What Does Jesus Say About Justice?
Jun 18, 2021 · Christopher Hunt
When we talk about justice in modern society, we’re typically referring to distributive justice or retributive justice. We want restitution and recompense when someone circumvents or denies our rights. We demand retribution for crimes committed against us: for perpetrators to face “justice” and for the victims of their crimes to receive “justice.”
In order to live faithfully as Christians, we desire to know what Jesus taught in regards to justice and we must evaluate our own thinking and understanding according to scripture. So we ask, what does Jesus say about justice?
Biblical justice includes retributive and distributive justice. It is our communal responsibility. In the United States, for example, we recently marked the one-year anniversary of the death of George Floyd. In the wake of police actions that caused the death of an unarmed black man, a huge, public outcry went up for justice: that authorities would hold those responsible accountable for their actions and make changes to prevent another injustice like this one from occurring. This call for justice is right, because the biblical role of government is to promote good and punish evil (Romans 13:1-5).
However, Jesus spoke more about our individual responsibility to bring justice by loving our neighbors and doing good for those around us, especially the poor and marginalized. He talked more about the responsibility of individuals than of authorities to promote good. According to Jesus, we do the work of bringing justice through our love and persistence.
Love your neighbor
When the religious leaders of his day asked Jesus what was the greatest commandment, he answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:36-39). He told the parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate what it meant to love our neighbor: on a personal level, sacrificially if necessary, act for the good of others. That is rendering justice.
In his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus taught the disciples the way they should live. Most of his exhortations hinged on the listeners acting justly. He set the tone with the Beatitudes: attitudes oriented toward God, loving toward others.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7).
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9).
Jesus set a high standard for individual justice. For example, he warned that acting out in anger toward someone was tantamount to murder, urging that if we’re angry with someone, to resolve conflicts quickly, and even refraining from offering our gifts to God until we are in a right spirit, free from anger (Mathew 5:21-26). He also told his listeners to take extraordinary measures to prevent themselves from dishonoring God and those who bear his image, likening lust for another person to adultery (Matthew 5:27-30). Jesus said that it was not good enough that we love our neighbors, but we must love our enemies as well: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-48). Love is action: doing good for others, giving them justice.
Seeking justice through faith
Jesus spoke of justice from another perspective as well: that of people who sought justice through faith and kept asking until they received it. He told his disciples a parable of a widowed woman who pleaded with an unjust judge to grant her justice in her case. Again and again he refused her, and again and again she brought her claim back to him. Finally, he relented just to get her off his docket (and prevent her from attacking him). Jesus said, “And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly” (Luke 18:7-8). He illustrated this himself when he initially refused to even listen to a Canaanite woman who sought freedom for her daughter who was being tormented by an evil spirit. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel,” he said. As if she’d heard his telling of the parable about the persistent widow, she kept on asking, saying, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (Matthew 5:21-28). Jesus commended her faith and immediately freed her daughter. The gospels are full of stories of people coming to Jesus looking for justice, expecting to receive it.
There’s a clamor for distributive and retributive justice in our world. Governments indeed have a responsibility to provide these types of justice, but too frequently, because humans are sinful, justice is dispensed imperfectly. Jesus’ crucifixion would be the greatest miscarriage of justice of all time if it were not for the fact that God the Father willed it that we may have justice and be freed from the slavery of sin and death. Jesus tells us, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). When we put on the attitude of the Beatitudes and love our neighbors as ourselves, our individual acts of justice that Jesus spoke of will make a positive influence on the demands for justice that resound throughout the world.