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Jesus & Justice: Give Me Justice
Luke 18:1 - 18:8
February 6, 2022
Reverend Jason Harris
Jesus understood that if someone wrongs you, mistreats you, or takes advantage of you, you cannot bear to let the injustice stand. You want to see the wrong made right, and if there is no human court that will hear your case, then your only option is to appeal to the highest. In this sermon, we take a closer look at the parable of the persistent widow who continuously appeals to an unjust judge to explore how Jesus encourages us to pray and never give up in the face of the world's injustice.
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In 1958, the Oxford professor, C.S. Lewis, wrote a little book containing his reflections on the Psalms. He was quite surprised when he first realized how positively the Psalmists speak of God's judgment—as in Psalm 96. The Psalmist says, “Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice…before the Lord, for he comes, for he comes to judge the earth.” That struck Lewis as odd because whenever we recite the Creed, for example, we tremble at the thought that one day he will return to judge the living and the dead. We tend to be uncomfortable with the idea of God's judgment, but the poets of the Old Testament saw God's judgment as cause for celebration. Why is that? Why did the Psalmists and the Prophets view God's judgment so positively? Lewis suggested that it's because they experienced something that many of us often do not. Lewis writes,
“In most places and times it has been very difficult for the ‘small man’ to get his case heard. The Judge (and, doubtless, one or two of his underlings) has to be bribed. If you can’t afford to ‘oil his palm’ your case will never reach court…We need not therefore be surprised if the Psalms, and the Prophets, are full of the longing for judgment, and regard the announcement that ‘judgment’ is coming as good news. Hundreds and thousands of people who have been stripped of all they possess and who have the right entirely on their side will at last be heard. Of course they are not afraid of judgment. They know their case is unanswerable—if only it could be heard. When God comes to judge, at last it will.”
We are engaged in a series focused on the topic of justice, and though justice is inherently complicated, and potentially contentious, and personally challenging, it nevertheless remains a central aspect of the Christian hope. We've been taking a closer look over these last several weeks at what Jesus specifically had to say about justice in the gospels. Jesus understands that if someone wrongs you, if someone mistreats you, if someone takes advantage of you, you can't bear to let the injustice stand. You long for justice. You want to see wrongs made right, and if there is no human court that will hear your case, then you can only appeal to the highest. That's precisely what Jesus tells us in the passage that is before us. Jesus tells a short little story in order to encourage us not to lose heart, but to continue to pray and not give up, and to pray specifically against all the injustices that we see around us. The central figure in this story is an unnamed widow, and so during our time together, I'd like us to consider the widow’s problem, the widow’s persistence, and the widow's promise. Let me invite you to open up a Bible to Luke 18. I'll be reading Luke 18:1-8,
1And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. 2He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. 3And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ 4For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’” 6And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. 7And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? 8I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
This is God's word. It's trustworthy, and it's true, and it's given to us in love.
The Widow’s Problem
First, let's consider the widow’s problem. The widow's problem in a word is injustice. We never learn the widow's name, which suggests that she could be anybody. Jesus clearly intends for her to represent not only a faithful follower of God, but also a victim of injustice. We don't know exactly what happened, but we can assume that she has been wronged in some way. She keeps going to the judge in her city to demand justice. She says, “Give me justice against my adversary.”
Last week, I mentioned that in the Old Testament, the authors of the Hebrew Scriptures often connect the theme of justice to four groups of people in particular, which are sometimes referred to as the "Quartet of the Vulnerable:" Widows, orphans, sojourners, and the poor. But why these four? Because they were the most vulnerable members of ancient society. Think about it. If you were a widow, living in an ancient male dominated society without a husband, without a father, without a son to look after you, you had essentially no means to provide for yourself. If you have been wronged in some way, then you've got absolutely no one to advocate for you. But the God of the Bible effectively says, If there's no one there to stand up for you and to fight for you, then I will, and I expect my people to as well. That's why God says through the prophet Isaiah, in Isaiah 1:17,
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow's cause.”
Or in Psalm 82, the Psalmist says,
“Give justice to the weak and the fatherless;
maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.”
