Home > Week of Prayer for Christian Unity > Prayer and Worship: Homiletic Notes for the Week of Prayer

JANUARY 18–25, 2019

PRAYER / WORSHIP: Homiletic Notes for the Week of Prayer

2019 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

By The Rev. Dr. S.D. Giere, PhD
Associate Professor of Homiletics & Biblical Interpretation
Director of Lifelong Learning
Wartburg Theological Seminary

Justice, Only Justice, Shall You Pursue - Deut 16.20a

The orienting verse for this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is Deuteronomy 16.20a: Justice, only justice, shall you pursue. (NRSV). Lest any zeal we might have about the pursuit of justice be distorted by abstraction, it is important to first make sure that the ideas are tethered to their textual context.

From broadly to narrowly understood, the context of Deut 16.20a is first the Torah/Pentateuch. It is also found within the Deuteronomistic History, and more specifically the second speech of Moses (Deut 4.44-28.68), which is largely a Mosaic extrapolation of the Covenant Code. Most immediately this command is an instruction for local judges and officials (Deut 16.18-20).

Taking a step back from this most immediate context, the narrative logic of Deuteronomy locates this bit of instruction in the teaching of Moses, which is introduced:

44This is the law which Moses set before the children of Israel; 45 these are the testimonies, the statutes, and the ordinances, which Moses spoke to the children of Israel when they came out of Egypt, 46 beyond the Jordan in the valley opposite Beth-peor, in the land of Sihon the king of the Amorites, who lived at Heshbon, whom Moses and the children of Israel defeated when they came out of Egypt. 47 And they took possession of his land and the land of Og the king of Bashan, the two kings of the Amorites, who lived to the east beyond the Jordan; 48 from Aroer, which is on the edge of the valley of the Arnon, as far as Mount Sirion (that is, Hermon), 49 together with all the Arabah on the east side of the Jordan as far as the Sea of the Arabah, under the slopes of Pisgah. (Deut 4.44-49, RSV)

This call to the pursuit of justice in Deut 16.20a does not come in a narrative vacuum. These words, noble as they are, come in the context of conquest. They are situated in the story of God’s relationship with the children of Israel at the point between God’s deliverance from Egypt on the cusp of their movement into the promised land. The conquest of those outside of Canaan is the immediate context, and just over the horizon is the conquest of Canaan. This context necessarily complicates the call to justice. Is this conquest of the land - any land - justifiable? When Orthodox sisters and brothers in the Crimea and Ukraine are being dispossessed of their lands… when Moscow has broken communion with Constantinople, how does this call to justice in the context of Deuteronomy play today? There is an inherent dissonance in our text as there is in our contemporary world with regard to the relation of unity and justice. An inescapable aspect of this noble call to pursue justice is the occupation and seizure of foreign lands.

Might Moses’ instruction regarding the pursuit of justice actually critique its narrative context and our own wider context?

Back to this in a moment…

The immediate context of our text is Moses’ instruction in local law. This context as well is not beyond reproach. Note that in the wake of Deut 16.20a, there is the call to stone to death any woman or man “who does what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God” (17.2). Just a bit later, there is the command: “… so you shall purge the evil from Israel” (17.12b).

And yet, we have this injunction from Moses, around which we gather during this week of Prayer for Christian Unity

18 “You shall appoint judges and officers in all your towns which the Lord your God gives you, according to your tribes; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. 19 You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show partiality; and you shall not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous. 20 Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you. (Deut 16.18-20, RSV)

Those called to serve as judges and officers are given parameters for their work. They shall judge with righteous judgment (משפט־צדק). They shall not bend righteousness. They shall not show partiality. They shall not be bribed. What shall they do? Pursue justice, only justice.

Our guiding text - Deut 16.20a - has an interesting textual anomaly. It begins: צדק צדק תרדף. That is in a wooden translation: Justice, justice you shall pursue. Even this, however, is not completely clear. While the verbal idea of pursuit is clear, there is an ambiguity in how we are to read צדק. All major English translations render it as justice, which given the immediate context about the training of judges, does make sense. At the same time, צדק also means righteousness. Not the above-cited RSV rendering of משפט־צדק as “righteous judgment” at the end of v.18. While the discernment of which English word to choose is more complex than we can address here, it is worth noting again that justice (צדק) is not an abstract concept. Rather, the interrelatedness of justice and righteousness - both issuing forth from the Hebrew צדק - reminds the reader that justice/righteousness here is deeply rooted in the heart of the Triune God.

What is it that this text is advocating?

The pursuit of that which is rooted in the very heart of God. Justice? Yes. Consider Leviticus 19.15: “You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice (צדק) you shall judge your neighbor.” (NRSV) Justice in the relation to the God of Israel is rooted in not operating out of partiality. The value of the person is not in their station or status in life. Rather, identity comes from God (Gen 1.26) and is determinative of all right relationships.

So, yes, this pursuit is about justice, but as much or more so it is about righteousness, as justice and righteousness are in the case of this text linguistically synonymous. Righteousness is justice. Justice is righteousness.

Consider the following from Lesslie Newbigin:

That truth is not a doctrine or a worldview or even a religious experience; it is certainly not to be found in repeating abstract nouns like justice and love; it is the man Jesus Christ in whom God was reconciling the world. The truth is person, concrete, and historical. (Newbigin, Gospel in a Pluralistic Society, 170).

When considering this text within the orbit of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, consider that justice in Deut 16.20a is not an abstraction. It issues forth from the Triune God in terms of a lack of partiality in the person and work of Jesus Christ. In the incarnation of the Eternal Son, the Triune God takes into God’s self the whole the cosmos, including all the particularities of our human quirkiness, frailty, and wickedness, bending all of it toward the fullness of God’s righteousness. This is hidden in, under, and behind the cross of Christ, where God’s heart is most clearly revealed. “Father, forgiven them for they know not what they do.” (Lk 23.34) The cross is the locus of Christian unity, in that the Triune God’s movement toward creation is seen its fullness - not because of creation’s merits but because of God’s righteousness, which is both God’s justice and God’s love.

“Justice, and only justice shall you pursue.”

The Christian, because of Christ’s righteousness, is freed for life lived for the other.
Life that conforms to the life of Christ.
Life freed from the history of and the need for conquest.
Life freed for love, even… especially of enemy, which is the measure for God’s justice and righteousness.

Dr. Giere (PhD, University of St. Andrews), is an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, serves as Associate Professor of Homiletics and Biblical Interpretation at Wartburg Theological Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa, USA.

1 https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-45870939

2 E.g., Lk 20.21, Acts 10.34, Rom 2.11, Gal 2.6, Jam 2.9, passim.

3 Mt 5.44.