By Shannon Youell
But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
This familiar verse from Jesus’ Big Sermon in Matthew 6 finds itself right after Jesus has broken down and reconstructed some preconceived thinking about kingdom, justice, righteousness and mercy. After He helps reframe the hearers’ understanding of these things within God’s kingdom vision, He tells them not to worry about their life (worry causes humans to become self-preservationist, self-focused, self-ish), for God is already quite aware of human needs. Jesus’ reframing language leads to this phrase inverse 33 and implies a promise from Isaiah 9 of the coming King who will be called wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace and will reign as Messiah, establishing God’s kingdom with justice and righteousness.
The Hebrew word for “justice” is tsedaqah, which means “the kind of justice that delivers from slavery and oppression and restores community relationships.”
Justice is most often paired with righteousness in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word for “righteousness” is misphat and means “the deliverance of justice that restores community relationships.” The text note in Psalm 4:1 of the NIV says this: “often the righteousness of God in the OT refers to the faithfulness with which God acts. This faithfulness is in full accordance with his commitments to his people and with his status as divine King—to whom the powerless may look for protection, the oppressed for redress and the needy for help.”
The combination of justice and righteousness is a strong thread that winds through the story of God and his people. It is a foundational ethos of God’s kingdom citizens and ushers in the Abrahamic covenant and Jesus’ reiterated call to his followers. Therefore, justice and righteousness are aspects of the Gospel, the Good News that Jesus as Lord and Savior delivers to us and enlists us to, for the sake of the world that God so loves.
Matthew 6:33 reminds us that our struggles with individualism, consumerism, and materialism are, as the Justice Primer highlights, “all barriers to the kingdom; thus, all barriers to justice.”i These things keep our hearts paralyzed from participating fully in our call as followers of Jesus to be deliverers of the kind of justice and righteousness that restores community relationships: human to God and human to one another.
When we do justice, our hearts are aligned with the truth of the Gospel—which is that Christ died to make things right, to make them as they should be. Restored. When we act, participating in God’s restorational justice, we begin to realize that this Gospel is bigger than any weekend service project. We intuitively begin to move from a ministry of relief to a ministry of restoration, from a “service project” to a new way of living, from the heart of mercy to desire for true justice…Mercy offers compassion and relief. Justice offers an advocate and action.ii
Tim Keller has written that “The Gospel…is not just about individual happiness and fulfillment. It is not just a wonderful plan for ‘my life’ but a wonderful plan for the world. It is about the coming of God’s kingdom to renew everything. Gospel-centered churches do not only urge individuals to be converted, but also to seek peace and justice in our cities and in our world.”iii
What does this search for justice look like for us, as we enter into this season of Advent that is abundantly marked with “goodwill towards all peoples?” Often this is the time of year where we engage in mercy-motivated projects. We think of children and families and those who are homeless or lonely. We long to see them enjoy the good things the celebration of the season espouses. My work at our local food bank often highlights for me how good and generous we are towards those who struggle. Sadly, it also highlights that goodwill often ends with the taking down of the decorations.
God calls us to reorient our lives around mercy and justice, around being healers of the world. This is not a project, but—as the Primer continually points out—a transformed heart that desires good news to be good news both now and into eternity for humanity. Jesus describes His followers as the “light of the world,” those who participate in acts of righteousness that deliver the kind of justice that reveals our Go: our God who loves the world He created so much He gave His son Jesus to usher in His kingdom where peace and justice prevail.
Hatmaker notes in Justice Primer:
- True mercy changes judgment to humility
- True mercy changes sympathy to action
- True mercy changes our kingdom to God’s Kingdom
- True mercy changes selfishness to selflessness
- True mercy changes doubt to faithiv
As we engage our neighbourhoods and our communities this Advent season, may we be ever mindful of the thick Gospel that Jesus as Lord teaches. We ourselves discover our lives in Christ when we lay them down for the least of these.
May we discover together that when we give more to those who have need than we give to ourselves, not only for a season, but as a lifestyle, we engage more fully with a Gospel that changes not only those to whom we proclaim and demonstrate God’s goodness and mercy, but ourselves as well. May we be transformed to love God and love others more robustly and generously.
PS: There are plenty of great Advent resources for personal and corporate devotion out there. Check out our tribe’s Advent Devotional here, or sign up for daily readings from waiting in the margins: an advent reader from our friends at New Leaf Network.
i. Brandon Hatmaker, The Justice Primer (Missio Publishing: 2016): 83.
ii. Ibid: 75.
iii. Ibid: 42.
iv. Ibid: 58.