Social Justice and the Gospel


I’ve never been a huge fan of the term “social justice.”

There, I said it.  And I will henceforth forever be disqualified from attaining my hipster credentials.

So much of what we today call “social justice” reminds me of Mark Twain’s insightful remark: “Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.”

I’m a bigger fan of simple justice, or, to coin a phrase that no one else will ever use, “Jesus justice.”

In Luke’s account of the start of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus famously announced his intentions.  He told the folks in his home town what he intended to do going forward.

[Jesus] went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom.  And he stood up to read.  The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him.  Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down.  The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:16-21, NIV).

At last, his audience must have thought, we, the oppressed people of God, are going to get the kind of justice we deserve.  And at last, these pagan nations that have been crushing us will get the kind of justice they deserve!

It’s important to remember when reading the gospels that Jesus is living and working in the midst of a people that had effectively been under foreign domination for roughly 750 years.  Think about it: 750 years ago, the world was still 230 years from Columbus way underestimating the size of the globe.  So from the time the Assyrians conquered Israel (722 BCE) to the time of Jesus (~AD 30) the bulk of Palestine was ruled by people other than the Jews, a few very brief stints excepted.

All that is to say that Jesus’ fellow Nazarenes are ready for a change, and they surely thought Jesus was announcing it. More than that, they were certain it meant their elevation and the Romans’ demise.

But JR Daniel Kirk reminds us that Jesus justice (what a great phrase!) works a little differently than we expect, for Jesus goes on in Luke 4 to cite incidents in the Hebrew Bible in which God blesses foreigners through the prophets Elijah and Elisha (Lk 4:25-27).  Those who praised Jesus’ good news a few verses earlier are surprised and ready to lynch him.  Kirk:

The scandalous implication of Jesus’s good news is that God’s promises to Israel will come as a blessing through Israel for the sake of the nations’ glory rather than coming to bless the people of Israel at the cost of the nations’ humiliation (Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?, 144).

Jesus justice (it just rolls off the tongue) doesn’t belittle one group in favor of another.  Jesus justice might bless one group, but that blessing is given to the one for the benefit of all.  Jesus justice is not a zero sum game.

Kirk again speaks of the culture of Jesus’ day:

In the first-century context, … the exaltation of Israel at the expense of Rome would be a perpetuation of the injustice already rampant on the earth–only now with a different perpetrator in charge (145).

To put this in contemporary terms, we might have imagined Jesus wandering into one of the Occupy Wall Street camps a couple years ago announcing the year of the Lord’s favor for the 99%.  The throngs would let out a cheer.  Those greedy bastards are finally getting theirs!

But then he might turn around, intersect a trader leaving the exchange and say, “Hey, what can I do for you?”  And the wealthy trader would say, “Well, my little girl is at Sloan-Kettering right now waiting for a blood transfusion.  I’m worried as hell.”  And Jesus would respond, “Don’t be afraid.  The cancer is already gone.”

The point is that in Jesus justice (aw, who am I kidding; it’s never catching on) there’s plenty to go around.  It’s meant for everyone, everywhere, at all times.


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