Justice and Holiness go hand in hand

Rev. Gary Hauch, Church of the Ascension

“With what shall I come before YAHWEH,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will YAHWEH be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my first-born for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has showed you, O man/woman, what is good;
and what does YAHWEH require of you
but to do justice (mishpat) and love (hesed),
and to walk humbly with your God?”
Micah 6:6-8

Holiness and Justice are Intertwined
Concern for justice, for the needs of THE poor and disenfranchized, has always been part of the mission of the church. The parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37), the story of Lazarus and the rich man (Lk 16:19-31) and the eschatological separation of the sheep and the goats — “in as much as you did it to one of these… you did it to me” (Mtt 25:31 ff) — make this clear. But I suspect that for many of us, a concern for justice, especially economic and political justice, is seen more as an option or adjunct than as a constitutive and essential part of our call and mission to be Christians in the world. Occasionally, texts like Micah 6:6-8 or Jer 9:23-24 (cf., 22:13-17) or the book of Amos remind us that knowing and walking with God entail the pursuit of justice; but rarely, if ever, is it seen within the context of holiness and of our mandate to be holy as God is holy. Yet it is precisely within the context of holiness that scripture locates justice, and in the outworking of justice that it speaks of holiness. The two, according to the biblical witness, are inextricably intertwined.

At root the word holy ‘vwdq’ (Holiness) means difference, separateness, that which distinguishes the sacred from all that is not sacred. When applied to God it entails such things as God’s transcendence, perfection, majesty, power, purity, as well as what phenomonoligists call the realm of the numinous. It speaks, in short, of that which makes God different from, or other than, the rest of creation. Too often, however, our understanding of holiness has been limited largely to priestly and liturgical matters (a holy God should be worshipped in “holy array”) and has tended to stress the numinous dimension of the holy to the near exclusion of the historical. This is not to suggest that these aspects of holiness are unimportant; texts like Isa 6, 2 Sam 6:6ff, and 1 Sam 2:12 make it clear that they are. But if the historical dimension of holiness is lost, if the sphere of justice is separated from that of holiness, then our understanding of justice is in danger of mirroring our own values and ideologies rather than those of Scripture. And our call to be holy as God is holy may too easily be reduced to matters of personal piety, if not abstracted from history altogether. According to the biblical witness, however, holiness and justice are inseparable; the one is made manifest in the other. “Yahweh of hosts is exalted in justice fpvm,” writes Isaiah, “and the Holy God shows himself holy in righteousness ” (Isa 5:16).

Holiness and Justice
Justice and holiness are issues that were not limited to the Bible alone. For example, protection of the disadvantaged and the pursuit of justice are concerns found in ancient Near Eastern law codes such as those of Ur-Nammu, Lipit-Ishtar, Eshnunna, or Hammurabi, and in tracts on wisdom like the Instruction to Merikare or the Wisdom of Amenemope. But for all that these and other ancient Near Eastern writings have in common with the Old Testament, there is a significant difference that sets the justice of Israel apart from that of its neighbours — that makes it holy. This can be seen, for example, in the law governing runaway slaves. To my knowledge all ancient Near Eastern laws make harbouring or abetting a runaway slave a capital offense. Yet in Deut 23:15-16 we read, “You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you; he shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place which he shall choose within one of your towns, where it pleases him best; you shall not oppress him.” What is considered a criminal act punishable by death among the nations is considered as an act of justice by Yahweh. Yahweh is the God of runaway slaves who hears their cry and delivers them (Ex 3), or who in the words of the Magnificat, “has put the down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree, [who] has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away” (Lk 1:52f).

The difference of Yahweh’s justice can also be seen in the kind of society that the various laws reflect and protect. The laws of Israel’s neighbours reflect a stratified social order with court and temple ruling over a largely slave-based population and a small middle class consisting mainly of merchants. Control over the means of production was thus concentrated in few hands. Israel’s laws, by way of contrast, envisage a different world in which each extended family and clan has access to the means of production (a family’s land was not to be sold in perpetuity) and in which any attempt of social stratification was seen as a rejection of Yahweh’s ideal (1 Sam 8). Yahweh’s justice, in other words, was not only concerned with feeding the poor (as was that of Israel’s neighbours) but also with redressing the material and spiritual conditions that led to their poverty. Property and power may temporarily be held by a few, but they must be redistributed periodically so that poverty and landlessness do not become institutionalized. And it is this periodic redistribution, with its inherent limits placed on unrestricted growth, together with Yahweh’s animus against social stratification (all people, male and female, were created in his image and not just the monarchy) that makes Yahweh’s justice different, and in part constitutes his holiness. His laws call Israel to be different, not only in the means and object of their worship, but also in the type of social order they establish.

The Number 7: Israel’s Temporal Symbol of Holiness
This is borne out, for example, in the series of laws that revolve around the number 7, the temporal symbol of holiness in the Bible par excellence: the sabbath, the sabbatical year, and the sabbath of sabbaths — the year of Jubilee. The sabbath, or 7th day, was a day of release from labour, a holy day of rest for both people and their animals that reflects God’s goodness in creation (Ex 20:8-11) and liberation (Deut 5:12-15). The sabbatical year went even further. In it, all Israelite debts (based on interest free loans!) were to be cancelled (Deut 15:1-11; cf Lev 25:25-28; Ex 22:25-27); all Israelite slaves set free laden with goods to establish them in their new freedom (Ex 15:12-18; 21:1-11; cf., Lev 25:39-53); and all land was to lay fallow with whatever produce that grew by itself being made available to all creatures, human and non-human (Ex 23:10-11; Lev 25:1-7, 18-24). And the year of Jubilee went even further. Beginning with the blast of the trumpet that announced the day of atonement, a proclamation of liberty was to be made throughout Israel. Not only were debts to be cancelled, slaves released, and the land to lay fallow, but whatever land had been sold during the previous 49 years, for whatever reason! was to be returned to its initial owners without cost (Lev 25). It is more than coincidental that the trumpet blast that announced the year of Jubilee also sounded forth the Day of Atonement. Reconciliation with God is the precondition for reconciliation with one’s neighbour. And conversely, genuine reconciliation with God leads inevitably to a transformation of all other relations. The rights of extended families to earn their own way in the end take precedence over a purchaser’s “property rights” or a totally free market economy.

