Justice and Righteousness
Avoiding tribal ethics in favour of God's good way
“If ever you take your neighbour’s cloak in pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down, for that is his only covering, and it is his cloak for his body; in what else shall he sleep? And if he cries to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.” (Exodus 22:26–27)
When one man owes a debt to another, a very natural instinct is to take something from him as a pledge or security. If I borrow money from the bank, for instance, the bank naturally wants to know that I have something of equal worth they could seize in return should I prove unfaithful to our agreement. The hundred dollar word we apply to this sort of arrangement is “collateral.” Under certain circumstances, however, God calls it injustice: “If ever you take your neighbour’s cloak in pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down, for that is his only covering, and it is his cloak for his body; in what else shall he sleep? And if he cries to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate” (Ex. 22:26–27).
There are several things to note about this passage, but the first is that we are never in so much danger of committing injustice against our neighbour as when we feel we are owed by them. When there is a real debt, in other words, and a real person who feels the weight of that debt, you can be sure there is also a real danger that someone is going to be mistreated. The reason for this is because self-justification is the easiest pretext for cruelty. When we feel we have been wronged by someone or that someone else is indebted to us in some way, we also tend to feel that this concern takes precedence over all others. So what if he has his own needs, concerns, and obligations to take care of? I’m the one who’s been wronged. He owes me. And thus we have the vicious cycle of small wrong, followed by revenge, followed by retaliation, followed by more revenge.
Welcome to tribal warfare — and contemporary society.
Our text, however, puts all of these petty concerns to one side for a moment in favour of a more weighty and important question, namely, “If you take his cloak, what’s he supposed to sleep in?” To put it another way, mercy and not sacrifice is to be the order of the day (Matt. 9:13). In the eyes of God, there are simply more important concerns than petty exactitude and getting our pound of flesh. If we really want to be righteous, if we really want to act justly, we need to look beyond the horizon of our own immediate concerns and see the needs of our neighbour. We need to loosen the stranglehold we have on his neck for a moment and look at his face and see the imago Dei.
Of course, all this talk of justice and righteousness makes no sense unless you’re dealing with a regenerate people. Apart from that you might as well be trying to teach a troop of howler monkeys to perform Handel’s Messiah. Still, Christ conquered the pagan West once before, and I’ve no doubt He can do it again. As He is lifted up and His glory made known through the Spirit-empowered preaching of His Word, He will draw all men to Himself.
And if the Lord has promised, He will do it. Onward, saints.
Join us this February for our conference as we consider God’s call to build in all areas of our lives: