Justice

What does justice look like?  Some would answer “fairness” – others “equality”; still others will tell you that justice is blind, and by that they mean, not always fair, or equal.  If you listen to some conversations about justice, you might come to the conclusion that justice means (for certain individuals, organizations or nations) “getting what I want”…real justice is all of those things AND none of those thing.

A parable: A judge who fears neither God nor had any respect for people meets a widow demanding justice, and the stage is set for a mammoth battle of wills.  The widow is persistent, perhaps she is entitled, but the evidence is scarce; the judge is stubborn – haughty, even – yet his word has the effect of law.

As the story goes, the widow prevails because of her persistence.  She wears down this fearless, egotistical manipulator of the justice.  The problem is, his ruling in the widow’s favour is a miscarriage of justice, even as justice was understood in the day.

Listen to what the unjust judge says:

“Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, because this woman is bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by coming continually to me.”

And we make the mistake of equating God’s justice with the pattern revealed in this parable.

We know a little bit about injustice – we share stories / anecdotes about “the way the system works” – and so we approach justice of all kinds with a siege mentality.  Persistence pays.  The plaintiff is warned that time and patience will be rewarded, but the problem with patient persistence is that justice is not always served by such an approach – the playing field becomes tilted towards the loud, the powerful, and the persistent, and occasionally we are directed to this ‘biblical example’ – but Jesus parable is, according to Luke, about the need to pray and NOT LOSE HEART…something is missing between our hearing and our application of this lesson.

This lesson in persistence comes at a critical point in Luke’s Gospel.  Jesus is answering questions about the coming Kingdom – people are frightened and eager for the oppression of the present to be replaced by God’s kingdom of justice and peace.  And without revealing anything about a timeline, Jesus counsels patience, warns of suffering still to be endured, and then suggests that the kingdom will come swiftly, without fanfare.  Those who point to the signs of its coming are trying to deceive you (Luke 17: 23).  When justice comes – when the kingdom comes – the speed of God’s acting will be instant; that’s how God is…

So this suggestion that we must be persistent in prayer, and ever hopeful in our anticipation of the promised reign of God is an indictment of our attitudes; our calculating approach to justice, and all things of value, is called into question by this parable.

In our culture, persistence is usually valued.  We are often encouraged to solve our problems and satisfy our needs by simply “sticking with it” – when given the choice between “good things come to those who wait”, and “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”, it turns out we prefer grease to delayed gratification.

This appears to be the case in so many popular protest movements – all operating in a manner designed to overwhelm the target group, and bring about the desired change…as quickly as possible.  This may be an effective management/marketing strategy, but it rarely results in justice.  In many cases – as in our example from the gospel – the rights (so called) of the persistent are exchanged for the rights of the passive; the result is still out of balance.

We are guilty of imagining this imbalance in God’s justice, and so we rail at God for our case to be heard, and conclude that we are not nearly persistent enough when our prayers are not granted.  We make bargains with God, and are surprised when that strategy fails to bring us what we want.  We imagine that God can be ‘worn down’ by our efforts – that a marathon of petitioning prayer will somehow, suddenly undo centuries of our persistent inhumanity, and when it doesn’t, we accuse God of indifference or (worse), injustice.  When we use this particular parable as an excuse for our approach, we fall short of the mark – we do injustice to the Gospel.

Jesus parable is a parable of “negative comparison”.  The “unjust judge” does one thing, but God will surely grant justice to those who seek it – and, indeed justice is always part of God’s operational plan.  Divine justice is not in the satisfying humiliation of a particular enemy, but found in the love and compassion that is inherent in the way Jesus calls us to treat one another.  God’s justice is not satisfied by our grudging assent to a list of “thou shalt not” conditions but it blossoms when the commandments are observed out of love for God, neighbour and ourselves.

We need be persistent, not because God will grow weary of listening, and grant justice for God’s own convenience…rather, our persistence should come from our desire to seek God in all things.  God’s preference is to grant justice, and justice will quickly come – our persistence is easily outdistanced by the speed of God’s acting.

Our persistence should be a function of faith – we desire God’s mercy/justice because we believe in it!  The widow wants only to overwhelm the wicked judge, not for the sake of justice, but because it could be ‘negotiated’.  God’s attitudes toward justice are more gracious; more generous by far, and Jesus – in every circumstance – points us to those gracious features in the character of God.  Unlike that wicked judge, God requires neither manipulation, nor persuasion.   God is revealed by Jesus to be ready to serve – ready to usher in justice and do mercy – where ever faith may be found.

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