Exploring the Biblical meaning of 'Loving Our Neighbors’

Chapter 14


"If there is any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow human being, let me do it now, and not defer or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again." – William Penn.

I once served as a juror on a headline-making Wyoming double-murder trial, described in the September 2003 Readers’ Digest article "Murder on the Cliff." The defendant was accused of killing his wife and five-year-old son by pushing them off a 100+-foot cliff, then claiming they fell accidentally. He’d allegedly first tried to hire a friend to shoot them, then killed them himself when his friend stalled. Later he attempted to get the same friend to kill his parents. This time the friend went to the police.

The police had taped him planning to kill his parents, but the evidence on his wife’s and son’s deaths was nearly all circumstantial. It took two weeks to hear that testimony. Then twelve of us were given the case to decide.

We were sobered by knowing we held someone’s future in our hands. We tried hard to be fair, look only at the facts, and weigh the evidence carefully.

We were fortunate. We had a good team of jurors and became friends. Our presiding juror encouraged us to take our time, look at all the evidence, talk everything over openly and honestly, and not rush to a decision. All of us said what we thought, pro or con.

Those were emotion-filled sessions. We wept as we looked at close-up photos of the two battered bodies on the rocks below the cliff, and were sobered by visiting the site itself. We asked how a father could deliberately murder his wife and small son in such a horrifying way. One of the jury ladies told us "my head knows he did it, but my heart hasn’t caught up!"

Our decision crystallized when, after ten hours of deliberation, we realized that crime-scene photos of the inside of the defendant’s Jeep showed unmistakably that he’d lied to us on the witness stand. He’d claimed that his family planned to four-wheel to the bottom of upper Flaming Gorge, picnic, and swim. They got lost, which led to the "accident." But the photos showed us his open-topped Jeep contained no picnic lunch; no swimwear; no changes of clothes; no towels; no wood for a fire – nothing at all that would have been there had his story been true.

Several jurors cried as we filed back into the courtroom. We knew we were giving justice, but we’d become keenly aware of the real-life tragedy.

We returned guilty verdicts on all counts, and were later upheld by the State Supreme Court.

Why is justice part of loving and helping our neighbors? Because the Bible treats justice as one of our neighbors’ most basic needs. It talks even more about providing justice than about necessities like food, clothing, or housing. Even the name "Melchizedek," the famous Old Testament king and priest, means "Justice" (Heb. 7:2).

Justice helped people support their families. When justice was denied, suffering and poverty prevailed. "A poor man’s farm may have good soil, but injustice robs him of its riches" (Prov. 13:23).

Today, groups like the International Justice Mission (www.ijm.org) work to remedy injustice around the world.


Does God care about justice for his people?

Yes. He is a God of justice and the Judge of the whole earth. Justice is part of his nature.

"For I, the Lord, love justice; I hate robbery and wrong" (Isa. 61:8).

More Scriptures: Gen. 18:25; Job 34:17; Ps. 7:6-12; 9:7-9; 9:12; 37:6; 37:28; 37:33; 50:6; 58:11; 67:4; 85:13; 94:2; 94:14-15; 96:10; 96:13; 97:2; 98:8-9; 99:4; 101:1; 103:6; Prov. 17:26; 18:5; 20:8; 21:3; 21:15; 28:5; 29:26; Isa. 5:7; 5:15-16; 28:6; 33:22; 50:8-9; 59:16; 61:11; 63:5; Jer. 9:23-24; 11:20; 12:1-3; Ezek. 45:9-10; Hos. 12:6; Mic. 6:8; Nah. 1:2-3; Zeph. 3:5.

Justice is a central theme of the Messianic prophecies:

"See my servant, whom I uphold; my Chosen One in whom I delight. I have put my Spirit upon him; he will reveal justice to the nations of the world ... He will see full justice given to all who have been wronged" (Isa. 42:1-3).

Also read: Ps. 68:4-6; Isa. 9:6-7; 11:3-5; 61:1-3; Jer. 23:5-6; Luke 4:18-19.


How did God provide justice for ancient Israel?

Moses’ father-in-law urged him to delegate the task of settling the nation’s disagreements (Ex. 18:13-26). His new system aimed to ensure that everyone, rich or poor, got justice – and that it was free.

Moses repeated the story in Deut. 1:9-17: "I told the people, ‘I need help! ... choose some men from each tribe who are wise, experienced, and understanding, and I will appoint them as your leaders.’

"They agreed to this; I took the men they selected ... and appointed them as administrative assistants in charge of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens to decide their quarrels and assist them in every way. I instructed them to be perfectly fair at all times, even to foreigners. ‘When giving your decisions,’ I told them, ‘never favor a man because he is rich; be fair to great and small alike. Don't fear their displeasure, for you are judging in the place of God. Bring me any cases too difficult for you, and I will handle them.’"

