Many readers may be asking at this point why we are calling private giving to the poor “justice.” Some Christians believe that justice is strictly mishpat—the punishment of wrongdoing, period. This does not mean that they think that believers should be indifferent to the plight of the poor, but they would insist that helping the needy through generous giving should be called mercy, compassion, or charity, not justice. In English, however, the word “charity” conveys a good but optional activity. Charity cannot be a requirement, for then it would not be charity. But this view does not fit in with the strength or balance of the Biblical teaching.
In the Scripture, gifts to the poor are called “acts of righteousness,” as in Matthew 6:1–2. Not giving generously, then, is not stinginess, but unrighteousness, a violation of God’s law. Also, we looked at Job’s description of all the things he was doing in order to live a just and righteous life in Job 31. He calls every failure to help the poor a sin, offensive to God’s splendor (verse 23) and deserving of judgment and punishment (verse 28). Remarkably, Job is asserting that it would be a sin against God to think of his goods as belonging to himself alone. To not “share his bread” and his assets with the poor would be unrighteous, a sin against God, and therefore by definition a violation of God’s justice.
Another passage, from the prophecy of Ezekiel, makes a very similar list to the one that we have in Job 31.
Suppose there is a righteous man [tzaddiq] who does what is just [mishpat] and right [tzadeqah]. He does not … oppress anyone, but returns what he took in pledge for a loan. He does not commit robbery but gives his food to the hungry and provides clothing for the naked. He does not lend at usury or take excessive interest. Ezekiel 18:5, 7–8a
This just man does not use his economic position to exploit people who are in a weaker financial position. Most interesting is how the text pairs “he does not commit robbery” with the explanatory clause that he actively gives food and clothing to the poor. The implication is that if you do not actively and generously share your resources with the poor, you are a robber. You are not living justly.31 This connection of generosity and care with mishpat is not confined to this text. Each of the following texts calls those who do justice to share their resources with the needy, because God does:
He defends the cause [mishpat] of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt. Deuteronomy 10:18–19
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe him …? Isaiah 58:6–7
Despite the effort to draw a line between “justice” as legal fairness and sharing as “charity,” Ezekiel and Job make radical generosity one of the marks of living justly. The just person lives a life of honesty, equity, and generosity in every aspect of his or her life.
As we continue our study, we will see there are valid reasons why many become concerned when they hear Christians talk about “doing justice.” Often that term is just a slogan being used to recruit listeners to jump on some political bandwagon. Nevertheless, if you are trying to live a life in accordance with the Bible, the concept and call to justice are inescapable. We do justice when we give all human beings their due as creations of God. Doing justice includes not only the righting of wrongs, but generosity and social concern, especially toward the poor and vulnerable. This kind of life reflects the character of God. It consists of a broad range of activities, from simple fair and honest dealings with people in daily life, to regular, radically generous giving of your time and resources, to activism that seeks to end particular forms of injustice, violence, and oppression.
Timothy Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just, 1st ed. (New York: Dutton, 2010), 1–2.
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