Your nearest neighbor is likely your difficult family member
Last summer, everyone wanted to talk about justice. In my view, a lot of the social unrest was the difficult fruit of missed opportunities. Because so many Christians neglected biblically faithful discussions about justice, the world imposed its standards on us. But the fact is, Christians ought to be leading the discussion about justice. Why? Because the informed Christian understands that justice flows from the throne of God Himself (Ps. 89:14)!
One of the more unhelpful things I see happening right now is that well-meaning Christians are conflating a biblical understanding of justice with the term “social justice.” Even many pastors seem confused about this. Although these terms share some common ideas, there are also important differences. For this reason, I have done several teachings unpacking the word “justice” from a biblical point of view.
In this 2-part series from last summer, I laid out some of the distinctives of God’s approach to justice, both for the victim and for the accused. My goal was to help viewers gain deeper insight into the form of justice translated as mishpat in Hebrew. This is the realm of law courts.
However, I only briefly mentioned in that series the other word translated as justice, which is tzekakah. More often it's translated as righteousness. But because this is such a major component of Scriptural justice, I've been teaching a follow up series explaining the definition and standards of God's righteous living in more detail. Here is a link to part 1 of that series. It's also available on Apple Podcasts.
What is God's Vision for a Just People?
The primary way “justice” is lived out in Scripture is through personal acts of righteousness. Tzedakah what we do in our individual relationships with those around us. God's call for His people to love their neighbor is a vital part of the fruit of an authentic Christian life. I think most Christians are clear on that point. The point that’s not being discussed enough, however, is this: how do Christians love our neighbor according to God's standards? I see many well-meaning social justice-oriented Christians simply telling one another to "do" justice and then looking to the culture to tell them what behaviors are just and unjust. This often involves marching, kneeling or cancelling. Thankfully, God hasn't left His people without instructions. We don't have to guess how to live a holy life. Scripture gives us very specific instructions about how to love our neighbor.
The place I like to start the discussion tzedakah with is the Exodus 20, the 10 Commandments. If we look at commandments 5-10, for example (vss. 12-17), we see God's timeless principles for how to live a righteous life: honor father and mother, do not steal, do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not bear false witness, do not covet. While obeying God's law cannot save us from our sins, obeying Jesus' commands through humble and faithful obedience is the requirement of every Christian (Matt. 28:18-20). And this is where the discussion about personal righteousness and justice come in.
The rest of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy lays out many examples of how God wants commands 5 to 10 to be lived out in the lives of His people. He includes case laws against different forms of stealing (e.g., fraud), various ways adultery can take place (e.g., bestiality, incest), and even various kinds of murder (e.g., intentional and unintentional).
Want to know how to conduct a difficult discussion about race? Read and apply the principles of Ephesians 4. Engaging in generous forgiveness is often much harder than doing "the work" of reading books and posting a black square on social media.
Other tangible examples for how God requires His people to love their neighbor includes helping to provide for the basic needs of the poor by leaving some of the harvest at the edges of fields for the poor to collect (Leviticus 19:9-10, 23:22) or tithing your harvest to feed the destitute (Deuteronomy 26:12-13). Other laws stipulate interest-free loans (Exodus 22:25–27; Leviticus 25:36–37) and forgiveness of loans to those who can’t repay them after a designated period of time (Deuteronomy 15:1-11).
But here is a detail that many Christians miss: God's law places priority on helping others based on our proximity in relationships. God wants us to focus our attention on the needs of those who are closest to us, who have the greatest need. For example, “If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest” (Exodus 22:25). The phrase “My people” connotes a priority of lending to Jews before non-Jews. Potentially, this principle might be expanded to, if given a choice to lend to a rich Jew or a poor Jew, priority should be placed on lending to the poor Jew. And if given the choice between lending to a poor person in your town versus a poor relative, priority should be placed on lending to your relative. In other words, charity starts at home.
