Jesus, justice, and the law

 Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue.
Deuteronomy 16:20 (the Law)

What does the Lord require of you but to do justice?
— Micah 6:8 (the Prophets)

Strive first for the reign of God and God’s justice.
— Matthew 6:33 (the Gospels)

Was Jesus a law-abiding citizen? Or did he teach us to step outside the law when needed in the name of compassion and justice? Traditional orthodox Christianity claims that Jesus was perfect and sinless, fulfilling the Law of Moses and the Prophets of ancient Israel. Therefore, he obeyed the Hebrew Law completely. But the truth is more complex, illustrating the tension between written and oral laws and the biblical call to justice.

During his life, Jesus experienced three despotic structures of government organized for a privileged few at the expense of the common good of the majority. Upon the death of Herod the Great (73–4 BCE), his kingdom was divided among his three sons. Galilee was a monarchy ruled by his son Herod Antipas (born before 20 BCE – 39 CE). After the removal of his brother Herod Archelaus (23 BCE – 18 CE) by Rome in 6 CE, Judea was ruled directly by a Roman Procurator who reported to the governor of Syria. However, the day-to-day operations were entrusted to a wealthy oligarchy (meaning the ruling few) of the Sadducees, sometimes referred to in the gospels as “the leaders of the people,” or “the chief priests and the elders.” In conquered territories, it was always Rome’s practice to find indigenous collaborators to rule on their behalf. And they always chose people from the wealthy class who saw it in their personal interest to support power when it advantaged them. On top of these structures was an emperor in Rome—first Augustus (63 BCE – 14 CE), and then Tiberius (42 BCE – 37 CE)—who was essentially a self-appointed dictator. So Jesus was confronted by a monarchy in Galilee, an oligarchy in Jerusalem, and a dictatorship in Rome.

There were obviously overlapping legal systems in place in this conquered nation, but the one that is usually discussed in regards to Jesus is the Hebrew Law found in the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. At the time of Jesus, there were three levels of Hebrew Law. At the core were the Ten Commandments, which we are told were given on stone tablets to Moses by Yahweh.[1] Surrounding these were 316 laws (mitzvot) found in the Covenant Code[2] of Exodus, the Holiness Code[3] of Leviticus, and the Deuteronomic Code[4] of Deuteronomy that were written over hundreds of years. The three codes are significantly different in the range of social and religious issues they cover, the style in which they are written, and the fundamental rules they establish. They can broadly be conceived of as the law of the tribes, the law of the Temple, and the law of the royal court. They show a progression from a primitive tribal confederacy to a sophisticated temple-state ruled by a king. Debating specific interpretations of the Law was an ongoing activity, resulting in an oral law developed by the Rabbis and Pharisees. They viewed it as creating a ‘fence’ around the Law to keep its precepts from being violated.

Jesus and the Law

Jesus, quite frequently and openly, broke religious laws as interpreted by the Pharisees. They accused him of violating oral laws concerning the Sabbath on multiple occasions—picking grain and healing—but Jesus had a looser interpretation of the Sabbath commandment. He openly violated the restrictive interpretations religious leaders had developed to keep the Sabbath day holy. In addition, he ate with “sinners,” challenged the kosher food laws, and his disciples did not ritually wash their hands before eating.

Jesus prioritized the Ten Commandments over the 613 mitzvot and the oral law. He addressed three of the commandments, going beyond the forbidden act itself to the motives behind the act. Going beyond killing (the fifth commandment), Jesus claimed that anger and insult were wrong.[5] Beyond adultery (the sixth commandment), lust was wrong.[6] Beyond swearing falsely (the eighth commandment), taking any oath was wrong.[7] Instead of retributive justice, we must practice nonviolent resistance to evil.[8] And rather than hating our enemies, we must love and pray for them.[9]

In addition, Jesus reduced the entire Law to two simple love commands. In each of the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) we read a similar account.

