Paul and Justice

In trying to understand the whole Bible as a story of justice, probably the hardest task for me is to integrate Paul. I have read him through Lutheran eyes for so long, with its two kingdoms mindset, that I tend to see only personal salvation.

Thinking about Paul’s own biography suggests that he did care deeply about justice. He treated the offering for the Jerusalem poor almost obsessively, putting his own life and ministry at stake to do it. Reconciliation, not just with God, but between different groups in society, was something he harped on as a fundamental of the gospel. He wrote extensively about the treatment of widows, a fundamental justice issue. Paul never considered salvation a private matter, any more than the resurrection was a private matter. He looked to see the whole cosmos redeemed.

His theology of justice is somewhat obscured by translation issues. The word usually translated “righteousness,” so prominent in his thinking, is closer to “justice” than to “personal rectitude.”

In addition, Jesus’ title as “Christ” has been understood in all sorts of exotic ways, but the Hebrew word, “Messiah,” clearly means king, with all the public justice implied by that term. Just try reading Paul’s letters substituting “justice” for “righteousness” and “King” for “Christ” and you will see that something more than personal salvation is at stake.

Of course, a wide understanding of justice, “God setting things right,” has to include personal salvation. We have to be set right. Yet there is more. Romans launches its grand theology with the words, “the righteousness of God is revealed,” and that righteousness–justice, covenant faithfulness–lies in God completing his plan begun with Abraham, to bless all the world through his chosen people.

Through this people, Paul believes, God is setting things right. He never tires of telling how the death and resurrection of Jesus is the key to that– the irruption of the “day of the Lord” into the very middle of history. Faith places us in the community of God’s people living “in the Messiah.” And the Holy Spirit, so central to Paul, enables us to become more than chosen–a people of shalom and justice.

This is not justice as some of us would expect to see it. For one thing, Paul doesn’t seem to see the Roman government as the fount of evil. Implicitly he attacks the pretensions of Caesar to be Lord, but (famously in Romans 13) he mainly sees the government as benign, at least potentially. Nor does Paul see slavery as an evil to be frontally attacked. Nor male patriarchy. He is not conventionally revolutionary at all.

Rather, his beliefs subvert slavery and patriarchy and (pretentious) government by focusing on something much more powerful and much more important. There is only one Lord to be worshiped, and no male and female, slave and free in his family. Paul works to build cells of Christians who are independent of Rome–radically disinterested–and an unthinkable mix of classes, religions and statuses. (The very thought of slave and free joining together as complete equals staggers the Roman mind.)

It is through such communities that Paul sees ultimate justice done. Just as God chose Israel to bring in his kingdom, so the Messiah, Israel’s true King, has chosen these bands to embody his rule. The day is coming for justice to be done in a complete renewal.

A believable story? Perhaps as believable as the assertion that Israel was chosen to bring blessings to the whole world, or that Jesus, though executed as a criminal, is that world’s true king. Perhaps as believable as the promise made to Abraham in his old age, that he and Sarah would have a son. “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” So we too live by faith.

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