Biblical Social Justice Rooted in Story and Conflict
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his teaching the islands will put their hope.”Isaiah 42:1-4, NIV
When I was young and working in my family’s vegetarian restaurant, I often had opportunity to sit and have meaningful conversations with customers during my lunch break. People do not typically discuss religion over lunch. Even fewer want to discuss their beliefs with someone who holds differing ones, but those who sat at my table considered themselves my friends. One memorable conversation centered on why God permitted slavery and oppression of women. My lunch guest had a hard time accepting a God who hadn’t abolished the injustices of slavery or championed women’s rights. Bible passages that seem to portray God as sexist or racist challenged this person’s sense of decency.
That afternoon, I shared two Biblical examples of undermining these social evils—the Israelite Exodus from slavery to freedom and the daughters of Zelophehad, who demand that they be given a voice and rights equal to those of sons. The Bible seems not only to regulate the problem it permits with laws about the treatment of slaves and the vulnerable, but its narrative actually undermines the social evils that undergird unjust systems. These examples are good Old Testament stories of God preferring to reform culture rather than give authoritarian answers. They make clear that God considers injustice wrong, assures that oppression will not always be permitted, and shows that change is to be celebrated. What does Jesus think about the suffering of the poor and marginalized?
Jesus doesn’t champion civil reforms by aligning Himself with religious or political parties to start a revolution against earthly powers (John 18:36). While most Jews of His time sought nationalistic roles, some held more violent political perspectives. Still others favored more submissive roles, staying aloof or isolated from society to safeguard against corruption and become purer and holier. Jesus adopts unconventional methods of seeking righteousness and reform that begin to establish justice in the world. When Jesus publicly announces and defines the purpose of His mission, He opens the scroll of Isaiah that proclaims justice for the poor, freedom for captives, and liberty for the oppressed (Luke 4:18; Isaiah 61:1–2; 58:6). When Jesus closes the scroll, He sits to teach, telling the assembly that it is time for equality and redemption (Luke 4:21). He intends to begin a kingdom revolution that will change the world (Isaiah 42:1–6).
God’s heart clearly beats for the oppressed and suffering. In one of His critiques of religious leaders, Jesus charges that they neglect the more important matters of the law—justice, compassion, and mercy (Matthew 23:23). Social evils must be addressed through these weightier matters. When asked to sum up the whole of the law, Jesus states that the Scripture’s “greatest commandment” is to love God and your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:36–40). Jesus taught that loving others—even our enemies—is the best revelation of what God expects us to be like. In the time of Jesus, national pride had divided those with a tribal identity from every other nationality. But Jesus challenges this division by seeking the benefit of all creation. Demonstrating unselfish love to others, He abolishes every social class and other divide—between neighbor and stranger, poor and rich, friend and enemy. Jesus’ healing ministry can be characterized as justice for everyone through the elimination of religious and political oppression, which includes ecological justice in healing the land.
Most people, including myself, tend to view Jesus’ miracles as acts of compassion or perhaps even as claims to divinity, but His healing ministry is better understood as acts of justice and making right what is broken. Jesus does not heal people to prove His miraculous power but rather to demonstrate specific cultural and religious intent. Healing seems to carry great symbolism for Jesus. It construes a meaning beyond the healing itself. I find it fascinating that Jesus goes out of His way to perform healings on the Sabbath day. These seventh-day healings are not coincidental but intentional, emphasizing the Sabbath’s relationship to freedom, mercy, and justice. These miracles directly challenge the political, economic, and religious powers that fail to care for the vulnerable—by bringing justice to the oppressed and economically marginalized groups as well as by treating women and the poor with dignity and respect.
I have learned from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel that we can bring moments of meaning and significance into time. Yet, we often end up wasting time because we don’t know what to do with it. According to Heschel, “time is like a wasteland, it has grandeur but no beauty” (The Sabbath, 1951, p. 20). Because it’s seemingly blank and meaningless, time may appear random and unordered to us, but moments of meaning can lend significance and beauty to time. For Heschel, these moments of meaning—of rest, peace, and equality—are uniquely found in the biblical descriptions of the Sabbath. Such meaningful Sabbath moments inspire us to prophetic action in our societies, which are places where equality and peace do not exist. They help us to see God’s intent to heal what is broken and to find meaning in the midst of our current cultural struggles.
