Micah 6:8 is a summary of how God wants us to live. To walk humbly with God is to know him intimately and to be attentive to what he desires and loves. And what does that consist of? The text says to ‘do justice and love mercy,’ which seem at first glance to be two different things, but they are not. The term for ‘mercy’ is the Hebrew word chesedh, God’s unconditional grace and compassion. The word for ‘justice’ is the Hebrew term mishpat. In Micah 6:8, ‘mishpat puts the emphasis on the action, chesedh puts it on the attitude [or motive] behind the action.’ To walk with God, then, we must do justice, out of merciful love.
Why should we be concerned about the vulnerable ones? It is because God is concerned about them. Consider the following texts:
He executes justice [mishpat] for the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets prisoners free, the LORD gives sight to the blind, he lifts up those who are bowed down, the LORD loves those who live justly. The LORD watches over the immigrant and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked. Psalm 146:7-9
The LORD your God . . . defends the cause [mishpat ] of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the immigrant, giving him food and clothing. Deuteronomy 10:17-18
It is striking to see how often God is introduced as the defender of these vulnerable groups. Don’t miss the significance of this. When people ask me, ‘How do you want to be introduced?’ I usually propose they say, ‘This is Tim Keller, minister at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.’ Of course I am many other things, but that is the main thing I spend my time doing in public life. Realize, then, how significant it is that the Biblical writers introduce God as ‘a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows’ (Psalm 68:4-5). This is one of the main things he does in the world. He identifies with the powerless, he takes up their cause.
When I went to seminary to prepare for the ministry, I met an African-American student, Elward Ellis, who befriended both my future wife, Kathy Kristy, and me. He gave us gracious but bare-knuckled mentoring about the realities of injustice in American culture. “You’re a racist, you know,” he once said at our kitchen table. “Oh, you don’t mean to be, and you don’t want to be, but you are. You can’t really help it.” He said, for example, “When black people do things in a certain way, you say, ‘Well, that’s your culture.’ But when white people do things in a certain way, you say, ‘That’s just the right way to do things.’ You don’t realize you really have a culture. You are blind to how many of your beliefs and practices are cultural.” We began to see how, in so many ways, we made our cultural biases into moral principles and then judged people of other races as being inferior. His case was so strong and fair that, to our surprise, we agreed with him.
If a person has grasped the meaning of God’s grace in his heart, he will do justice. If he doesn’t live justly, then he may say with his lips that he is grateful for God’s grace, but in his heart he is far from him. If he doesn’t care about the poor, it reveals that at best he doesn’t understand the grace he has experienced, and at worst he has not really encountered the saving mercy of God. Grace should make you just.
There is an inequitable distribution of both goods and opportunities in this world. Therefore, if you have been assigned the goods of this world by God and you don’t share them with others, it isn’t just stinginess, it is injustice.
Most people love those who love them, yet God loves and seeks the good even of people who are his enemies. But because God is good and loving, he cannot tolerate evil. The opposite of love is not anger, but indifference. ‘The more you love your son, the more you hate in him the liar, the drunkard, the traitor,’ (E. Gifford). To imagine God’s situation, imagine a judge who also is a father, who sits at the trial of his guilty son. A judge knows he cannot let his son go, for without justice no society can survive. How much less can a loving God merely ignore or suspend justice for us – who are loved, yet guilty of rebellion against his loving authority?
Many people believe that ‘justice’ is strictly the punishment of wrongdoing, period. They don’t think we should be indifferent to the poor, but when we help them they would call such aid charity, not justice. But Job says that if he had failed to share his food or his fleece—his assets—with the needy, that would have been a sin against God and by definition a violation of God’s justice. Of course, we can call such aid mercy or charity because it should be motivated by compassion, but a failure to live a lifestyle of radical generosity is considered injustice in the Bible.
Our culture gives us a mixed message. It says: make lots of money and spend it on yourself; get an identity by the kind of clothes you wear and the places you travel to and live. But also do some volunteer work, care about social justice, because you don’t want to be just a selfish pig. However, Christians’ attitudes toward our time and our money should not be shaped by our society; they should be shaped by the gospel of Christ, who became poor so that we could become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9).
Why should we be concerned about the vulnerable ones? It is because God is concerned about them. It is striking to see how often God is introduced as the defender of these vulnerable groups.
Don’t miss the significance of this. When people ask me, ‘How do you want to be introduced?’ I usually propose they say, ‘This is Tim Keller, minister at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.’ Of course, I am many other things, but that is the main thing I spend my time doing in public life.
Realize, then, how significant it is that the biblical writers introduce God as ‘a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows’ (Psalm 68:4-5). This is one of the main things He does in the world. He identifies with the powerless. He takes up their cause.
Objection: The angry God. Christianity seems to be built around the concept of a condemning, judgmental deity. For example, there’s the cross – the teaching that the murder of one man (Jesus) leads to the forgiveness of others. But why can’t God just forgive us? The God of Christianity seems a left-over from primitive religions where peevish gods demanded blood in order to assuage their wrath.
Response: On the cross God does not demand our blood but offers his own. 1) All forgiveness of any deep wrong and injustice entails suffering on the forgiver’s part. If someone truly wrongs you, because of our deep sense of justice, we can’t just shrug it off. We sense there’s a ‘debt.’ We can then either a) make the perpetrator pay down the debt you feel (as you take it out of his hide in vengeance!) in which case evil spreads into us and hardens us b) or you can forgive – but that is enormously difficult. But that is the only way to stop the evil from hardening us as well. 2) If we can’t forgive without suffering (because of our sense of justice) its not surprising to learn that God couldn’t forgive us without suffering – coming in the person of Christ and dying on the cross.
Objection: The record of Christians. Every religion will have its hypocrites of course. But it seems that the most fervent Christians are the most condemning, exclusive, and intolerant. The church has a history of supporting injustices, of destroying culture, of oppression. And there are so many people who are not Christian (or not religious at all) who appear to be much more kind, caring, and indeed moral than so many Christians. If Christianity is the true religion – then why can this be? Why would so much oppression have been carried out over the centuries in the name of Christ and with the support of the church?
Response:The solution to injustices is not less but deeper Christianity. 1) There have been terrible abuses. 2) But in the prophets and the gospels we are given tools for a devastating critique of moralistic religion. Scholars have shown that Marx and Nietzsche’s critique of religion relied on the ideas of the prophets. So despite its abuses, Christianity provides perhaps greater tools than the other religions do for its own critique. 3) When Martin Luther King, Jr. confronted terrible abuses by the white church he did not call them to loosen their Christian commitments. He used the Bible’s provision for church self-critique and called them to truer, firmer, deeper Christianity.