When I was growing up Nelson Mandela was seen by many in my faith community as a terrorist who belonged in prison, the election of the Hawke government was declared by a key figure in my church to be God’s judgement on the nation, and justice had very little to do with Jesus. The Jesus I knew was the Son of God incarnated as a human being who came to earth to pay the penalty for my sins so that I might be forgiven and go to heaven when I die. Justice and Jesus weren’t closely connected for me. I was interested in helping people discover Jesus as their personal Saviour and in living a Christ shaped life, but I never formulated that in terms of social justice. Compassion, generosity, love yes but justice no.
After I finished theological college I came to recognise the importance of justice for the poor, exploited and oppressed, but I got that from the Old Testament prophets. Jesus still seemed focused more on compassion and grace than justice, which is curious given Jesus declared justice, mercy and faithfulness the “weighty” matters of the Law (Matthew 23:23).
A turning point came when I started to read the Gospels against their social context and the Old Testament. Israel was a subsistence agriculture society. Households would own small plots of land on which they grew their own food. Without access to land a household was plunged into poverty. To protect against this God’s law provided for land to be returned to its original owners every fifty years, for interest free loans to anyone in need and for the landless to join in the harvest. It was incumbent upon the powerful to respect these rights of the poor. To do so was to do justice. Failure to do so was injustice.
Sadly injustice was the norm, leading the Old Testament prophets to repeatedly denounce the neglect of the poor by the powerful.
By Jesus’ day dispossession of small holders and the consequent plunge into poverty were increasing thanks to heavy taxes imposed by Rome. When peasant farmers could not pay Israel’s elite stood ready with loans at interest and seized control of properties when peasant farmers could not repay. This way they were amassing vast estates and forcing vulnerable households into poverty. The laws of jubilee, debt and food were routinely ignored.
This is the background we need to keep in mind when reading the Gospels. When Jesus confronts the rich and calls on them to share with the poor he is not asking them to exercise charity. He is asking them to practice justice, to restore to the poor what was rightfully theirs.
Likewise when he defended the woman caught in adultery he was defending her right to be treated with respect and dignity. When he challenged the Pharisees to include the poor, the disabled and the marginalised in their feasts, and did so in his, he was calling for a society where equity and inclusion was practiced.
Read in this light I discovered that justice was a dominant theme in Jesus’ ministry. To do justice was to create social, economic and political systems that ensured the poor gained access to the resources required to flourish, where the marginalised found inclusion and were treated with dignity, and where these values were lived out personally.