Proper 24, Year C
Luke 18: 1-8
The first time I read the Gospel this week, I was quite frustrated by the lack of detail. What justice was the widow demanding and against whom? It’s safe to assume the other party had more status, since a widow who had to go to court to speak for herself was lower in status than a cow or a goat. I wanted to know how she had been harmed.
Then it hit me that this is a perfect reflection of my tendency to be judgmental. I wanted to decide the case for myself – Clearly not the point that Jesus was trying to make.
The second time through I was caught by the whole idea of justice. The woman was demanding justice from the corrupt judge, which he eventually grants because of her persistence. Jesus says, “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.”
Stop and think for a moment. Have you ever prayed to God for justice? I don’t think I have, although I’ve certainly whined about something not being fair. That makes me wonder if Jesus here is referring to the whole nation or the community. Certainly in many parts of the OT there are images of Israel demanding or crying for justice, for release from their oppressors, for a chance to be run their own lives.
So what does it mean to pray for justice? What kind of justice might we pray for? There are two images of justice presented in the Bible.
There is the image of God as the great record-keeper in the sky, who notes all of our sins and transgressions. On Judgement Day he will hand out punishments based on our record. He will separate the sheep from the goats. We must be held accountable for all our sins and may even end up burning in hell for all eternity. This is called retributive justice. This is essentially the way our current justice system works. You do the crime, you serve the time.
The other kind of justice is merciful. This image of God is full of compassion for our short-comings, full of tender mercy for our suffering, quick to forgive and slow to anger. This God’s great desire is for reconciliation between the sinner and God and between the sinner and the one sinned against. This is called restorative justice. It seeks to restore the sinner to life in the community.
The Navajo have cultivated the idea of restorative justice in their religious beliefs and practices. When someone sins, or breaks a taboo, or has done evil, they must be restored to harmony. For the Navajo this is accomplished through sacred ceremonies. The harmony restored is between all parties, the sinner, the community, and the universe.
It’s not too different from our use of the Eucharist. We confess our sins and our sorrow for them, and the act of communion restores our community to harmony as the body of Christ.
There are many people, both within our church, and in society at large that are trying to bring the concept of restorative justice to our judicial system. If that strikes you as impossible, consider for a moment the work that Bishop Tutu did in South Africa with the whole business of war crimes after Apartheid ended. Did they take their former oppressors and throw them in jail? Or kill them? No, they formed a Reconciliation Commission that listened to victims and oppressors alike, with the idea of reintegrating the bad guys into their society in a positive way. It’s an amazing story and one well worth paying attention to.
I know that when I am the offended party, my first reaction is to want justice, not so much for me as against the offender. We want the bad guys punished. – well, unless we happen to be the bad guy. Then we want God to understand and forgive us. The question is this, what does God want from us? Every week we ask him to forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
When we think this through, it seems clear to me that reconciliation, if it can be achieved, is always better than punishment: better for the sinner, better for the sinned against, and way better for the community. You know from experience how disruptive it is in a group of friends or in a church community when there is a dispute or a feud between parties. It makes life miserable for everyone else as well. Others get sucked in and take sides. It destroys the harmony of the group.
Even when reconciliation may be impossible, forgiveness is possible. Remember the Amish community who lost 7 children to a gunman that invaded their school? They not only forgave the gunman, they supported his family in their grief. I saw a TV person ask one of the Amish men, the father of one of the children, how they could forgive the gunman, especially as he had clearly not repented. The man said, “Otherwise I would live a life full of bitterness.”
This should remind us that forgiveness and reconciliation are good for everyone involved, not just the offender. To be unforgiving of others is indeed to live a life of bitterness.
We don’t know what kind of justice the widow demanded from the corrupt judge, and honestly that probably isn’t the point of this parable. Karoline Lewis commented this week that the dishonest judge “relents not because he has changed his mind, but simply to shut up this dangerous widow. In this case, insolent, obnoxious, even intolerable behavior results in justice….we should persist in our complaints, even to the point of embarrassing the powers that be in order to induce change.”
That is the lesson for our communal life. To seek justice in our community and our country we must risk being like the widow, persistent and obnoxious.
But there’s also a lesson here for our prayer lives. While we can’t expect to get everything we ask for, anymore than a child can expect to get whatever they want from a loving parent, we can know that we are loved and heard. When we want something very badly, we do what we can do to make it happen and leave the rest in God’s hands. Jesus tells us here not to lose heart. He tells us repeatedly not to be afraid.
I’d wager that quite a few of you can think of times you prayed for something you wanted badly, that you did not get, and that latter on you realized you had prayed for the wrong thing. So I say to you, pray always from your heart, and then put yourselves in God’s hands. As a reminder, end each prayer with, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.”