oday we are going to finish our series where we’ve been looking at the words that we use in the church that may be the same words that are used in the world outside the church but that often have a very different meaning here. So far we have looked at words like sin and faith and repentance and I hope you have discovered something about what those words mean and what they can mean for us as we work out our Christian lives.
Today, as the climax of this series, I have a very special word for you. It is so special, in fact, that it is two words for the price of one. The two English words that I offer to you today are justice and righteousness.
Now, I imagine that those are two very different words in the minds of most of you. Righteousness is a word that we most often apply to people or to their actions. A righteous person is a person who always does the right thing, who makes correct and moral decisions.
We usually talk about such righteousness as a good and positive thing in the church because, of course, we do try to encourage people to live in the right ways and to make good moral decisions, but righteousness is not always seen as a good thing outside these walls.
For most people outside of the church (and, let’s face it, a good number of people inside the church) – righteous is a synonym for stuck up, prudish, hypocrite, wet blanket and spoilsport. It means somebody who is too good to be of much use to anybody. If you describe somebody as righteous, the most common reaction will be for people to not really want to have anything to do with that person. The notion of righteousness has, in our modern society, definitely fallen on hard times.
The other word I want to look at today is justice. Justice is a much more positive word in our modern society. It is most often defined in terms of crime and punishment. When a crime has been committed, that is when you most often hear people making calls for justice to be done. And, of course, there is a great deal of satisfaction to be found when something terrible has happened and the persons who are responsible receive what seems to be fair punishment.
Such justice is not always completely satisfying, of course. If a terrible crime, such as a murder, is committed, we may be glad to see the perpetrator punished but we also recognize that even the sternest of sentences – even the death penalty where it still exists – cannot entirely satisfy. After all, no punishment, no matter how severe, can ever bring back a murder victim. For most of us, justice may be a good thing, but it is really only a way to make the evil of the world a bit better. It doesn’t make the evil go away.
So there you have two words, righteousness and justice, about which we may have some mixed feelings. We would see them, however as two very different words with quite different meanings. Now, what if I were to tell you that the Bible only has one word? There is a word in the Bible that is sometimes translated into English as righteousness and sometimes as justice, but is just one word in the original languages. This is true both in the Hebrew of the Old Testament where the word is tsedeq and in the Greek of the New Testament where it is dikaiosunē.
Think about that for a few moments. Every time you are reading in the Bible, and you come across the word righteousness, the people who translated that verse made a choice and could have used the word justice. And every time you see justice, it could have been righteousness. How might that change how we read some of our most well-loved passages?
But an even more important question is what did that word – the original Hebrew or Greek word – really mean to the people for whom the Bible was written? And I think that that question can best be answered by taking a look at our Psalm reading this morning. Psalm 82 is, in many ways, one of the strangest chapters in the entire Bible. It presents what appears to be a meeting of what is called the divine council. God – the God of Israel – is there and is clearly presiding over the meeting. But there are other figures at this meeting and the strange thing is that they are all identified as gods. This is something that marks this Psalm as very strange in the biblical tradition which is generally quite insistent that there is only one God and that any other gods that people identify are merely false gods or idols.
There are, however, a few biblical texts like this one that speak of the relationship between the God of Israel and the gods of other nations in the way that we see in this psalm. It is perhaps a throwback to older ways of thinking before that strong strain of Jewish monotheism fully developed. Or perhaps it was never really intended to be taken literally. After all, remember that a psalm is poetry.
The message of the psalm is very serious, whether you take it literally or not, because in it we see God judging the gods of these other nations of the earth and condemning them – even threatening them with death. Why? There is really only one reason: justice, that very special word that is, in Hebrew, tsedeq. God condemns the gods of the other nations for their failure to act in justice. So, when God tells them what they have done wrong, we have a perfect description of what, in God’s eyes, justice is really all about. “How long will you judge unjustly, God asks, “and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
So here we see what tsedeq – justice and righteousness – really means to God. It is not primarily about individuals being upright and pure and moral, though it does include that. And it is not primarily about criminals being fairly punished for crimes either, though it does include that as well. The justice that God is particularly talking about is mostly about how certain groups in society are treated – specifically the weak, the orphans, the lowly, the destitute and the needy. That is what God is criticising the gods of these other nations about, their failure to protect and provide for those sorts of people.
