Justice, Free Will, Old Testament Grace, and Jesus’ Radical Kingdom (Lenten Scriptural Commentary #10)
by Erik Ritland
"You can take a few verses out of context to make it look differently, but God is complex, which only makes sense: He’s God. This complexity includes a strict demand for justice, as the prophets showed so cogently, in addition to a boundless love that desires intimacy with us."
Fully Alive’s Lenten Scriptural Commentary helps Christians get more out of Lent by taking God’s word seriously.
Mostly avoiding personal stories and anecdotes, our commentary dives deeply into the scripture readings for each day and applies them to the broader context of Lent. We use the daily Mass readings from the Catholic lectionary.
If possible, read each passage slowly, taking in each word. If you find that you’ve hurried through a reading, read it over a few more times. Let the words reverberate in your heart. After you’ve let it sink in, read our Lenten Scriptural Commentary.
Friday of the First Week of Lent
In a typically powerful passage from Ezekiel, God promises life to those who are realistic about their shortcomings and rely on God to help them. Jesus reveals the high standards for His kingdom in the Gospel.
Readings: Ez 18:21-28/Mt 5:20-26
Click here to read the complete text from the USCCB website
Thus says the Lord GOD:
If the wicked man turns away from all the sins he committed,
if he keeps all my statutes and does what is right and just,
he shall surely live, he shall not die.
None of the crimes he committed shall be remembered against him;
he shall live because of the virtue he has practiced.
Do I indeed derive any pleasure from the death of the wicked?
says the Lord GOD.
Do I not rather rejoice when he turns from his evil way
that he may live?
(cf Ez 18: 21-28)
What comforting words!
There is a false impression that God in the Old Testament is stodgy and over-demanding. There is a strictness to parts of the Old Testament, but there’s a strictness to Jesus as well (see: today’s Gospel).
You can take a few verses out of context to make it look differently, but God is complex, which only makes sense: He’s God. This complexity includes a strict demand for justice, as the prophets showed so cogently, in addition to a boundless love that desires intimacy with us.
There is a lot more of these sorts of comforting words in the Old Testament than lists of rules and what appear to our current sensitivities as throwback barbarism (judging those in the past by our current standards is the height of being sophomoric). Those who think otherwise invariable haven’t read much of the Old Testament to verify.
And if the virtuous man turns from the path of virtue to do evil,
the same kind of abominable things that the wicked man does,
can he do this and still live?
None of his virtuous deeds shall be remembered,
because he has broken faith and committed sin;
because of this, he shall die.
You say, "The LORD's way is not fair!"
Hear now, house of Israel:
Is it my way that is unfair, or rather, are not your ways unfair?
When someone virtuous turns away from virtue to commit iniquity, and dies,
it is because of the iniquity he committed that he must die.
But if the wicked, turning from the wickedness he has committed,
does what is right and just,
he shall preserve his life;
since he has turned away from all the sins that he committed,
he shall surely live, he shall not die.
(cf Ez 18: 21-28)
Remember that demand for justice that I mentioned? Here it is.
For the ancient philosopher Socrates, who lived around the end of the Old Testament era, justice was the most important virtue. He thought that it was better to lose everything and be just than it was to have everything if gained unjustly. He was truly in tune with God.
“Is it my way that is unfair, or rather, are not your ways unfair?” This is God’s indictment of us as much as it is of the original audience. Every generation must ask itself this question.
Another important point of this reading is that we choose our destiny. There are mitigating factors that influence us or interfere with our freedom of choice – and I, for one, believe that God is smart enough to keep those things in mind – but our ultimate destiny is our choice. God gave us freedom as a gift.
Sometimes I wonder whether those who don’t believe in free will are cowards who don’t want to deal with the decisions they make.
"You have heard that it was said to your ancestors,
You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.
But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother
will be liable to judgment.”
(cf Mt 5: 20-26)
The Sermon on the Mount – Matthew 5-7 – is especially relevant during Lent. It clearly lays out what the Kingdom that Jesus is ushering in looks like.
It is a Kingdom of both radical standards (“be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”) and radical forgiveness (“you will be forgiven in the measure that you forgive,” “love your enemy, pray for those who persecute you”). It literally cuts to the heart, focusing on who we are on the inside and what sort of people that makes us.
Murder is obviously wrong, but Jesus points to a deeper truth here: that the anger in our heart slowly kills us and our relationship with God. We can’t get away with any sort of “well, at least I’m not doing that really bad thing” garbage.
Lent is a time to concentrate on coming to grips with the things that we do wrong, the things inside of us that hold us back. This is not a dismal, anti-human thing; it is what makes us fully human.
Only when we strip away what holds us back can we be truly alive, truly the people we are meant to be.
Erik Ritland is a writer and musician. The founder of Fully Alive Christian Media, he also created The Minnesota Sport Ramble and is a writer and copy editor for Music in Minnesota. He was Lead Staff Writer for Minnesota culture blogs Curious North and Hometown Hustle. Reach him via email.
Erik Ritland received his MA in Theology in 2017. He's the founder and content manager of Fully Alive Christian Media and Rambling On, copy editor and writer for Music in Minnesota, and an acclaimed songwriter.