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Mar 21, 2016

Justice Jesus' Style

Justice Jesus' Style

Passage: Matthew 12:1-21

Preacher: John Repsold

Series: The Story

Category: New Testament

Keywords: generosity, jesus, justice, legalism, poor, poverty, relationships, righteousness, serving


This message looks at God's heart for justice and the downtrodden. It seeks to show the consistency of God in both the Old Testament and New regarding how He wants his people to relate to poverty, the poor and the disadvantaged in our land.


Justice Jesus’ Style

The Story—Week #26

Luke 11:42; Matthew 12:1-21


            I recently read an article about the “war on poverty” that we Americans have been “fighting” for the last 50 years.  For those of you who are under 50, you won’t remember the genesis of that phrase “war on poverty.”  While politicians for centuries have been trying to address issues of poverty, President Lyndon B. Johnson was the most recent President to make it his primary domestic policy priority—to end poverty.  In his State of the Union address in 1964, Johnson declared, “Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.”  The official national poverty rate stood at 19%.

            So how we doing 52 years later?  Recently, an Associate Press/NORC poll recently found that 72% of Americans today (a majority of both Democrats and Republicans) rate “reducing poverty” as “extremely” or “very important.”  62% of Americans rate “reforming welfare” as “extremely” or “very important.”  Clearly, we feel we have a problem both in terms of poverty and how we are handling it as Americans.

            Just to let you know what has already been done and what is also being done currently, let me give you two very broad and very big statistics in regards to what we are doing to “fight poverty.” 

  • Combined federal and state means-tested welfare spending now tops $1 trillion per year. That works out to about $20,000 for every person living under the “poverty line” (currently income of less than $12,071/person).
  • Our country has spent some $22 trillion since Lyndon Johnson over the past 50 years. Despite this spending, the poverty rate has hovered between 10 and 15 percent for the last 40 years. 

So do you think the Bible has anything to say about how we are to handle poverty today?  More importantly, what difference does living around and among people in need make to our experience of Christ?  Is there a spiritual connection between engaging the poor and growing in Christ

Now before you think that I’m going all liberal on you today, I want you to know that I grew up in the shadow of the “social gospel” that has destroyed countless churches and denominations in our country in the last 100 years.  My first church experiences were in churches not very far from here that today don’t even teach the Gospel of Jesus anymore.  So I’m not in any way interested in following in the footsteps of those who substituted a “social gospel” of just doing good to others for the real Gospel of calling people to Jesus and into life in him every day. 

But I’ve also been a part of many an evangelical church that has today become just about as irrelevant because we spent too much energy reacting to the “social gospel” and consequently failed to follow Jesus when it came to poverty, injustice and the downtrodden.  

Today being Palm Sunday, we celebrate the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem the very week that same crowd would call for his crucifixion. Here was the poor carpenter from Nazareth being hailed the coming king of a repressed people.  With nothing in terms of human wealth or power, he had transformed sick, hungry, blind, paralyzed, frightened, poor and impoverished people through thousands of personal touches into the poor.  People had it right that Jesus would make an amazing national and world leader.  They just didn’t understand that His first coming was so He could be crowned Lord of everyone’s lives, not just their nation.

Today I want us to see WHY Jesus was so attractive to so many downtrodden, average and underclass people.  And seeing that, I want us to grasp afresh what truly following him into our world of need and “the poor” will mean…today.

May I invite ALL of us to do two things today:

  • Ask God to instruct us from His word about how He wants us to follow Jesus into the poverty of our community.
  • Tell Him we are willing to change whatever we are thinking, are doing or are not doing so that our lives conform more to Jesus Christ as it relates to either being poor and loving less wealthy than us?

(By the way, all of us but 1 person in this room are wealthier than someone else in this room…and even that 1 person is wealthier than many other people in our own city.  So don’t think that because the government says you are “in poverty” by some arbitrary monetary standard that God isn’t interested in seeing you become more like Jesus in impacting the poor.)


