What is Justice?

Often when we hear the word justice, we understand it to mean people getting what they deserve.  For most, their primary experience of what justice is, is the court (or ‘justice’) system. Here wrongdoers are punished and victims receive fair compensation, regardless of status, race or gender – justice is served. 

The Hebrew word for “justice”, mishpat, certainly encompasses this meaning, Leviticus 24:22 for example warns Israel to have the same rule of law for the foreigner and the native. However misphat, which occurs more than 200 times in the Old Testament, goes much further. 

Misphat encompasses the notion that all people should receive their rights (for example, Deuteronomy 18) and this included an emphasis on all people having access to the economic resources they needed to flourish – distributive justice.

Deuteronomy and Leviticus outline a series of laws for the ancient Hebrews, that if enacted, would ensure the just ordering of society where all people had access to the abundant provision in God’s good creation.

The outcome?

"There should be no poor among you" (Deuteronomy 15.v 4).  

For an agrarian society like ancient Israel these laws focused on: 

  1. Access to land – which was the source of sustenance and income.
  2. Supporting those, whose land for whatever reason, failed to provide and,
  3. Significantly supporting those that did not have access - the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, and the poor, who were the most vulnerable in society.

One of the most radical features of these laws was the Jubilee (Leviticus 25) - a system of economic redistribution that was to occur every 50 years, where, regardless of how poor or rich a family had become, all land would be returned to the original ancestral land holders. Essentially an ‘economic reset’ that ensured all people had enough in perpetuity. 

Biblical justice then, emphasises the need to foster communities, cultures and systems that allows all people, particularly those that are poor, marginalised and oppressed, to enjoy the goodness and abundance of God’s creation. 

Jesus notably, when announcing the beginning of his ministry, declared himself “The servant of the Lord” prophesied by Isaiah who would bring “justice to the world” (Isaiah 42:1-7).

"The Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the captives, recovery of sight for the blind, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour (the Jubilee)" (Luke 4-18-19).

As followers of Christ, it is our mission to do likewise, and to be vehicles of God’s justice.