I want you to pay attention to something. Did you hear that phrase, “maintain the right?” “Maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.” That's important for this reason because in the Bible, justice is grounded in the concept of rights. “Maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.” On the one hand, that makes sense to us because we know that many social protest movements employ the language of rights. Have you ever stopped to consider, where do these rights come from, and how do we know that we actually have them? Take the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights as an example, which was first proclaimed in 1948. Article One states, “All human beings are born free, and equal in dignity and rights.” All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. Of course, we could all affirm that statement, but stop and think about this. The declaration assumes that there is something about human beings that not only gives us dignity, but equal dignity, and yet the declaration never tries to explain where this dignity comes from, or how we know that we actually have it. That has led to at least two Christian philosophers from Yale, Nicholas Wolterstorff and John Hare, to argue that there is in fact, no secular grounding for human rights. There's no secular basis for human rights. That's not to suggest that you have to be a Christian or a religious person to affirm human rights, or to defend human rights, or to fight for human rights. We know that's not true. Anybody can fight for human rights, but simply what Wolterstorff and Hare are trying to argue is that there's no secular explanation, no grounding, no basis for believing in human rights—that human beings have equal dignity.
What do secular people do? Wolterstorff would argue that those who assume a secular view of the world can try to come up with an explanation for human rights based on different arguments. The most popular is probably an argument based on one's capacity. This would be called a "capacity based argument" for human rights. These folks would say human beings have dignity because of what we are capable of doing, and most often, they would cite reason or self awareness. Human beings have equal dignity because we possess the capacity for reason and self awareness. But there's one little problem with that argument. Not everyone has that capacity. This argument for human dignity covers most people, but not all. It doesn't cover some of the most vulnerable members of our society. It doesn't cover the unborn. It doesn't necessarily cover the infant. It doesn't cover the mentally handicapped. It doesn't cover a person in a permanent coma. It doesn't cover someone suffering from Alzheimers. This understanding of human dignity based on our capacities for reason or self awareness covers many human beings but not all. Some would say, That's okay. We don't need to worry about that because those on the margins are never going to be treated as less than human.
I'm not so sure that's true. Take Peter Singer as an example. He is an ethicist who teaches at Princeton. Peter Singer would argue that all persons should be treated according to moral guidelines. Singer explicitly would say that not all human beings are persons. What qualifies someone as a person is self awareness. If someone does not possess self awareness, then they do not count as a person, and therefore, the same moral laws do not apply. Therefore, he would say that those who suffer from significant cognitive disabilities, or even those who suffer from chronic illnesses, are less valuable than those who are not disabled. In some cases, it might be appropriate to kill them, if it would be better for the non-disabled people around them.
I have a friend who was born with a chronic illness, and no doubt that has made life difficult for both him and his parents, but despite all these challenges, he's grown up to be an incredibly bright young man, remarkably gifted and talented, and an incredible contributor to the world around him. Two years ago, he wrote an email to Peter Singer and asked, “In light of this chronic illness with which I was born, do you believe in your view that my parents should have aborted me?” Peter Singer wrote back and said, “Yes. Yes, I think if your mother had been able to detect your condition before birth, and had no reason to expect it to be difficult to become pregnant again, it would have been better on balance for her to abort the pregnancy and conceive a different child.” In other words, "you could be replaced." But in this email, he does not merely espouse the merits of abortion; no, he goes much farther. "If the discovery had occurred shortly after birth, and it was legal to end the life of a newborn infant in the circumstances, I would support your parents right to do that, but only if they decided that that was best for themselves and any other children they may have already had." This is the best that a secular understanding of human dignity can do. It covers most human beings but not all. Peter Singer is quite explicit. Not all human beings are persons, if they do not possess the capacity for reason or self awareness.
We know instinctively in our bones, there's something wrong with that. That is why this is so important. We need some kind of basis for human dignity and human rights that is not grounded in our capacities. You can't get that from a secular view of the world. There is no secular basis for human rights. According to a secular view of the world, if we are just an accidental collocation of atoms, and only the strong survive, then we should expect the strong to devour the weak. We should expect it, and we shouldn't see anything wrong with it. But we know there is something wrong with it. We know that we must defend the most vulnerable—those on the margins of our society. Only Christianity gives us a reason to do so because only Christianity gives us an understanding of human dignity—equal human dignity that is not based on our capacities. Only Christianity says that every human being without exception, is created in the image of God, loved by God, and called to love God in response, which means that every human being is imbued with infinite value, and therefore, every human being possesses an intrinsic, inherent right, to be treated in accordance with their worth. If you fail to treat someone in accordance with their worth, as a human being created in the image of God, you've wronged them, and that is a gross injustice. Only Christianity provides you with the basis for human dignity and value.