So let’s begin our journey into justice in Matthew 12.  There we have Jesus being criticized (again) by the Pharisees because of something he allowed his disciples to do and didn’t stop them.  They were apparently walking through a grain field on the Sabbath when someone spied them taking a few heads of grain, rolling them in their hands to get the chaff off and eating the kernels as they walked along…because they were hungry. 

Now, if most of us saw our kids doing the same thing in a wheat field out on the Palouse…or in some neighbor’s garden plot, we’d be telling them to knock it off but for a different reason, right?  In our cultural context, you don’t walk onto someone else’s property and pick their garden or fruit trees or field without permission, right?  Or at least you’re not supposed to…and everyone knows it.  [Fruit tree story.] 

That wasn’t the issue the Pharisees had with Jesus’ disciples that day.  But in their book, it was just as “illegal”, “unethical” and “wrong” as, say, raiding your neighbor’s garden.  In fact, it was more “wrong” because it violated (in their minds) what they considered to be not just a civil law but a divine, spiritual and national law: you were to do NO work on the Sabbath. 

Well, Jesus answered their mis-application of the “no working on the Sabbath” by throwing them a question in Mt. 12:3-4“Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? [I Sam. 21] He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests.”

Then He went on to cite another problem passage for these legalists about how the priests “desecrate the Sabbath” every time they serve and work on the Sabbath doing temple duty (vs. 5-6). 

“Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent?  I tell you that something greater than the temple is here.”

His point was that their application of the Law of God was all wrong.  But that’s what happens when you try to earn God’s favor by rule-keeping.  You always end up being a legalists who condemns everyone else for not keeping your set of rules all the while your rules are making you inconsistent with God’s Law. 

Jesus ended that little dust-up by telling them in vs. 7, “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent” (in other words, his innocent disciples).  Then he said something that really got their ire up in vs. 8“For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

Remember from last week that the name/title “Son of Man” was Jesus favorite title for himself.  If they didn’t like Jesus trotting out problem passages like he had just mentioned that really messed with their legalism, imagine how much they liked him declaring that He was “Lord of the Sabbath.”  I’m surprised the stones weren’t flying instantaneously!

From that little encounter, he went into their synagogue, according to vs. 9.  And guess who was there…besides the Pharisees?  “A man with a shriveled hand,”…a disabled person …someone not like the priests or Pharisees.  It wasn’t a big imperfection, just a withered hand.  This chap had probably lived with it for most if not all of his life. He was probably a regular at the synagogue. 

But the Pharisees had apparently not really listened to Jesus’ words about mercy being more important to God than sacrifice.  Or maybe they were just trying to show everybody that Jesus was really wrong about mercy.  It shouldn’t triumph over things like Sabbath rules and regulations, should it?  So they decided to use this disabled man to try and trick Jesus on another legalistic Sabbath law question:  “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” they asked Jesus.

Again, to our 21st century American ears, we hear this all wrong.  Our response is a resounding, “OF COURSE IT’S LAWFUL!  HEALING IS ALWAYS LAWFUL…7 DAYS A WEEK, for Pete’s sake!  Don’t you know the Emergency Room is open 24-7 at Sacred Heart?”  Ah, but not in Israel…not on the Sabbath…not when the Pharisees are watching.  That would be “work” and you would be breaking the law of God…AGAIN!

Well, just to show them how far from God’s heart they are, Jesus asks a seemingly simple question in vs. 11: “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out?”  You can almost hear the Pharisees thinking to themselves, “Well, I wouldn’t stoop to be a shepherd in the first place.  But… IF I owned a sheep, of course I would pull it out of the pit.  What does that have to do with…. Oooohhhhh.  I get it!  I just fell into your pit…your trap…didn’t I, Jesus?” 

In Vs. 12 Jesus put the final nail in their coffin on this argument.  “How much more valuable is a person than a sheep!  Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”  Again, contrary to our cultural answer that whales and crickets and spotted owls and “a woman’s choiceis more valuable than another human beingespecially a crippled or “defective” human being, Jesus states God’s heart:  “How much more valuable is a person than a sheep!”