Professor A. J. Swoboda describes how the true meaning of the “Sabbath will be challenging for anyone to live out in our busy, frenetic world. Sabbath goes against the very structure and system of the world we have constructed. Sabbath, then, becomes a kind of resistance to that world. Such resistance must be characterized as overwhelmingly good” (Subversive Sabbath, 2018, p. xi). In this context, the Sabbath, may be understood as taking a stand for the value of human life. I mention this because of the close connection between the Sabbath and the healings of Jesus—His sympathy and concern for society’s most vulnerable and despairing.
In these healing Sabbath encounters, however, we also find controversy—not because Jesus breaks or denies the importance of the seventh-day Sabbath but because He is engaged in conflict with entrenched powers and authorities (Ephesians 6:12). In His ministry, Jesus is “doing good and healing all who [are] oppressed by the devil” (Acts 10:38). According to Jesus, sickness and disease are forms of satanic oppression. Simple charity does not suffice; a strong form of social justice is needed to fight this oppression. Jesus’ unconventional sense of social justice offends by challenging a society divided by religion, race, ethnicity, and class. His Sabbath healings deepen our understanding of the heavenly conflict over good and evil on earth. We see Jesus battling the devil, demons, and “the structures that perpetuate their oppression” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, 1988, p.156). These are not merely benevolent acts but acts of justice structured by cosmic conflict. This context deepens our understanding of God healing and the Sabbath as embodying justice. The Sabbath is God’s realm, and as such takes us to the very heart of Jesus’ activism. What kind of God does Sabbath theology convey?
In an especially notable Sabbath healing, Jesus cures hunger, reminding us to leave the edges of fields unharvested and occasionally rest the land, allowing the poor to eat from it (Luke 6:1–5; Leviticus 23:22; Exodus 23:11; Deuteronomy 24:19-22). Jesus supplies food to those who are hungry, calling us to do good instead of being greedy and tightfisted. We live in a hungry world and the Sabbath is a recognition of God’s gracious concern and provision for people who live in hunger and poverty. In addition to donating to feed the hungry, I personally choose to be a vegetarian to improve the hunger problem. Studies show that we can feed more people with plant-based than meat-based diets.
On another Sabbath, Jesus finds in the synagogue a man with a withered right hand (Luke 6:6–11). For this laborer, the deformity must mean unemployment and possibly impoverishment. Jesus calls the man to stretch out his hand, as Moses was asked to do to convince the oppressed Israelites (Exodus 4:6–7). Jesus understands this man’s suffering as God does His people’s suffering in Egypt. Jesus’ healing of this man’s hand is a sign of God’s deliverance from oppression, and the echoes of freedom are apparent.
Jesus also cures a woman who has been crippled with a bent back for 18 years (Luke 13:10–17). I envision her bent over and working strenuously in the fields, suffering aches and pains but having to continue because her meager earnings allow her no rest. Jesus saw the woman’s backbreaking oppression and sought to end it. He considers this woman’s crippling bondage as the work of Satan—who holds her hostage through cruel mechanisms of suffering—and He sets her free on the Sabbath— showing that both men and woman are equally deserving.
We could also mention Peter’s mother-in law’s fever (Luke 4:38-39), the man born blind (John 9:1–41), the man with dropsy (Mark 3:1–6), and the lame man by the pool—all of whom suffered and were healed on the Sabbath. It is the custom of some religious and national leaders to consider disease and disability as evidence of God’s displeasure. If you break the rules, you deserve such a curse. Sufferers are to receive no preferential treatment because of their circumstances, as all illness is a matter of sin. After all good people don’t get infirmities. Jesus, however, challenged the unjust traditions of authoritarianism and social blame. He shows us that it depends what kind of God we believe in. At the heart of the divine character lies a God who heals and restores. What a compassionate and just Redeemer!
In the social justice of Jesus, we see divinity lamenting and soothing life’s injustices as well as battling arbitrary authority on earth in ways that heal and create hope for a suffering world. No wonder the people are astounded and the authorities indignant. How can we bring such Sabbath moments of justice and healing into our current struggles?
Craig Ashton Jr.
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