Disgusted by the Israelites’ false worship, God spoke repeatedly through his prophets: “You say you worship me; you say you are right in my sight, yet your lives reveal you to be liars!” But God’s rebukes were joined by another message, a message of hope and reconciliation and cleansing.
If the people would repent and turn to God, he would hear them and turn from his anger. And perhaps surprisingly, God emphasizes that this change of heart in the people would be reflected in a change of behavior—their repentance would bring about a revival of justice. The Israelites’ change of heart toward God would be evidenced, in no small part, by a change of heart and action toward the poor and oppressed:
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause…. If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. (Isaiah 1:17, 58:9b-10)
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Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:23-24)
It might seem strange to see the word “justice” used in connection with caring for the poor. After all, this word tends to function a bit fluidly in our culture. Different people use it in various ways. For some, it’s an issue of equality, protecting the rights of one person from being infringed upon by another. For others, it’s a matter of retribution, ensuring that those who commit a crime are prosecuted. These are right and true and biblical as far as they go.
But “justice” carries a deeper meaning in Scripture than our culture allows. That’s because justice is grounded in and stems from the character of God himself. As Wayne Grudem puts it so succinctly, “whatever conforms to God’s moral character is right,” or just because “all his ways are justice . . . just and upright is he.” In whatever God does and declares, he is both just and righteous because he is just and righteous by his very nature.
So what has he declared to be just? Is it not to “pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted”? Is it not to “correct oppression”? Is it not to obey him in all that he commands—especially in caring for the poor and needy among us?
That’s what it means to be faithful to God’s covenant, and…that’s exactly what the Israelites were incapable of doing. It’s what Samuel meant when he said to King Saul, “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.” It’s what Jesus meant when he told the disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
Covenant faithfulness is obedience—obedience motivated not out of obligation or duty or a desire to score points with God but out of love for God.
As we try to obey God in all areas of our lives—how we use our time, money, and talents—there is not a single aspect of life that is not affected, including how we relate to others. Jesus told his disciples that the greatest commandments of all are to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” and to “love your neighbor as yourself” because “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” If you separate the second of those commands from the first, you fail to obey either one. The Bible could not be more clear about this.
Loving our neighbor in real, tangible ways is as much a “proof” of our salvation as anything else. How we relate to God directly affects how we relate to others. Unfaithfulness to the Lord will lead to a lack of concern for our neighbor—but the opposite should also be true.
And who is our neighbor? The parable of the Good Samaritan answers plainly. Someone who has a genuine need, a need we become aware of, and a need we are able to meet, even if it results in inconvenience to ourselves—this person is our neighbor.
(Adapted from Awaiting a Savior: The Gospel, the New Creation and the End of Poverty, pp. 53-56)