The Block Island Times

What If We Were Hungry for Justice Instead of Righteousness?

By Harbor Church | Jan 20, 2013

Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, January 20, 2013

Does working for justice have anything to do with being a Christian? On Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, the Baptist national holiday, this question comes to mind. After all, as a Baptist pastor, wasn’t Dr. King meddling in politics? Shouldn’t he have stuck to spiritual matters?

People asked Dr. King those questions, of course, and he made it clear that he saw his work for justice as part of his ministry. He saw the practice of nonviolence as the teaching of Jesus himself put into practice. He saw the fundamental equality of all persons in God’s sight as a basic biblical principle. He often quoted the prophets of the Old Testament who were called by God to bring a critique of religious people who didn’t see that the lack of justice in their society—the fact that the poor were routinely treated unfairly by the economic system and the legal system—made it impossible for people to worship God.

In the verses we read from Amos 5, Yahweh says that he hates worship from people who do not keep his covenant by treating the poor fairly. He will not accept our offerings or listen to our songs if we treat our neighbors badly. Verse 24 is one we associate with Dr. King: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” What I want, God says, is not for you to play church. What I want is justice and righteousness. You can’t say that you love me if you don’t obey me. That is the theme not only of the prophets but of Jesus the Messiah.

I want us to think this morning about the connection between those two words “justice” and “righteousness.” The truth is that they are synonyms. Amos 5:24 is the equivalent of a couplet in Hebrew poetry. But in Hebrew poetry they didn’t use rhyme; the way they made pairs of lines beautiful and memorable was with the device of parallelism—saying the same thing two ways. Listen to this pair:

Let justice roll down like waters

and [let] righteousness [roll down] like an ever-flowing stream.

Obviously “waters” means the same thing as “an ever-flowing stream.” So you might guess that justice means the same thing as righteousness. In the Latin translation, the Vulgate, Jerome indicated how close the two words were by translating the first judicium and the second justicia—sometime rendered in English as “right judgment” and “justice,” which are pretty darn close.

I want you to stay with me as we talk about the meaning of these words in Hebrew and then in the Greek of the Sermon on the Mount, because it’s going to affect what we think the Christian life is all about. It’s just going to take a few minutes to get there.

“Justice and righteousness” are used together many times in the prophets and in the psalms. Here’s how one scholar explains the shade of difference between them. The second word, sedeq, is the more important.

Sedeq is a dynamic, active word for justice. It reflects a creative generosity (distributive justice) which we might call ‘the spirit of justice.’ It is never used to speak of punishment (retributive justice). It deals with God’s positive action in creating and sustaining community, particularly on behalf of the marginal members (the poor). [Paul Mercer, “Justice and Health in the Bible,” Luke’s Journal (2000), cited in David Ruiz, The Justice God Is Seeking, Regal 2006].

But that’s the word that is translated in Amos as righteousness. The first word, mispat, is a more static, legal expression of the same idea; it refers mainly to legal justice but with a sense of fairness and equity.

The prophets call for Israel or Judah to return to the standards of justice that are called for in the covenant—protecting the poor, the foreigner, the indentured servant, the widow. But later prophets also told of the Messiah, a Savior-King who would be sent by God, who would establish justice. When we sing “Unto Us a Child Is Born,” we are singing the words of Isaiah who said that “the government shall be upon his shoulder.” He says that the coming one “will establish [his kingdom] with justice and righteousness” (9:7)—it’s the same pair of words we heard from Amos: mispat and sedek, two ways of saying justice.

Is Jesus that Messiah? Did Jesus come bringing a kingdom of justice? In Matthew’s gospel the longest quotation he gives from the Old Testament is from the prophet Isaiah (42:1-4), in one of those passages about the suffering Servant who is to come. This is the prophecy Matthew chooses to describe Jesus’ ministry. Listen for the word justice.

Here is my servant, whom I have chosen,

my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased.

I will put my Spirit upon him,

and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.

He will not wrangle or cry aloud,

nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.

He will not break a bruised reed

or quench a smoldering wick

until he brings justice to victory.

And in his name the Gentiles will hope.

This comes after a description of Jesus curing all of those who followed him, whoever they were. In contrast to the Roman elite who reserve privileges for themselves, Jesus gives blessings to all. In contrast to the religious elite who withhold participation in Israel from those who are less rigid than themselves and from those who are sick or deformed or deranged, Jesus is just in his distribution of God’s blessings equally to all. He is gentle with those who are hurting—the bruised reed, the smoldering wick, barely staying alive—but he is going to make justice win in the end. Part of God’s justice—part of his sense of equity—is that God has not given his love and blessings only to the Jews. He is sharing it with Gentiles, as Matthew notes. Later in Romans, this is what Paul means when he says that the gospel reveals the justice of God: that God is ultimately fair toward the Gentiles, now offering non-Jews the same covenant that had been offered to the Jews.

So if Matthew says that Jesus came proclaiming justice, why don’t we hear more about justice in the New Testament? Why does justice seem to be an Old Testament theme but almost disappear in the New Testament? Well, that requires a little detective work to answer, but it boils down to this. In English translations, the Greek word for justice got translated as “righteousness.”

In Plato and Aristotle the word for justice is dikaiosune. There is no question that the word means justice, plain and simple. When the Greek-speaking Jews translated the prophets into Greek, in about 200 BC, they used the same word to translate the Hebrew sedek, the spirit of justice that means relationships the way they are supposed to be. And when Jerome translated the New Testament into Latin, whenever he came upon that word diakiaosune in the Greek he translated it as iusticia, justice.