After Moses’ death, individual leaders (from Joshua to Samuel) acted as judges. Then the nation’s kings assumed that role.


Years later King Jehoshaphat upgraded Judah’s justice system.

Jehoshaphat appointed judges in all of Judah’s larger cities, so no one had to travel to Jerusalem except for final appeals. (Regional access wasn’t needed under Moses, since Israel then lived in one large camp.)

Jehoshaphat set up appeals courts and taught those judges to work with the provincial judges. He emphasized careful, just, honest decisions unaffected by partiality or bribes.

"So Jehoshaphat ... appointed judges throughout the nation in all the larger cities, and instructed them:

"‘Watch your step – I have not appointed you – God has; and he will stand beside you and help you give justice in each case that comes before you. Be very much afraid to give any other decision than what God tells you to. For there must be no injustice among God’s judges, no partiality, no taking of bribes.’

"Jehoshaphat set up courts in Jerusalem, too, with the Levites and priests and clan leaders and judges ... ‘You are to act always in the fear of God, with honest hearts. Whenever a case is referred to you by the judges out in the provinces, whether murder cases or other violations of the laws and ordinances of God, you are to clarify the evidence for them and help them to decide justly, lest the wrath of God come down upon you and them; if you do this, you will discharge your responsibility.’

"Then he appointed ... Zebadiah ... as the court of final appeal in all civil cases; with the Levites as ... assistants. ‘Be fearless in your stand for truth and honesty. And may God use you to defend the innocent" (2 Chron. 19:4-11; also read Ezek. 44:24).


Where do we glimpse Israel’s justice system in action?

"Samuel ... rode circuit annually, setting up his court first at Bethel, then Gilgal, and then Mizpah, and cases of dispute were brought to him in each of those three cities from all the surrounding territory. Then he would come back to Ramah, for his home was there, and he would hear cases there too" (1 Sam. 7:15-17).

But many judges, including Samuel’s sons, fell short of God’s standards.

"In his old age Samuel retired and appointed his sons as judges in his place. Joel and Abijah, his oldest sons ... were not like their father, for they were greedy for money. They accepted bribes and were very corrupt in the administration of justice" (1 Sam. 8:1-3).

More Scriptures: Judg. 4:4-5; Ps. 122:5; Eccl. l3:16; Ezek. 44:24; Mic. 7:3-4; Hab.1:3-4; 1 Cor. 6 1-9.

Absalom used peoples’ need for justice to plot treachery against David.:

"[Absalom] got up early every morning and went out to the gate of the city; and when anyone came to bring a case to the king for trial, Absalom called him over and expressed interest in his problem.

"He would say, ‘I can see that you are right in this matter; it’s unfortunate that the King doesn’t have anyone to assist him in hearing these cases. I surely wish I were the judge; then anyone with a lawsuit could come to me, and I would give him justice (2 Sam. 15:2-4)!"

Either Absalom lied, or David learned from the experience, because David later appointed many judges.

"David instructed, ‘6,000 are to be bailiffs and judges’" (1 Chron. 23:4-5).

When the Jews returned from exile, King Artaxerxes of Persia reestablished Israel’s justice system:

"And you, Ezra, are to use the wisdom God has given you to select and appoint judges and other officials to govern all the people west of the Euphrates River; if they are not familiar with the laws of your God, you are to teach them (Ezra 7 25).

Early Christians proved their conversions by making up for injustices they’d committed:

"Zacchaeus stood before the Lord and said, ‘Sir, from now on I will give half my wealth to the poor, and if I find I have overcharged anyone on his taxes, I will penalize myself by giving him back four times as much’" (Luke 19:8-10).


Was justice to be different for the rich than for the poor?

The Bible emphasized equal justice for all, especially the poor, widows, orphans, and immigrants.

"God stands up to open heaven’s court. He pronounces judgment on the judges. How long will you judges refuse to listen to the evidence? ... Give fair judgment to the poor man, the afflicted, the fatherless, the destitute. Rescue the poor and helpless from the grasp of evil men" (Ps. 82:1-5).

More Scriptures: Ex. 18:13-26; 23:6; Lev. 19:15; Deut. 1:9-18; 10:17-18; 27:19; 2 Sam. 8:15; Job 29:12-17; Ps. 72:1-5; 146:5-9; Prov. 24:23; 28:21; 29:7; 31:4-9; Isa. 1:23-27; Jer. 5:26-29; 22:3-4; 22:13-17; Amos 2:6-7; 5:7; 5:10-13; 8:4-7; Mic. 2:8-10; Zech. 7:8-14; Mal. 3:5.


What’s today’s greatest barrier to justice?

Just as in Moses’ time, it’s lack of money. Too many can only echo Job 19:7: "I scream for help and no one hears me. I shriek, but get no justice."