Debt cancellation, land reform, economic and political liberation, fallow fields and a concern for the well being of non-human creation — these are not the things we normally associate with holiness. Yet they belong to the heart of Israel’s holiness traditions. These, and a host of other commands, are designed to limit the concentration of productive power and to break the cycle of greed so endemic to post-lapsarian humanity. They are part of God’s requirements for establishing and maintaining the necessary conditions of a just and compassionate social and ecological order (Deut 4:8; 6:24-25; cf., Hos 4; Isa 24).

Jerusalem: Israel’s Spatial Symbol of Holiness and Justice
Jerusalem, the holy city, was to reflect God’s holiness in justice (Isa 1). But in Isaiah’s day, the city of righteousness had become a haunt for robbers and murders in which the Holy One of Israel was despised (Isa 1:4). While the economy prospered — the wealthy increased their property holdings (Isa 5:8), the rights of the disenfranchised were ignored. Their land and homes were devoured by the rich, their patrimony was not returned to them as the sabbatical and Jubilee traditions command. As a result, Isaiah says, God has already begun to judge his people and he will continue to do so unless they repent. And what does that repentance entail? Not increased liturgical or religious activity (Isa 1:10-15), but justice: “Learn to do good; seek justice; reprove the ruthless; defend the orphan; plead for the widow” (Isa 1:17). Because, as Yahweh says, “Zion will be redeemed with justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness” (Isa 1:27; cf. the song of the vineyard in chapter 5). To live justly in this manor, however, requires more than good will; it requires a radical trust in God in the face of material insecurities (whether political or economic) and in the midst of the anxieties generated by human finitude and death. It requires grace. It also requires love; deep love for God and for that which God loves (cf., Jer 9:23-24).

Justice and Holiness in the New Testament
The conjunction of holiness and justice is not only limited to the Old Testament. It is also constitutive of the message and ministry of Jesus. When Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has annointed me to preach good news to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the recovering of sight to the blind, to set to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptaple year of the Lord” (Lk 4:18), and proclaimed its fulfillment (v 21), he was drawing upon the sabbatical and Jubilee traditions of the Old Testament. His “inaugural sermon” not only announced the dawning of the kingdom of God, but it did so in terms of debt cancellation, release, and land reform. His teachings — the stories of Lazarus and the rich man (Lk 16:19 ff ) and of the good Samaritan (Lk 10: 30ff), the parable of the steward who had his debts forgiven but refused to forgive those who were indebted to him (Mtt 18:25ff), and the warning that no one can serve two masters, either God or mammon will be lord (Mtt 6: 19ff)– all proclaim that spiritual and material redemption cannot, in the final analysis, be separated.

The symbiosis of justice and holiness can also be seen in the Lord’s prayer. The petition concerning forgiveness has an economic valence. Matthew’s version of the Lord’s prayer reads literally, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Mtt 6:12), and Luke’s version reads, “forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us” (Lk 11:4). The forgiveness of our sins or debts is made contingent upon our forgiveness of other people’s debts (cf. Mtt 18: 25ff). We who have been set free by God’s grace and forgiveness are called to extend that freedom to others by cancelling their debts whether material or social. When we pause to think of all the injustice that is spawned by indebtedness, from international and third world debt to the debts of political and personal patronage — “you owe me” — we begin to see how radical and relevant this petition is to our world.

And when the Holy Spirit was given on Pentecost, one of the first concrete signs that the escatological age had begun to dawn is the creation of a new community in which the justice of God was incarnated: “Those who believed shared all things in common; they would sell their property and goods, dividing everything on the basis of one’s need” (Acts 2:45). The Spirit’s holiness is manifested in history, among other things, in human acts of generosity and justice.

What is clear from Scripture is that justice matters, justice defined in God’s terms and not those of the political and economic left or right.We are called not only to feed the poor but also to ask why the poor have no food – and then to redress the cause of their poverty. The call is for justice, not just charity. To do justice is to know God (Jer 22:16) and to reflect his holiness (Isa 5:16). As Christians we really have no option but to seek it, nor is the call to live justly an adjunct to faith. And that means placing our social and economic structures, our habits of being and patterns of consumption, our expectations and construals of “the good life” under the judgement of Scripture. But what is not as clear is what it means in concrete terms to live justly in our world. To apply the biblical injunctions in a one to one correspondence to our social and economic structures and habits of being is to ignore the vast differences between the world of the Bible and our own world. It is also to fall prey to easy answers that only trivialize Scripture and further complicate the problems we seek to redress. What is needed is a careful listening to the intent and trajectories of the scriptural witness and a willingness to engage in serious interdisciplinary dialogue and praxis. And because the issues we face are so complex and spin such an elaborate web of interconnections, we will also find ourselves thrust upon God and each other for guidance, help and forgiveness.

The worse thing we can do is to retreat into the safety of an ahistorical holiness, to withdraw from the world of international debt, the economies of scale and the habits of consumption we have become so accustomed to because answers seem so difficult and the problems so large. But to do so is to pervert the justice of God and to deny his holiness; it is also to give free reign to the kingdom of death. To bear faithful witness to God’s justice and holiness will not be easy, but it is something we are not called to do alone, for he who calls also says, “Lo I am with you, even to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20).