Elusive Justice

Luke 18:1–8, preached by Rev. Jane McBride on October 16, 2022

Two summers ago, we were getting ready to sell our house. We had already moved to the new place and were putting the finishing touches on the old place before it went on the market. Just then, some folks who were living in a broken-down old RV parked right in front of the old house. After a few days we began to worry. Garbage was piling up around the vehicle. The RV wasn’t hooked up to any water or sanitation services. They had chained multiple bikes to the tree in the boulevard. Inside the vehicle, we could hear a baby crying and people screaming at each other. A steady parade of cars came by at all hours. When days stretched into a week, we got more and more uncomfortable. Our north Minneapolis block had its safety issues even without this situation. What if potential buyers got cold feet? Or lowered their offers?

I was so torn as this situation unfolded. On the one hand, I felt compassion for the folks living in the RV. They clearly had so little, not even a safe place to call home. I wanted to help or at least not make their lives harder. On the other hand, I found their presence unnerving. I just wanted them, and their mess and chaos, to go away. My conscience bothered me when we called the city, and then the police. And yet I felt so relieved when one day while I was mowing the grass, their engine started with a “bang!” and they drove off for good. The whole situation left me wrestling with myself. If we care about establishing economic justice in our society then we can’t all simply join the chorus of “not in my back yard”—or front yard, as the case may be. We might have to sacrifice some of our personal comfort and financial gain to care for our neighbors. And yet I remained uncertain what would justice really be and how I could bring it about in specific this situation. 

Turning to today’s text, there are two parts: the parable itself, and the framing that Luke puts around the story. Luke’s Jesus makes this parable into an allegory about prayer. We are like the widow and God is like the judge. Unlike the judge, God is interested in justice. And yet, like the judge, God needs to be pestered. We are supposed to bug God until we get what we need. I agree with you, Brad. I like the encouragement not to lose heart. I think persistence is a very important trait. And yet, I am bothered by the idea that we need to persuade God. I don’t believe that prayer is really about getting things from God anyway. Actually, the whole idea that the parable is about prayer just doesn’t compute for me. I think the parable and its framing are somewhat mis-matched.

Listen to the parable on its own for a moment without the introduction and conclusion added by Luke. 

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, “Avenge me 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 avenge her, so that she may not give me a black eye by continually coming.”

It doesn’t sound to me like God is a character in this parable at all. The story, by itself, seems to be about our human practices of justice.

So let’s unpack that a bit. We have a judge with no particular interest in justice, no apparent moral compass. And I think it’s fair to assume he is part of a whole system that holds power without being accountable to the health and well-being of the community. And the widow, she’s an interesting figure. As professor Amy Jill Levine points out, “we root for this woman, because we are conditioned from certain biblical and cultural stereotypes to see widows as not only helpless and needy, but also exploited and abused.” (p. 242) Levine argues that actually many widows in biblical times were quite secure, given that the Jewish law calls for society to care for them. So it’s really hard to know what this widow’s situation was. She can’t be too destitute since she has leisure time to spend visiting the judge repeatedly. And we know nothing about her claim against her opponent, either. The Greek word for what she is seeking is not usually translated “justice.” It’s a legal term that means she wants to be vindicated. We have no way of knowing if her claim is fair, whether she’s interested in justice in its fullest sense or if she just wants to get revenge or punish her opponent. The way the parable ends, though, suggests she’s willing to threaten violence to get her way. Literally, the judge is worried she will take a swing at him. He fulfills her demand in order to avoid getting a black eye.

It seems to me that there’s no hero in this parable. No champion of justice. No clarity about what justice even is. It is confusing. Again I agree with you, Brad. You and I certainly spent a lot of time this week, in the midst of everything else we had going on, puzzling over this story. And I wonder if that was kind of Jesus’ intention. To make us struggle a little bit. Why did Jesus tell this story? I kept asking myself. And I finally decided, maybe he’s being a little bit funny. I mean the image of a powerful judge cowering before the balled-up fists of a fierce widow is amusing. And maybe the point of painting this somewhat absurd scene is to get us to think about how elusive justice often is in human society. The practices we call “justice” too often simply reinforce the same old problematic patterns – apathy, bullying, violence, inequity. Jesus’ parable, it seems to me, is prodding us to ponder, “If this is not justice, then what is justice?”

We have many cherished and beloved Bible verses about justice: “Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.” (Micah 6:8) “Let justice roll down like waters.” (Amos 5:24) Biblical justice is right relationship. It is caring for the vulnerable. It demands a Robin Hood-like reversal: taking the rich down a notch while lifting up the poor. Jesus’ parable challenges us to find ways to practice these ideals. The parable says to us, it’s never easy, clear cut, black and white. Striving for justice is complex and risky. There’s no safe distance or moral high ground. The dilemmas of justice are always unfolding right before our eyes, right in our front yards.

I’ve been reflecting on what justice might look like and feel like for our unhoused neighbors here in the city of Minneapolis. Donating the use of our church kitchen and contributing our volunteer hours to provide warm meals for those in encampments is a very good thing. And it’s not justice. Many people in the social service system working very hard to support these folks and help them transition into housing. And yet the system lacks the capacity to truly do justice. And people who live near the encampments have very valid concerns about health, safety, and livability. And, still, the way the city of Minneapolis routinely destroys the homes and scatters the belongings of those living in tents, as if this can make them disappear, does not serve justice. Our unhoused neighbors, at great risk to themselves, made themselves visible at City Hall earlier this week. No evictions on stolen land, they insisted. They keep on reminding us that we, as a society, are not living up to the ideals we love and cherish. 

I find some strange grace in Jesus’ parable. Justice will always be complicated and difficult – elusive. In our attempts to do justice we will probably not get it “right” very much of the time. We should not expect to be the hero (or the villain) of the story. In our “Sharing Faith” group last Monday, someone reminded us of this quote from the Talmud: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” Our job, as disciples of Jesus, is simply to persist in the struggle. Amen.