‘Amy,’ one of my Florida co-workers, was the mother of two small children. Her husband drank heavily and often beat her. They divorced, and she won legal custody of the children. He kidnapped them. She went to court to get them back. Her "ex" had an excellent job, and could afford a good lawyer. Amy, a clerical "temp," couldn’t. So the court gave him custody, and neither punished him for kidnapping the children nor for beating her.

Then he sued her for child support. She couldn’t even defend herself. She had neither the $2,000 a lawyer would have cost, nor the money to travel a thousand miles to the hearing in his new state. He won again.

The case was decided on one basis: who had money for a lawyer. Love, tears, right, and wrong didn’t help.


Is dishonesty in the justice system wrong?

"Never twist justice to benefit a rich man, and never accept bribes. For bribes blind the eyes of the wisest and corrupt their decisions. Justice must prevail" (Deut. 16:19-20).

Failing to testify was illegal:

"Rescue those who are unjustly sentenced to death; don’t stand back and let them die. Don’t try to disclaim responsibility by saying you didn’t know about it. For God, who knows all hearts, knows yours, and he knows you knew (Prov. 24:11-12)!"

Consumer fraud was a form of injustice:

"In all your transactions you must use accurate scales and honest measurements ... All who cheat with unjust weights and measurements are detestable to the Lord your God" (Deut. 25:13-16; also read Ezek. 45:10-12 and Mic. 6:10-12).

Near the end of his life, Samuel asked the people to rate his judgeship:

"‘Now tell me ... whose ox or donkey have I stolen? Have I ever defrauded you? Have I ever oppressed you? Have I ever taken a bribe? Tell me and I will make right whatever I have done wrong.’

"‘No,’ they replied, ‘you have never defrauded or oppressed us in any way and you have never taken even one single bribe’" (1 Sam. 12:3-4).

More Scriptures: Ex. 18:21; 23:1-3; 23:8; Lev. 5:1; 19:35; Deut. 1:16-17; 10:17; 19:16-21; Ps. 15:1-2; 15:5; 26:9-10; 58:1-2; 82:2-3; Prov. 6:16-19; 12:17; 14:5; 15:27; 16:11; 17:23; 19:5; 19:9; 19:28; 21:28; 24:28-29; 28:16; 29:4; Eccl. 7:7; Isa. 1:23; 5:20; 5:23-25; 11:3-5; 29:20-21; 32:5-8; Amos 2:6-7; 5:10-13; Hab. 1:3-4; Zech. 7:8-9; 8:16-17; Luke 3:10-14


What was required for convictions in capital crimes?

More than one witness had to agree before anyone could receive the death penalty:

"All murderers must be executed, but only if there is more than one witness; no man shall die with only one person testifying against him" (Num. 35:30; also read Deut. 17:6; 19:15-21).

Difficult cases could be referred to a higher court:

"If a case arises that is too hard for you to decide – for instance, whether someone is guilty of murder when there is insufficient evidence, or whether someone’s rights have been violated – you shall take the case to the ... priests and Levites, and the chief judge on duty at the time will make the decision. His decision is without appeal" (Deut. 17:8-11).

If a murder victim was found but no one had seen the crime, the priests were to conduct a sacrifice outside the nearest town, stating that the murderer was unknown and asking forgiveness for the people (Deut. 21:1-9).

Curses were placed upon anyone who killed someone else secretly, and on anyone who accepted a bribe to kill a person (Deut. 27:24-25).

But anyone who caused death unintentionally could seek shelter in "Cities of Refuge:"

"Cities of Refuge shall be designated for anyone to flee into if he has killed someone accidentally ... These are not only for the protection of Israelites, but also for foreigners and travelers’" (Num. 35:11-15; see also Ex. 21:12-14; Deut. 4:41-43; 19:1-13; Josh. 20:2-9).

Anyone who caused death unintentionally could seek shelter in "Cities of Refuge:"

"Cities of Refuge shall be designated for anyone to flee into if he has killed someone accidentally ... Three of these six Cities of Refuge are to be located in the land of Canaan, and three on the east side of the Jordan River. These are not only for the protection of Israelites, but also for foreigners and travelers.’" (Num. 35:11-15; see also Ex. 21:12-14; Deut. 4:41-43; 19:1-13; Josh. 20:2-9).


Are law and justice always the same thing?

Not necessarily!

"No one cares about being fair and true. Your lawsuits are based on lies; you spend your time plotting evil deeds and doing them ... we carefully plan our lies. Our courts oppose the righteous man; fairness is unknown. Truth falls dead in the streets, and justice is outlawed" (Is. 59:4, 59:13-14).

It’s easy to forget what patriotic-sounding words like "justice" mean. A finance company where we once lived urged customers to apply for loans by dialing "freedom" from one county and "justice" from another. Since I could see no connection between borrowing money and either freedom or justice, I wrote to suggest the company switch to two other seven-letter words customers could associate with their product.

