Christ and Contemporary Culture

Hope for Our Pursuit of Justice

Image for Hope for Our Pursuit of Justice
"The Adoration of the Shepherds" by a pupil of Rembrandt

Years ago Central invited Nicholas Wolterstorff, a Christian philosopher from Yale, to speak on the theme of justice. After his lecture, he provided an opportunity for people to ask questions, and a young woman from the congregation came forward. Like so many people, she found that the closer she drew to the work of justice, the more discouraged she felt, because she was simply overwhelmed by the magnitude of the pain and the suffering that we human beings are capable of inflicting upon one another in our sin. Effectively, she asked, “Why do we bother praying or acting for justice when it seems so pitifully small in the face of the world's evil?” Wolterstorff responded with an analogy which I have expanded and elaborated as follows. 

The Master Painter
When working on large scale compositions, the master painter Rembrandt would hire an entire studio of artists to assist. After Rembrandt sketched out the outlines of the work, the artists would begin to paint in his style. Some of the paintings turned out quite well, and Rembrandt simply needed to add the final touches. Other paintings were an utter disaster and had to be completely reworked by the master. Either way, Rembrandt did what was needed to make the painting perfect, and then he signed his name to it. 

So it is with our working for justice in the world today. Jesus is the one who has sketched out the composition—it is his work, not ours. As we apply ourselves to the task, painting in the style of Jesus, some of it might turn out nicely, and it just needs to be touched up. Other aspects of the work might be a total mess, and Jesus needs to completely rework it. But in the end, Jesus is going to make it perfect and sign his name to it. That is what gives us the confidence to persevere in our pursuit of justice. And that is why the Apostle Paul ends his famous chapter on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 by saying, “Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” 

The Persistence to Fight
To encourage us to pray and never give up in the face of injustice, Jesus tells a parable in Luke 18 about a widow suffering ongoing injustice who continuously appeals to an unjust judge. Jesus intends for the judge to stand for God, yet this judge is as unlike God as you could possibly imagine. (Jesus often used analogies to contrast human figures to God in order to display how much greater God is.) This judge does not fear God or respect people. In fact, the word that is used in Greek to describe him suggests that he has “no shame.” 

Facing this unjust judge in an ancient male-dominiated society without resources, nor a husband or son to fight her case, the widow uses the only weapon at her disposal—her persistence. And it works. At first, the judge refuses to listen to her, but then he re-evaluates the situation. He acknowledges that he does not fear God or respect people, yet he says that he will give this woman justice simply so that “she doesn't beat [him] down by her continual coming.” In the original Greek he literally says he is going to give her justice because he is afraid that she will “give him a black eye.” 

Here Jesus paints the image of a powerful and fearless judge being cornered and then slugged by a helpless widow. This is his metaphor for prayer! Like the widow, Jesus is calling us to be persistent and to persevere in the fight against injustice, especially through prayer. The fact of the matter is that there are some things that will never change in our lives or in the world around us until we pray. This is not because we are changing God's mind or manipulating him, but rather it is because God's plan all along has involved our praying. God has chosen to move in response to our prayers. This is how he involves us in his restorative work.

Justice in Person
Despite the fact that the judge in Jesus’ parable is unjust, he still makes a promise to the widow by saying, “I will give her justice.” We have so much more reason to trust that our just judge will hear our case and come to our aid, because the God of the Bible does not merely love justice—the God of the Bible is justice in person. He passionately cares about his people, and he is determined to set things right. That is why Jesus says in the parable, “Will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them?” True justice may seem hopelessly delayed and far off, but Jesus assures us by saying, “He will give justice to them speedily.” Though we may not always see wrongs righted in this lifetime, Jesus knows that one day we will

Our Only Hope
Jesus concludes the parable of the persistent widow by turning the question to us, “‘Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’” If we long for justice and for God to bring his justice to bear on our fallen world, then we cannot escape it ourselves. We, too, will fall under the same judgment, and that thought should cause us to tremble. The Oxford professor C.S. Lewis once wrote,

"Almost certainly there are unsatisfied claims, human claims, against each one of us. For who can really believe that in all his dealings with employers and employees, with husbands or wife, with parents or children, in quarrels and in collaborations, he has always attained (let alone charity or generosity) mere honesty and fairness? Of course we forget most of the injuries we have done. But the injured parties do not forget even if they forgive. And God does not forget.”

Rather than relying on our own goodness for justification, our only hope is to rely on the mercy of God and the finished work of Jesus on our behalf. Jesus, the just judge, was judged in our place so that when God comes to set everything right that once went wrong, he can find us waiting for him in faith.


From Jesus + Justice: Give Me Justice, adapted by Mary-Catherine McKee