Economic Justice

1. The theological framework for economic justice

A. Righteousness and justice – the meaning of the words in the OT

Righteousness (s-d-q, or sedeq) and justice (mishpat).

Righteousness ‘describes the relationship that God wills for human beings to have with him through faith… and that human beings are to express through loving obedience’ to the norms (that is, principles of conduct in personal interactions) he commands and sets. These are based on God’s word – he not only created the world, he also orders it.

Justice ‘is appropriate treatment, especially of human beings in a relational setting, according to the norms commanded and set by God in each particular case’ (actions).. Mishpat is commanded as something to be done: treating people in the ways that God desires and requires.

B. Righteousness and justice displayed by God, reflecting his character

Note: the context of these passages is that of God’s covenant with Israel

Isaiah 61: 8, ‘For I the Lord love justice’; 

Psalm 97: 1, 2, ‘The Lord reigns … justice and righteousness are the foundations of his throne’; 

Psalm 33: 4, 5, 8, ‘For the word of the Lord is right and true; he is faithful in all he does. The Lord loves righteousness and justice: the earth is full of his unfailing love’, ‘all the earth … all the peoples of the world’; 

Jeremiah 9: 24, ‘I am the Lord who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth’; 

Deuteronomy 10: 12-22, the Law as witness to God’s justice. 

C. Righteousness and justice required by God of humanity

Genesis 18: 17-19, ‘…for I have chosen him (Abraham), so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just’; 

Ezekiel 18: requirement for righteousness and justice from God’s people. 

The absence of justice as a theme in the prophets [Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Amos, and Zechariah], for examples:

Micah 6: 8, ‘What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God’; 

Isaiah 5: 1-7, the parable of the vineyard, ‘He looked for justice but saw bloodshed, for righteousness but heard cries of distress’; 

Isaiah 10: 1-4, ‘Woe to those who make unjust laws… to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people’ (note social rather than individual behaviour); 

Amos 5: 21-24, ‘Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream’;

Repentance leads to restoration of righteousness and justice including economic justice: Isaiah 58: 2-7. 

D. The righteousness of believers in response to God’s righteousness in the NT.
Single word dikaiosune covers both OT words (see Matthew 5: 6, 6: 33; background is Isaiah 55, 56). 

2. Economic justice in the OT

Four main principles in the Law for economic righteousness and justice among the OT people of God: content of righteousness includes all the norms noted in our discussions of Biblical themes (see documents A1 to A5).   

  1. ‘Justice means appropriate treatment of others, according to norms commanded by God’. ‘Appropriate treatment’ is central meaning: juridical use is a sub category. For example ‘justice to the poor’ in Exodus 23: 6 refers to specific laws about the poor (Exodus 22: 25-27, Exodus 23: 9-12)

  2. Justice in the allocation of resources means that everyone participates in God’s blessing. Note the provision for people without access to land (Deuteronomy 16: 11, 14, 14: 28)

  3. God’s justice involves justice to the needy (Deuteronomy 15: 7-11). Justice in these texts cannot mean only impartiality, except the impartial application of a law that is specifically partial to the poor.

  4. Justice also concerns the quality of relationships. Note the relational aspects (in Deuteronomy 24: 17-18, Exodus 23: 9): treatment of others to be based on Israel’s own experience of the Lord’s treatment of them; loans to ‘his neighbour, his brother’ (Deuteronomy 15: 2); ‘love the stranger’ (Deuteronomy 10: 19).

3. Economic justice in the NT?

[NT does not appear to add content to the OT materials on economic justice. The question of how to interpret the OT laws in the light of Jesus and the new covenant is not settled among Evangelical biblical scholars.] 

  1. Christ and the Law: (i) Law as fulfilled in Jesus must be obeyed (Matthew 5: 17-48); (ii) shift from the Law to Jesus himself as the criterion for obedience to God (Matthew 19: 3-12, Mark 7: 1-23); (iii) Paul notes that love is the fulfilling of the Law (Romans 13: 8-10); (iv) but Christians are not under the Law (Romans 6: 14, 15, 1 Corinthians 9: 2), rather directed by Christ and the Spirit.

  2. Relationship between OT Law and NT usage. Two traditional approaches: either (i) all OT laws revoked unless specifically affirmed; or (ii) all OT laws affirmed unless specifically revoked. Neither captures idea of Christological fulfilment of the OT. Three useful approaches: (i) understanding OT law in the context of natural law based on consideration of the created order; (ii) comparison of OT laws suggests e.g. relative scale of punishments for offences according to their seriousness; (iii) derivation of general moral principles, in light of how Jesus (and the NT) fulfil the Law.

  3. Jesus’ fulfilment of all righteousness (Matthew 3: 15), perfect obedience to the Father’s will (John 4: 34). Programmatic statement in Luke 4: 17-21: ‘to set at liberty those who are oppressed’.

  4. Christians have a new status: declared righteous (Romans 8: 1-4), ‘new creation’ (2 Corinthians 5: 17). New righteousness and new life that Christians possess and begin to display are the righteousness and life of Christ himself. Role of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8: 11). Concern for justice demonstrated in care for neighbour (Luke 10:21-37).

