Justice According to Jesus

Rich Stearns: “To see that justice is done today means working against our passivity.”

Most Christians know and quote Micah 6:8, in which God lays out a triad of expectations for his people. I like the Contemporary English Version:

The Lord God has told us what is right and what he demands: “See that justice is done, let mercy be your first concern, and humbly obey your God.”

This translation suggests that our concern for mercy and justice needs to go beyond being individually just and compassionate people who know right from wrong. God calls us to a broader commitment to work for justice and mercy in our society and world.

In the New Testament, Jesus tells a powerful story about justice: “The Rich Man and Lazarus,” recorded in Luke 16:19-31. As with all of his parables, Jesus uses the story to reveal a deeper truth: that God expects us to use our influence and resources to challenge the status quo and stand in the gap for suffering people.

The two characters in the story, a wealthy man and a beggar, illustrate great disparity—fine linen and luxury for one, open sores and suffering for the other. One had blessings in life, while the other seemed cursed. But in the afterlife, that flipped.

Let’s take a closer look at this character of the rich man. I’d like to make three observations about him.

First, he was not a bad guy. He didn’t harm Lazarus, didn’t beat him or kick him as he walked by. No doubt the man felt quite innocent of any wrongdoing—until he ended up in Hades.

The rich man was a bystander to Lazarus’ poverty. He thought it wasn’t his problem to fix. Perhaps he saw his wealth as a sign of God’s blessing, and he seemed to have no inkling that he could use it to bless others. His neglect was passive.

This was a sin of omission, every bit as serious as a sin of commission. In Matthew 25, Jesus says that such sins will be weighted very heavily by the Lord on judgment day: “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink …” (Matt. 25:41-42).

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Second, the rich man knew Lazarus’ name but never attempted to get to know him as a person. Lazarus was a beggar; he was “other.” That’s all the rich man cared to know. His neglect was prejudicial.

Much of the disparity, violence and oppression in our world is the result of objectifying and dehumanizing people. Using labels to diminish the humanity of whole groups of people is a tactic as old as history itself. Labels allow us to ignore, reject, exploit or even kill people. The Rwandan genocide, the Holocaust and our own history with Native Americans and African slaves are prime examples. Dehumanizing stereotypes continue today in the U.S. toward refugees, illegal immigrants, Muslims, African-American youth, the homeless and many others.

Third, the rich man had ample opportunity to set things right for Lazarus. It would have been so simple for him to instruct his servants to bring Lazarus scraps from his table, maybe a comfortable mat to sleep on, some lotion for his sores. But he didn’t. His neglect was personal.

Surely, as a good Jew, the rich man knew by heart the second-greatest commandment: to love his neighbor as himself. This commandment held him, and now holds us, to a high and very personal standard. Jesus doesn’t ask us merely to help those like Lazarus—he commands us to love them, because if we love them, of course we will help them.

The truth is, WE are the rich man. We are the wealthy, the educated, the privileged and the powerful. The American church is the wealthiest church in the history of Christendom. And there is no shortage of Lazaruses in our world.

Justice, according to Jesus, is a kingdom assignment. It means going into our world and reforming, repairing, rebuilding and redeeming the brokenness we see all around us. Justice is about reconciling broken relationships, between God and humanity, as well as between the exploiter and exploited, rich and poor, black and white, male and female, and the powerful and the weak.

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To see that justice is done today means working against our passivity. It involves removing the prejudicial labels we tend to put on others and see them as people God loves. And it demands that we make mercy and justice our personal concerns. The injustice around us may not be our fault, but in God’s kingdom, it is our responsibility to respond.

Moving from the abstract and theological to the practical, here are three steps you can take to “do justice” in your community and world.

1. Challenge perspectives.

Examine the Lazaruses you “walk by,” whether locally or 10,000 miles away. Have you neglected them, perhaps because they are “other”—a different race, religion, culture? Discuss and pray about the negative labels that may exist for your congregation and hinder action.

2. Figure out what’s yours to do.

Choose a few justice issues your church can tackle, because you can’t do it all. It’s wise to prioritize issues by how many people they affect—such as the global refugee/displaced people crisis, which is currently affecting 65.3 million people.

3. Make it personal.

Get involved in local justice issues that allow your congregation to form ongoing relationships with those who are homeless, immigrant families who are struggling, disadvantaged children who need mentors, etc.

Justice takes courage. Mercy requires sacrifice. And walking humbly with our God demands that we take seriously the second-greatest commandment: to love our neighbors as ourselves.

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Rich Stearns (@richstearns) is the president of World Vision U.S. and the author of four books, including The Hole in Our Gospel and Unfinished.