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’[10]

One of the Pharisees, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He [Jesus] said to him, ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’[11]

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He [Jesus] said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’[12]

So Jesus boiled the Law and the Prophets down to these two statements: to love God and to love your neighbor. In essence, he was saying that everything else is superfluous, just minor details. The Ten Commandments, the 613 mitzvot, and the Pharisaic interpretations all flow from these two fundamental precepts. They may provide details and specifics, but they can often lose sight of the invitation to love. In some cases, the many Hebrew laws contradict the essence of the love commands. I believe that Jesus is saying to us that if there is ever a difference, always choose love over the law.

The Apostle Paul agreed. He believed that the law of the Hebrew Torah was now replaced by love.

For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[13]

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet;” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.[14]

So, love fulfills the law. But how does justice come into the picture? Philosopher and activist Cornell West (b. 1953) once said, “Justice is what love looks like in public. You can’t talk about loving folk and not fight for justice”

the contours of justice

Aristotle (384–322 BCE) suggested that the essence of justice consists in a person receiving what he or she is due.[15] That’s not a bad definition. We can expand that idea to include an entire group of people receiving what they are due. Justice, then, consists in a person or group receiving that to which they have a legitimate claim. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann (b. 1933) said: “Justice is to sort out what belongs to whom, and to return it to them.”[16] The word ‘return’ is key. It implies that those things that people are due have been taken from them, either by individuals, by groups, by fortune, or by unjust social and economic systems.

Our fundamental disagreements over justice are not disagreements over this basic understanding that people should receive what they are due, but disagreements over the content of that transaction. What is it that people justly deserve? Exactly what do people have a right to receive? There is much debate in America today over who has a right to what. The so-called “makers” are concerned about the so-called “takers” receiving an undeserved share of our society’s bounty.

The Bible, however, is largely concerned about what one particular group of people in society is due. The key to this understanding is the repeated referral in the Hebrew Bible to the needs of widows, orphans, and aliens. Over and over, when justice is spoken of in the Bible, it is these three groups that are brought to the fore because these people lived without protection in their society. They were vulnerable and without resources. It was a patriarchal society in which women and children were the property of their husbands and fathers. Therefore, widows and orphans lacked the protection of a male who had legal rights. Widows, orphans, and aliens had no legal rights of their own. They could not own land and had no means of economic support in an agricultural economy other than day labor and prostitution. Because they lived without human protection, the biblical writers claimed that God had become their protector. In more contemporary terms, God had their backs.

Yahweh watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow.[17]

Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.[18]

He [Yahweh] defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.[19]

In the law codes of Exodus and Deuteronomy, God warns the Hebrew people not to oppress the widows, orphans, and aliens in their midst. They are not to replicate the domination system they themselves had experienced as slaves in Egypt. God is essentially saying “I did not free you from oppression to become oppressors yourselves.”

You shall not oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry.[20]

Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. 18 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and Yahweh your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this.[21]

For the biblical writers, a just society is one in which those without protection—the weak and voiceless ones—have been brought into the heart of the community to share its life and enjoy its goods. The contour of biblical justice is to provide the poor with access to the means of life. This is divine distributive justice.

the call to justice

The biblical call to justice flows through the entire Bible. In the Hebrew Bible we find it in the law and in the wisdom literature of the Bible, including the Psalms and Proverbs. We find it repeatedly in the words of the prophets—Isaiah, Amos, Micah, Zechariah, Ezekiel. And the call to justice flows through the New Testament—in the gospels, the epistles, and life of the early church as recorded in Acts.

At its heart, the Bible tells the story of a God who liberated an oppressed people from a powerful empire and created a remarkable covenant with them: to worship no other God and to demonstrate their devotion by creating a just society that would stand in contrast to the oppressive empires of the world. The essential nature of the covenant is to love God and to love your neighbor.

First of all, we are told that Yahweh is a God of justice, especially in the Psalms and the Prophets.