  5. Economic relationships within the Christian community (2 Corinthians 8, 9). Willingness to share coming from understanding of grace and obedience to the gospel. Justice requires appropriate treatment of others within the Christian community: an emphasis on equality. See also 1Timothy 6: 17-19.

  6. Eschatology. Final judgement on evil and injustice: transformation of the fallen created order to a state that is perfect, just and righteous. Christians to seek economic justice now to bear witness to this final transformation when all injustice will be done away with.


Suggested definitions and principles: 

  1. Righteousness ‘describes the relationship that God wills for human beings to have with him through faith… and that human beings are to express through loving obedience’ to the norms that he commands and sets. These are based on God’s word – he not only created the world, he also orders it.

  2. Justice ‘is appropriate treatment, especially of human beings in a relational setting, according to the norms commanded and set by God in each particular case’ (actions). Mishpat is commanded as something to be done: treating people in the ways that God desires and requires.

  3. Righteousness and justice are rooted in the character of God himself. He requires the same character in his people.

  4. The norms for economic righteousness and justice are those uncovered in the derivative social principles for various aspects of economic life (see section B above, and documents A1 to A5].

  5. There is a particular emphasis on the quality of relationships in economic transactions with others. Compare the anonymity of the market system with the coincidence of needs in simple barter economies.

[Donald Hay, 2015]

BIBLE STUDY

Introduction

The Bible has a rather specific and multifaceted understanding of justice. The Biblical idea of justice is deeply relational, and it extends into economic relationships. Righteousness (s-d-q, or sedeq) and justice (mishpat) are central Hebrew terms in this context. Righteousness ‘describes the relationship that God wills for human beings to have with him through faith… and that human beings are to express through loving obedience’ to the norms (that is, principles of conduct in personal interactions) he commands and sets. These are based on God’s word – he not only created the world, he also orders it. Justice ‘is appropriate treatment, especially of human beings in a relational setting, according to the norms commanded and set by God in each particular case’ (actions).. Mishpat is commanded as something to be done: treating people in the ways that God desires and requires. In the NT, no substance is added to the OT understanding of justice but the work of Jesus Christ does alter interpretations of OT realities. The full consummation of justice at the end of times is stressed. A single word dikaiosune covers both OT words demanding righteousness of believers in response to God’s righteousness.

1. The Nature of God's Justice

Read: Isaiah 61 (especially verse 8), Luke 4:14-20, Amos 5:21-24

Optional: Psalm 97:1-2, 33:4-5

Questions for discussion: 

  • Notice the affective language God uses when speaking about justice (I love justice!). Theoretically, God could simply just declare what justice is or should be without getting emotional. Why do you think he gets so involved?

  • What kind of role according to Isaiah does justice have in God's plan for salvation? How does Jesus pick this up in Luke 4?

2. God's Requirements of Humanity

Read: Deuteronomy 10:12-22, Isaiah 10:1-4, Micah 6:8, Matthew 5: 6, 6: 33

Optional: Ezekiel 18, Isaiah 58:2-7

Questions for discussion: 

  • How good is the track record of humanity to living up to God's idea of justice?

  • How does the biblical (OT) law witness to justice?

3. Concrete Elements of OT Justice

Read: Exodus 23:1-12, Deuteronomy 15:7-11, 

Optional: Deuteronomy 24:17-18

Questions for discussion: 

  • What are the key principles of economic justice in the OT as identified in the above passages? (e.g. appropriate treatment of others, justice to the poor/needy, quality of relationships).

4. Economic Justice in the NT

Read: Luke 10:21-37, 2 Corinthians 8:7-15

Optional: Romans 8:1-4, 1 Tim 6: 17-19

Questions for discussion: 

  • Compared to the OT, the NT deals less with concrete law and social order questions. The interpretation of the NT in light of the OT is a complex theological issue. However, abstracting from complex theology: what does the above reading in Luke 10 reveal about the relationship of 'loving neighbour' and justice?

  • What do you think is so special about 'giving' rather than 'receiving' and 'accumulation' that makes Paul speak of the blessings of giving so forcefully?

  • Paul emphasises 'equality' rather strongly in the passage in 2 Corinthians 8. Is he suggesting a general principle, or just advice for that particular situation?

5. Finally, Economic Justice Today

If you were in charge...

  • What if anything would you change in your country's economic system in order to make it more just? Would you copy elements of principles/ rules/policies you found in the Bible? If yes, which ones? If not, why not? 

Even if you were not nor ever will be "in charge"...

  • Very few of us actually become high level political leaders or decision makers. It is important however to be clear that all of us are called to responsibility on some level, sometimes very basic things: e.g. when we vote or sign citizen's initiatives, when we give to the poor, when we simply love our neighbour and treat them appropriately.

Points for prayer

  • Pray for a renewed sense of God's purpose for your economic decision-making, your investment, consumption, and especially your giving to the poor and God's work.

  • Pray for the fulfilment of justice and righteousness, and that we may be able to see glimpses of it in this age already before eternity.

Further literature

A Hartropp, What is Economic Justice? Biblical and secular perspectives contrasted, 2007
C J H Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, 2004, especially chapter 9.

Donald HayComment