Frank Tracy Griswold III

The 25th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.

Defining God’s perspective

May 1, 2006
Frank T. Griswold

‘Let justice roll down like waters’
Being persons of justice

“…the just man justices
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is – Christ.”

I have long pondered these words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, who, in the way of a poet, points to a layer of meaning beyond the words. I am thinking about these things because the word justice is so much a part of our vocabulary. And while Hopkins describes it as an activity revelatory of Christ, it is variously defined and submits itself to a wide range of meanings, depending on who is speaking.

For some, justice is synonymous with fairness. It means responding to a particular situation in a way that can easily be seen as equitable or impartial and in accordance with rules of logic or accepted ethical behavior.

Justice also can be understood as having to do with retribution. Justice is done, it is said, when someone has been punished for behavior that has transgressed acceptable standards and norms.

Looking at these understandings through the lens of Scripture, one can only conclude that God is supremely unjust. Here I think of the parable Jesus tells about the laborers in the vineyard, who, according to standards of fairness, ought to be paid for the time they actually worked. When the owner of the vineyard pays the workers all the same wage regardless of their number of hours in the vineyard, he incurs the charge of being unjust. Jesus’ point in telling the story is that it is God’s freedom to treat us all with the same unbounded care and affection.

With respect to a retributive understanding of justice, we might consider the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery, in which the rules are clearly stated and stoning is in order. Jesus, however, challenges her accusers by saying, “Let any one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” When all the accusers have crept away and only the woman remains, Jesus looks up and says: “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin.” In this case, justice takes the form of mercy, compassion and a call to change the pattern of her life.

Here I am put in mind of how easily we invoke God’s name to support our own notions of justice. To be sure, Scripture is vast enough for us to find support for any number of perspectives. For example, the institution of slavery is clearly countenanced, and slaves are encouraged by St. Paul to be obedient to their masters. At the same time, Paul speaks about our union with Christ transcending categories of slave and free.

Many of our forebears who perceived themselves persons of justice supported the institution of slavery and reaped economic and other benefits from it. With struggle and difficulty, we have come to see the injustice of what once was considered by many to be just.

So, knowing that God clearly is a God of justice, what then is justice? First of all, justice is not freestanding: It is not a category we can describe or define on our own terms. Justice is not a human construction based on our notions of right and wrong or acceptable and unacceptable behavior. It is something more.

In Scripture, the word that is commonly translated as justice is “righteousness.” And righteousness is an expression of God’s self-disclosure in the world. God’s righteousness is revealed among us in the person of Jesus. One might say that he is the embodiment of God’s justice, and it is the Spirit of Christ at work in us that renders us persons of justice.

This brings us back to the poet’s words. Justice has to do with our participation in God’s relationship with the world. Justice has to do with seeing others and the whole of creation from God’s perspective. The just man “justices” not out of his own strength but “keeps grace” as a consequence of God’s grace active in his life. God’s justice derives from God’s righteousness, which transcends all of our categories.

As we continue through the Great Fifty Days of Easter toward the Feast of Pentecost, it might be well for us to reflect on our own understandings of justice. It might be well to ask the Holy Spirit to show us where our understandings, as noble as they might appear, are constrained and self-serving and not revelatory of Christ. In so doing, may we find ourselves drawn more deeply into what this season is all about, namely the risen Christ revealing himself as God’s righteousness made flesh in us.