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Two of the most important words in the Hebrew Scriptures are mishpat and tzedakah.

Mishpat means giving people what they are due. It is often translated "justice." In the presence of injustice, mishpat is the punishment or regulation of injustice. The Scriptures advocate care of the vulnerable as mishpat -- particularly care for widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor. Scripture says God judges the justness of a society on how it treats the vulnerable. Any neglect of their needs is a violation of justice/mishpat. God loves and defends the vulnerable, and God judges those who do not "do justice."

Tzedakah is "being just." It is the life of right relationships, or "righteousness." Tzedakah is day-to-day relationships characterized by fairness, generosity and equity in family and society. The word carries other flavors of meaning: charity, justice, righteousness, integrity, innocence.

More than 30 times the Hebrew Scriptures combine the two words. The English term that best expresses the combined concept is "social justice." The prophet Isaiah condemns the hypocrisy of a people who pretend "as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness (tzedakah)" and "ask of [God] righteous judgments (mishpat)," but fails to "loose the bonds of injustice, ... to let the oppressed go free, ... to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house." (Isaiah 58:2, 6-7)

Throughout Scripture the failure of individual or social generosity is more than mere neglect or stinginess. It is a violation of God's commandment; it is unrighteousness. God actively defends and advocates for the vulnerable and God judges (mishpat) those who do not participate in righteousness (tzedakah).

Psalm 72 describes good government. The just and righteous ruler will "judge your people with righteousness (tzedakah) and your poor with justice (mishpat)." (Verse 2) What does that look like? "He delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight." (Verses 12-14)

Jesus picks up the ancient refrain, describing a "Kingdom of God" ruled by the commandment to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. He tells an upright rich young ruler to sell all and give to the poor if he would be truly rich. (Matthew 19). He tells a story of judgment upon the wealthy man who ignores the sick beggar Lazarus at his gate. He says "blessed are the poor" and "woe to you who are rich" (Luke 6). He imagines God's judgment upon the nations with the single criteria: Did they feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, tend the sick, and care for the prisoner? ... Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me." Mishpat! (Matthew 25)

St. Paul speaks of the two-fold role of government -- to protect its people by restraining wrongdoing, and being "God's servant for your good." Paul instructed the church to pay taxes for those purposes. (Romans 13)

Some scholars speak of a twofold justice: tzedakah as primary justice -- fairness, generosity, charity and equity; and mishpat as rectifying justice -- punishment or regulation upon those who fail in tzedakah.

I imagine primary justice (tzedakah) as a righteous nation of comparable opportunity for all -- vibrant schools and economic opportunity, especially in vulnerable neighborhoods. Robust networks of nonprofits bringing healing and equity. Medicare for all, so no one lacks access to health care. Charity and generosity, especially for the "widow, orphan, immigrant and poor."

I imagine rectifying justice (mishpat) as a nation that will "do justice," including things like enforcing regulations to prevent financial and corporate malfeasance like what sparked the great recession of 2007. Protective and just law enforcement and rehabilitation for all races. Prosecuting things like wage theft of undocumented immigrants and hate crimes that terrorize not just immediate victims but a whole class of people.

Instead, we see our government taking away access to medical care, enforcing unjust immigration laws separating families and deporting our children, and planning even more tax breaks for the wealthy after nearly 40 years of increasing concentration of wealth and power into fewer hands.

It's not hard to imagine what the prophets would say. "Let justice (mishpat) roll down like waters, and righteousness (tzedakah) like an ever-flowing stream." (Amos 5:24) "What does the LORD require of you but to do justice (mishpat), and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8)

Commentary on 10/17/2017

Print Headline: Scriptures call for justice

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