The Hebrew prophets consistently teach us that because we are God’s people, God demands that we reflect God’s nature. Since justice is part of God’s nature, justice must therefore be reflected in our own natures as well.
The way we reflect justice is through our actions, especially as we engage those systems and structures that order our society. Now when we engage our systems and structures that create a more just social order and in a way that more life can thrive, we are “doing justice.” When we engage our systems and structures that create a less just social order, we are doing injustice.
In other words –if we are honest with ourselves -- each one of us is doing justice and injustice because we all participate in multiple social systems. Some are moving to a more just social order, some are maintaining an unjust social order, and some are a mixture of both.
In our first reading today, what is implicit is what the early followers of Jesus knew – that their covenant relationship with God, reflected in Jewish law as laid out in Hebrew scriptures – required “doing justice.” For our purposes today, that meant creating trustworthy markets, ones that would create social prosperity and exchanges that were fair, with a standard unit of measure (Deut. 25:15). The prophet Amos then explicitly lays out what “doing injustice” looks like in the market places of his time. The markets were places where exploitation was easy because of different currencies, debtors were enslaved even if they only owed a pair of sandals, and the justice law of Sabbath was pretty far gone. Amos condemns these practices as they “trample upon the needy” and “destroy the poor of the land.” These practices certainly do not reflect God’s nature of justice.
We see a different form of doing justice and injustice in Luke’s Gospel. Here we have the steward who reportedly squandered the rich man’s property and he responds by cutting the debt of the rich man’s debtors so they will welcome him in the future when he is homeless. And the rich man praises him.
Doing justice, doing injustice? How do we understanding this one? Biblical scholars have found various ways through this parable without condoning dishonesty. For example, by reducing what the debtors owe, the steward is simply giving up some or all of his own commission in exchange for hospitality in the future. An overlapping interpretation is that the steward lent money at a very high rate of interest – usury – and he reversed that when the rich man discovered it because usury was prohibited by Jewish law. Doing justice in the midst of a just system or an unjust system? Hard to say without more details.
How would this be different if this was a situation of a man enslaved, which is entirely possible given the language of master and servant in this passage of Luke. If it is, then might the servant have been caught employing some survival practice to provide for his family or his enslaved community or even been falsely accused? The clever servant then cuts the debts of those who owe his master and the debtors then praise the master’s generosity, making it hard for him to dismiss the servant. Justice in the midst of an unjust system?
The answer is – one that my law students used to hate – it depends! Context and details matter, amidst systems and structures at various stages of promoting justice and injustice.
For years, the organization I have the honor of serving, NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, has been one of the only faith-based advocacy organizations in Washington, D.C. working on changing the tax laws in the U.S. so that the very wealthy pay their fair share. Why do we do this? It is not that we think wealth is bad or that wealthy people need to be punished. We do it because for generations, Black Americans have been excluded from wealth generation, and thus intergenerational wealth, due to the history of slavery and Jim Crow laws. The tax laws do not tax wealth at the same rate they do income and this impacts Black folks in the U.S. in deleterious ways. This does not make us well liked in some circles, but after much reflection and prayer, the NETWORK community has discerned that this is what Justice calls us to do.
The question almost daily is how are we to act with God’s justice in a world that for some of us, is much more comfortable without it?
The psalm and the second reading really do provide the essential way. First, the psalm guides us, as does Catholic Social teaching: to center those who are made poor by our systems and structures.
And the second reading guides us to pray. We pray for the spiritual freedom called for at the end of the passage in Luke, to serve God and not mammon, the medieval word for the worship of wealth or riches. This way of praying is how St. Ignatius begins his Spiritual Exercises – we pray to be indifferent to riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, health rather than sickness, a long rather than a short life, so that we “choose only what is most conducive for us to the end for which God created us.”
This spiritual freedom is how we reflect God’s nature of Justice, a freedom that requires a good understanding of context, good discernment, sitting with the murky complexity, and choosing the best next step towards the kingdom of God, the kin-dom of God, the Beloved Community.
Mary J. Novak
Mary J. Novak
Mary J. Novak, J.D., M.A.P.S
Executive Director, NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice
Mary J. Novak serves as Executive Director of NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice in Washington, D.C. NETWORK was founded 50 years ago by Catholic Sisters to effect structural change at the federal level. Prior to joining NETWORK, Mary served Georgetown University Law Center as a Mission Integrator and Adjunct Professor of Law with a particular focus on Ignatian spirituality and pedagogy at the intersection of psychology, spirituality and the work of justice. Mary studied and trained in theology, spirituality, and spiritual direction at Santa Clara University and the Washington Theological Union. She has extensive experience in pastoral ministry, including the ministry of spiritual direction and circle processes.
A graduate of Santa Clara University Law School, Mary practiced law for over a decade in the areas of California water, energy, environmental and natural resources, while also serving on a team pursuing a capital appeal for a man on the largest death row in the United States. She later joined Santa Clara University, first serving as Clinical Law Faculty and later as the Director for Faculty Development in what is now the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education.
Mary is a peacebuilding practitioner, having studied at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. She focused her final project at Washington Theological Union on Catholic Peacebuilding in the context of Kenya’s post-conflict reconciliation. She returned to the U.S. to serve the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Mary is an Associate of the Congregation of St. Joseph (CSJ) and the founding Board Chair of the Catholic Mobilizing Network to end the use of the death penalty and promote restorative justice, part of the CSJ Network.
The second of three volumes from the Catholic Women Preach project of FutureChurch offers homilies for each Sunday and holy days of the liturgical year by Catholic women from around the world. The first volume for Cycle A received awards for best book on Liturgy from both the Association of Catholic Publishers and the Catholic Media Association.
“Catholic Women Preach is one of the more inspiring collection of homilies available today. Based on the deep spirituality and insights of the various women authors, the homilies are solidly based on the scriptures and offer refreshing and engaging insights for homilists and listeners. The feminine perspective has long been absent in the preached word, and its inclusion in this work offers a long overdue and pastorally necessary resource for the liturgical life of the Church.” - Catholic Media Association
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