But a strange thing happened when the Bible got translated into English. English had two roots for the idea of justice: one was Latin, just; the other was German, right. They meant the same thing at first, but later they took on other connotations. Martin Luther, being German, translated dikaiosune from the “right” family rather than the “just” family, and rendered it “righteousness.” He promoted a whole theory of how in a sense God short-circuited normal justice by “giving” us righteousness as a gift. He also argued that the Latin translation of “justice” reflected Roman ideas of justice, meaning that you get what you deserve—which could not be applied to God. English translators were by and large anti-Catholic and pro-Reformation, which is why in English translations the word dikaiosune, which means justice, was translated “righteousness.” To this day you will find that Catholic translations use the word “justice” while Protestant translations use the word “righteousness.” This all has to do with a long argument about certain verses in Romans, which have flared up in a series of books and conferences in the past few years. But what I want us to think about now is not Romans but the Sermon on the Mount.

What if we got the word wrong in the Beatitudes? We are used to saying “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.” What if Jesus really meant “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice”? That has a different feel to it, doesn’t it? It has more of a Martin Luther King feel.

Nicholas Wolterstorff at Yale has pointed out that the same idea comes up at the end of the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:10—“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” He asks, “When is the last time you heard of someone being persecuted for being morally upright?” The “righteous” person might be annoying to some, but he doesn’t get run out of town or killed. But if you render dikaiosune with the word justice, the saying starts to make sense. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for justice’ sake,” blessed are those who are persecuted for fighting injustice. Those who fight injustice as persecuted every day, as Dr. King was.

It may be that long ago justice and righteousness had similar meanings, but they don’t anymore. We associate the word “righteous” with individual right living, with personal morality. It means something like the morality I grew up with in Southern Baptist circles:

I don’t smoke, drink, dance, or chew,

Or run around with girls who do.

That’s righteousness. And since it’s an easy list to check off, it leads to what we call self-righteousness. But justice is another matter altogether. One evangelical writer [Kara Powell] says that growing up she had the idea that justice was for liberal churches, those “social gospel” churches. Real Christians focused on righteousness and inner purity, while those churches that didn’t really believe in Jesus worked for justice.

What if we were wrong about the meaning of the word Jesus used? What if Jesus really said “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice?” What if he said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for working for justice?” And even more significantly, what if Jesus said in Matthew 6:33, “Seek first the kingdom of God and God’s justice”? What if the number one priority of our lives as followers of Jesus is to be striving to bring into this world God’s reign over every person and God’s kind of justice?

If you read the Sermon on the Mount using the word justice where our translations have used righteousness, you’ll get a different sense of the whole thing. Jesus says “Your justice has to surpass the justice of the scribes and Pharisees, or you will not enter the kingdom”—because the kingdom is the kingdom of justice. What is true justice like? The rest of Matthew 5 tells us.

  • True justice sees anger and insults as a form of murder.
  • True justice sees looking at women as sex objects as a form of adultery.
  • True justice sees divorcing your wife so you can have another woman as a form of adultery too, no matter that it is legal.
  • True justice does not need oaths, because every word is honest.
  • True justice is not retaliation but forbearance like God’s.
  • Justice does not seek its own benefit but seeks to do good to enemies.
  • Perfect justice is not withholding from evil people but blessing all.

You see that Jesus is talking about a justice that is above and beyond the justice being taught by the Pharisees, the legal justice of obeying rules and getting what you deserve.

The Christianity I grew up with—the version that dominates America—is about hungering and thirsting for righteousness. It is about filling the need we have to be made right with God, and the need we have to feel that we are living morally right lives. In its most Protestant form, this gospel says that the only thing that matters is that God has declared us righteous because of what Jesus did on the cross, and nothing else really matters. You’re going to heaven no matter what.

How different would we be if our focus was being hungry for justice? What if we really believed what Jesus said about the love of God being inseparable from the love of neighbor? He told the Pharisees that they neglected the two most important things: justice and the love of God (Luke 11:42). One of the evangelicals who woke up to this is Kara Powell, who teaches youth ministry at Fuller Seminary. A few years ago she co-wrote a book called Deep Justice in a Broken World: Helping Your Kids Serve Others and Right the Wrongs around Them. What if we organized the youth group, she asks, not around having fun or helping kids avoid sex and drugs? What if we organized it around working for justice, by serving the needy and righting wrongs. That is what justice means: righting wrongs. It means not just doing charity work but asking why. But as Archbishop Helder Camara of Brazil put it, “When I fed the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked why the poor are poor, they called me a communist.”

I am thinking not about youth ministry but about our whole mission as a church. How different would our impact on Block Island be if everyone knew that Harbor Church was not focused on personal righteousness but on working for justice? What if we could make it clear to our neighbors that following Jesus does not mean judging them or holding ourselves up as models of goodness, but rather loving our neighbors by working to change systems that are disadvantaging the weak? What if the whole island understood that Harbor Baptist is not Jerry Falwell Baptist but Martin Luther King Baptist? But first, of course, we have to make it true. We have to hunger not just for a growing church, not just for a feeling in our hearts of closeness to God or one another, but hunger in our hearts for justice. May the Spirit of Jesus be upon us and make it so.


Useful Links:

Clint Arnold, video, “Justice or Righteousness: Interpreting Dikaiosune in the New Testament,”

Nicholas Wolterstorff, video, “Righteousness or Justice?”

Robert L. Foster, “Understandings of Justice in the New Testament,” SBL Teaching the Bible newsletter,

Robert D. Brinsmead, “The Scandal of God’s Justice,” Verdict 1983,

Kara Powell, “Reclaiming the Word Justice,”



  • Harbor Church
    Box D2
    Water St.
    Block Island, RI 02807
    Phone: 401-466-5940
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