Considering the cross means thinking about justice. We have questions about our own sin, the sin of others, and the way the whole world sometimes seems bent toward its own destruction. When so much wrong has been done, a truly good God should be concerned about justice.
But what is just?
I ask this because I think we often assume ‘justice’ is a word that stands for something self-evident. We come to God with a definition of justice and then assume He’ll live up to our definition. It never dawns on us that we may have misunderstood the idea in the first place.
In a lot of Bible translations. you’ll see the greek word dikaiosune translated as righteousness. It shows up in Jesus's sermon on the mount, for example, in Matt 5-7.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
But a number have scholars have noted that dikaiosune could, and maybe should, be translated as justice. (check out this video) If you read Matthew 5 replacing the word righteousness with justice, you discover Jesus seems very concerned about justice. But He may not see it the way we see it.
When I hear people talk about justice, whether in the context of theology or current events or the criminal justice system or terrorism, I can’t help but get the feeling that we think it means nothing more than reciprocating some evil. If I, in a fit of rage, took a cleaver and chopped off my friend’s arm, the cry for justice would demand that I lose my arm, too.
Now you and me, left to our own devices… maybe that’s the best we can do. But what if God is smarter and wiser and more powerful than we are? What if He has in mind some way that my act of evil can be fully reckoned with, that my friend can get his arm back, and I can be healed of whatever brokenness or depravity led me to do such a wicked thing? This would be a better, truer justice, wouldn’t it?
Jesus, in Matthew 5, right there where dikaiosune keeps showing up, says that an eye for an eye isn’t right. It doesn’t align with his teaching. He says that when evil comes against you, you shouldn’t respond to it in kind.
So here’s my question: in His teaching, is Jesus commanding us to reach for something LESS than our definition of justice? Or is He showing us something MORE? Something BETTER?
I fear we have lost our ability to imagine justice the way God sees it.
When we come to the cross, we seem to bring that kind of retributive idea to what happened there, and we assume the best God can do with our evil is return it. Either He will inflict on us the same sort of evil we have committed, or He will inflict it on Jesus.
But didn’t Jesus spend His time teaching us that justice doesn’t look the way we think it looks?
I raise all of this because I don’t think we expect enough out of the cross.
I used to think that Jesus died so I don’t have to go to hell, and that was the only reason He died. But then, honestly, it felt like the rest was on me. If I was as grateful for His sacrifice as I should be, then I should have been able to sin less and less and become more holy. But it just didn’t work very well.
But what if in Jesus we can expect more than that? What if God somehow found a way to teach us, heal us, reunite with us, cleanse us, forgive us, all through Jesus? That, in my mind, would be a better justice.
So I'm coming to cross looking for more than someone else to take my fall. I'm hoping God has something better in mind than simply reproducing evil in the name of justice. I'm looking for someone to heal me. I'm looking for an act of God that can reunite me with Him. I'm looking for some power that can intercept all the brokenness I have introduced into the world, because my sinful acts are more than isolated incidents; they have contributed to the deterioration of the universe, and so the universe needs delivered. I'm looking for the promise that there is somewhere some goodness or truth or beauty that cannot be corrupted even if I do my best to corrupt it. I'm looking for a work that breaks the stranglehold of injustice on the systems of our world, for something that can turn the tide of oppression that inevitably finds its way to our most vulnerable neighbors. And I'm looking for a way of living that aligns me with that kind of justice, so that I can in some small, feeble way, be a part of this atoning work. Not just a spectator. Not just a beneficiary. I want to be an agent of justice and righteousness, but I know I can't get there on my own.
And when I look for that, I can't help but look to the cross.