Your nearest neighbor is likely your family member.
In the summer of 2020, everyone wanted to talk about justice. In my view, a lot of the social unrest was the difficult fruit of missed opportunities. Because so many Christians had neglected biblically faithful public discussions about justice, the world imposed its standards on us. But the fact is, Christians ought to be leading the discussion about justice. Why? Because the informed Christian understands that justice flows from the throne of God Himself (Ps. 89:14).
One of the more unhelpful things happening now is that well-meaning Christians are conflating a biblical understanding of justice with the term “social justice.” Even many pastors seem confused about this. Although these terms share some common ideas, there are also important differences. For this reason, I have done several teachings unpacking the word “justice” from a biblical point of view. (See links to those at the end of this post.)
But the form of justice that I almost never hear about is the justice that begins at home. Parents who care for their disabled children. Children who care for their aging parents. Teenagers who are called to sacrifice for the sake of their siblings with special needs. And spouses who must strive with one another through seasons of relationship difficulties. When Jesus tells us to love our neighbor, we should first think of our closest neighbors--the people we live with.
What is God's Vision for a Just People?
The primary way “justice” is lived out in Scripture is through personal acts of righteousness. Tzedakah is what we do in our individual relationships with those around us. Most Christians agree that God's call for His people to love their neighbor is a vital part of the fruit of an authentic Christian life. What is less clear is this: How should Christians love their neighbor according to God's standards? I see many well-meaning social justice–oriented Christians simply telling one another to "do" justice and then looking to the culture to tell them what behaviors are just and unjust. This often involves marching, kneeling, or canceling. Thankfully, God hasn't left His people without instructions. We don't have to guess how to live a holy life. Scripture gives us very specific instructions about how to love our neighbor—how to practice tzedakah.
For example, if we look at commandments 5–10 (Ex. 20:12–17), we see God's timeless principles for how to live a righteous life:
honor father and mother,
do not steal, do not commit adultery
do not murder
do not bear false witness
do not covet
While obeying God's law cannot save us from our sins, obeying Jesus' commands through humble and faithful obedience is the requirement of every Christian (Matt. 28:18–20; John 14:15, 21; Rom. 13:9). And this is where the discussion about personal righteousness and justice come in. Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy lay out many examples of how God wants commands 5 to 10 to be lived out in the lives of His people. He includes many case studies prohibiting different forms of stealing (e.g., fraud), various kinds of adultery (e.g., bestiality, incest), and even various kinds of murder (e.g., intentional and unintentional). The general principles behind these commands are confirmed in the New Testament (see, for example, Eph. 6:1; Matt. 5:27–32). Consider the apostle Paul’s extended discussion in Ephesians 4 about how followers of Jesus are to treat one another.
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace … you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
To treat one another justly includes refraining from slander, engaging in truth-telling, keeping your temper under control, and offering generous levels of forgiveness and compassion to those who wrong you. In my candid opinion, generous forgiveness is often much harder than "the work" of reading books or posting a black square on social media. Yet only one of those things is considered to be “doing the work” of justice from a worldly point of view.
Other tangible examples of how God requires His people to love their neighbor includes helping to provide for the basic needs of the poor by leaving some of the harvest at the edges of fields for the poor to collect (Leviticus 19:9–10, 23:22) and tithing your harvest to feed the destitute (Deuteronomy 26:12-13). Other laws stipulate interest-free loans (Exodus 22:25–27; Leviticus 25:36–37) and forgiveness of loans to those who can’t repay them after a designated period of time (Deuteronomy 15:1–11).
But here is a detail that many Christians miss: God's law places priority on helping others based on our proximity in relationships. God wants us to focus on the needs of those who are closest to us, those who have the greatest need. For example, “If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest” (Exodus 22:25). The phrase “my people” connotes a priority of relationship; those who are closer to us should be treated differently from those who are most distant from us. Potentially, this principle might be expanded to this: If given the choice between lending to a poor person in your town versus to a poor relative, priority should be placed on your relative. In other words, charity starts at home.
These principles are restated in the New Testament. For example, Paul describes a man who doesn’t provide for the needs of his family as someone who has “denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8). Likewise, the children and grandchildren of widows should care for them (1 Tim. 5:4). In other words, providing for the needs of the vulnerable who are closest to us is a required manifestation of righteousness.
