When most people think in terms of “justice,” they normally focus on “punishments” and “pay-back.”
We see it on the news almost daily: A person is injured or killed, and immediately there rises up a call for “justice.” Where there is a “wrong,” the call for “justice” usually focuses on retribution…revenge…my pound of flesh for suffering at the hands of another. This is a particular type of “justice,” often referred to as “retributive justice.” If you wrong me, I have (and often, I demand) the right to claim retribution under the guise of “justice.” Legally, such “retributive justice” is meted out. Last week, my wife was involved in a multi-car accident and the driver behind her was ticketed for driving too fast and too close. Once the dust settles, the company for whom the driver was working will have to pay out damages caused by a bad decision. Medical expenses and a new car will have to be paid for – because, after all, that is “justice” in the American legal system.
Biblically, however, the “justice” that God both demonstrates and demands is a different concept. God speaks and acts in terms of “distributive justice.” Where “retributive justice” seeks retribution, “distributive justice” seeks the righting of wrongs, the alleviation of suffering, and the uplifting of others as its primary goal. Thus, “distributive justice” shows mercy and extends acts of mercy toward others. Micah the prophet puts it this way: “[God] 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 6:3). Biblical “justice” calls on God’s people to see the need and take care of it; to see the plight and offer compassion and comfort; to see the people around us and lift them up for the Lord’s sake.
This past Sunday, I shared the story of Fiorella LaGuardia, mayor of New York during the days of the Great Depression and World War II. One evening in 1935, LaGuardia came to one of the night courts in the city’s poorest district. Relieving the night court judge, the mayor took his place on the bench for the evening. An old woman, poorly dressed and showing the wear-and-tear of life, was presented to LaGuardia, accused of stealing a loaf of bread. She didn’t deny taking the bread; but she shared the story of how her daughter’s husband had abandoned his wife and children. Her daughter was sick. The children were starving. She had stolen the bread to feed her grandchildren. The shopkeeper refused to budge; he demanded “justice” to be served. LaGuardia, obviously moved by the grandmother’s plight, had to announce what the law required: “The fine is either $10 or ten days in jail.” But even as he was pronouncing judgment, he had reached into his own pocket and laid the money on the bench top to pay the woman’s fine. But then, he also announced that he was fining everyone in the courtroom fifty cents as punishment for living in a city where a grandmother was forced to steal bread in order to feed her family. The bailiff collected $47.50, including fifty cents from the shopkeeper, which LaGuardia instructed be given to the bewildered woman. At that, everyone stood up and gave LaGuardia a standing ovation.
“Retributive justice” required that the legal punishment for wrongdoing be met; “distributive justice,” in the form of fining the courtroom in order to meet the needs of a struggling family, gave a “hand up” in order to prevent the need for anymore stealing.
In the OT, farmers were encouraged to leave a parcel of their harvest in the fields so that the poor could pick it and have grain for their food – an act of “justice.”
In the OT, the people were told to welcome and give hospitality to strangers since they, too, had once been strangers in a strange land – an act of “justice.”
In the OT, God constantly called upon his people to care for one another, especially those unable to fend for themselves – a call for “justice.”
In the NT, the early Christians received God’s grace with thanksgiving, and sold whatever they had to help whoever was in need – an act of “justice.”
In the NT, the lame, the blind, the deaf, the leper, the demon-possessed – all sorts and conditions of men and women were healed of their infirmities and restored to their place in society – all acts of Biblical, “distributive justice.”
In the NT, the churches of Europe took up offerings to relieve the needs of their brethren in Jerusalem – people they didn’t know and would never meet on this side of heaven – “justice” and mercy on display for all to see.
In Jerusalem, the church grew and the people respected the believers for living out the Gospel through acts of kindness and mercy and “justice.” In Rome, even while being persecuted for the sake of the Lord Jesus, early Christians saw to the needs of others and the plight of the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, and the like, and within generations, the Church persecuted became the Church tolerated, and then recognized. God’s Word and his people’s work came together as “justice” was demonstrated through love and compassion rather than just punishment and pay-back.