Justice or Righteousness?

Consider the following: Hatred is not really the absence of love. Neither is love simply the absence of hatred. But effort, you see, is needed for either emotion to exist. The lack of one or the other could just mean indifference, an ideal state for some: that neutral, unbiased, and objective position that logicians reach for.

In the same vein, effort is often needed to support or oppose a cause. Note that I say “often”, for this will come up again later. You see, we tend to think that indifference is always a middle ground of neither support nor opposition. Yet through our own emotional biases that permeate our hearts, we may accuse those who are indifferent as being either “for us or against us.”

Fallen Jedi Anakin Skywalker had said something similar to his master Obi-wan Kenobi, who then (in)famously accused the fallen Anakin Skywalker of being a Sith for his implication that there was no middle ground. “Only a Sith deals in absolutes,” Obi-wan replied.

But did you know that the “no middle ground” does apply to at least one thing—or Someone? Consider the following:

“John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone using your name to cast out demons, but we told him to stop because he wasn’t in our group.” “Don’t stop him!” Jesus said. “No one who performs a miracle in my name will soon be able to speak evil of me. Anyone who is not against us is for us.
‭‭Mark‬ ‭9:38-40‬ ‭NLT‬‬

“John said to Jesus, “Master, we saw someone using your name to cast out demons, but we told him to stop because he isn’t in our group.” But Jesus said, “Don’t stop him! Anyone who is not against you is for you.””
‭‭Luke‬ ‭9:49-50‬ ‭NLT‬‬

So naturally we might infer that indifferent people, those in the middle ground, are by default supporters of Jesus. “Not being against” does not require effort, after all. But now consider the following, also said by Jesus:

“Anyone who isn’t with me opposes me, and anyone who isn’t working with me is actually working against me.”
‭‭Matthew‬ ‭12:30‬ ‭NLT‬‬

“Anyone who isn’t with me opposes me, and anyone who isn’t working with me is actually working against me.”
‭‭Luke‬ ‭11:23‬ ‭NLT‬‬

These two verses clarify that the middle ground does not actually exist in Christianity. We can’t passively support Christ’s mission via indifference, being unbiased, or staying neutral. By those things we actually work against him because his kingdom is an active endeavor, not merely our individual internal moral rectitude—something we might mistakenly call “our righteousness.” Here is the great truth: The Kingdom of God is about righteousness plus justice, two sides of the same coin.

In English we have the interesting situation called doublets, where words from Latin and words from our Germanic ancestors still exist side by side. This can be seen in pairs like pork/pig or beef/cow. The first word in each pair derives from Latin via French. The second in the pair we inherited from Old English. Both pairs were initially synonymous with each other, but over time one came to mean the animal as food and the other word came to mean the live animal itself.

Concerning Latin-derived “justice” and Germanic-derived “righteousness,” these two words in the New Testament are translating the same word, the Greek dikaiosune. Originally in English, justice and righteousness were as synonymous as the word pairs I mentioned above began as. And because we like to vary our words in English when writing to avoid what we see as monotony, the translators of early English bibles varied their usage of justice and righteousness when translating dikaiosune.

But as languages evolve, word meanings do change. Just like the divergence of beef and cow, the synonyms justice and righteousness evolved apart. Justice came to be associated with retribution, vengeance, and courts of law. Righteousness on the other hand came to mean personal choices and rules one made in his thought and emotional life regarding morals, such as choosing not to lust or not to cuss.

But when the Bible says this:

“Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.”
‭‭Matthew‬ ‭6:33‬ ‭NLT‬‬

How differently would you understand that command Jesus gave if instead the English translation read live justly? I’d wager you’d see a need for action instead of merely having correct beliefs. You’d then realize that to be for Jesus is not simply indifference or neutrality, but an active work as our outsides change to reflect the transformation of our hearts.

I think this part of the Parable of the Sheep and Goats makes a lot more sense now; Read it slowly with all we’ve talked about in mind:

““Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons. For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink. I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

“Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’ “And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’

“And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life.””
‭‭Matthew‬ ‭25:41-46‬ ‭NLT‬‬

So we have to actively produce justice/righteousness or we will be like the goats. A little world-shaking, if you ask me. For you see, as Jesus told us:

“Anyone who isn’t with me opposes me, and anyone who isn’t working with me is actually working against me.”
‭‭Matthew‬ ‭12:30‬ ‭NLT‬‬

Incidentally, Obi-wan’s statement from before about absolutes is an absolute itself. Often enough, the only response to finding out there is no neutral ground concerning Jesus is something along those lines. “Only an evil/unjust/unrighteous god would…” Yes, as we all know, Anakin the Chosen One fell to evil and became Darth Vader. But Jesus Christ, the true Chosen One (that is, after all, what Christ means), did not fall. He did die, but he rose again to forever live and reign. And his death was actually justice done for our sakes. But more on that justice—or the concept of justification—in another post.

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