These principles are restated in the New Testament. We see Christians sharing with one another (2 Cor. 8:1-4), helping to provide for others’ needs through their local church. We also see a repeated emphasis on helping those populations that are vulnerable with making sure their basic needs are met (Acts 6:1; James 1:17). We also see how the apostles put a priority on helping those within the local church (Gal. 6:10). All of these gifts were given of people’s free will without compulsion (Acts 11:29; 2 Cor. 9:7).
Tzedakah is not about giving handouts to the poor based on pity or obligation. Neither is God’s standard of justice about equalizing income. Charity is intended to be a personal response to God’s love for us. Because I have received so much grace from God in terms of forgiveness and restoration, I want to, in turn, be generous in my giving to others.
How Can Christians Light the World?
Conversations about “injustice” can feel quite overwhelming. The framework of Critical Race Theory provides a lens through which nearly everything that exists is an example of “systemic racism.” We can be left feeling helpless and hopeless.
The Christian worldview says something quite different, however. Christianity calls God’s people to engage in a gradual evolution of culture through personal acts of righteousness. So, how does this kind of tzedakah translate into real life?
The bedrock of righteousness is work. When someone works to earn an honest living, they have the resources to care for those who can't. Work is part of God's good creation design for humans (Genesis 2). This is why it is vital that every able-bodied man be required to work (2 These. 3:10). He is responsible before God to care for his family. To do otherwise is to act like a pagan (1 Timothy 5:8).
Start small. Holiness begins at home. Ask yourself: How am I caring for the needs in my family, for my children, or my elderly parents? If you are caring for a child with special needs, then you are likely already engaging in acts of righteousness.
Next, consider those in your sphere of influence, maybe the 8 to 15 people that God has strategically placed in your life. How can I care for those needs? Who is going through a hard season? Who needs a father or mother figure?
Then consider the needs in your local church. Then, the needs of other churches (Acts 11:28–29), your community, and work out from there.
Here are a few specific ideas that could be done by a family or small church. Obviously, this isn’t a complete list. The purpose here is to just paint a picture of what’s possible.
Volunteer your expertise to the poor (e.g., plummer, electrician, lawyer)
Volunteer as a family to serve at a local food pantry and/or help organize a food drive.
Organize a food pantry for your church to help serve members who are struggling with meeting basic needs.
Help set up a program to encourage local businesses to donate excess food or goods to a local food pantry or homeless service center.
Partner with an inner city church to run classes on financial literacy and entrepreneurship.
Set up a micro-lending program to help encourage new entrepreneurs. There are many Jewish charities that do this (based on the Old Testament law) that Christian churches could learn from.
Set up a visitation program or worship service at a local retirement home or hospital. Many of the elderly feel forgotten.
Start a bus ministry to bring the elderly to church on Sunday.
Talk to a local hospital chaplain about how your family or church can support their efforts.
Starting or volunteering in a mentoring program for fatherless children.
I do want to say a special word about the reality in our culture that so many children are growing up without fathers in the home. That doesn’t mean that some of those fathers aren’t involved in their children’s lives. But the reality is, a significant number are not.
Scripture says repeatedly that one of the evidences of being the people of God is that we care for widows and orphans (James 1:17). Could your family informally “adopt” a child and give him or her a good example of an intact family? Could you invite the child and the mother over for dinner periodically? Could you invite the child to participate in activities with your kids? Maybe your son’s friend would really like to play baseball, but his single mom works full time and can’t take him to practice. Could your family step in? God wants us to start to change the world by simply seeing the needs in the world around us. We don’t need to rely on a formal program to practice tzedakah. We just need to slow down and ask the Lord to give us supernatural vision to see the often unspoken needs of those around us.
If more Christians would engage in acts of tzedakah, there would be far less evil, pain and suffering in the world. And there would likely be less need for mizpat justice (law courts) This is what it means to be salt and light in the world. Jesus also compares it to yeast leavening the dough or a small seed giving rise to a large tree (Matt. 13:31-33). Our righteous deeds actually display evidence that we belong to our Father in heaven (Matt. 5:16).
Originally published: 6/22/20; Updated: 9/5/21