Luke 18: 1-8 – The Parable of the Persistent WidowThen Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge 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. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Going to court is an enlightening experience. I found myself summoned to one after a speeding fine had gone astray in the post. Luckily I was able to make my case to the Garda in question and the whole thing was thrown out, but not before I spent a long day watching my accused comrades go forward to have their cases tried.
When you watch a 19 year old “man” accrue his 100th conviction as his lawyer begs mercy (citing the fact that he is newly married and has had to observe the first year of his son’s life from behind bars serving time for a previous offence) well, Lady Justice seems to be turning her blind eyes well away. With that record you have to assume there are forces of evil, or at least indifference, at work in this boy’s life that are beyond his control. The Judge pleaded with him to turn his life around for the sake of his son, but the demands of the law forced him to extend the boy’s stay in prison.
Justice is difficult. When a wrong has been done to a person there’s an indelible effect. The culprit can “pay the price” or “do the time”, but the victim will never be the same again. Even if all visible traces are eradicated, the injured party’s consciousness is forever marked by the event. They may be weaker or stronger, but they are forever changed. Seeing so-called “justice” served might go some way towards reparation but it cannot make the injustice become undone. I’d wager that it rarely causes the perpetrator to repent either. Can the scales ever be balanced again?
The parable centres on the image of an unjust judge and a persistent widow seeking justice. The lesson seems to be that if we pray long and hard enough God, who is infinitely more moral than the unjust judge, will do right by us. Yet the Book of Job taught me that it is folly to try reason why God allows suffering or to imagine that there is a mysterious combination of pleasing religious actions that, when performed, will force God to alleviate our suffering. He’s not “The Boss” at the end of Level 1 from a 90s computer game. I think it’s helpful to remember that there is more to justice than fairness. The ancients had a much sharper sense of righteousness, or rightness within a sacred way of life. The modern understanding of justice is more focused on equality. Naturally these ways of viewing justice would produce similar conclusions in many cases, but not always. More importantly, when they complement and challenge one another, they can help us gain a truer glimpse of heaven.
Jesus says here that God will quickly give justice when people cry out but our collective lived experience would suggest that He does not always make things fair. Some become chronically sick or injured and never recover while others are miraculously healed. Others find themselves trapped in situations of persecution or torment that may or may not be brought to an end by prayer. I would argue that is it unwise to expect fairness from God in a world so warped by sin. My 19 year old friend probably requires significant investment in his personal development, but instead our broken justice system has ensured he will spend another two years in prison. No relationships restored, repentance unlikely, the stolen goods were not recovered (his accomplices were not caught), a strong chance of developing a criminal network in prison, a little boy will be three by the time his Daddy gets out of jail… Justice is limited by factors beyond his and the Judge’s control.
Is God self-limited in his ability to grant fairness in our free and broken world? And, if fairness is impossible, what of righteousness? I believe that having a right relationship with God transforms the meaning and experience of being wronged. It does not take the pain away, but it is the only thing on the smorgasbord of philosophical options that transcends the cold fact that a wrong cannot be undone. Right relationship with the Creator reassures you that this is not how things are meant to be because it gives you hopeful insight into how things should be and will be again. Right relationship with the Suffering Saviour means total solidarity and constant companionship in the swirling mess of persecution. Right relationship with the Transforming Spirit means that life is growing out of your experience even as the fabric of your body and mind decays. There is some justice in that.
Emma Rothwell currently divides her time between the Church of Ireland Dioceses of Meath & Kildare where she is the Diocesan Youth and Children’s Officer and Wilson’s Hospital School where she is the School Chaplain.