By Robert L. Foster
I work with a task force that connects churches with undocumented communities in partnerships that help our undocumented neighbors with the challenges they face here in the United States. Recently, at a church conference, the task force displayed an information table where churches and individuals signed up to receive information or to invite a speaker to talk to their church about creating such partnerships.
Near the end of one day, a volunteer at our table overheard an attendee say, “We need to get away from all this talk about immigration and multiculturalism and get back Jesus.”
Is it right to put “immigration and multiculturalism” in opposition to “Jesus”? I don’t think so.
The statement seems to assume the decision to take up the cause of our undocumented neighbors responds to dictates of political correctness and not to the teachings of Jesus. But I can certainly avow that my work with this task force arises from Scriptures that teach about justice, and especially what the gospel of Matthew tells us about Jesus’ teaching and practice of justice.
In fact, if we hear Jesus’ words and follow in his steps, I believe we will conclude we have to take up issues like immigration and racism and global poverty. Why? Because Jesus commanded his disciples to seek first the kingdom of God and its justice. And then Jesus put his teaching on justice into practice in his own ministry.
Righteousness Equals Justice
Of course, when we read the Gospel of Matthew in the New International Version or the King James Version, we do not see much “justice.” The New International Version translation of Matthew mentions justice only three times, and the King James Version of that Gospel doesn’t use that word at all. But that doesn’t mean the idea of justice is absent from that book or the New Testament.
This is because the word righteousness would often be better translated as justice in the New Testament.
One of the major words for justice in the Old Testament is tsedek, a word often used in contexts about taking care of the poor, the widow, the foreigner, and the orphan, or using fair balances in business transactions, or the king taking care of the basic needs of the people of Israel, that sort of thing. Tsedek in its various forms (think of a word with various endings, like mercy, merciful, mercifully) occurs 490 times in the Old Testament; in a majority of cases it means justice for the oppressed or disadvantaged. The Greek translation of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint, used the word dikaiosune in its various forms, to translate tsedek in 486 of these 490 occurrences.
The New Testament writers use this same Greek word dikaiosune some 200 times. So, when this word occurs in the New Testament, it seems we should think of justice for the oppressed or the marginal more so than “righteousness.” And, as we substitute the correct variation of the word justice wherever we read the word righteousness in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we see justice is a major theme:
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6).
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of justice, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10).
“I tell you that unless your justice surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
“But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5:44, 45).
“Be careful not to practice your justice in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).
“But seek first his kingdom and his justice, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).
Ministry Demonstrates Justice
Not only do we see the prevalence of the teaching on justice in the Sermon on the Mount, the evangelist also knows a thing or two about storytelling. And so the Gospel story shows us Jesus’ teaching expressed in Jesus’ life.
For example, Jesus teaches the disciples that their justice must exceed that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. Then Matthew 12:1-14 shows Jesus living out this teaching.
In the first story of this passage, the Pharisees condemn the hungry disciples because they pick heads of grain and eat on the Sabbath. But Jesus defends the hungry disciples and rebukes the Pharisees for condemning the disciples who ate because they were hungry.
In the second story, the Pharisees use a disabled man to try to entrap Jesus by getting him to heal on the Sabbath. But Jesus defies the Pharisees’ scheme by rejecting the premise that keeps people from doing good on the Sabbath, and then he heals the man’s hand.
Jesus called those who hungered and thirsted for justice “blessed.” Later a Canaanite woman confronts Jesus, crying out for mercy for her demon-possessed daughter (Matthew 15:21-28). Jesus tries to put the woman off through use of a food metaphor, saying it is not right to give the children’s bread to the dogs.
But she disagrees, saying, “Yes it is [right to give bread to the dogs],” after all, “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” And so Jesus casts out the demon from her daughter, and the woman goes away receiving the justice for which she hungered.
Or take the commandment to seek first the kingdom and its justice. In the larger context of Matthew 6:19-34, Jesus warns the disciples about one of the major distractions to seeking first the kingdom: the desire for wealth. Pursuing the desire for wealth instead of the justice of the kingdom indicates that a person serves mammon and not God.
Later in Matthew’s story, a rich man says he wants to follow Jesus, claiming to have kept all the commandments, including the summary commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But when Jesus tells the rich man to store up treasure in Heaven and to sell all he has, give to the poor, and follow Jesus, the man turns and walks away.
Why? He could not stand to part from his great wealth (19:16-22). Apparently the rich man stored up treasure on earth, which prevented him from prioritizing the justice of the kingdom.
As the Gospel story reaches its climax at the crucifixion, we hear echoes of Jesus’ teaching that those who endure persecution for the sake of justice are blessed. Jesus’ expansion on this Beatitude defines persecution as not only violence against a person’s body but verbal abuse: reviling speech, and speaking all kind of evil falsely against another (Matthew 5:11). Jesus suffers this sort of abuse while hanging on the cross.
Ironically the chief priests, elders, and teachers of the law mock Jesus for the good Jesus did in his ministry saying, “He saved others but he cannot save himself.”
Notice that when the Gospel speaks of Jesus “saving” others, this salvation does not refer to salvation from sin. Instead, Jesus saves the disciples from the winds and waves of the storm on the Sea of Galilee (8:25). Jesus saved the woman from the constant bleeding that plagued her body for 12 years (9:20-22). Jesus saves the disciples from the threat of drowning in the sea (14:30). Jesus used his power to perform miracles and save those threatened and suffering, by performing acts of justice, shall we say. But Jesus’ acts of justice earn him the derision of the religious leaders even as he suffers the horrific crucifixion.
Disciples Value Justice
I heard plenty of preaching and teaching on the Great Commission while I was growing up. Most of it emphasized the Great Commission as God’s imperative to evangelism. Only much later, as a graduate student at Abilene (Texas) Christian University, did I come to realize the central commandment of the Great Commission was not actually “go evangelize” but “make disciples.” And, to make disciples, according to the commission, requires not only baptizing people in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit but also “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
Which means that a primary concern for our churches ought to be whether our discipleship clearly shows we “seek first the kingdom of God and its justice.” In this case we might ask ourselves some important questions about the witness of our churches in the world:
• Do we condemn the innocents who flee poverty and starvation and violence in their home countries, declaring that we live in a “nation of laws,” and so fail to do the good to our neighbors?
• Do we turn our back on those who hunger and thirst for justice because they are foreigners in our land and so withhold from them the mercies of God that they seek from disciples of Jesus?
• Does our desire to build great megachurches cause our church budgets to look like we are storing up treasures on earth, maintaining and expanding our facilities, while neglecting to store up treasures in Heaven by giving to the work of justice for the poor?
• Do we keep silent on issues of racial disparities and growing disparities between the rich and poor and a judicial system hell-bent on punishment rather than restoration because we fear what people might say about us if we do speak out for justice?
Jesus’ demands on us as disciples call us to take questions like these seriously, to evaluate our individual lives and our church practices by whether they reflect Jesus’ teaching to “seek first the kingdom of God and its justice.” And in so doing we will find that, far from distracting us from Jesus, by working for justice with the immigrant, minorities, and the poor, we are actually getting back to Jesus.
Robert L. Foster is a lecturer in New Testament in the Department of Religion at the University of Georgia and the author of Wrestling with God and World: The Struggle for Justice in the Biblical Tradition.