We see Christians sharing with one another (2 Cor. 8:1–4), helping to provide for others’ needs through their local church. We also see a repeated emphasis on helping vulnerable populations with making sure their basic needs are met (Acts 6:1; James 1:17). We also see how the apostles put a priority on helping those within the local church (Gal. 6:10). All of these gifts were given of people’s free will, without compulsion (Acts 11:29; 2 Cor. 9:7).
Tzedakah is not about giving handouts to the poor based on pity or obligation. Neither is God’s standard of justice about equalizing income. Charity is intended to be a personal response to God’s love for us. Because I have received so much grace from God in terms of forgiveness and restoration, I want, in turn, to be generous in my giving to others.
How Can Christians Light the World?
The framework of critical race theory provides a lens through which nearly everything that exists is an example of “systemic racism.” This perspective can leave people feeling helpless and hopeless to overcome their adversity.
The Christian worldview says something quite different. Christianity calls God’s people to engage in a gradual evolution of culture through personal acts of righteousness. So how does this kind of tzedakah translate into real life?
Start local. Holiness begins at home. Ask yourself: How am I caring for the needs in my family, for my children, or for my elderly parents? If you are caring for a child with special needs, then you are likely already engaging in acts of righteousness.
Next, consider those in your sphere of influence, maybe the 8 to 15 people whom God has strategically placed in your life. How can I care for those needs? Who is going through a hard season? Who needs a father or mother figure?
Then, consider the needs in your local church. After that, the needs of other churches (Acts 11:28–29), and then your community, and work out from there.
Here are a few specific ideas that could be done by a family or small church, just paint a picture of what’s possible:
Volunteer your expertise (e.g., plumber, electrician, lawyer) for a low-income family or an elderly or disabled member in your local church.
Volunteer as a family to do yard work for a disabled, elderly, or single mom in your local church.
Volunteer as a family to serve at a local food pantry and/or help organize a food drive to help serve members of your church who are struggling to meet basic needs.
Volunteer at a local church to run classes on financial literacy and entrepreneurship for low-income families, single moms, and the disabled.
Champion an effort through your local church to set up a micro-lending program to help encourage new entrepreneurs. There are many Jewish charities that do this (based on the Old Testament law) that Christian churches could learn from.
Set up a visitation program or worship service at a local retirement home or hospital. Many of the elderly feel forgotten.
Partner with other church families with large vans to bring the elderly to church on Sunday.
Talk to a local hospital chaplain about how your family or church can support their efforts.
Start or volunteer in a mentoring program for fatherless children.
I do want to say a special word about that last point. Many children these days are growing up without fathers, and sometimes without mothers, in the home. Some of those parents are still involved in their children’s lives, but a significant number are not. Scripture says repeatedly that one of the evidences of being the people of God is that we care for widows and orphans (James 1:17). Could your family informally “adopt” a child and give him or her a good example of an intact family? Could you invite the child and the mother over for dinner periodically? Could you invite the child to participate in activities with your kids? Maybe your son’s friend would really like to play baseball, but his single mom works full time and can’t take him to practice. Could your family step in? God wants us to start to change the world by simply seeing the needs in the world around us. We don’t need to rely on a formal program to practice tzedakah. We just need to slow down and ask the Lord to give us supernatural vision to see the often unspoken needs of those around us.
If more Christians would engage in acts of tzedakah, there would be far less evil, pain, and suffering in the world. And there would likely be less need for mizpat justice (law courts). Our righteous deeds actually display evidence that we belong to our Father in heaven (Matt. 5:16). But we reveal our hypocrisy when Christians march in the streets, post a black square, and decry injustice while neglecting to do the hard work of caring for members of their own family who are disabled, poor, and fatherless.
In this two-part series from the summer of 2020, I laid out some of the distinctives of God’s approach to justice, both for the victim and for the accused. My goal was to help viewers gain deeper insight into the form of justice translated as mizpat in Hebrew. This is the realm of law courts.
I only briefly mentioned in that series the other word translated as justice, which is tzekakah. More often it's translated into English as righteousness. But because this is such a major component of Scriptural justice, I've been teaching a follow-up series explaining the definition and standards of God's righteous living in more detail. Here is a link to Part 1 of that series. It's also available on Apple Podcasts.
Originally published: 6/22/20; Updated: 6/29/23