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Doing Justice: An Advent Reflection

You have to feel for the rich young man who came to Jesus asking, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to receive eternal life?” (Matthew 19 v16)

Or maybe you don’t.

Maybe this young man was "virtue signalling", taking the opportunity to let everyone know just how good he was. After all, he seems quite confident and proud that he has kept all the commandments.

But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.

Maybe the question was genuine. Maybe he knew that, despite all his efforts, there was still something missing.

Of course, from our perspective, that much is obvious – nothing we can do will grant us eternal life; we need the grace of God for that!

But he didn’t much like Jesus’ answer, anyway: “Go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor…then come and follow me.”

The Bible tells us he went away sad because he was very rich. Maybe he was also sad because Jesus had revealed something he didn’t want to admit to himself: that he wasn’t quite as good as he thought he was.

After all, the first commandment God gave to Moses was ‘worship no God but me’ – and that rich young man, with all his wealth and status, was clearly struggling with that. I suspect the struggle is real for most of us.

A couple of chapters later, Jesus clarifies the point in response to a question from a teacher of the Law: “Which is the greatest commandment?”

Jesus answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and the most important commandment. The second most important commandment is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22 v37-40)

In some ways, it seems like Jesus was reframing the Law, taking a list of rules and standards and making it all about love. But really, he wasn’t saying anything that hadn’t been said before. As the prophet Micah put it:

“the Lord has told us what is good. What he requires of us is this: to do what is just, to show constant love, and to live in humble fellowship with our God.” (Micah 6 v8)

All those rules about what to eat, what to wear, who to sleep with, when to take a rest, how to wash, how to behave in a place of worship, what to do about people who are causing a problem in society…they all pale into insignificance against those two great commandments.

Time and time again in his ministry, Jesus shows what it means to love God and to love others, even when it means putting those other rules to one side.

Of course, we need the Law. A framework of regulations helps us to begin to live together in safety. We need to have a sense of what is right and what is wrong. But it isn’t enough. And it should never be confused with justice. Justice is much harder to pin down and much harder to achieve. Justice is about fairness, about human rights, about morality. Justice is concerned with acknowledging the individual circumstances of a situation. The Law can be changed at the whim of those who make it, but our sense of justice is much deeper and more highly prized.

Cornel West, an American theologist and political activist (and currently an Independent candidate for the presidency), has said: ‘

Justice is what love looks like in public. You can’t talk about loving folk and not fight for justice.’

Love your neighbour as you love yourself. That has to align with seeking justice for all. I don’t think there has ever been a time when humanity as a whole, or any groups or individuals, would ever have been able to confidently tell Jesus they have always kept this commandment.

But at a time when there seems to be more injustice than ever,..


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