Alexandra Sadler | 16
This may seem, at first, like a throwaway question. Of course you almost certainly desire justice – even demand it. And how could you not, when faced with a world in which the oppression of your loved ones and fellow man seems an almost inescapable reality? What the question asks, however, is not whether you desire justice, but whether you can live with the consequences of it. Have you really sat down and grappled with your vision of justice and let it play out to its logical conclusion? Do you know exactly what it is you are demanding? Looking back in time at the Jewish community before and during the life of Jesus provides us with a cautionary example that has important implications for our own struggle with justice.
The Jewish people at the time of Jesus are not so different from ourselves and from modern heroes of social justice. They too were consumed by a desire for justice to be brought down upon their oppressors. This is clear in their yearning for the arrival of the Messiah, who would bring down the Lord’s judgment. In the book of Micah, the narrator describes a world ravaged by sin and evil, in which “the godly has perished from the earth, and there is no one upright among mankind” (Micah 7:2). Israel is at the mercy of its enemies, and the narrator longs for God to execute judgment, vindicating his own sin (v. 9) but trampling his people’s oppressors underfoot “like the mire of the streets” and forcing them to “lick the dust like a serpent” (v. 10, 17).
The messianic figure anticipated by the Jewish people was thus expected to be militaristic and violent in nature, personally bringing down this crushing justice. The star of Jacob and scepter of Israel foretold in the book of Numbers would “crush the forehead of Moab” and “break down all the sons of Sheth”; he would “exercise dominion” and “destroy the survivors of cities” (Numbers 24:17-19). In Psalm 2, the Lord declares that his decree for the Messiah is that he will break the kings and rulers of the earth “with a rod of iron” and “dash them to pieces like pottery” (Psalm 2:9). He is described in Psalm 89 as a “warrior” (v. 19) and in Psalm 110 as the one who will “judge the nations, heaping up the dead and crushing the rulers of the whole earth” (v. 6).
Given the nature of these expectations, it makes sense that messianic movements in the times before and after Jesus were dominated by militaristic figures purporting to liberate the people of God through their superior physical strength and leadership in armed combat. Flavius Josephus, a prominent first-century Jewish historian, outlines in his renowned text, Antiquities of the Jews, a series of messianic movements, the majority of which are dominated by militarism and an attempt to conquer the Roman army. Athronges, for example, was admired for his “tall” stature and “strong hands” and named himself king and Messiah, leading a number of Jewish people in an unsuccessful rebellion against the Roman army (Josephus, Antiq., 17:278). Judas of Galilee “exhorted the nation to assert their liberty” by drawing them into war after war and Simon bar Giora similarly launched an attack upon the Romans (Josephus, Antiq., 18:4-7; The Jewish War, 2:521). For these self-proclaimed messianic figures to gain as much popularity as they did, it is evident that people not only wanted, but expected, a warrior.
The Jewish vision of justice at this time was so fixated on physical and violent liberation that the message of the Scriptures about the Messiah’s demeanour and purpose became somewhat obscured. The prophecies of Isaiah 53, in particular, paint a contrary picture, describing the Messiah as a figure with “no beauty or majesty to attract us to him” and “nothing in his appearance that we should desire him,” which would not indicate a particularly forceful or warlike stature (v. 2). Moreover, the Messiah is prophesied to suffer (v. 3), to be “crushed for our iniquities” (v. 5), to be “oppressed and afflicted” and “led like a lamb to the slaughter” (v. 7). It is no wonder they could not reconcile the figure of Jesus with their expectations of the Messiah. Even Jesus’ disciples, the first Christians, struggled to comprehend Jesus’ mission of suffering, death and resurrection, because of their skewed expectations (John 20:9; Luke 18:34; Mark 8:32). Yet Jesus was indeed a fulfilment of these prophecies, as is evident in his crucifixion and in his proclamation to the disciples that “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
The selectivity of Jewish messianic expectation is particularly apparent in the Targums, which are early interpretive translations of the Hebrew Bible into Aramaic for a Jewish audience. The Targums have been known to modify, at times, the original meaning of the Hebrew texts to serve the purposes of the translator and this is apparent in the Targums’ rendering of Isaiah 53, wherein messianic expectations of a crushing leader override Isaiah’s prophecies of the Messiah’s meekness and suffering. Verse 2, for example, which describes Jesus’ inconspicuous appearance, reads in the Targums: “His face shall not be the face of a common person, neither His fear the fear of a commoner; but a holy brightness shall be His brightness, that every one who sees Him shall contemplate Him” (Tg. Isaiah 53:2). Verse 4 is also completely altered to portray the Messiah as a crushing leader, shifting from “we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted” to “we are considered crushed, smitten of the Lord, and afflicted” (Tg. Isaiah 53:4). Verse 7 provides a further example, with the phrase, “He was led like a lamb to the slaughter,” becoming “He shall deliver over the mighty of the nations as a lamb to the slaughter” (Tg. Isaiah 53:7).
N.T. Wright, former canon theologian of Westminster Abbey and Bishop of Durham, would argue that the Jewish messianic expectation stems from their historical experience of God’s justice, which he outlines in his book, Evil and the Justice of God. The pattern of God’s acts of justice within the Jewish community is exemplified by his rescuing of the Israelites from their oppressors in a very tangible sense, as in their liberation from the Egyptians in the book of Exodus. Therefore, the Jewish expectation was that the Messiah would liberate them from their immediate persecutors – the Romans – in a literal sense. What was neglected was the idea that the Messiah’s mission was one of complete justice. In Matthew 10, Jesus announced to his disciples, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). Jesus’ sword is directed at the sinners and the unrepentant, as anticipated—but where it differs from Jewish expectations is that Jesus did not bring justice down upon any specific group of people, but upon evil itself, which resides within all of us. This is where the Jewish story becomes particularly applicable to our own struggle with justice.
In desiring a Messiah that would bring down the kind of king-crushing, militaristic justice they anticipated, the Jews were drawing a line of safety around themselves as God’s chosen people and demanding that justice be brought down upon their oppressors. But John the Baptist warns: “do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:8-9). In other words, no individual or group of people will be spared the axe of judgement, for as N. T. Wright comments, “the line between good and evil runs not between ‘us’ and ‘them’ but through every individual and every society” (Evil and the Justice of God, 43). If we demand, as the Jews did, that crushing justice be brought down upon evil, we must quake for ourselves, as the beam of justice must necessarily be pointed at aspects of our own souls. As the old saying goes: be careful what you wish for.
Fortunately, Jesus provided a far more perfect vision of justice than the one the Hebrews during the time of Jesus (or we) could have envisioned. He didn’t simply mete out the penalties of evil. He defeated evil. He provided for our salvation, rescuing us from the consequences of a judgment that would leave every one of us destroyed.
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
This leads us once again to the question: can you live with your version of justice? Consider the classic question: if you were granted the opportunity to kill Hitler, would you take it? Now, substitute Hitler for any contemporary force of oppression. If given the chance, would you follow your desire for justice to its logical conclusion? And would you be willing for someone to enact your vision of justice upon yourself if you became the perpetrator? If you don’t have a straight answer to this, perhaps it is time you sat down and thought it out. Because if we are going to demand justice, we must have a clear understanding of its implications, both for others and for ourselves.
Alexandra Sadler, Bowdoin Class of 2016. Economics and Environmental Studies. Melbourne AUS.
While averse to conflict, Alex has a particular skill for seeing tensions in the world.