"Monthly" and "Payment."

(No reply.)

More Scriptures: Ps. 109:6-7; Is. 10:1-2; Jer. 5:26-29; 22:3-4; Amos 5:7; Mic. 2:8-10.


How should we react to lack of justice?

While living in Orlando, my whole family experienced what first seemed a persistent "flu bug." For weeks, then months, then a year we fought aches, chills, low-grade fevers, extreme fatigue, and erratic memories. Tests showed only low white blood counts. Antibiotics didn’t help. Our children became too sick to attend school, so we began home-schooling them.

Friends had suggested that the pesticide used to spray our home monthly for fleas might be responsible. I’d dismissed that. Surely laws enforced safe levels! But finally we checked.

The Florida Poison Control Center told Yvonne, "Mrs. Ahlstrom, you have all the symptoms of pesticide poisoning!" They recommended we stop the treatments and scrub everything: floors, bedding, upholstery, drapes. We did, and began a long, slow recovery.

Our daughter’s doctor agreed with the FPCC’s diagnosis, but cautioned it wasn’t provable. Only one test existed (cholinesterase), and we’d have had to do that before we cleaned up our home. Even then, he said, it would only have worked "if we were practically unconscious."

The pesticide affected our lives profoundly for more than ten years, and we still face possible side effects. Justice certainly says effects that severe should be compensated. But, because no confirming medical test existed, it couldn’t happen.

How does that with fit Romans 8:28, which says "All that happens to us is working for our good if we love God and are fitting into his plans?

For my wife, it worked unexpectedly well.

Since before we met, she’d suffered from chronic toxic sinuses. VERY toxic sinuses. They had severely damaged her lungs until God led us to begin activities that healed her. But though her lungs were healed, her sinuses continued to worsen. By the time we moved to Orlando, one "glob" of drainage coming down the back of her throat would nearly make her pass out. She had hallucinations. Her heartbeat would become erratic. Sometimes those effects continued for days. On many days I left for work very aware that I might not see her alive when I came home.

Then came the pesticide. Most of its effects were very bad. But suddenly her sinuses no longer caused her to pass out. She had no more hallucinations. Her heartbeat became steady and stayed that way. Something in the pesticide had almost completely neutralized those toxic sinuses. Romans 8:28 had worked!


More recently, toxic mold in our Wyoming apartment affected us all, but especially Yvonne. She was all but bedridden for over a year. Her immune and nervous systems were severely affected. She had spikes of high blood pressure (giving her one "mini-stroke"), severe weakness, a pulse of 120, frequent "panic attacks," widespread knotting in her back, and uncontrolled twitching in her feet. The mold cost us all our furniture and virtually all of our personal possessions – a $40,000 loss! Our renters’ insurance didn’t cover it. Our landlord’s contract did (because for six months his manager ignored our requests to fix the problem), but he flatly refused to honor it.

How did we respond? We chose to praise God for everything, though that wasn’t easy,. To look forward, not back. To focus on the good things that had happened, not the bad. To see God’s hand, extended through difficulties but in love, enlarging our horizons.

We’d seemed to be "pressed on every side by troubles" (2 Cor. 4:8). But the song we chose was "no mere man has ever seen, heard, or even imagined what wonderful things God has ready for those who love the Lord" (1 Cor. 2:9).

"No matter what happens, always be thankful" (1 Thess. 5:18; also read Rom. 8:28.).


What blessings does God promise to those who provide justice?

"Then once again enormous crops will come. Then justice will rule through all the land, and out of justice, peace" (Is. 32:15-17).

More Scriptures: Deut. 25:13-15; Ps.15:1-5; 106:3; Isa. 33:15-16; 54:17; 56:1; Jer. 22:3-4; Ezek. 18:5-9; 33:17-19; Amos 5:14-15.


Did lack of justice help cause Israel’s captivity?

Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah, and Zechariah warned Israel she faced exile if she didn’t give justice to her poor and needy.

"They say that what is right is wrong and what is wrong is right; that black is white and white is black; bitter is sweet and sweet is bitter ... They take bribes to pervert justice, letting the wicked go free and putting innocent men in jail. Therefore God will deal with them ... for they have ... despised the Word of the Holy One of Israel. That is why the anger of the Lord is hot against his people; that is why he has reached out his hand to smash them" (Isa. 5:20; 5:23-25).

More Scriptures: Isa. 1:23-25; Jer. 21:11-12; Lam. 3:34-36; Amos 2:6-7; 5:10-13; 5:21-24; 6:8-12; Mic. 2:8-10; 3:9-12; Zech. 7:8-14.


Dare we risk God’s judgment by not making true justice available to everyone?



"The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones." – William Faulkner











































































































































































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