Yahweh loves justice.[22]

Yahweh is a lover of justice.[23]

Yahweh is righteous, he loves justice.[24]

Yahweh loves righteousness and justice.[25]

For I, Yahweh, love justice.[26]

I am Yahweh, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight.[27]

The terms ‘righteousness’ and ‘justice’ are often linked in these poetic biblical texts. That is because for the ancient biblical writers these were synonymous and redundant terms. In the original biblical languages, the Greek word dikaios (DIK-ah-yos) and the Hebrew word tzedaka (tze-dah-KAH) both have this dual meaning—righteousness and justice. Righteousness implies a personal dimension, while the word justice implies a social dimension, but they both have the same objectives: social and economic justice.

The prophets consistently addressed the injustice found in their society. Their main message was to re-establish the contrast-society covenant that God had made with them. The prophets called upon the powerful people of their society—the rulers and the wealthy elites—to seek a just and compassionate society.

Learn to do right! Seek justice, rescue the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.[28]

This is what Yahweh the Almighty says: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor.[29]

But you must return to your God; maintain love and justice, and wait for your God always.[30]

Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.[31]

In the New Testament, the story of God’s covenant community continues. Jesus emphasized a renewed contrast society as a visible manifestation of the reign of God. We can see it in his stories and teachings. In calling people to establish a just society, Jesus was standing in continuity with the great prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Bible. He sought to renew the covenant with God in a society that was different in the world. He began to create that contrast society in small rural and urban communities.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said,

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be satisfied.[32]

Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of justice, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” [referring to the kingdom of God].[33]

Jesus accused the religious lay people of his day, the Pharisees, of focusing primarily or solely on religious practice and neglecting the requirements of a just society.

Woe to you Pharisees… you tithe herbs of all kinds, yet neglect justice and the love of God.[34]

And after his death, this vision becomes evident in the Jerusalem community described in the Acts of the Apostles.

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.[35]

There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned land or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.[36]

The Apostle Paul created similar contrast communities of inclusion and sharing throughout the Roman Empire as he founded a network of house churches in the major trading seaports of the Mediterranean world.

As noted earlier, Walter Brueggemann said: “Justice is to sort out what belongs to whom, and to return it to them.” It implies that those things that people are due have been taken from them, either by individuals, by groups, by fortune, or by unjust social and economic systems. For Jesus, justice meant that the land that had been taken from the peasants was to be returned to them. This was a key part of the Hebrew Law called the Jubilee year.

the Jubilee year

Deuteronomy mandated in the Sabbatical Year Code that all financial debts must be forgiven[37] and all indentured Hebrew debt-slaves must be released every seven years,[38] in a form of economic grace. Then, after seven Sabbatical Years (49 years), the fiftieth year was to be declared a Jubilee Year. The Jubilee Year Code in Leviticus required that the land—the economic capital of an agricultural economy—must be redistributed to the peasants who had lost their land to the wealthy through indebtedness. Once every fifty years, the Law demanded leveling the economic playing field.[39] Although the Jubilee year was part of the Hebrew law, we have no evidence that it was ever implemented or that the wealthy of any generation ever returned land to the dispossessed. Yet, Jesus sought to implement it in his day. It was the hallmark of his ministry as a prophetic messiah.

At the outset of his ministry, Jesus called for the implementation of the Jubilee year by quoting the prophet Isaiah.

The Spirit of Yahweh is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of Yahweh’s favor.[40]

The term ‘year of Yahweh’s favor’—or the ‘year of the Lord’s favor’—in the book of Isaiah[41] referred to the Jubilee year specified in Leviticus.

Significant changes in the global economy of the first century had created a crisis for the peasant class in Israel. Under Rome, they had transitioned from a traditional agrarian economy to a commercialized agrarian economy which required large estates. At one time the elites were satisfied to take the agricultural surplus of the peasant producer’s efforts; now they began to take the land. Peasants moved in a downward spiral from small freeholder, to tenant farmer, to day laborer, and finally to either beggar or bandit.

