It’s no secret that social justice is a hot topic in evangelicalism, a popular pursuit and also controversial. Some see the renewed emphasis on the poor as nothing less than a rediscovery of a whole gospel. Others worry that an emphasis on social justice distracts the church from the primary role of evangelism. I’m not going to propose a third way between these two poles. I think a concern for the poor is essential to Christianity. And I think saving people from eternal suffering is more important than saving people from temporal suffering. That’s where I stand (and most evangelicals, I believe; the disagreement is in the details).
But I don’t want to settle disputes, real or imaginary. Instead, I want to examine seven major “social justice” passages over the next few weeks. (I’ll try to be concise so you will actually read the posts.) My contention is that these passages say more and less than we think, more about God’s heart for justice than some realize, and less about contemporary “social justice” than many imagine.
The seven passages are: Isaiah 1; Isaiah 58; Jeremiah 22; Amos 5; Micah 6:8; Luke 4/Isaiah 61; and Matthew 25. I know this leaves a lot out, but these seem to be the most commonly referenced sections. If you want my take on Leviticus 19, Leviticus 25, the concept of moral proximity, and the term “social justice” follow the links in this sentence.
The first chapter of Isaiah begins with the Lord’s stinging rebuke of Judah and Jerusalem (1). They are rebellious children (2), lacking in understanding (3). Judah is a “sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity” (4). Because of their rebellion, God’s people have been struck down, bruised, bloodied, and besieged (5-8). Of course, God offers the hope of forgiveness and cleansing (10), but the dominant theme in the chapter is one of disappointment. God’s people have been wicked.
Well, their failure was not for lack of religious observance. They were meeting together for worship and keeping the festivals of the Lord. But the Lord was not impressed. He could no longer endure their iniquity and solemn assembly (13). He had come to hate their feasts and was burdened with their perfunctory obedience (14). The Lord would not even listen to their prayers (15).
Their problem was one that recurs often in prophetic literature: they were getting the details of religion right but not the heart of it. Outside of “church” the Israelites were doing evil, not good (16-17). In particular, they were guilty of injustice toward the fatherless and the widow, the basic categories in the Bible for the helpless and vulnerable (17).
What was the injustice? “Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not bring justice to the fatherless, and the widow’s cause does not come to them” (23). It seems the Lord was angry with his people because the leaders were oppressing the weak, taking bribes to side with the rich and powerful instead of treating fairly the orphan and the widow.
As we’ll see in most of these passages, Isaiah 1 is a great example of the Bible saying more and less about social justice than we think.
On the “more” side we see that Jerusalem is called a “whore” because of her injustice (21). Oppressing the poor and the helpless is not a negligible offense. In fact, it renders all their religious obedience null and void. Until they “seek justice” and “correct oppression” God promises that Judah will be “eaten by the sword” (17, 20).
But on the “less” side: notice that the oppression here is not a disparity between rich and poor or even that the poor in society are not taken care of. There are other biblical passages that require the covenant community to take care of the poor in their midst (which may not be identical to taking care of the poor in the entire “mixed” society), but this passage is about oppression, a term not to be equated with poverty.
The injustice was not that there were poor people in society. God’s people were guilty of injustice because they were defrauding the weak and helpless in order to line their own pockets. Specifically, God was angry with the kings because “in the ancient Near East, the concerns for justice, oppression, and the helpless were the special province of the king” (John Oswalt, 99). So God’s desire in Isaiah 1 related to social justice is for Judah’s king (and any other pertinent officials) to stop taking bribes and defend the just cause of the helpless instead of exploiting them. The prophetic rebuke of Isaiah 1 belongs on the men and women guilty of these crimes, but not on every individual, let alone every church, living in a city with poor people.