How to see a Heart of Justice: a Pharisee’s Confession


I was going to be a super hero and change the world.  How about you?  The problem is we become the hero.  Our cape is that of a Pharisee.  Maybe you can identify with my struggle as a recovering pharisee and my journey toward justice.

The Heart of a Pharisee

The heart of a Pharisee is rooted in pride.  Often that manifest in outward success, love of praise, appreciation of talent, clean living, and rules oriented.  I was a chief among Pharisees.  Like Paul I boasted in my birth – son of a pastor; my success – senior partner of a multi-office law practice; my achievements – leader of everything I was involved in, highly praised by others; talented – multiple talents, highly intelligent; clean living – never drank, swore, no drugs, no sex, no outward breaking of rules.  To man I looked successful.  To God I failed.  He cares nothing of success.  He cares about the heart.

The heart of a Pharisee gets ensnared in these pursuits.  We tell ourselves we are God’s agents for truth.  But that is a lie.  As Jesus declared we are “blind guides”.  Mt. 23:24.  Just before Jesus made that pronouncement, He laid bare the soul of a Pharisee and provided the path to a heart of justice.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” Mt. 23:23

The Heart of Justice

The heart of justice is the heart of Jesus.  While all of Scripture relays this truth (the heart of justice for the poor is the second most prominent theme in the Bible, behind the heart of idolatry), Jesus encapsulated this in three sentences.

Jesus begins with a powerful wake-up call.  The Pharisees and teachers of the law were honored in their day.  They had wealth, power and position.  Sounds like a group of lawyers.  And they were the gatekeepers of the law.  But they were hypocrites.  They said they were using the law for good but they refused to lift a finger to help the poor.  Mt. 23:4-6.  They devoured widows houses – not by doing something against them – but by failing to do something for them.  Mk. 12:40

Lawyers then – and now – fall into a deadly lie that their time belongs to them and is too important to waste on the poor.  The Pharisees did not say that.  They probably did not even believe that, but actions speak louder than words.  Jesus called those actions directly to account.  He still does.

access to justice

Today America ranks 97th out of 113 countries for providing affordable access to justice.  1 in 3 Americans cannot afford an attorney and every second someone is turned away from legal help.  Money and time are barriers lawyers deceive themselves into believing belong to them.  This is why Christian and non-Christian lawyers alike give so little time or money to help the poor.  Illinois is like other states where only 21% of lawyers donate money (average gift $188) and 66% don’t give a single hour to help the poor.

To change this download our guide – How to use your law degree for life-changing impact

The complicity of the church

Before we throw “teachers of the law” under the justice bus, “Pharisees” are the same.  These were religious leaders.  The church is widely engaged in First Amendment legal issues which place the importance of protecting themselves against a hostile society.  But less than 1/10 of 1% of churches are concerned about engaging that society through legal ministry to the poor.  While I can find no verse on the First Amendment in the Bible, I find over 1,000 direct references to justice for the poor.

To change this download our guide – How to see gospel impact through justice in your community

The Heart of Mercy

The heart of a Pharisee leans toward judgment.  We see rules over people.  Lawbreakers deserve punishment.  We want to be God.  God is judge but He tells us to leave judgment to Him.  We are to let mercy triumph over judgment. Jms. 2:13

Mercy is the sister of grace.  Unmerited and freely given.  We deserve judgment.  All are sinners.  How dare we rank the sins of others as somehow worse than our own.  God demonstrates grace and mercy to us.  He wants us to do the same.

Mercy stops to serve a neighbor in need. Lk 10:25-37.  Mercy commits time and resources to restore others because Christ stopped to see us restored.  I was recently reminded of the power of mercy when I was at Starbucks.  I was meeting someone for coffee when the barrista recognized me.  She said I may not remember her, but years ago I helped her escape an abusive situation.  She had tears in her eyes as she simply said, “Thank you.”  The power of one sinner stopping to serve, instead of judge, a neighbor in need.


The Heart of Faithfulness

Pharisees do good to check boxes.  They give.  They even go above and beyond the minimum.  Jesus acknowledged this in referencing the additional spice gifts of the Pharisees.   But their faith was in themselves.  They looked down on those who did not measure up.

Churches and lawyers today can fall into this trap of condemning the world – Muslims, refugees, immigrants, abortionist, homosexuals, people of color, women, the poor.  Like the Pharisees in Jesus day, we too quickly reflect the world we condemn by elevating ourselves at the expense of others.  That is called oppression.  Sadly the Bible and history are replete with examples of personal comfort or political movements that oppressed others.

The heart of our faith is rooted in the abandonment of power.  Jesus gave up all the power of heaven to show his great love for us.  He became a servant.  He invites us to do the same.  This is why faithfulness is found in humility.

Jesus was reminding lawyers and church leaders of his day of the profound truth of Micah 6:8.

“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

Translation – do not neglect justice, mercy and faithfulness!

The Heart of Generosity

Jesus final charge to the Pharisees targeted the heart.  Giving is good.  But sacrifice is better.  Before God called me to leave my money, position and power behind to serve “the least of these”, I wrote large checks.  But I never checked my heart.  The money was a small portion of my excess.  Giving was not glad and generous, it was a good deed that felt good because of the praise of others.  That is the heart of a Pharisee.

Today Helen and I give away more with significantly less.  Only God knows and that is how it should be. Mt. 6:2-3.  As a result, God has consistently and miraculously provided for us.  To those who are faithful, He is always faithful.  2 Sam. 22:26

God is generous.  And generosity is rooted in justice.  Understanding Hebrew provides an “ah” moment.  In Hebrew one word for justice is “Tzedek”.  The Hebrew for generosity is “Tzedekah”.  The root of generosity is literally justice.  God calls us to generous justice.

I invite you to join us on this journey into the heart of justice.  Visit our web site and register for our newsletter.  Follow Jesus as you love neighbors, do likewise, wash feet, and pursue justice, mercy and faithfulness.

If you are in the greater Chicago area come to our banquet with Administer Justice on Friday, October 19.  We are stronger when we generously come together to advance God’s heart of justice, mercy and faithfulness.