When Israel complained about God’s apparent detachment from their lives he responded by promising to first send a messenger to prepare the way for his coming. While the Israelites sought for God to free them from foreign oppression, instead God warned them that his application of justice would begin with them. In God’s eyes justice involves much more than political and military oppression, although they can be horrible. Justice also involves how society treats those living on the margins.
I recognise that this is an odd approach to thinking about the nativity. I’m taking this course because Mark 1:1 quotes Malachi 3:1 to introduce John the Baptist, who in turn introduces Jesus.
In Malachi 2:17 the prophet accuses Israel of “wearying God with your words”. One of the specific examples he offers is the question they ask, “Where is the God of justice?”
Ruled by the Persians, the Israelites longed for the return of autonomy. They apparently also longed to keep the tax money they paid to Persia. In their mind God should pour out just judgement upon the Persians and grant Israel freedom.
In response (3:1) God promises a “messenger who will prepare the way before me.” The messenger is only a precursor to the coming of God. But when God himself appears, rather than bringing justice against the Persians he will appear and hold court in His temple in Jerusalem. The first to be judged will be his representatives, the Levites.
Since Mark 1:1 (and Jesus in Matthew 11:1-10) identify “the messenger” as John the Baptist then it seems natural to identify Jesus as the Lord and judge Malachi anticipates.
What fascinates me is the list of people going to be judged:
- employers who exploit their employees,
- those who oppress the widows and orphans,
- those who deprive foreigners of justice, (those who are inhospitable to the homeless. The Message)
- anyone who does not honour God.
In our society when we think of justice we tend to think more like the Israelites than like God. Our list of people needing God’s justice might include: thieves, drunk or careless drivers who cause injuries, medical malpractice, politicians lining their pockets, big companies who hurt communities through pollution, gangs, drug dealers and anyone committing violence in our community.
The big discrepancy between God’s list and ours is his focus upon the margins of society. Sure he starts and ends with those who pursue other gods, but in between he cares for:
- those betrayed by their spouse,
- those abandoned by a corrupt judicial system,
- unpaid employees
- widows and orphans
- foreigners, refugees, the homeless, those without family support systems.
How would our world be different if we defined justice by how these social groups are treated?
How would our churches be different if we expressed God’s justice by addressing these issues?
In Jesus’ ministry we also see that he didn’t bring the style of justice the public expected.
Like Jonah and Micah, “the messenger”, John the Baptist, first came “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4) Then in Mark 1:15 we see Jesus message summarised in similar terms “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
The justice Jesus first preached wasn’t condemnation and destruction, it was repentance and forgiveness. We also find God’s concern for the poor and defenceless throughout the New Testament. The very setting of Jesus birth, in a stable, places him among the homeless. His parents then flee to Egypt as refugees to escape Herod’s persecution. In Matthew 25 Jesus identifies himself with the marginal when he says “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
Over in James 1:27 “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
These messages of justice didn’t appear in a vacuum, they reflect God’s heart as expressed in Malachi 3.
Nelson Mandela recently died at age 95. The fall of apartheid in South Africa may not have been quite as dramatic as the fall of the Berlin wall, but it was equally profound. Mandela became the figurehead of the movement pushing for change and was the first president of South Africa post-apartheid.
By the end of his life, Mandela had grown to become an icon for forgiveness and reconciliation. As a leading representative of a marginal and oppressed class of society, it would have been so easy for him to call for justice in the form of retribution and violence. Instead, like Jesus, he modeled the peaceful, but difficult, path of forgiveness.
The baby in the manger was the God of justice the world sought. But for the world to recognise Him we need first to accept His definition of justice and sacrifice ours.
HERE’S some more reading on this text from Malachi.