Luke 18: 1-8
What is justice?
If you enter the word justice on Google, you find definitions like, the legal or philosophical theory by which fairness is administered… Wikipedia… Ok, so how do you define fairness?
On dictionary.com justice is defined as, the quality of being just. Rightfulness or lawfulness. And the moral principle of determining conduct… So what is rightfulness or lawfulness, and who gets to define these things?
The United States Department of Justice expresses that their mission is “to enforce the law and defend the interests of the United States according to the law; to secure public safety against threats foreign and domestic; to provide federal leadership in preventing and controlling crime; to seek just punishment for those guilty of unlawful behavior, and to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans.”
We’ll, we could certainly keep ourselves busy debating all kinds of things in this understanding of justice in the midst of our current presidential election… What are the interests of the United States? What is considered to be a threat and what is not? What is crime or unlawful behavior? What is fair and impartial administration of justice? And is that even possible? And if I haven’t got myself in trouble enough yet with all of you in the pews, who are considered to be Americans, and who are not?
What is justice?
In our gospel reading for today, Luke records Jesus’ parable, often given the title, The Parable of the Persistent Widow, in which we hear the story of a widow, who, as Luke describes, shows great persistence in her fight for justice against an unjust judge.
As Jesus begins, he makes it clear that he tells the parable for two reasons. The first is so that those who seek to follow him will “pray without ceasing”, and the second, so that in facing adversity, they “won’t loose heart”.
Luke goes on to describe, that in a certain town, (insert any town/city/borough/township you would like) there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men, and a widow who kept coming to him with a plea. In the course of the parable, Jesus neglects to mention specifically what the widow is fighting for, other than for justice over an adversary of some form, as well as neglects to mention specifically what actions have led the judge to be defined as “unjust”… only that he is a man who doesn’t fear God or care for the people he supposedly serves.
As we read on, we learn that while the judge refused to respond to the widow’s requests for some time, eventually, through her persistence, he caves to her demands and offers the justice she seeks.
Today’s text is one that can easily get us into dangerous waters depending upon how we understand God’s place and interaction with the world in which we live. It’s easy, at first glance, to read today’s parable with God as the unjust judge, placing ourselves in the position of the widow. That in those times when we find ourselves most vulnerable, should we just pray hard enough, God will somehow, eventually, get annoyed with our persistence and cave to our demands.
I couldn’t help but think of our two-year-old daughter, Gabrielle, who, every time we head down 194 from our home in Littlestown to Hanover where Target is… in her persistence from the back seat of the car, again and again and again shouts, “daddy, I want to look at toys!”… me, the judge, eventually caving to her demands.
And while this is a playful example, we could all think of moments of prayer, particularly in moments we are vulnerable, where this reading of the text could be dangerous.
When the prayers we persistently offer to God aren’t answered in the way we had hoped, or seemingly aren’t answered at all? When the healing we have prayed for simply doesn’t happen? When justice, as we understand it, simply isn’t rewarded?
So what do we do with this parable told by Jesus?
First, because today’s gospel reading does not stand by itself, it’s safe to say that while we may understand ourselves as the widow, depending on our current life situation, that the unjust judge is not to be understood as God.
Jesus understood injustice… the character of our unjust judge… just as Luke’s original audience would have, and we do as well. Whether came in the form of a Roman occupation of Palestine or the countless forms of injustice we see locally and around the world today.
If we look back to vs. 1 of today’s text where Luke writes; “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should pray and not lose heart.”, we find the word “dei” in the original Greek, and translated in most cases into english as “should”. A more literal translation would be, “it is necessary”. A bit more force than “should”, and interestingly, the same word as Jesus proclaims before his death on the cross, “It is necessary for the son of man to die.” Just as it was necessary for Christ to die on the cross, so to is it necessary that we should pray, that we would not loose heart.
With this, our prayers are to come with the same persistence as that of the widow in today’s gospel reading.
As our text for today comes to a close, Jesus gives us these words; “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him night and day? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” In these words, we hear the phrase, chosen ones…. An expression found in only one other place in all of Luke’s gospel… And again, directing our attention to Christ’s death on the cross. “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, the chosen one!”
We know today that Christ was the chosen one, it’s where we place our faith and trust. That through his death on the cross, his “chosen-ness” became ours. Sent to die so that we may live. Where, through his final words, in responding to a criminal, Jesus gives the greatest definition of justice of all. “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Not that of Wikipedia, dicitonary.com, the United States Justice department, or any other of the boundaries set up by our humanness, but by the grace of God, seen most evidently in the cross of Christ.
That while we may fail to provide justice for the “widows” of our world, those who are most vulnerable, and the scales rarely come out even in this life, through the cross of Christ and its’ promise, justice is given to all, regardless of status or sin.
That in all of our wrongdoings and failures, God offers us forgiveness and promises us the gift of eternal life… That while we can guarantee life in this world will without a doubt fail to deliver efficient justice, we can nevertheless trust in God’s utter faithfulness. God who is more like the widow than like the judge. God who is unrelenting, persistent, and steadfast. Who fights for the justice of those who cannot, and calls the faithful, each of us here today and in pews around the world, to do the same. Who through the injustice of the cross fully understands the injustice of our lives. And who, because of this, gives us the greatest justice of all. For this we lift our prayers to God with praise and thanksgiving with all our hearts. Thanks be to God.