Throughout the book of Proverbs, there are themes relating to justice. You'd expect this, given that this was the text used to train up the next generation of leaders - noble, privileged young men who will make an impact on the economy, law and classes. What are they meant to keep in mind? Here are four things:
1. God is on the side of the Poor. (Proverbs 17:5; 14:31; 22:22-23; 28:8; 29:13-14) In Jesus time, the disciples were shocked to hear Jesus say that the rich will have trouble getting into heaven. They had a strong tradition that said that God would bless the righteous – therefore, being rich as a sign that God had favoured you. But Proverbs says different: that sometimes the rich and powerful got there through unjust means and God wasn’t pleased at all. In some cases wealth was a sign of corruption and exploitation instead of hard work or wise choices. So these proverbs show that God is on the side of justice, and will judge in favour of someone who has been exploited or cheated. We need to be super-careful, because we also live in a time where people don’t pay attention to justice in their pursuit of wealth. We honour people who are rich, but we don’t honour the poor. But God is just to both, and Jesus said “as often as you do this to the least of these, you do it to me”.
When we honour the poor, we are honouring them as being made in the image of God.
We say “you are not a lesser being, because God doesn’t make lesser beings”. One of those proverbs says that God give eyes to both – the poor are not less to God and it’s an insult to God’s creative genius to treat them as less.
2. Beware perverting the course of justice. (Proverbs 18:5; 15:27; 17:23; 29:4; 11:1) When I’m on a diet, I quote Proverbs 11:1 – “The Lord detests dishonest scales, but accurate weights find favour with him”! That verse about weights is really about corruption – money was weighed, and given its worth that way. God hates the fluctuation of that process and I think hates the way that value is a slippery thing in our time. It’s a verse against inconsistency, an instability that happens not just in the measurements but throughout the whole society. The other verses show the reasoning behind that inconsistency – bribes. A leader who is swayed by bribes and kickbacks and perks is unpredictable and everyone is affected by that inconsistency. Because they take their eyes off the whole picture and focus on their own advantage, others lose. Ultimately, greed and a lack of integrity will result in injustice for others.
It’s a good warning for all of us to ask not just “is this a good deal for me?” but “Is this a good deal for everyone?”
3. Hear the cries of the poor. (Proverbs 14:20; 18:23; 21:13; 29:7) There are lots of reasons that we ignore the cries of the poor – we are busy; we are overwhelmed; we don’t think our contribution will make a difference. But God is keen for us to listen.
Proverbs 29:7 doesn’t say that the righteous or wise person knows about the poor, but that they care.
This is wisdom – taking the knowledge from head to heart. So we need to listen, not just to register that poverty and injustice exists, but to hear the real experience and what it is that will truly help. There’s a book called “Toxic Christmas” by a man who heard about families in his neighbourhood that couldn’t afford any presents for the children for Christmas. So he organised a charity drive where people bought gorgeous shiny new things for the kids and wrapped them up. He took the toys around, and while the kids were excited, the parents were sullen and withdrawn. When he asked some questions, he discovered that this exacerbated their humiliation of not being able to afford presents for the kids, knowing they couldn’t ever match that expectation set next year. Much more damage than good was done because no one listened to their cry. The strategy changed so the kids were just as happy and the parents were empowered. We need to listen. We need to hear with empathy, so we don’t answer harshly with our own solutions that are unrealistic.
4. Justice is blessing and joy! (Proverbs 21:15; 22:9; 29:6; 29:16) Lots of people in comfortable Christian land talk about God of the Old Testament being a “justice” God and the New Testament as being a God of “love” as if justice and love are opposites. Justice is seen as mean, but in Proverbs 21:15, it’s joy to the righteous and terror for the evil doer. Let’s rethink this idea of justice being mean! When someone is a victim of another person’s crime, they love justice! When you are sinned against and that stops, justice is wonderful! And when you see someone you love receive the good things they deserve, it’s a time to party for justice! Justice is a blessing, and it brings joy…if you are not being greedy or corrupt or taking advantage.
Justice is a selfless thing – it finds joy in blessing and elevating others.
Being generous brings joy. Seeing others who have had such a hard time finally succeed brings joy. Releasing prisoners brings joy. Bringing healing brings joy. And when people in power who are corrupt lose their power over others, that brings joy too. We need to beware of a “justice” culture that gets super serious and earnest, that blames and is self-righteous, that has biting sarcastic humour and wishes for calamity, that becomes cynical and dry...none of that is joy. Where there is justice, there is joy and blessing. If you’re going to campaign for it, it’s a hard road, but you need to be prepared to celebrate it too.