Love and Justice

Love has a unique place at the center of Christian faith. Jesus himself summarized the weight of the Old Testament commandments as love: love to God and love to others (Matthew 22:34-40)  Love, in 1 Corinthians 13 is the greatest of the three virtues of faith, hope, and love. Love is so primary to the nature and actions of God that the Bible summarizes him saying, “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 John 4:16). This list could go on at length. Love is the heart of the Christian faith and life.

The Bible also speaks at length about “justice.” The English word “justice”, in the Old and New Testaments often comes from a single word group in each that is also translated “righteousness.” There Old Testament Hebrew meaning, picked up by the New Testament Greek, carries a far more relational meaning than we tend to acknowledge today. A person is just or righteous based on his dealings with others. It is not primarily used to describe an inward, personal holiness.

Love and justice have an important relationship. Love can be understood as a commitment of the will, not as an emotion. Furthermore, it is a commitment of the will to the best interests of another even at great cost. So both love and justice are measured by our relationships with others.

“Mishpat” in the Hebrew is often translated as “justice” in our English Bible. At times, justice is seen in what we don’t do. Injustice is an abuse of another person. The Bible also takes the idea of justice beyond doing right (as in not doing wrong) to the place of an active “doing” of justice (as in Micah 6:8). To be just we must actively help meet the needs of those who most need assistance. In the scriptures orphans, widows, the poor, and foreigners are frequently named as those most vulnerable to abuse or mistreatment and to which God’s people are most responsible to support. To fail to meet their needs individually or collectively would be a failure of justice.

In places the Old Testament pairs two Hebrew words (both sometimes translated “justice”). The pairing of “tzedek” together with “mishpat” in the Old Testament provides a meaning akin to “social justice” in our usage today.

Justice, then, must be a result of biblical love which is a commitment of our will to the needs of another even at personal cost.

This idea of justice is personally challenging to me. It’s one thing to feel confident I am not personally wronging or cheating someone at work, at home, or in my other relationships. It’s another thing to think that I might be accountable to not helping those I could help. There’s nothing neat and tidy about following Jesus. He himself stepped into the world’s greatest problem (sin) even though he alone was not responsible or guilty of any wrongdoing. For the Christian, the crucifixion of Jesus the Son of God is the place where God’s love (commitment of his will at great personal cost) and his justice (punishment of evil and fulfillment of his promises) meet!

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