Liturgy and Justice

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

March 07, 2007

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


    They were nobodies. They lived on the margins of society.  He lived an ascetic life somewhere in the desert of Palestine.  He may have been one of the Essenes, a counter-cultural Jewish sect devoted to the Torah and to life lived in community.  When he journeyed into the public sphere, he captured the imagination of the people who heard his call to conversion of life.  The people of Israel had not heard the voice of a true prophet for four hundred years.  This prophet – John the Baptizer – called the people to repentance and preached God’s forgiveness.  He proclaimed salvation.  He implored the people to be faithful to the demands of the covenant relationship.  He announced that the justice of God was at hand – revealed fully in the One who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

    Likewise, she was called from the margins of society.  Her community was the anawim, the Lord’s poor, the socially insignificant who lived in the grip of violence, poverty, and political unrest.  Yet, they were vigilant in their hope that God’s Messiah would bring justice and liberation to all.  In their powerlessness, they depended on Yahweh, who in justice would never forget the promises made.  From the socially invisible, God chose Mary – a young peasant woman -- to be a partner in the Incarnation.           

    Mary and John the Baptist.  It’s remarkable that in becoming one of us, God chose people who were the socially insignificant – the marginalized, the poor, the oppressed – to be partners in the event of the Incarnation.  And both are powerful figures in the Church’s season of Advent, a time of wilderness and an invitation to encounter more deeply the Gracious Mystery.  It’s a time when we are reminded of the continual need for metanoia – a change of heart and mind in order to empty ourselves and receive the Just One.

    Recall how the justice of God as depicted in the Old Testament.  The justice of God was, is and always will be rooted in the covenant relationship.  And God will never abandon that relationship.  As Christians, we know and believe this because God stepped outside of God’s self to become one of us in Jesus Christ – to be one with us in the most intimate way.  As people baptized into Christ, then, we participate in the life of God – who is rich in justice, mercy and compassion.

    So in the New Testament, we learn more about the justice of God from the person of Jesus Christ.  Simply stated, Jesus is the justice of God.  In order to delve into this dimension more fully, I will rely on the excellent insights of John C. Haughey, S.J. in his essay “Jesus as the Justice of God,” in The Faith That Does Justice: Examining the Christian Sources for Social Change, ed. John C. Haughey (New York: Paulist Press, 1977).

    John Haughey first reminds us of the socio-political attitudes that existed at the time of Jesus, those which were inherited from devout Jews of generations past and served as Jesus’ frame of reference.  These attitudes, as we know, are reflected in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Haughey writes, “Yahweh prepared Israel over the course of the centuries to expect a salvation which was social in its form with justice as its content.”  (Ibid. 266.)  In other words, Israel saw itself as an unique people who were heirs to the promises God made to Abraham.  It was a nation among nations and therefore, the “means by which the nations would be blessed.  But before that would happen Israel would be vindicated by Yahweh before all of the nations.  Justice would be done to them on Israel’s behalf if Israel was transformed radically into a people after Yahweh’s heart.  If [Israel] remained true to ‘the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice’ (Gen 18:18) by [its] own internal comportment and behavior with one another,” justice would be done to Israel. (Ibid. 267.)

    Clearly, justice was an essential aspect of the experience of Israel, which led the people to expect that the Messiah – the Anointed One – would free Israel from being victimized by the injustices of others.  (Ibid.)  Once freed, “Israel would become the epicenter of international peace and justice and order….  All nations would then be under the conscious sovereignty of the one Lord.”  (Ibid. 267-68.)

    Haughey notes that while Israel is to seek justice, justice cannot be achieved by Israel alone.  “It is “gift and responsibility.”  (Ibid. 268.)  In other words, justice is God’s gift freely given to human beings, but in receiving that gift, we also receive the responsibility of sharing that gift with others.  The gift of justice is a point of departure for us in how we behave in the world.

    Jesus knew the social realism of the Israel he inherited.  Haughey points to Luke’s Gospel, where Jesus’ self-understanding is expressed through Isaiah 61:  “[Jesus] stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him.  He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:  ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’  And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.  The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.  Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” (Lk 4:16-21.)  Luke clearly saw the mission of Jesus in terms of justice.  (Haughey, 270.)

