2 Thessalonians 3:7-12
Actively seeking justice in our world begins with looking at the world and evaluating the impact of certain circumstances and arrangements upon fellow members of society. Yet to even look at the world with an eye toward such judgment is itself an intentional act, one that presumes a certain amount of concern. But pursuing further action in light of that judgment is another story: it is an entirely different sort of concern that impels us to actually do something. We must be invested in the well-being of those affected by certain practices or structures before we are motivated to take action on their behalf. We first have to care before we can act: we want to preserve or defend something good. Seeking justice often requires working for change, it is true, but at its heart it is conservative: it wants things to be as they should. In theological language, it aims to uphold the dignity and flourishing of those created in God’s image. Justice is about caring enough to help make sure that those creatures God has made to reflect his own goodness are able to do so. “Doing justice” is therefore is an act of preservation, restoration, and fulfillment.
Why then is there so much destructive imagery associated with justice in the Christian Scriptures? We encounter a representative example in our first reading for this Sunday:
“Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire, leaving them neither root nor branch, says the LORD of hosts. But for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays” (Malachi 3:19-20).
Justice ultimately heals, yes, but not before igniting a destructive fire that consumes the unjust. Likewise in the Gospel reading, Jesus interrupts his companions’ admiration of the Temple’s splendor in order to foretell its ultimate destruction: “All that you see here—” he says, “the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.”
The Lord then dives head-first into full-blown apocalyptic prophecy: when you encounter messengers who claim my authority and announce the end of all things, do not be deceived by them! And
“when you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end…. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.”
Imagine what those poor fellows must have been thinking: all this from our making small-talk about how pretty the Temple looks! As if wars and natural disasters were not enough, Jesus then tells them that before the end comes, their association with him will cause them to be betrayed, hated, and even killed by their own. “Because of my name,” he says, “they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led before kings and governors. [But] it will lead to your giving testimony.”
Those more worldly among us may be forgiven for thinking the chance to give testimony is poor consolation for persecution and death, but in this passage it is clearly Jesus’ central focus:
“Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand, for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute….. not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”
What matters most to Jesus in the end is not any massive catastrophic event or even how these impact geo-political alignments and legal regimes. What he cares about most is how such events will test and ultimately reveal the state of his friends’ relationship to him. In his eyes, what matters most in the end is not a “what” but a “who”; the state of an interpersonal bond turns out to be far more significant than the Temple, and indeed the whole of the natural world.
But how can we link this teaching to the first reading? What does this final perseverance in personal fidelity have to do with justice? As it turns out, everything. To be just requires one to care deeply about the world as one encounters it, yes, but at the heart of the justice is a good that cannot be apprehended, quantified, or apportioned: the devotion we owe to Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ. Without giving Him what is his due, all attempts to establish justice will ultimately founder.
But in a sense, it is impossible to give our Creator and Redeemer His due. We can never pay back what we owe Him, for He has given us everything we have and are. Yet this way of thinking has already misconstrued the deepest nature of justice: it is not so much a matter of balancing scales as it is rightly ordering attachments. What God wants of us—indeed requires of us for our own sake—is to love Him with our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength. What he asks us to give Him is our very selves: that is the gospel paradigm of justice.
The ancient sages were right to say that justice is fundamentally about establishing “right relationship,” but for the follower of Jesus Christ all “right relationship” stems from the gratuitous friendship God offers his creatures. It is only in light of this bond of boundless love that Christians look at the world around them and then seek to establish right relationships within human society.
Such an account of justice helps to make sense of the destructive imagery so often found in the prophetic and apocalyptic texts of the Bible. The whole of the natural world could be consumed without touching the core from which all true justice flows: “the fear of God’s name,” which is shorthand for “a relationship of personal intimacy with the Lord of all history.”
All true justice is built upon this sort of personal attachment. That is why Paul does not tell the Thessalonians to live out their faith by following a list of best practices but rather by imitating him in his mission to preach the gospel and model the life of discipleship to them. In this same letter Paul summed up his deepest apostolic motivation: “Because we loved you so much,” he writes, “we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.” What Paul was after in his mission was not merely additional names in the Church roll, but above all attachments—personal bonds so deep that all Paul needed to do to motivate his community to act was to recall them. “Live the faith by remembering me, and by imitating me,” he essentially says. And it is nothing more than an echo of Jesus’ own injunction: “this is your new commandment: love one another as I have loved you. That is how people will know you are my followers.” To be just— to be in right relation— is ultimately a matter of how we love. Such is the highest strategy for the establishment of true justice, since it takes as its motivation and end the love between persons—the love which God is and to which all of us are called.