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Scripture: Matt. 23:13-36


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. Matt. 23:23

“You want to be a lawyer?” The older member of my church congregation looked at me incredulously.  Then, trying her best to find something good to say about my unfortunate career choice, she added: “Well, that’s certainly a vocation that could use a few good Christians.”  Shaking her head sadly she walked up the aisle to her seat in the pew.  And at age 14, I had already encountered the hostility to lawyers that all attorneys grow accustomed to.

It is tough to be a Christian lawyer. We don’t get much support from fellow Christians, whose view of our profession is jaded by its general reputation, and who are all too inclined to equate the word “lawyer” with the word “shyster.”  But even as we combat this prejudice in our churches we encounter in our practices the pressures that lead some lawyers to live up to the unsavory reputation of the profession.

Why is that? It is certainly not because the large mass of law is unjust.  Great ethical norms are found in the law.  They are there because over time our civilization has identified these as essential elements of justice, so essential that they are given normative status.  Individuals have dignity and rights which should be respected.  Truth is important in judicial and legal proceedings.  Agreements between people should be carried out when possible.  Those who are disadvantaged or weak should be protected from the strong and ruthless.

Such principles of justice have helped create and preserve much that is good in our culture. Many of these were originally derived from Scriptural teaching.  They have been articulated by great justices and legislators over time, and taught in law schools for centuries.  So why is it so tough to be a Christian lawyer?

Part of the answer is suggested in Jesus’ rebuke that the Pharisees had devoted their intellectual and professional skills to meeting the technical requirements of the law and had ignored the more important elements of justice, mercy and faithfulness (Luke adds “and the love of God” [11:42]). In other words, procedural correctness had become more important than achieving the weightier matters of justice.

What are those weightier matters? Over the next weeks we will address five key dimensions of justice reflected in the following proposition: Justice – in the best of human tradition and in biblical perspective – builds peace, pursues truth, shapes community, upholds right, and delivers the oppressed.  In so doing, it reflects God’s character.  During this time we will consider how personal and professional life can exhibit those weightier matters of the law.

My “career adviser” was wrong. Law and justice are so interconnected that the practice of law can be sacramental.  In fact, justice is such a powerful and holy thing that it becomes apparent to others when those who practice it fail to meet its high standards.  Lawyers, who should be ministers of justice but who have too often instead perverted justice for their own (or their clients’) purposes, can be judged by the measure they use.

The good news is that justice is sacred because it is a dimension of One who makes us just. The righteousness of Christ led him to denounce the Pharisees around Him, but also to make righteous another Pharisee named Saul.  What He did for the “chief of sinners.” He can do for us, and through us for those around us.

Dan Van Ness

Suggested reading: Read Matt. 23:13-36 carefully, and paraphrase Christ’s critique of the Pharisees so that it is directed to unjust or unethical lawyers. Does anything here strike close to home?  In what ways do you substitute technical compliance with the law for pursuit of biblical justice?  In what ways are you neglecting the more important aspects of law?

– This article comes from AI’s devotional for lawyers titled, “What Does the Lord Require of You?”