What, exactly, are we talking about when we talk about embracing justice and also embracing grace? When and where did Jesus exhibit both justice and grace? These terms, simple as they may seem, are emotionally charged words with wildly varied meanings, depending on who you talk to.
Where justice feels stalwart and brazen and deserved, grace feels tender and gentle and, at times, even scandalous. Many people view mercy and grace as being synonymous. They are similar, yet distinct. Mercy is not getting what we deserve, whereas grace is getting what we do not deserve. We see mercy in the Old Testament, but we don’t get a full glimpse of grace until the coming of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. It is then that we see God’s grace is finally revealed in high definition through his own self-giving. Grace builds its house on the foundation stones of mercy.
The Hebrew word hesed can be translated as “lovingkindness” or “loyal love.” It is the closest word to the New Testament concept of grace, which is often translated as charis (where we get the word charisma, meaning “gift”). Hesed is the kind of love found in the emotional metaphor through the agonizing marital dynamics of the prophet Hosea and his unfaithful wife, Gomer. Grace is not a willy-nilly, shoulder shrugging, yeah-I-guess-I’ll-forgive-you kind of approach. It’s rooted in an unwavering love which cannot be derailed. Even the teenage Mary, when she found out she was pregnant, belted out a song of spontaneous joy, in what is called the Magnificat, as she pondered God’s hesed (Luke 1:46–56). Zechariah’s song, a few verses later, reflects the same sentiment (Luke 1:78). God remained faithful to Israel, even when Israel had been unfaithful to him. In fact, hesed is the central term which describes Israel’s relationship with Yahweh. Jesus is the fullest expression of God’s hesed.
Anne Lamott said that grace is like spiritual WD-40, a lubricant loosening the bolts we never thought would budge. We can hardly turn a red-lettered page in our Bibles without reading an example of Jesus extending grace to others, often to the horror, shock, and outrage of the religiously entitled. Jesus railed against the proud spiritual elites with acrid words in Matthew 23, when he called the religious leaders hypocrites. They tithed but neglected justice, mercy, grace, and faithfulness. Instead of practicing either/or, Jesus told them they must practice both/and (Matt. 23:23). In his most famous sermon, Jesus said the merciful are blessed because what goes around comes around (Matt. 5:7). And more than once Jesus spoke of Jonah, a dramatic and satirical book depicting an angry prophet who was offended that God’s hesed included the people of Nineveh, Israel’s bitter enemy.
The mission of God is to double major in justice and grace, like, as Timothy Keller put it, fraternal twins from the same womb (Preaching, 52.). God loves justice and hates injustice. Scripture also teaches that Jesus desires mercy and grace, even above sacrifice. I love the image in Psalm 85:10–11: “Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other.” Brazen tsedaqa and gentle hesed embrace in affection. When mishpat and hesed overlap, they create a sense of the shalom God desires for the world (Richard J. Foster, Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith, 166–172.)
In my seminary courses, I begin every class by asking my students to stand, and together we recite the Shema, a passage found in Deuteronomy 6:4–5:7
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.
Shem’a is the Hebrew word for “hear” or “listen”—the first word in this passage. Hearing in order to comprehend and then to act is a frequent theme in the Bible. Hearing is a crucial element of spiritual growth.
We also recite the Shema of Jesus. When Jesus was questioned by the religious leaders who asked him what the greatest commandment was, he responded:
“ ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29–31)
Jesus’ response is distinct, but it wasn’t the first. Rabbi Hillel and other Jewish sages have stated that this love-God-love-others approach was the proper summary of the Law. But what Jesus did was deny that the first commandment, when there is conflict, overtakes the second one. He added to the original text which commands us to love God with all our minds, stating we are also to love our neighbor as ourselves. He saw right through the religious leaders’ either/or thinking and expanded the discussion to a both/and reality: the greatest commandment is actually two commandments.
How do we show justice and grace? By loving God and others. We shouldn’t be forced to choose one or the other. We need both. Loving others includes brushing up against the thorns of injustice in society. Love wants them removed.8 When my students and I stand and recite the Shema from Deuteronomy, followed by the Shema of Jesus, it forms us to be equally committed to loving God and loving others without being tempted to believe we have to choose between the two. You don’t have to be a student enrolled in seminary to do this; you can do this as a lifelong student of Jesus enrolled in the school of discipleship. Try reciting these prayers at the beginning and the end of your day. Over time, you will find they form you into a double-majoring student of Jesus.
This is an excerpt from The Sacred Overlap. If you’re asking questions about how to faithfully live in and reach a culture with the gospel, J.R. Briggs offers a helpful new resource. The widening of political, racial, generational, and religious differences often leads to an “us vs. them” mentality all too common today. In The Sacred Overlap: Learning to Live Faithfully, author J.R. Briggs communicates a refreshing vision that embraces tension and calls us to live in radical love and faithfulness between the extremes that isolate and divide people. Get it from our store here.
This resource may be helpful for:
- Anyone struggling with the tension of faith and culture
- Church leaders and leadership teams
- Laypeople looking to faithfully engage their neighbors