I’ve been thinking a lot lately about justice.
With so much pain and injustice in the world, it’s easy to wonder if things will ever get better.
Will justice ever come?
Maybe we need some context
In the First Century world of Judaism, in the time leading up to Jesus’ birth, the people were waiting for God to intervene on their behalf to free them from their seemingly endless cycle of conquer and exile.
Their prophets, hundreds of years earlier during their exile to Babylon, had promised that a time would come when God would restore their nation to its original purpose.
And now, as they suffered under the oppression of the occupying Roman Empire and the corruption of their own religious leaders, they were still waiting for that promise to come true.
And really, what they were waiting for was justice.
Now, for most of us I suspect we define justice as punishment, revenge, or retribution. Some price someone has to pay for doing wrong.
But that definition of justice isn’t really a biblical one. Because justice in a biblical sense isn’t ultimately about punishment for the adversary.
It’s about restoration for the disenfranchised.
It’s about freedom from exile.
A prophetic warning
In the Old Testament narrative, the prophets had warned the leaders of Israel about the consequences they would suffer if they continued in their course of injustice toward the poor and the marginalized of their own people.
Corrupt kings and religious leaders had taken advantage of the people for their own benefit. They had consorted with pagan nations and permitted the people to worship idols of other nations’ gods.
All while lining their own pockets and bolstering their positions of power and privilege.
Which caused a lot of tension, because Israel’s God was supposed to be Yahweh, the God that had promised to make them into a great nation, one that was meant to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
To show the world that God was not a god of political power and domination, but of unconditional love and mercy.
A God of justice.
Following the wrong story
This was the God that their story had told them was the One True God.
But they compromised that story to live into their own narrative of privilege over purpose.
And the consequence of following the wrong story was that they ended up on the wrong side of someone else’s story. They were defeated by the nations who owned the narrative of power and domination and found themselves in the role of the oppressed.
So justice for them was not revenge on their conquerors. The prophet Jeremiah warned them against that, too, telling them to actually actively seek the peace and well-being of their captors.
Because the path to restoration is never through retribution. It’s never through violence.
The path to justice can only come through love.
Tossin’ them temple tables
There’s a story in the Gospel of Luke where Jesus’ disciples are admiring the temple in Jerusalem, extolling its beauty and its virtue.
And Jesus tells them that it’s about to be destroyed.
The temple was believed to be the dwelling place of God among the people. It was the central symbol of Jewish religious, social, cultural, military, economic, and political life.
The temple had been plundered when the Israelites were sent into exile but had been rebuilt when they finally returned to the land more than a generation later.
But under the religious leaders of the Temple and their collusion with Rome in the First Century, it had become instead a symbol of corruption and oppression.
A little earlier in the narrative, Luke tells a story about Jesus cleansing the temple by turning over the tables of the merchants and money changers that were taking advantage of the people who would come to the city to worship and make ritual sacrifices during mandatory festival days.
The implication is that if Israel’s exile to Babylon was a result of its flirtation with idols, Jesus’ judgment of the temple pointed out that the temple itself had become an idol.
It no longer represented the lovingkindness and care of God among the people, but instead had come to symbolize greed and graft and oppression of the people.
Truth or consequences
Under the temple leaders, Israel had become like all the other nations, worshipping power, control, status, and influence.
And believing their “God” condoned it.
And so the god of the temple had become little more than a weapon to keep the people in line with that agenda.
Jesus, with his message of unconditional love and grace for all, stood in sharp contrast to what the temple had become a symbol of.
So the people had to make a decision: either Jesus was right, or the temple was right.
God is with either the just or the unjust.
And if God was to vindicate Jesus as carrying God’s true nature to the world, then the temple would have to be destroyed.
It’s not that God is the one that destroyed the temple. The temple’s destruction in 70 CE was the natural consequence of the injustice perpetrated by its keepers.
It’s what inevitably happens to corrupt systems and structures that feed and glorify themselves at the expense of others.
Which was precisely what was happening in the temple.
And we have to ask ourselves…is it happening again now?
Who’s watching the temple?
Living for the things Jesus values—love, grace, peace, generosity, compassion—flies in the face of political/industrial/military machines whose agenda is primarily about power & profits for the few at the expense of the many.
The justice of Jesus stands in sharp contrast to the values of many of the people entrusted with tending his church today.
And we have to make a choice.
Either Jesus is right, or the keepers of the temple are right.
One way leads to death. The other leads to life.
Justice is coming
But justice is coming. In fact, it’s breaking in all around us for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.
God gives us the voice and the power to create good in the midst of evil.
But we have to use that voice. We have to turn over the tables of those who would use the name of Jesus to justify behaviors Jesus would never condone.
We have to call out the use of Jesus’ name to carry out injustices against all kinds of oppressed people…immigrants, children, women, victims of gun violence, LGBTQ persons, people of color, people of different faith traditions…the list goes on.
Justice is coming.
Exile will end.
It’s time we made way for it.