    Given the conditions in Israel at the time, Jesus observed and experienced firsthand a world where those who fancied themselves as the elite and powerful oppressed the defenseless, the poor, the socially insignificant.  And in light of Israel’s history and hopes, Jesus would see the alleviation of Israel’s bondage as an essential part of their salvation and, consequently, his mission.  (Ibid.)

    The way in which Jesus went about his mission of justice and social transformation, however, turned human expectations upside down!  Consider even Jesus’ choice of disciples.  “He did not choose those who were socially influential.  With intentional selectivity he went out and attracted to himself the powerless, and even in some cases, like Matthew, the despised.  It seems that he chose to minister to those in need with those who were uncredentialed, and in some cases even disreputable, in the eyes of society.  The broadest of overviews of his life reveals a predilection toward the least favored, the ‘outs’ of society.”  (Ibid. 271.)

    Consider also the kingdom about which Jesus preached.  His kingdom would be one in which he and those who followed him would serve others, not dominate or rule them.  Authority and power have very different meanings for his kingdom versus earthly structures.   Jesus’ form of authority and power was his person.  (Ibid. 274.)  Haughey adds that the primary medium of Christian justice, then, “is still the person who, like Jesus, stands in the truth the Spirit gives one to see.”  (Ibid. 275.)

    Haughey goes on in his essay to explore Jesus’ teachings about justice, looking to Matthew’s Gospel in particular.  First, recall the Sermon on the Mount – the first formal address by Jesus in Matthew.  Justice or righteousness is key.  It’s the main quality of the new order – of right relationships.  As such, Jesus uses the word righteousness or justice in the sermon to characterize the kingdom he preaches.  (Ibid. 276.)

    Jesus also contrasts and extends the social and religious norms of the day with the kind of righteousness and justice he expected in order to move his listeners to deeper levels of understanding.  For instance, he expands the commandment “You shall not murder” to say that “if you remember that your brother or sister has anything against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled, [then] come and offer your gift.”  (Mt 5:21-26.)  In contrast to the maxim “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” Jesus says “turn the other cheek.”  (Mt 5:38-39.)  “If someone wants to sue you and take your coat, give him your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”  (Mt 5:40-41.)  And so on.  These are just a few of Jesus’ exhortations that reflect his wider sense of justice and righteousness.

    Haughey comments that the “attitude Jesus is calling for…is to go beyond abstract norms in one’s conduct to a way of relating because of the experience of God’s own goodness.”  God’s goodness was to be the norm for Jesus’ followers as it was for him.  (Haughey, 278.)  Christians then are to imitate the goodness, the justice and compassion of God.  Our union with Jesus Christ, who is the embodiment of the justice of God, enables us to do this.  (Ibid. 279.)  Remember, God’s justice is “giftable.”  It’s a gift to us, which we in turn are to give to others.

    One more set of important observations from John Haughey about how Jesus is the embodied justice of God – these based on the writings of Paul.  In brief, Haughey says that Paul is very explicit in his understanding of Jesus as God’s justice and uses the image of a new creation to describe the new order of justice God was to establish in Christ.  (Haughey, 284.)  “One comes into the new creation,” Haughey writes, “by believing in Christ Jesus.  And by believing one comes within range of and has access to the justice of God.”  (Ibid.)  He adds that for Paul, justice “comes from God, is received by believers, manifests God’s presence in the world and leads to God.  It flows into the world of persons and things, not through law but through Christ.”  (Ibid.)  And the kind of justice that we experience in Christ transforms us at the level of our very being.  (Ibid, 283.)  Thus, as part of the new creation, as participants in the activity of God’s justice, justice can be done through Christians individually and through the Body of Christ of which we are members.  (Ibid. 285.)  In sum, Haughey writes that “[in] Paul, as in the whole New Testament, the gift of union with Christ becomes the radical basis of the Christian’s social responsibility.”  (Ibid., 286.)

    For Christians, we are united with Christ in our baptism – a liturgical event.  Simultaneously, we are united with the other members of the Body of Christ and thereby responsible for one another and for being the Body of Christ in the world.  We celebrate – we remember – these responsibilities each and every time we come together for liturgy – most supremely in the Eucharist but also in other sacramental rites and liturgical prayer.

Also read Part I and Part II 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 II)
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?

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