Debt was the tool used by the wealthy elites to acquire large plots of land which were then converted from subsistence farms to large estates and vineyards growing crops for export. When you understand this economic scenario, you really begin to understand many of the parables told by Jesus—populated with characters like workers in the vineyards, day laborers, and dishonest stewards.

When peasants were unable to keep their farm going—either through drought, illness, or mismanagement—they were forced to borrow money from wealthy elites toward the next harvest in order to survive. Even if the crops failed, they had to pay taxes and tithes. That often required cash, not crops. If they could not pay their debts, their land was foreclosed and taken from them. Debt was a big deal for the peasant class. It is revealed in the prayer Jesus taught his disciples, “Forgive us our debts.”[42]

the kingdom of God

Foremost in the teachings of Jesus is the kingdom of God. According to Jesus, God is creating a new order in our midst. He declared that God’s kingdom is something of great value, yet it is often hidden from view by the overwhelming presence of injustice and violence, and must be uncovered or recovered. It is something that has been lost and must be found again. It is something we have long believed is impossible, but must now struggle and hope for again. The kingdom is something that cannot be seen in and of itself, yet its effects are plainly visible. To enter the kingdom, in fact to even see the kingdom, one must experience a dramatic change—a reorientation, a rebirth, a transformation.

Jesus painted a vision of God changing the world from within through the creation of a new community bonded together in egalitarian social relationships. He described what would happen when love finally broke through the hearts and minds of people to transform their actions and relationships into a society based on compassion, generosity, and equality.

The reign of God must be understood as both personal and social transformation. Everything that Jesus says about the ruling style of God is true in both dimensions. Any attempt to see it as one or the other is an incomplete understanding of the kingdom. Personal transformation must lead to social transformation. And social transformation can only come about through the efforts of transformed people.

The governing style of God is also both spiritual and political. It cannot be seen as just a spiritual kingdom that has both individual and social dimensions like the church; it must also be seen as having political and economic implications for individuals and their communities. It is not just about good people offering personal service and charity to those in need, it is about a wholesale transformation of the social order that will eliminate human suffering and need among us.

The mission of Jesus was the implementation of a just society as if God sat on the throne, not Herod or Caesar. The kingdom of God would bring about a Jubilee year, creating economic grace. Thus, they were interrelated concepts.

But did Jesus ever really expect to see the kingdom of God or the Jubilee year in his lifetime? Did Jesus see the kingdom coming gradually within human history? Or did he see it coming at some future time, appearing suddenly and bringing about the end of history? Is the kingdom present, future, or both?

What made Jesus so unique was his conviction that the reigning style of God had already started happening. It wasn’t to be found in a new king who would ascend the throne of Israel with a trumpet blast, nor would it come about through a bloody military liberation which would overthrow oppressive rulers. The fundamental message of Jesus’ proclamation was the day of God’s reign has already dawned—it is here in our midst. The liberation from oppression that the prophets proclaimed and the poor had long desired to see is now present. Jesus’ healing of outcasts, eating with the unacceptable, and announcement of good news to the poor were all signs that God’s ruling style had arrived. And it began with establishing small contrast communities in the midst of the domination system.

the cost of justice

Jesus spoke of justice, he practiced justice, and he died for justice. In announcing the Jubilee, Jesus was shaking the foundations of the status quo. In announcing the Jubilee, he was threatening the wealth of the most powerful people in his country. In announcing the Jubilee, Jesus was signing his own death warrant. From a historian’s perspective, Jesus didn’t die for our sins; that is simply a theological conjecture. The historical Jesus was killed by the wealthy and powerful people of his society for daring to challenge an unjust economic system.