So Jesus healed the man right there in front of them all.  And the Pharisees got even more upset than people today who get mad at you or me for saying that every person, regardless of how ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal’ they are, regardless of how ‘wanted’ or ‘unwanted’ they are, is more valuable than any animal or any supposed human right, be it to privacy or convenience or anything but life itself.

Vs. 14 tells us how well the Pharisees reacted to this little miracle.  “But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.”  Sounds like a typical after-church Sunday lunch discussion about the pastor’s sermon to me!  J

So what does this have to do with the topic of justice and poverty which I started with this morning?  Let’s keep reading in Matthew 12.

15 Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place. A large crowd followed him, and he healed all who were ill. 16 He warned them not to tell others about him. 17 This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

18 “Here is my servant whom I have chosen,
    the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
    and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
19 He will not quarrel or cry out;
    no one will hear his voice in the streets.
20 A bruised reed he will not break,
    and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he has brought justice through to victory.
21     In his name the nations will put their hope.”

Matthew is telling us plainly that Jesus “fulfilled” this prophecy about justice.  How did a few healings do this?  I thought justice was about righting wrongs, punishing guilty people and about treating people equally?   That’s where our cultural notion of “doing justice” is far short of God’s character of justice. 

            For the answer to what godly justice is, we need to go into the Old Testament for a moment.  The word “justice” that Isaiah used is a Hebrew term used more than 200 times.  It’s the word mishpat.  Its most basic meaning is to treat people equitably.  For instance, in Lev. 24:22 God warns Israel to “have the same mishpat [‘rule of law’] for the foreigner as the native.”  Mishpat means acquitting or punishing every person on the merits of the case, regardless of race or social status.  [See Generous Justice by Timothy Keller, pp. 3-4.]

            But mishpat means more than just punishment of wrongdoing.  It also means to give people their rights

In Deuteronomy 18, God directs his people to support the priests of the tabernacle by a certain percentage of their income.  This support is described as “the priests’ mishpat,” which means their due or their right.  This is echoed in Proverbs 31:8, 9 when we are told to

8) Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
    for the rights of all who are destitute.
9) Speak up and judge fairly;
    defend the rights of the poor and needy.

This is why, if you look at every place the word is used in the O.T., several classes of persons continually come up.  Over and over again, mishpat describes taking up the care and cause of widows, orphans, immigrants, and the poor.

Zechariah 7:9-10

9) “This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. 10) Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’

As Timothy Keller says in his book, Generous Justice (p. 4), “In premodern, agrarian societies, these four groups had no social power.  They lived at subsistence level and were only days from starvation if there was any famine, invasion, or even minor social unrest.  Today this quartet would be expanded to include the refugee, the migrant worker, the homeless, some single parents, elderly people...” and, I would add, many children, developmentally or physically disabled, etc. 

1.) So here’s the first clear point about biblical, godly, Christ-like justice:  Justice is care for the vulnerable.

2.) Genuine justice must reflect the character of God…His justice.    Psalm 146:7-9 state,

[The Lord] executes justice [mishpat] for the oppressed,
    [He] gives food to the hungry.

The Lord sets the prisoners free;
    the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
    the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the sojourners;
    he upholds the widow and the fatherless,
    but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

This is a radically different view of God than what dominated the ancient world.  Sri Lankan scholar Vinoth Ramachandra calls this “scandalous justice.”  He writes that in virtually all the ancient cultures of the world, the power of the gods was channeled through and identified with the elites of society, the kings, priests, and military captains, not the outcasts.  To oppose the leaders of society was to oppose the gods. 

            But Israel’s God, our God, takes his stand, not with high-ranking males, but with the orphan, the widow and the stranger.  From ancient time, the God of the Bible stands out from the gods of all other religions as a God on the side of the powerless and of justice for the poor.  In fact, repeatedly, the Bible says that God is the defender of the poor.  But it never says he is the defender of the rich.  That may be because lower classes are “not only disproportionately vulnerable to injustice; they are disproportionately actual victims of injustice.  Injustice is not equally distributed.” [philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff, quoted by Keller, p. 7.]