So tsedeq (justice and righteousness), as defined by the Bible, is first and foremost about how people are treated in society. It is about treating people fairly and as equally as possible. And since there are some people in society (such as the rich and the powerful) who have certain advantages and often prosper at the expense of the less powerful, justice often looks like someone going out of their way to protect or support the weakest, poorest and most marginalized members of society.
This kind of justice also has its basis in the very nature of God. The reason why, in the psalm, the God of Israel is able to criticize the gods of these other nations is not because his nation is stronger than theirs. On the contrary, Israel was a rather insignificant nation in world affairs at that point in history. Nevertheless, God may judge and condemn the gods of these other nations because God knows what real justice is. In fact, the very definition of justice is found in the nature of God.
The Prophet Amos understood that that was what God really wanted. He looked around at the people of his own day and this is what he saw. He saw people who were trying to look righteous. They were doing the kinds of things that made them feel like they were better, more religious and more pious than other people. They were doing the things that, they thought, would make God approve of them – things like observing holy festivals and solemn assemblies to talk about righteous things. They were offering burnt offerings to demonstrate how good and righteous they were. But they were not doing justice. In fact, Amos observed that they were doing the very opposite of justice as God saw it because they were profiting and enriching themselves at the expense of some of the poorest and most marginalized people in their society.
That is why Amos knew that he could speak to them and rebuke them in the name of God. He told them what God thought of their so-called righteousness: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them.” God clearly doesn’t care for what this world often thinks of as righteousness – at least, not for the outward showiness of it all. What God does desire, Amos says, is clear, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Just realizing that there is only one word in the Bible that is translated sometimes as justice and sometimes as righteousness is something that can actually revolutionize the way that you read your Bible. For example, take this well-known and well-loved verse that we read this morning from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel. We read it in a translation that is probably quite familiar to most of us. Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
You know, I always thought that I knew what that verse meant. It meant that if you sought to be righteous – if you did your best to always do the right thing, to be pure and spotless and maybe better than other people, you would be rewarded. You would get the righteousness you were looking for and you would receive a reward from God for your dedication to what was right. And yes, it does mean that. But is that what Jesus (and the gospel writer) primarily meant for us to understand?
Remember that that word that is translated as righteousness is the word dikaiosunē– the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word tsedeq. That means that the verse could have equally well been translated as, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled.” That is to say that those whose greatest desire is the kind of justice that God was demanding from the gods of the other nations in Psalm 82 – the kind of justice that particularly consisted of protecting the weak and helping the poor and saving those who had no one to help them – that these are the ones who are blessed. Somehow I think that Jesus may have had more of that side of the idea of justice in mind when he said this.
I mean look at what Jesus went on to say from there. Jesus ends this whole part of his sermon by saying, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” And, once again, the word that is translated as righteousness there is the Greek word, dikaiosunē. Now what, exactly, did Jesus think that people might be persecuted for? Was he predicting that you would be persecuted for doing the right thing, for being pure and better than everybody else? Well, sure, perhaps. That might happen sometimes.
But isn’t it a little bit more likely that you will run into persecution because you are working for justice? Think, for example, of Martin Luther King Jr. thrown in the Birmingham City jail. Why was he put in there? For his excessive righteousness – for being too pure. No, not him. He actually had some problems along that line. But he sure was thrown in jail for standing up for and demanding change for a certain group that were systematically disempowered in American society. He was persecuted for justice – biblically understood justice – and not really for righteous.
And I think that this is exactly the kind of situation that Jesus had in mind when he spoke about persecution. That’s why I think that he had the same thing in mind when he spoke of those who hunger and thirst for justice and promised them satisfaction.
I think that the practical applications of this one are pretty clear and straightforward. We have spent too much of our corporate Christian lives in the pursuit of righteousness. And I don’t mean righteousness in the sense of being the best people that we can be and doing the right things as much as is humanely possible. There is nothing wrong and everything right about pursuing that kind of righteousness. No, the kind of righteousness that gets us in trouble is the kind that makes us go through motions of religiosity and then makes us feel like we must be better than other people because of it. I have it on good authority from Amos that God hatesthat kind of righteousness.
We need to let go of that and pour our hearts into the pursuit of justice for the sake of the displaced, the homeless, the weak and the forgotten. That is what will bring us closest to the heart of God. This week, your assignment is simply to do that. Find someone who, for whatever reason, is marginalized or disempowered in our society. Look around, I don’t think that such people are too hard to find. Do one thing, however small, to demonstrate God’s love to them and do it without judging them in any way. That is what God is looking for. It is what God calls justice.