The problem in Jesus' story is that the widow is not being treated with equal dignity. We could assume that when she says, “Give me justice,” that the right was on her side. That's important for us to pay attention to as well. As I said a number of weeks ago, every right is a good but not every good is necessarily a right. Every right to which I am entitled as a human being created in the image of God is a good thing in my life, but not every good thing in my life is necessarily a right to which I am entitled. We need to be clear on that because many people today are demanding things that might be a good thing in their life, but it's not necessarily a right to which they're entitled, which just goes to show that rights-talk is important, but it can be abused. When rights-talk is abused, the proper response is to call out the abuse. Again, Nicholas Wolterstorff puts it like this,
“What's the problem sometimes with rights-talk? I have a friend whose experience is that an appeal to rights typically shuts off further discussion…I have another friend who has spent his career working in international health organizations and is opposed to rights-talk because, in his experience, an appeal to rights was all too often used by those who favored some projects to make those who were opposed feel guilty for being opposed.
My response…is that, common though these ways of using rights-talk may be, they are an abuse of rights-talk. It’s an abuse of rights-talk to use it to close down discussion, it’s an abuse of rights-talk to use it to make one’s opponents feel guilty. Faced with such abuse, what we should do is oppose the abuse, not reject all rights-talk because it is sometimes abused.”
Then he offers this illustration to bring the point home, and the illustration is intended to be a little humorous. Imagine a town hall meeting where a group of people have gathered together to debate whether or not the city should install heated sidewalks in order to melt the snow and the ice in the wintertime. We could have used some heated sidewalks last weekend. That would have saved a lot of people trouble from all the snow shoveling they had to do to keep the sidewalks clear. The debate going on in the town hall meeting is whether the city should install heated sidewalks. But then one person interjects by saying: "Everyone has a right to safe, ice free sidewalks." Of course, then the discussion has been shut down because what person of good character wants to deny a right to which someone is entitled? It's very hard to argue against rights. So Wolterstorff continues,
“What does one do when confronted with someone who is abusing rights-talk? One calls them out for the abuse. One reminds the person who declares that we all have a right to heated sidewalks that the discussion is whether the city can afford to install heated sidewalks; if the city cannot afford it, then nobody has a right to it."
He goes on to use another example. One calls to the attention of the person who declares that everyone has a right to the elimination of a certain disease, that if we don't know how to eliminate the disease, then nobody has a right to its elimination.
“The general principle is this: if it is impossible for me to treat you a certain way, or if I cannot afford to, or if I don’t know how, then you don’t have a right to be treated that way.”
I realized I just covered a lot of ground, so if you'd like the cliffnotes version of everything I just said, let me sum it up. In the Bible, justice is grounded in the concept of rights. Every human being without exception is created in the image of God and loved by God, and therefore, every human being possesses infinite value, and an inherent right to be treated in accordance with their worth. Number two, you can only get this from Christianity because there is no secular basis for human rights that covers all human beings without exception. Thirdly, though rights-talk can be abused, the proper response is to call out the abuse rather than give up the language of rights altogether.
The Widow’s Persistence
If that is the widow's problem, she's suffering injustice, and the right is on her side, then that's the reason why we turn now to the persistence of the widow. She keeps going to the judge in the city to demand justice, and the curious thing here is that Jesus obviously intends for the judge to stand for God, yet this judge is as unlike God as you could possibly imagine. That's deliberate on Jesus' part. He often used analogies that function this way. He would argue from the lesser to the greater. The intention was to contrast God with the human figures that we might encounter in life to show how much greater God actually is. This judge didn't fear God or respect people. The word that's literally used there in the Greek suggests that he had "no shame." He didn't fear God. He didn't respect people. He didn't have any shame. He didn't care if he did right for other people or not, and he felt no compunction about it, no shame.
The widow may not have had a family member to fight for her. She may not have had money to oil the palm of the judge, so she uses the only weapon that she has at her disposal, which is 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 doesn't fear God or respect people. He is godless and heartless, yet he says that he will give this woman justice simply because she keeps bothering him. In v.5, he literally says, the only reason why he is going to give her justice is so that, “she doesn't beat [him] down by her continual coming.” Again, in the original Greek, what he literally says is he's going to give her justice so that she doesn't "give him a black eye."
Here, Jesus is being rather funny. He's drawing an image from the boxing ring. Imagine this: Here's this macho, fearless judge being cornered and then slugged by this helpless widow. That is Jesus's metaphor for prayer. I wonder if that's how you think about prayer? When you engage in prayer, do you feel like you're stepping into the boxing ring? Do you have what it takes? Do you have the endurance? Do you have the persistence to go 12 rounds because that's what Jesus is calling us to do. Specifically, he calls us to pray without giving up for justice. The fact of the matter is that there are some things that will never change in your life or in the world around you until you pray. Some things will never change in your life or in the world around you until you pray. It's not because you're changing God's mind or manipulating him, getting him to do something he doesn't want to do. No, it's because God's plan all the way along, has involved your praying. There are some things that will never change in your life or in the world around you because God has chosen to move in response to your prayers. That's how he involves you in his work. That's how he involves you in his work for justice. Some things will never change in your life or in the world around you until you pray because God has chosen to move in response to your prayers. If that won't encourage you to pray, I don't know what will. He's encouraging us to pray specifically for justice, that God's justice will be brought to bear on the world in which we live.