  1. Justice is also right relationships.

There is more to biblical justice than just strong concern for the poor.  There is another Hebrew word, tzadeqah, that is often paired with the word mishpat.  It can be translated “being just,” or “being righteous.”  It’s talking about living in right relationships—to God and to people.  Look at one example in Job 29:12-17.  As Job models, being in right relationship with God should result in a righteous life with people.  This is one snapshot of what that righteousness should look like human-to-human. 

12 I rescued the poor who cried for help,
    and the fatherless who had none to assist them.
13 The one who was dying blessed me;
    I made the widow’s heart sing.
14 I put on righteousness [tzadeqah] as my clothing;
    justice [mishpat] was my robe and my turban.
15 I was eyes to the blind
    and feet to the lame.
16 I was a father to the needy;
    I took up the case of the stranger.
17 I broke the fangs of the wicked
    and snatched the victims from their teeth.

Job is saying that the just and righteous life of a true God-follower is not just about giving some money every now and then to the needy or a soup kitchen.  It is far more than that.  It is about caring for the needs of the needy as a parent would meet the needs of his/her children.  This means taking the time personally to meet, not just the “needs”, but the people with those needs.

APP:  Are you beginning to see why we emphasize serving others who have needs so much at Mosaic?  Are you catching why it is so important for us to really make time to get to know people, wherever they are, who have fewer resources and greater poverty than any of us sitting in this room?  This is why we have the bike shop.  This is why we want to partner with Unite Family Ministries to help parents who are struggling with parenting their medically fragile children.  This is why we do Changing Lives.  This is why we want to see a life-impacting ministry in every residential building downtown. This is why we encourage you to spend time serving at City Gate or Cup of Cool Water with street teens.

            The kind of justice our God is and lives out towards all mankind is truly a generous justice.  It’s not enough to just protect people from injustice.  We must be actively engaged in giving them a “hand up” and even, at time, a “hand out.”  Being followers of Jesus who practice daily justice means we will engage in relief as well as development, provide for people’s basic needs and help them learn to provide for their own needs and have enough extra to do the same for others

So let’s talk for a moment about both CAUSES of poverty and SOLUTIONS for poverty.  Because it is usually here that we find people polarizing into different political camps rather than really engaging with the Word of God and doing something about it. 

            First, don’t think that voting for this candidate or that candidate is solving the problem of poverty or the downtrodden.  It’s not.  So no matter whether liberals or conservatives win this or that election, the call of God to every one of us who claim to be Jesus’ followers hasn’t been answered until we actually DO justice. 

            Secondly, we must be honest with ourselves, our neighbor and our God about the causes of poverty.  To do that will require that all of us hold our judgments loosely about why someone is where they are and be willing to change our opinion when confronted with new evidence and by God’s word. 

Having said that, may I make some generalized observations about both liberals and conservatives when it comes to looking at causes and solutions? 

Liberal theorists like to believe that the “root causes” of poverty are always social forces beyond the control of the poor, such as racial prejudice, economic deprivation, joblessness, and other inequities. 

            On the other hand, conservative theorists put the blame more on individual failings such as the breakdown of the family, the loss of character qualities like self-control, personal discipline, and other habits and practices they consider characteristic of the poor like sloth or a victim or welfare mentality

            By contrast, the BIBLE puts forth a remarkably balanced view when it comes to the causes of poverty.  It acknowledges over and over again that oppression by the powerful or rich is a factor in poverty (Lev. 19:15—a stacked judicial system).  Unjust financial structures like loans with excessive interest (Ex. 22:25-27) or unjustly low wages (Jer. 22:13; James 5:1-6) are acknowledged as oppressing the poor. 

Whenever extremes in wealth or property appeared in the culture, the prophets more often than not called for changes by the rich, not the poor.

Great swaths of the Mosaic Law were designed to keep the ordinary disparities between the wealthy and the poor from becoming aggravated and extreme.  Canceling debts every 7 years (Deut. 15:1-2) certainly changed the lending and repayment environment.  There would be no such thing as long-term debt.  But neither were God’s people to use this law to withhold lending.  Listen to Deut. 15:7-8.

            “If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that he Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother.  Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs.” 

