pictureDr. Benjamin J. Williams

Perfect Practical Justice

The Return of the Prodigal Son by Bartolome Murillo, 1670

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)

Justice is the easiest virtue because it is intuitive. Children understand it at play. Breaking rules agreed upon by the group is cheating. Having an unreciprocated advantage is unfair. Simple.

And yet, justice is the most complicated virtue because of sin and human limitations. Sin has jaded our hearts and corrupted the avenues of our thinking, leaving us incapable of fully searching out justice for all. Likewise, human limitations prevent us from even having all the details we would need to be just, because we cannot know all ends or see all circumstances.

Still, despite this looming and inevitable failure, the instruction to be a just person is as ancient and essential to virtuous living as it is biblical and Christlike.

What Justice Is

Plato wanted justice to be the perfection of personal responsibility, “the having and doing of one’s own and what belongs to oneself” (Republic 434a). “To do one’s own business and not to be a busybody is justice” (Republic 433b). He assumes a hierarchical world wherein each person has a definable role. Aristotle adds that justice is doing what is “lawful and fair” and “proportionate.” In the same vein, Aquinas calls justice “rendering to each man his right” (Summa Part II-II, 58, 1).

These are helpful beginnings, but each lacks clarity regarding the system by which justice is measured. We would ask Plato: How do we know what part has been assigned to each? We would ask Aristotle: What if the law is evil and, therefore, obedience to it unjust? We would ask Aquinas: What is a right, and how may we know them? Or to ask Alisdair MacIntyre’s succinct question, “Whose Justice?”

Certainly, each philosopher would venture an answer to those questions, but we leave it to Augustine to include it into his definition.

For Augustine, justice is “love serving only God, and therefore ruling well everything else that is subject to the human person” (Of the Morals of the Catholic Church 25). Once God is placed at the center of the definition, then all other terms such as “one’s own,” “lawful,” and “rights” can be defined in Him. Outside of Him – to borrow Habermas’ oft-quoted phrase of – “everything else is just idle postmodern talk" even if it comes from Plato, Aristotle, or Aquinas (Conversation About God and the World).

The biblical picture of justice, commonly rendered with the word “righteousness,” is intensely practical. The metaphors employed are common pictures of business.

First, a scale and weights used for measuring value should be used for all persons alike. The point is repeated to the point of redundancy in the Hebrew Scriptures (Proverbs 11:1; 16:11; 20:10; 20:23; Leviticus 19:35-37; Deuteronomy 25:13-16; Micah 6:10-11). Whatever the value system, it must be the same for all, or else it is an abomination before God.

Second, justice is paying to each what is owed. Rendering to Caesar his own coin is only fair, as is rendering to God the creature fashioned in His image (Matthew 22:21b). Likewise, paying workers agreed upon amounts is reasonable even if they expect something different. In the parable of the workers in the vineyard, the employer states, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” (Matthew 20:13-15). Paul extends the concept of debt beyond economics to include respect and honor (Romans 13:5-10). The just disciple owes nothing except love.

Remember that “love” bit, as it should be revisited.

Additionally, like our courtroom statues, justice is blind to that which does not pertain to justice. The good looks of David’s brothers or even King Saul did not correctly measure these men as God saw them (1 Samuel 16:7). Likewise, the church is warned never to allow wealth or status to be a criterion of judgment (James 2:1-8).

What Justice Is Not

If Justice is giving what is deserved before God, then the absence of justice is giving less than is deserved. In the most excoriating section of James, he blasts the wealthy as “murderers” (James 5:6). Why? Like the employer of Jesus’ parable, they had hired workers and promised wages to day-laborers, men whose salary did not go to a trust fund but to a grocery stall. Unlike the employer of Jesus’ parable, those under James’ scrutiny had not paid up or had delayed the payment to continue gleaning interest on the funds.

“Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” (James 5:4).

We can be sure that the rich would have said that it was technically legal or perhaps just a clever business decision, but James calls it murder, and God knows it to be unjust.

The excess of justice is giving more than is deserved. When would that ever be wrong? It is an evil that once drowned the world. After the murder of Abel by his brother Cain, God exiled Cain from his home. Cain accused God ironically of injustice, “My punishment is more than I can bear” (Genesis 4:13). As a concession to Cain and to protect his own justice, God promised sevenfold punishment against any that would kill Cain (4:15).

Generations passed, and Lamech, the descendant of Cain, decided to improve on God’s justice. “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold” (Genesis 4:23-24). He had intentionally rendered out an excessive brand of justice, where more punishment was doled out than was deserved.

The result? Apparently, it was a catchy idea. “The earth was filled with violence” (Genesis 6:12). Of course, their imaginations were continually set on evil. They were crafting means for multiplying vengeance for every offense. After the flood, God restrains the vengeance of men with justice. The edict stating, “whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed” (9:6), was not intended to encourage violence but to reduce it, in the same way the twisted ban on Cain had been for his protection rather than a license for vengeance. Justice does not assess a more significant penalty than is warranted by the crime.

Jesus & Justice

Likewise, I believe that the life and teachings of Jesus have once again reformed a human corruption of justice. As Lamech had corrupted the law concerning Cain, humans have also corrupted the penalties of “an eye for an eye” type judgment. The law was intended to say that no more than is fair may be measured out, but we have taken it to be a license for as much violence as we can get away with. Jesus responds with the following.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:38-42)

The law was intended to restrain violence, not demand it. Justice can be met by other means, a type of justice perfected in Jesus at the cross when he forgives his murderers. Remember again Paul’s exception to debts, “owe nothing but to love.” Love is not injustice. As Augustine told us, it is perfect justice. Precisely because of Jesus, God is not unjust in forgiving us. The gospel story of Jesus reveals the very “righteousness of God” (Romans 1:16-17). God is perfectly just to forgive us in Christ, and by Christ, we now can be perfectly just in forgiving those who wrong us. “Bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3:13).

The only injustice here would be if we expected such loving forgiveness but refused it to others. Like an unmerciful servant, choking a man over 100 denarii when he has been forgiven 10,000 talents (Matthew 18:21-35), we who do not forgive are not just. We are wicked men to be delivered over “until we should pay all debt.”

Be not deceived. It is not a debt we can pay.

Ben Williams is the Preaching Minister at the Central Church of Christ in Ada, Oklahoma and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his new book Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.


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