Sermon from June 14: The Justice of God

The Justice of God
Pentecost II (O. T. 11); June 14, 2020
Revelation 20:11-15 and Amos 5:18-24

I invited you to request stories or Scriptures or topics for preaching this summer, and I begin to respond to those requests today. One of you asked of me, “Please preach on the justice of God.” That is a phrase you hear us use a lot around our Church, and Presbyterians have for decades been particularly given to talking about “justice.” But what do we mean when we say it? And what part does it play in our faith in Christ?

I’m afraid I have to go into full-on college-teacher mode for a bit, and I hope that I don’t lose you. We need to talk about the idea of justice, what we mean when we say it, and then I’ll apply it to the way we live as followers of Jesus. So please listen carefully and I’ll tell you about justice, and then you’ll have some ideas for living.

The two Scripture readings I chose illustrate the various facets of the idea of judgment that I will consider with you. The prophet Amos calls for justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Perhaps you’ve heard the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. quote this phrase in one of his speeches. The prophet also scolds those who yearn for Judgment Day, figuring that they will be rewarded and “those people” will get what’s coming to them. Judgment Day, the prophet says, will be like running away from a lion, and getting caught by a bear. Or you run into your house and lean against a wall, where a snake bites you. Judgment Day is coming for you. And so in Revelation we see all the world’s people standing before the throne of God, and we are all judged. So, the question is: on what are we judged? What is the justice of God?

Let’s look at justice as a six-sided die: you turn it different ways and see opposite faces, like the numbers on a die. First, let’s consider two faces that go all the way back to Aristotle: retributive justice and distributive justice (Nicomachean Ethics, 1129-1132). Retributive justice is what we’re familiar with when we talk about “the justice system:” it has to do with punishing wrong-doing. When an individual or a corporation commits an illegal act, then retributive justice is applied to punish the wrong-doing.

The opposite face is “distributive justice,” which Aristotle understands as the equitable distribution of social goods, such as honor, money, property, and the like. A just society is one where these goods are appropriately distributed and are not hoarded by a few and kept from the many. And note that we’re not talking just economics here; it isn’t concerned only with money and property. Such social goods as the ability to vote, to hold a position of prestige or power: these are also the concerns of distributive justice.

So one of the questions we are asking ourselves in the United States is whether our system of retributive justice is itself just in the distributive sense. Is there racial bias in the system? Hardly a thinking person could deny that there is. Our Men’s Book Club read Just Mercy – which was recently made into a movie – and it shows clearly the bias against black men in the system. I heard an interview with the leader of a police union, who pointed out the desire of most police officers to root out those “bad apples” among them. Let’s acknowledge that and not label all police officers as individually racist. But that also misses the point: we’re not only concerned with whether a particular officer is racist in the way he treats suspects; we’re concerned with a system that automatically views persons of color as more violent than white persons and so tends to use greater violence in the treatment of persons of color. For at least 150 years, writers have portrayed black men as particularly violent and prone to crime, and recent neo-Nazi propaganda cited even by the President has bogus crime statistics to support that widely-believed lie.[1] Whether particular police officers are racist is less of a concern than the reality that the system is racist, because of centuries of assumptions and propaganda in the social reality underlying the system. The issue is not only retributive justice – punishing “bad apples” – but also distributive justice: a system that is equitable in its treatment of persons.

Let’s turn the die a different way and see something in the Bible: the idea of “justice” in the Bible applies both to the behavior of individuals and the behavior of societies. We seem to have a terrible disconnect in American Christianity: we have a group on one side that is concerned to make sure that people don’t have sex with anyone they shouldn’t, don’t drink too much, and don’t steal from others. And we have a group on the other side that is concerned to make sure that our society is just toward oppressed and marginalized groups of people. And each side thinks the other is misguided. But the Bible clearly cares about both personal morality and social justice. The prophets continually scold the government for denying well-being to those who are marginalized, with particular emphasis on widows, orphans, and resident aliens. That is, the prophets were concerned with the rights of those on the outside of power. But the prophets were also concerned that people keep their marriage vows, that they respect their neighbors’ property, and that they keep the Sabbath. Personal morality and social justice: both facets are inherent to the justice of God.

So perhaps I may think that I bear no responsibility for racial justice because I personally have never enslaved people, nor have I acted in a knowingly racist way against another. Well, good for me as a person trying to be moral. But I am also part of a society, and God is equally concerned with whether my society is just. Have I, as a white man, benefited from a society which is racist? Without a doubt. Yes, I have worked hard all my life; I’ve held a job since I was eleven years old. But I inherited privilege from a society where white people could live where there were better schools than the places where black people were allowed to live; where it was easier for white people to get a job, to rent an apartment, to walk down a street without being stopped and asked, “What is your business here?” The problem isn’t a racist police officer; the problem is a society where we assume that if you see a black person where you don’t expect to see a black person, then there must be something wrong. The Bible calls our attention not only to the justice of individuals, but also the justice of a society.

The other two faces to mention that are part of the Bible’s understanding of “justice” are expressed as relationship: the quality of our relationship with God and the quality of our relationship with one another. The word that Aristotle writes about and that is in the Bible that we translate as “justice” we also translate as “justification” and as “righteousness.” To be just means to seek a good relationship with God and a good relationship with other people. When the prophet Amos said that God hates our religious festivals, you have to keep it in context. The prophet isn’t calling upon us to give up religious observances. He is saying that if we try to practice our religious observances but are content with an unjust society, then God hates our religious observances. Don’t quote the prophet as an excuse for avoiding church; quote the prophet as a call to work on our society’s injustices as part of your religious life. Don’t use the Bible as a prop to gain favor or practice your religion as a substitute for living a just life. I call to your attention today’s hymn at the end of the service: whether you sing along or simply listen to Sarah sing it, please pay attention to the words.[2] These words were written more than a century ago, yet seem timely for our current experience. They reinforce these two faces of justice: God wants to have a just relationship with us; God wants us to have just relationships with each other.

To sum up: the Bible doesn’t often speak of the justice of God, it seems to me, at least not nearly as often as it speaks of the love of God. And I think this is the place to land this sermon. God is loving, God loves us. We, however, are not quite up to loving God or loving one another as God loves. We can, however, strive to be more just. We can seek justice in our relationship with God: pray daily, worship weekly, make regular use of the Sacraments. Let me repeat myself: pray daily, worship weekly, make regular use of the Sacraments. We can seek justice in our relationship with God. And we can seek justice in our relationships with one another: understand the roots of inequality in our society; confess our common sin; advocate for a more just society. Let me repeat myself: understand the roots of inequality in our society; confess our common sin; advocate for a more just society.

These last two faces of the die help us understand what we can do if we truly want to live out the justice of God. I wish to remind you, however, of all six: justice is both distributive and retributive; justice is both personal and social; justice is expressed in our relationship with God and our relationships with each other. Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska


[2] Henry Scott Holland, “Judge Eternal, Throned in Splendor” (1902), #342 in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal (Westminster John Knox Press, 2013)