I spent some time last weekend with a young couple whom I knew as students while I was a college campus minister. They are now married, and have several children; their youngest is 10 months old.
The baby was having a fidgety day. He became bored with his toys, and he looked like he might begin to complain loudly. I had the bright idea to play some lullaby music from Amazon’s streaming music service. He loved the music, but was infatuated with my phone.
I realized too late that I should have set the password protect feature on the phone in order to prevent the ten month old from wiping out all my contacts, or alternately, texting all of them in gibberish. When I retrieved my phone from the baby’s hands, he was not pleased. His eyebrows wrinkled, his mouth pursed up, and he looked as if he might cry. It was so sad, and so funny, that I had to look away.
It’s amazing that an infant, who is entertained by playing with his feet, has such an awareness of loss and injustice. These are basic human experiences that each of us carries with us throughout our lives. We have an innate capacity to perceive injustice, and a persistent desire to see justice done for ourselves and others. Too often, however, this innate capacity works to our detriment.
A few days ago there was another citizen killed by a police officer in a large city. Riots broke out as a response to the feelings of woundedness and indignation on the part of neighbors of the dead man. Events of violence in our country, and violence around the world, are the result of the perception of justice absent or denied. Not all of the demands for justice are legitimate, and not all of the responses to justice withheld are constructive. The reason that our demands for justice are often inappropriate and anti-social is that, by nature, we tend to define justice in a way that is woefully inadequate for life in this world. The Scriptures offer a much more adequate definition of justice than the one we tend to employ.
The first reading today says, “In those days Judah shall be saved and Jerusalem shall dwell safely; this is the name they shall call her: ‘The Lord our justice’.” (Jeremiah 33:16) This is a very comforting and reassuring vision of what the world will be like when God’s Kingdom comes in its fullness. In the messianic age, God will do justice for God’s people. It is important, however, to understand first what the Scriptures mean when they use the word “justice.”
In the Scriptures “justice” is conceived of as a debt that is owed to another. For example, when the Book of the Prophet Micah says that living a good life requires one “to do justice” (Micah 6:8), it means that one must “render to one’s neighbors what is owed to them.” In American culture we define justice as something that we deserve or have an entitlement to receive. The Scriptures define justice as the polar opposite of what we consider to be just. In the Scriptures justice is not something we deserve, but rather something we owe to one another. The difference between these two is great indeed.
There is a fundamental fallacy contained in our American cultural definition of justice. When justice is defined as something to which we are entitled, justice becomes automatically something that will always exist in a limited and insufficient quantity. All of us want justice, but when all of us want something that is finite, there will never be enough for everyone.
The Scriptural definition of justice offers a way to avoid putting ourselves in the self-defeating situation of understanding justice as a finite commodity. When justice is seen as something we owe to others, it becomes an ever-growing experience. We could easily apply the language of economic sustainability to the definition of justice: biblical justice, as something we owe to others, is a renewable resource.
It’s easy enough to see when justice is missing or denied. Fortunately for us, it is also easy to remedy the lack of justice in the world. Here, at All Saints, there are a number of opportunities to add to the justice that all people want. The Giving Tree, sponsored by the St. Vincent de Paul Society, provides Christmas gifts for needy families and nursing home residents. FEAST Food Bank provides meals for thousands of families each month. Gala supports our parish ministries and the Kimberly Home. These are a few examples that you can find without having to look very far; there are many more available in our local community.
If you see justice as missing from the world, or as existing in short supply, there is a way to address that problem fully. The Scriptures say that justice is what we owe others as an expression of our faithfulness to God and our trustworthiness to our neighbor. If you want justice, give it to those in need. May the Lord be our justice!