What is justice?

Is it an abstract concept that we grope to understand, as if in the dark?  Is it something we, mere men, can put into words? How central is a system of belief in absolutes to defining the term?

Is it something we can only quantify when we perceive a wrong done against us or someone we love?

In Genesis 18 and 19, we are introduced to some foundational principles about the nature of justice.  The context preceding the passage (and every historical biblical narrative following) is the Fall.  Man and Woman post-Lapse.  A world not aright.  A world that is, well, wrong.  But what unfolds in the story as it accelerates toward the destruction of the infamous Sodom and Gomorrah, is a personal story of redemption, fellowship, and grace that plays out amidst the smoke and ashes.

For some the concept of God being good and just is an a priori tough pill to swallow.  If he even exists, how dare he talk to us about justice: look at the world he made and what a damned, bloody mess it is.  Touche.  Even us so-called people of faith can be quick to question, quick to distrust, quick to point the finger at God.Oh, worm Jacob! Once the dust of such questions (understandable and valid or no) settles, we might be surprised there isn’t a little more fire and brimstone burning up the chaff in real time.  But therein lies the rub: mercy.

That’s what we encounter in this story of Abraham and God.  It’s worth a read (Genesis 18:1-19:23).

When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground… “My Lord… do not pass by your servant.” (Gen 18: 2-3).  Note that God comes to Abraham.  He shows up.  He is about to administer righteous judgment, but he meets with Man on the way, at the entrance to his tent.  It’s the kind of passage that could make a head spin: God shows up, in the flesh, with some angels, and Moses gives us no descriptors?  Just, “The LORD appeared to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre,”  that’s it? What identifiers the passage might lack for the reader, they were not missing as the events played out, for, Abraham clearly knew God had come to his doorstep.  No question.  No ontological questions. No head scratching.  Abraham runs out to meet God.

And he makes an afternoon of it.  Who wouldn’t? (Well, keep reading…)  But Abraham, he shows a little hospitality.  Washed feet and a delicious meal.  Conversation in the shade.  We would do well to note that friends of God recognize his presence, minister to him, invite him into their space, let him interrupt their lives, seek to please him, enjoy his fellowship.  It is no coincidence that these very things prepare the way in Abraham’s life for blessing and revelation (the impotent oldie will soon be the father and ancestor of a multitude).  And beyond blessing Abraham’s living, authentic interaction with God the fellowship develops naturally into intercession and justice.

God’s appearance isn’t a random event.  This too is quite clear.  Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do…? No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice; so that the LORD may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him (Gen 18: 17-19).  God initiated his relationship with Abraham (and all of us who would follow) in order to turn and bend along the lines of what is right and just.

God wants his chosen people (to which all people, everywhere, can now belong) to be like him.  There is one path to walk as his people, and it is the path of goodness and justice.

Abraham’s heart is revealed in the exchange when he starts to barter with God. Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?  … Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just? (Gen 18:23 ff).  Spiritually, Abraham has good genetics, the swab from his heart reveals as much in the moment.  His relationship with God gives confidence to pray, and to pray boldly according to the nature of God’s character – boldly along the lines of justice and mercy.

The conversation could read awkwardly or casual, humorous and above all, decidedly engaging.  Abraham feels God out, tests his heart too, wants to see how good and merciful the just judge is.  He gets a guarantee that if there are even ten righteous people among the population, the wicked city will be spared.

But Sodom is rotten to the core.  When the angels God sends forward to the city enter its boundaries, we soon learn there no boundaries of any other kind.  The hospitality the citizens want to show the visitors the kind it likely showed most others: a good ol’ gang rape.  No foot washing or meals here, buta bending of a different kind, and decidedly not along the lines of justice.

Lot meets the angels-posing-as-men first and welcomes them into his home.  But Lot isn’t the righteous hot shot he could be.  When the crowd of men demand to have relations with the visitors, against their will, and are ready to tear down Lot’s door, he does what any father in Sodom would do: offers his virgin daughters to the men instead.  Nice work.  No praying, no plea to God, no conversing and depending on the Divine like uncle Abraham, just a quick, lowest-common-denominator under pressure compromise.

It’s acompromise the Sodomites didn’t like.  When Lot pleas to their conscience, they rip at his character with all the self-righteousness and cynicism blatant sinners can muster: how dare Lot, an alien and recent citizen suggest their morality, in their home town – the town of their fathers – is distasteful.  Don’t judge us and don’t you dare resist us, they fume.  They promise to do worse to Lot than they would to his guests.

And so the angels do what angels do in such situations: inflict the would-be rapists with blindness, and send them on their way.

We don’t know what could have happened, only what did, according to Moses, in the short but page-turning account.  God was sending his angels to judge Sodom.  God wasn’t obligated to stop and check in on Abraham, but he wanted to.  Abraham didn’t have to invite God into his tent, but he did.

Would Lot and his daughters have been rescued if Abraham had not contended and interceded, engaged and spent time with the God of justice?  Add this to your list of scriptural what ifs.

What we do learn is that justice is no joke, though Lot’s would-be sons-in-laws, when warned to leave the city thought as much, laughing at Lot as though he jested.  They chose to remain.  Bad decision, because it turns out God does have a certain behavioral standard.  Hospitality matters to God, and he administers justice into real space and time.

Lot runs, but not very far, begging the angels to let him go to the nearest city.  He flees with his daughters who are spared with him (daughters whose sons will become his sons, literally.  Yuck.) .  But his wife, unable to keep the command and run from the life of sin and not turn back, is vaporized into salt when she turns to overlook the city.  The future moral decisions of Lot and his daughters suggest there might have been reason for Heaven to lick up the whole family, not just mom, in the raining flames.  We learn at the end of the passage that it is God’s love for Abraham, his concern for his friend that is what spares Lot. God judges and he is merciful.  Every coin is double sided, flip it and see how it lands, but when you spend and barter with the love of God, you give the whole coin away.

So, what (in summary) do we learn about justice from the passage? I think a number of things through a very unique story.  Though not completely defined here, whatever it is:

  • Justice is a natural extension of the life lived with God. It’s administered and enacted with God, in communion and fellowship with Him.
  • And it’s a conversation.  It’s going to happen and does, but it’s not necessarily pre-determined.  As in, God can be convinced to be even more merciful that he already is (if that’s theo/logically possible).
  • Justice is woven into the story of redemption; it’s part of the whole salvation package; it fits into the story of God’s children of promise, the backdrop of a life of faith and grace.
  • And it’s quite clear that justice is not in competition with mercy.  They aren’t mutually exclusive things.  The two rub up against each other, shape each other.
  • Justice is real and decisive – it is not simply an abstract concept, or for some far off moment we all wait for. God sews it into the fabric of the world, administering it in real space and time.

God reveals his justice-related plans to his people and wants his people to engage those plans with him. How many of us, can, like Lot, be thankful for an Abraham whose life – a living conversation of faith with the Divine – has meant rescue for us of imminent and certain disaster?