Liturgy and Justice

Justice: What Are We Talking About? (Part II)

March 07, 2007

Also read Part I and Part III of this three-part article on "Justice: What are we talking about?"


    Not long ago during a retreat day for a parish social justice committee, one woman said in response to a question about her image of God, "I like to think of God more as a God of compassion than a God of justice.  Imagining God as compassionate comforts me because I know that I'll be forgiven.  To think of God as just makes me uncomfortable -- as though punishment looms."  "Can we think of God's compassion as being part of God's justice?" I asked.  "I never thought of it in that way," she said, with a certain look of relief on her face.
    A couple days later, I heard someone preach on the parable of the wedding banquet (Luke 14:12-14).  In this passage, Jesus exhorts his listeners not to invite those whom they know will repay them but rather to invite those who are unable to repay.  The preacher tried to distinguish between justice and love: "Justice is about obligations we have and the need to fulfill those obligations; if we do not hold up our end of the bargain, some form of reckoning is sure to follow.  Love is different than justice.  Love is all inclusive, forgiving, and merciful."  I was left scratching my head by the preacher's effort to contrast justice and love.  I wonder why it seems difficult for many people to think of justice and love, justice and compassion as synonymous rather than opposites.

     I also could not help but think that what I heard from these two individuals underscores the slippery nature of the term "justice" -- and perhaps how prone the concept is to being too narrowly understood.  All the more important then for us to reflect on the depth and breadth of God's justice as revealed to us in the Scriptures.  We begin with the Old Testament, where justice is a dominant theme and where once again we see that relationships lie at the heart of justice.

    What stories, what poetic images and metaphors come to mind when you think of how Divine justice is portrayed in the Old Testament?  Are they stories or images that upon their first reading convey God's great love and mercy for humanity?  Or are they stories and images that seem rather harsh -- where God punishes the people for their lack of faithfulness?  Admittedly, certain passages in the Old Testament are hard for us to hear.  Sinners are punished.  They suffer when they stray from living in right relationship with God; they suffer when they are absent to God's presence (just as we do).  This does not mean, however, that God is vindictive.  As John Donahue cautions, "Though Yahweh punishes sinners there is no text in the Old Testament where [God's] justice is equated with vengeance on the sinner.  Yahweh's justice is saving justice where punishment of the sinner is an integral part of restoration."  ("Biblical Perspectives on Justice," in The Faith That Does Justice: Examining the Christian Sources for Social Change, ed. John C. Haughey (New York: Paulist Press, 1977) 72).  The justice of Yahweh further includes a call to return or conversion.  (Ibid. 73.)

    A saving justice.  Restoration.  Return and conversion.  These notions echo Donahue's description of biblical justice:  "fidelity to the demands of a relationship" -- a covenant relationship.  (Ibid., 69.)  Our Creator established the way of right relationship and right order from the beginning.  God created beauty from a wasteland, gave light where darkness once prevailed.  God brought forth life from nothingness, presence from absence.  God created human beings in God's image -- "in the divine image God created them."  (Gen 1:27.)  We are entrusted with the gift of sharing in the divine life and with the responsibility of caring for all that God created -- all that God saw as good, all that God blessed.

    But of course we know that our salvation story does not stop there.  God initiated right relationship with humanity, but humanity repeatedly turned away from this gift.  The lack of fidelity on the part of God's people strained the relationship -- right relationship was undermined.

    Yet God never abandoned what God saw as good...what God blessed.  Out of justice, God called the people back into relationship.  Out of justice, God initiated the covenant with Israel.  As Camilla Burns writes, "Yahweh chose Israel.  It is a relationship of grace based on Yahweh's loving choice of Israel to be a special people, a peculiar treasure."  ("Biblical Righteousness and Justice," Liturgical Ministry 7 (Fall 1998) 156.)  (See also Exodus 19:4-5: "Tell the Israelites: You have seen for yourselves how I treated the Egyptians and how I bore you up on eagle wings and brought you here to myself.  Therefore, if you hearken to my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my special possession, dearer to me than all other people, though all the earth is mine.")

    The mercy, compassion, and love Yahweh showed the chosen people -- even when they were unfaithful -- flowed from the justice of Yahweh.  This same justice is given to us -- as persons and as a people.  When we stray from right relationship with God, God always invites us to return and always waits on us to accept the invitation.  Such is the tender and unconditional love of God; such is the justice of God.

    Another facet of God's justice that is depicted in the Old Testament is found in the Book of Deuteronomy.  "The mercy, compassion, and love which God showed to Israel and to all people in need are the same as that which Israel was to practice within its own community and toward foreigners (Deut 10:17-19)."  (Gregory Polan, "Justice," in The Collegeville Pastoral Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1996) 511.)  In other words, the people of God are to mirror the justice of God in the world.

    We learn more about the justice of God from the Old Testament texts that express concern for those on the margins of soceity -- the widow, the orphan, the poor, the stranger in the land.  (See for example Ex 22:21-22; Dt 14:29.)  "This concern for the defenseless in the society stems from Yahweh's dedication to the covenant relationship.  Yahweh is frequently described in the role of defending the marginalized.  'The Lord your God executes justice for the orphan and the widow, loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing' (Dt 10:18)." (Burns, 157.)

    The prophets of old give us further insight into the justice of God.  When Israel failed to be faithful to the covenant relationship -- when they worshiped other gods, when they failed to act justly toward the marginalized and oppressed -- the prophets warned Israel of the judgment that would befall the chosen people if they continued to neglect their covenant obligations.  The prophets also often speak out on behalf of God in defense of the poor and needy (see for example Amos 8:4-6, Jer 21:12 and 22:13-16, Is 58:2-7). 

    Without a doubt the prophets railed against the injustices of Israel.  However, there were glimmers of hope.  Isaiah spoke of justice that "will renew the world through the coming Messiah (Is 9:6; 32:1).  [The] day of justice is described as a salvific event...(Is 45, 46 and 51)."  (Polan, 511.)  A saving justice.  Restoration.  Return and conversion.  God does not abandon the covenant; rather, the relationship is restored in the Messiah -- God Incarnate.  God is a God of promises fulfilled.

    On a final note, we must not overlook how the experience of Israel shaped their prayer.  They assembled for worship, an act which itself demonstrates their relational awareness.  Their identity was as a people.  They lived and worshiped as a people, and had a strong sense of social responsibility -- even if they did not always act accordingly.  Israel's rituals were about keeping the covenant and drawing strength to live in right relationship with God and one another.  These aims are certainly echosed in our Christian rituals.

Also read Part I and Part III of this three-part article on "Justice: What are we talking about?"

Anne Koester works and teaches at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.  She has edited or co-edited three books:  Liturgy and Justice: To Worship God in Spirit and Truth (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002); Vision: The Scholarly Contributions of Mark Searle to Liturgical Renewal (co-edited with Barbara Searle; Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2004); and Called To Participate: Theological, Ritual, And Social Perspectives (co-edited with Barbara Searle; Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2006.  Anne is also the author of Sunday Mass: Our Role and Why It Matters (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2007.)


A Participation that Is Demanded by the Very Nature of Liturgy
Jesus as Model Relationship Builder
Justice: What Are We Talking About? (Part I and  Part III)
Liturgy: Some Key Ideas
Putting on Our Sunday Best
The 20th Century Social and Liturgical Movements in the U.S.: Working out of a Common Vision
To Live & Learn: What Does Liturgy Teach?

[Return to top]