            Laws about gleaning required the “haves” to limit their profit-taking.  It gave the poor automatic access to food as long as they were willing to work.  But if they refused to work, people were not obligated to give them handouts.

            The Year of Jubilee (Lev. 25) was a complete reset in terms of land ownership.  God had given his people land because He knew that land ownership was tied to productivity and prosperity.  But He also knew some people would be better managers than others.  Land would be sold over time which would tend to make some people richer while making others poorer.  So every 49th year (7th 7-year cycle of Sabbath Year), all land was to revert to the family that originally owned it 50 years before. 

            All these admonitions seem to lean more toward what liberals are fond of saying are the causes of poverty. 

But the Bible keeps going.  It recognized that “natural disasters” such as famine may put someone into poverty (Gen. 47).  The Bible attributes some poverty to “personal moral failures,” such as indolence and laziness (Prov. 6:6-7) or lack of self-discipline (Prov. 23:21).  The book of Proverbs is particularly forceful in its insistence that hard work usually leads to prosperity while laziness leads to poverty (Prov. 12:11; 14:23; 20:13). 

So it is probably safe to say that the Bible presents 3 primary causes of poverty that are often intertwinedoppression, calamity and personal moral failure.  Furthermore, when one looks at poor verses rich nations, I think it may be true that the issues of corrupt governments, oppressive economic systems, poor health, wars and natural disasters are more to blame for the dire poverty in emerging world nations than personal moral failures of discipline, laziness or victimhood mindset that seems to afflict more of the developed nations.  But it is also safe to say that no one factor taken in isolation—be it government programs, public policy, personal responsibility or private charity—is the single answer to poverty.

So what does Jesus and the N.T. tell us to do whenever we encounter poverty and injustice?  They both tell us much about what to do but little about how to do it

  • 5:42--42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
  • 10:42--And if anyonegives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”
  • 14:16To the disciples concerned with feeding well over 5,000 people and suggesting that they send them home on empty stomachs, Jesus said, “16“They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.” 

Neither the size of the need nor the inadequacy of our resources are sufficient reason in Jesus’ eyes to dismiss the needs of people.

  • 25:37ff—In the parable of the sheep & the goats, Jesus tells us that people who are truly righteous live that heart-change out by how they treat the hungry, thirsty, homeless, needy and imprisoned. 37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?  38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ 40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
  • Luke 12:32ff--32 “Do not be afraid,little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.  [i.e., are people our ‘treasure’ OR is wealth?]

I think we get the point!  Engaging relationally, personally and generously with people around us who have needs, particularly those poorer than us (no matter what our level of wealth or lack thereof), is something Jesus was always doing…and wants us to always be doing.  If Jesus in his great state of constant poverty in this world was always giving to people, whether healing or time or attention or food or forgiveness, ought this not to be the hallmark of we who claim to be his followers? 

            This is not what you will hear from either the right or the left on the national scene today.  It is not what you will hear from many self-proclaimed Christians who seem more intent upon protecting what they have from those who are flooding into this nation than they are on actually doing what Jesus repeatedly called us to do. 

            Never forget that living a life personally of generous justice is always an act of faith.  That’s why it goes counter to our instincts.  That’s why it can’t be done through laws or taxes or top-down in a country.  It demands a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  Do you have that?  [Call to respond to God’s generous justice in Jesus.]

Even when we may think we have nothing else to give, may we not forget that we, the followers of Jesus, are the only people who can come to people in need with our own pockets empty, our own hands empty and even our own stomachs empty…and give them a blessing

If Jesus delighted to feed 10,000 people with one boys lunch, what does He want to do with our cars, our houses, our days off, our refrigerators, food stamps, bank accounts, retirement, monthly SSI or Social Security…and a hundred other signs of wealth most of us have that the rest of the world will never have to work with?

            I’ll close with a quote from Paul in Galatians 6:10—“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.  Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”

            This is our privilege.  This is our Jesus.  This is our life. 


  • Ask God for more of His heart towards people with less than us.
  • WHO is God asking you to share with so you can walk more by faith and show more of God’s generous justice?


Q & A time?