The concept of social justice, that is meeting basic needs, the distribution of wealth and the opportunities for people in the way they live their lives, is very topical. Practising equality means not discriminating against some people and the vulnerable means those in need or at risk. Vulnerable people ought to be protected. God’s word teaches us: Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.(1)

God’s people Israel were instructed to uphold the principle of impartiality in respect of right and wrong. In practice, and that’s where it counts of course, it meant providing for the poor, not taking away bare necessities and refusing to blame foreigners living among them for the things going wrong or denying justice to those who were powerless to do anything about it.(2)

That’s a familiar-sounding aspiration in our twenty-first century world, isn’t it?

1. Justice – protecting the weak

Solomon wrote:

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.

Isaiah drew attention to the attitude of those in the 8th century BC who couldn’t understand why God was not happy with them. ‘Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ they asked God. The answer was stark: …on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers… You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.(4)

The lesson is obvious: the way we treat each other, and especially the vulnerable and weak, is as important to God as keeping the commandments. Later, when some of the people of Judah had returned to their land, the prophet Zechariah was caused to deal with this matter yet again:

“This is what the LORD Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’”(5)

It is part of a church elder’s work to look after the interests of those who are weak and vulnerable. It may be hard work sometimes. Paul, addressing the elders of the Church in Ephesus on the beach, referred to the attitude of the Lord Jesus:

“In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”(6)

The Lord Jesus pointed out the seriousness of not looking out for the interests of vulnerable children: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven”;(7) and, later, John, widening this to include anyone who is in need, writes,

If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.(8)

Some of us may also support food banks or sponsor a child in a developing country or make a donation to charities like Tearfund or the Relief arm of Churches of God. Others make a habit of calling on neighbours who live alone to see that they are safe or take a meal to an elderly person in their church. Those of us working with children or pastoring vulnerable adults must ensure that we have in place policies to ensure they are kept safe.

In a global world market, we may come to realise that some of the products available cheaply to consumers in the West come at the cost of exploitation of the workforce many thousands of miles away. In good conscience we may have to avoid buying into that injustice. That may mean doing without, or it may mean buying a more expensive alternative that has been produced fairly. Products that are fairly traded are sourced through a supply chain where small-scale farmers and producers are treated with dignity, respect, equality and fairness.

2. Justice – no discrimination

Discrimination is not always bad! We teach our children to discriminate between good and evil and we must learn to discriminate between those attitudes and actions that bring honour to God and those that don’t. However, we should never discriminate on the grounds of someone being a foreigner(9) or poor or show favouritism to those we think are better than others.

James goes right to the heart of the matter instancing an example of someone attending a church meeting and being disrespected for being poor.(10) Read that powerful rebuke! Sometimes we have to admit that a needy person may not be particularly welcome, neither might someone who presents unkempt or who is unable to communicate. But we need to turn from such discriminatory thoughts and be ready to give a welcome to everyone. To do less is to be part of the injustice people meet day after day in seeking to access amenities or have their needs met.

The Lord Jesus is a great example in meeting the needs of people irrespective of their gender or social or economic status.

3. Justice – hospitality and care

The condemnation by John and James of religious people who make pious sounding statements without actually doing anything about the situation is blunt.(11) James says that faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.(12) In fact, an essential part of genuine Christianity is to be hospitable, caring and people of action.

Hospitality, in this sense, is not having your favourite friends round for lunch! It’s putting ourselves out and rolling up our sleeves to help those needy folks we meet. Peter linked hospitality and serving with love:

Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.(13)

Paul instructed the disciples in Rome to share and practice hospitality,(14) a command repeated in the letter to the Hebrews.(15) The Greek word for ‘hospitality’ in each of these verses carries the thought of love of strangers. ‘So Christian hospitality is not the begrudging performance of a duty but the glad act of a cheerful giver,’ says HM Carson.(16)

Similarly we are to carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ(17) and the Lord Jesus makes the principle plain in His parable recorded in Matthew 25 that whatever we might have done “‘for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”(18) That puts a very different complexion on care and support given to a brother or sister in the church, doesn’t it?

In the western world there are countless children and young people who are suffering neglect in not being introduced to the Bible or the gospel. We can give our time in preparation and then open our church buildings for Sunday schools and youth clubs. There are single parents struggling with their young children. Some of our churches have been able to offer parent and toddler groups as somewhere these people can find someone to talk to and a safe place for children to play.

Care and hospitality costs us in time and resources. Maybe realising that it is really the King Himself who is being looked after would focus our minds.

4. Justice – remember and reflect

It is good to stop and reflect. Five times in Deuteronomy the Israelites were told to “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt…”(19) and that they were foreigners.(20) Why? So that they would have softened hearts of compassion for others in situations of hopelessness. And it is the same for us. We also need to remember the ‘at one time’ of our lives:

All of us also lived among them at one time… Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ… For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Therefore, remember… (21)

Let’s remember what we were, what God has turned us into and how we can show care and compassion to those we come into contact with.

References: (1) Ps. 82:3-4 (2) e.g. Deut. 16:19-20; 24:17-22 (3) Prov. 31:8-9 (4) Is. 58:3-4 (5) Zech. 7:9-10 (6) Acts 20:35 (7) Mat. 18:10 (8) 1 John 3:17-18 (9) See Lev. 19:33-34 (10) See Jas. 2:1-5 (11) 1 John 3:17-18 (12) Jas. 2:17 (13) 1 Pet. 4:8-10 (14) See Rom. 12:13 (15) See Heb. 13:1-2 (16) The New Bible Dictionary IVP, 1977, p.542 (17) Gal. 6:2 (18) Mat. 25:40 (19) e.g. Deut. 5:15 (20) e.g. Lev. 19:34 (21) Eph. 2:3-5,10-11a

David Webster, Liverpool, England

Bible quotations from the NIV 2011