The wealthy elites thought that the execution of Jesus would eliminate the threat he posed. But the movement he created did not end with his death. In a very real sense, Jesus was resurrected in the people who believed in his message of hope and justice and who followed his example. They felt his presence among them, and this presence gave them the courage to transform their lives with passion, zeal, and courage for the sake of the world. They began small but passionate uprisings in the confident hope that they could create a better world. Clarence Jordan (1912–1969), a New Testament scholar and translator of the “Cotton Patch Gospels” once wrote:

The proof that God raised Jesus from the dead is not the empty tomb, but the full hearts of his transformed disciples. The crowning evidence that he lives is not a vacant grave, but a spirit-filled fellowship; not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away church.[43]

The political nature of the Jesus movement and its threat to the status quo of empire is unmistakable. Blasphemy and sedition were frequent charges aimed at the followers of Jesus in the first three centuries after his death and capital punishment was the fate of many of the key leaders of the movement. According to tradition, Peter was crucified in Rome, and Paul was beheaded there by the emperor Nero (37–68 CE). The Jewish historian Josephus (37–100) reports that Jesus’ brother James (the Just) was stoned to death by Temple authorities in Jerusalem. Legends reported by Christian historians Hippolytus of Rome (170–235) and Eusebius (263–339) say that four other disciples met similar fates: Andrew and Bartholomew were crucified, Stephen was stoned, and James, the son of Zebedee was beheaded. Something was going on in the early Jesus movement that clearly threatened authorities of the domination system.

When Jesus announced the kingdom of God, he was putting forth a vision of a world governed by love—more peaceful, more compassionate, more equitable, and more just. Planted deep in our hearts, this dream defines our mission as followers of Jesus. We are called to transform the hearts, minds, and politics of our cities and towns, our states and nations, and the entire global community so that children everywhere will be fed, clothed, healed, and educated.



[1] Exodus 20:1–17, Deuteronomy 5:4–21

[2] Exodus 20:19–23:33

[3] Leviticus 17:1–26:46

[4] Deuteronomy 12:1–26:19

[5] Matthew 5:21–22

[6] Matthew 5:27–28

[7] Matthew 5:33–37

[8] Matthew 5:38–41

[9] Matthew 5:43–44

[10] Mark 12:28–31. These two great love commands come from the Hebrew Law—Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18.

[11] Matthew 22:35–40

[12] Luke 10:25–28

[13] Galatians 5:14

[14] Romans 13:8–10

[15] More accurately, Aristotle proposed that communities are just when individuals receive benefits according to their merits. The most virtuous should receive more of whatever goods society is in a position to distribute.

[16] Walter Brueggemann, “Voices of the Night – Against Justice,” To Act Justly, Love Tenderly, Walk Humbly: an Agenda for Ministers (New York: Paulist Press, 1986), 5.

[17] Psalm 146:9

[18] Psalm 68:5

[19] Deuteronomy 10:18

[20] Exodus 22:21-23

[21] Deuteronomy 24:17-18

[22] Psalm 37:28

[23] Psalm 99:1, 4

[24] Psalm 11:7

[25] Psalm 33:5

[26] Isaiah 61:8

[27] Jeremiah 9:24

[28] Isaiah 1:17

[29] Zechariah 7:9

[30] Hosea 12:6

[31] Amos 5:24

[32] Matthew 5:6

[33] Matthew 5:10

[34] Luke 11:42

[35] Acts 2:44-45

[36] Acts 4:34-35

[37] Deuteronomy 15:1-3

[38] Deuteronomy 15:12-15

[39] Leviticus 25:8-12

[40] Luke 4:18-19

[41] Isaiah 61:1–2a, 58:6

[42] See the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4

[43] Jordan, Clarence and Dallas Lee, editor. The Substance of Faith and Other Cotton Patch Sermons. New York: Association, 1972, 29.

1 Comment

  1. Karen Welling

    John Patterson you inspire me and give me hope! Thank you!!!!

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