Charity, Obligation and (Creative) Justice
What does “justice” mean to you?
My experience with Christians in the United States, and especially those here in Washington, DC, is that most of us have an understanding of justice that is primarily shaped by the Constitution and Bill of Rights rather than by Scripture, more informed by culture than by faith. The U.S. is not entirely antithetical to biblical justice, but our culture’s understanding of justice and the vision of justice laid out by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights lacks the width and breadth of God's justice, which is ultimately shot through with his divine imagination.
To most people in the U.S., biblical justice probably seems shocking, radical and either offensive or beautiful.
What we in the U.S. often call "charity," God calls "justice." In Israel’s foundational law documents, we read:
When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce...giving it to the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, so that they may eat within your towns and be filled, then you shall say before the Lord your God … “I have not transgressed any of your commandments, nor have I forgotten them.” (Deut. 26.12–13)
Israelites were required to give three tithes—owch! One tithe was to the priests, one to the functioning of the temple and administration of the feasts, and one to the poor. The last tithe was actually to more than just the poor—it was for those who theologians call the "quartet of the vulnerable," which was the poor, widows, orphans, and strangers/foreigners. In American society, our giving to these groups is considered charity, but that doesn't convey the Bible's attitude toward this kind of giving. God calls it obedience to his commandments. No follower of the Lord could claim to have obeyed him and stand righteous before him without having sacrificially given to the poor.
The term "charity" conveys neither the moral character of our giving nor the spiritual mandate for it. It sounds and feels inessential, and when we think of our giving in terms of charity, we tend to set lower bars for ourselves. How might our giving increase if we viewed our charity as baseline justice, and grew on from there to generosity?
What we often regard as private possessions, the Lord viewed as property of the needy.
Before you cry, “Treason!,” please hear me out.
I am not saying the Bible supports socialism. In fact, the Bible fully supports the idea of private ownership, as in this passage about indentured servants in Israel:
When you let him go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed. You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the Lord your God has blessed you, you shall give to him. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you. (Deut. 15.13-15).
The Lord acknowledges to the Israelite they are "your" harvest and “your” flock—private property. Yet in the same breath, the Lord also commands the people to be make their property available to the needy.
And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 23.23)
These laws had to be fulfilled. Failure to fulfill them was, in God’s eyes, unjust. And “justice” in Israel meant a standard of generosity far more radical than the standard most of us live by in the United States today. God’s rationale for this radical standard in both cases is the same as his rationale for the Ten Commandments and many of the Old Testament laws, is that he is the LORD who brought Israel out of Egypt. If the fact that God redeemed Israel from Egypt was justification for this kind of generosity, how much more should redemption in Christ lead us to say to our brother, sister, neighbor: "What's mine, is yours?"
A Call to Break the Law
So, what do we take from this? Are we called back to Old Testament law? No. The ritual and civic laws of the Old Testament were shadows and object lessons pointing to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They are no longer binding on the Church in the same way they were on Israel before he arrived.
However, it's clear from Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (and from the breadth of the New Testament) that these laws can’t just be dismissed outright: The Pharisees kept these laws to the letter, which is what made them righteous, but Jesus insisted that, "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 5:20)
For Christians, these Old Testament commands to sacrificial generosity are a starting point, a goal to be beaten, a record to be broken. The standard in ancient Israel for justice and generosity was far more radical than the standard most of us measure ourselves by today, and Israel was God's people when they were in their spiritual 'toddlerhood'—how much more is expected of those who desire to be mature in Christ?
Our reference point for justice must be biblical before it is American. To get our heads around what the Bible’s vision for justice could look like in our lives today, we need to pray and ask God for imagination. We may need to deliberately fantasize about giving and experiencing this kind of just generosity.
In the Acts church, people gave liberally from the possessions they owned. In fact, the Bible says that the earliest believers “had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” Can you imagine asking someone to borrow their car and being told, “Sure, you can borrow our car?"
This week, take time to pray and ask God to help liberate your imagination where justice and generosity are concerned. Then ask in prayer for a deeper understanding of God’s astonishing grace and for the opportunity to share it.