A Biblical View of Justice (5)
“When one man’s ox butts another’s, so that it dies, then they shall sell the live ox and share its price, and the dead beast also they shall share. Or if it is known that the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has not kept it in, he shall repay ox for ox, and the dead beast shall be his.”
It might sound a little scary suggesting that the Law of God should be consulted when it comes to matters of justice. But, as we’ve seen, we do it all the time. We just don’t recognize that when we shovel our sidewalks, sign a contract for a loan, keep watch over burning leaves, walk our pets on a leash, and keep watch over our neighbor’s home while he’s on vacation that we’re simply acting out the requirements of love outlined in the Law of God.
We are obligated to live justly toward our neighbors, and, in part, that requires that we take appropriate preventive steps to guard his wellbeing and property.
The statute cited in our text above reflects the third facet of the Biblical teaching on justice, which we may refer to as restorative justice. According to the Law of God, when injustice has occurred, whoever is responsible for it must take steps to set things right again.
This statute shows how the practice of restorative justice was nuanced in order to encourage the practice of preventive justice. If the ox simply, without warning or provocation, killed a neighbor’s ox, the owner of the goring ox had to sell it and share the proceeds with the owner of the dead ox. Also, the two would share the dead ox, whether the proceeds of its sale or its meat.
However, if the goring ox was known to attack, and the owner did not keep it in, then a greater injustice would have been committed, requiring a greater act of restoration. In this case the owner of the goring ox comes away with only the dead ox, while the owner of the gored ox receives a new beast from the owner of the offending ox.
In ancient Israel, whenever someone was injured by the neglect or indifference of a neighbor, restoration was required in order to return justice to the community. Once restoration was made the injured party was satisfied and the guilty party was exonerated. Neighbors could quickly get on with being neighbors without grudges being built up against one another. No prison time was involved, and no revenge was needed. Restoration could include money paid to return an injured person to health or for lost opportunity costs (Ex. 21:18, 19), borrowed things that were broken or lost (Ex. 22:14, 15), or even lost items that one might find (Deut. 22:1-4).
As Jesus made clear in the episode involving Zacchaeus, these Old Testament provisions for restorative justice are to be considered still in effect (Lk. 10:1-10). Zacchaeus, convicted of his sin and now devoted to Jesus as “Lord” (v. 8), determined to make things right with his neighbors. But rather than abide by the mere letter of the Old Testament laws, Zacchaeus showed his true heart of repentance and love by going beyond the letter into the spirit of the Law (2 Cor. 3:4-6), in order to show proper love for the neighbors he had wronged. Jesus, upon hearing his confession and plan, commended his action and confirmed that he was, indeed, a child of Abraham. Justice, which Zacchaeus had violated, was about to be restored, and neighbor-love would once again obtain in the community.
Justice is so important because it reflects the character and presence of God within a community. Public policies should exist which promote the practice of restorative justice according the spirit and not merely the letter of the Law of God.
See what you can find out about the practice of restorative justice in your community. How does your community work with offenders to restore justice to those they have wronged? Share what you discover with some Christian friends.
This week’s series, A Biblical View of Justice, is available in a free downloadable format, suitable for group study.
For more insight to the practice of temperance, order the book Justice that Restores by Charles Colson, from our online store. You might also read the article, “Social Justice vs. Righteous Justice,” by Marvin Olasky.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture references are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.