The Widow’s Promise
What assurances do we have that God will move in response to our prayers? Let's turn from the widow's persistence to her promise. Despite the fact that the judge was a rotten guy (Jesus called him an unrighteous judge) despite the fact that he was a rotten, good for nothing judge, he still makes this promise. “I will give her justice.” I will give her justice even if only to spare myself the headache, but we have so much more reason for confidence. We have so much more reason to trust that our good righteous 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's why Jesus says, “Will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them?” Though to us it might seem like a long time coming, Jesus assures us in v.8, no, “He will give justice to them speedily.” We can bank on it.
Jesus takes for granted that his people will be the victims of unjust actions in an unjust world. Though the wrong may seem oft so strong, and though we may not always see wrongs righted in this lifetime, Jesus knows that one day we will. That is why we can join the poets of the Old Testament who longed for justice, and who prayed for judgment. “For he comes. He comes to judge the earth.” That is also the hope that inspires our pursuit of justice in our world today.
Let me close with one final story about Nicholas Wolterstorff. A number of years ago, we actually invited him to come and speak here at Central on the theme of justice. Afterwards, he took some questions, and there was a young woman from the congregation who came forward, and this is a person who's deeply committed to the work of justice herself. Like so many people, she found that the closer she got to the work, the more discouraged she felt because she was simply overwhelmed by the magnitude of the pain and the suffering that we human beings can inflict upon one another in our sin. When she came forward to ask her question, effectively, she said: Why do we bother? Why bother praying? Why bother acting for justice when it seems so pitifully small in the face of the world's evil. Nicholas’ response is beautiful. He used this analogy: He said, an old master painter, like Rembrandt, would hire a whole studio of artists to complete some of his large works. He would sketch out the composition, and then all these other artists would begin to paint in the style of Rembrandt. Along the way, some of those paintings might have turned out quite well, and maybe Rembrandt just needed to touch them up a little bit. Others might have been a complete mess, total disaster, in which case, they'd have to be completely reworked by the master. Either way, Rembrandt would touch them up, fix them up, rework them, make them perfect, and then sign his name to it.
So it is with our praying, and our working for justice in the world today. We're called to be part of his studio. Jesus is the one who has sketched out the composition, it's his work, not ours. As we apply ourselves to the task, painting in the style of Jesus, some of it might turn out pretty good, and it just needs to be touched up. Other aspects of the work might be a complete and total mess, and Jesus needs to completely rework it. But in the end, Jesus is going to make it perfect. He's going to make it perfect, and he's going to sign his name to it. That's what gives us the confidence to keep going. That's why the Apostle Paul ends his famous chapter on the resurrection, 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.” Be steadfast, be immovable, abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord, your labor, your labor for justice, is never in vain.
That's why Jesus concludes this parable by saying, “‘Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’” If we long for justice, if we want God to bring his justice to bear on our fallen world, then we can’t escape it ourselves. We know that we too, will fall under that same judgment, and that should cause us to tremble at the thought. C.S. Lewis says,
“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.”
We should be alarmed by the infinite purity of the standard against which our actions will be judged. That is why we're all in the same boat. Our only hope is to pin all of our hopes on the mercy of God, and the finished work of Jesus on our behalf, rather than our own goodness. That's what we celebrate at this table. The message of the gospel is that Jesus, the just judge, was judged in our place in order to spare us from the judgment when he comes to make everything right. But Jesus' work on the cross will be of no benefit to you as long as it remains outside of you. You have to make it your own, and the way in which you do that is by putting all your trust, all your faith in Jesus, rather than yourself for your standing before God. That's why Jesus asks that question, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” When he finally comes to set everything right that once went wrong, will there be people waiting for him? Will you be waiting for him in faith?
Let me pray for us.
Father God, we thank you for Jesus' encouragement to us: not to lose heart, but to pray and to never give up. We pray that you would enable us to do so, to pray for justice knowing that you are the just judge who comes to judge the earth in righteousness and faithfulness. We long for that day of judgment. Help us to see that it is a cause for celebration in and through Jesus. We ask this in his name. Amen.