Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Justice for All the Forgotten Ones

Luke interprets Jesus’ parable of the widow and the unjust judge (Luke 18:2-8) as a call to persistent prayer (18:1). But it’s not just any kind of prayer is it? Surely the prayer Luke has in mind is prayer for justice. “Grant me justice,” cries the widow.

The reason it is a widow being treated unjustly is because in that culture widows were extremely vulnerable. They could not inherit their husband’s property, there were no social welfare programs in place, and for the most part there were no opportunities for independent employment. This is why some widows turned to prostitution—to survive. This is a story about justice.

By justice, I do not mean, “getting what one deserves.” Unfortunately, that’s how some Christians understand it. If justice means getting what one deserves, then none of us should pray for justice; we should pray for grace. But that is not what is meant when the prophets and when Jesus talk about justice.

The biblical term “justice” is equivalent to and often used interchangeably with the biblical word “righteousness.” To pursue justice or righteousness is to pursue that which makes for right relations and good will between human beings and communities, between God and human beings, and between human beings and all creation. It basically means being in right relationship – with God, each other, and everything else. Justice is about that which makes everything right, whole, just, and good. The heart of restorative justice is love of God and neighbor.

This most certainly includes compassion, forgiveness, and grace—and all other relational attributes and powers that restore and heal relationships. It includes creation care. It includes the minority as well as the majority. It involves defending and uplifting the poor and downtrodden. It involves equality, inclusion, and the well-being of all people. It involves basic human rights and freedoms.

This is why Christians must care about such things as immigration reform, climate change, fairness laws, equality in the work place, unjust social and economic systems that produce poverty and a huge disparity between rich and poor, etc. These are all issues that pertain to justice and righteousness. 

The logic in the story moves from the lesser to the greater. The logic is that if an unjust judge, who “neither feared God nor had respect for people” was compelled to act justly on behalf of the widow who pestered him day and night, how much more will God, who is compassionate and good, act justly on behalf of the oppressed.

In one sense the story is future oriented. The story teller asks: “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? (The “chosen ones” are equivalent to the “little ones” who Jesus warns about causing to stumble in 17:2, represented here by the widow.) 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?”

I suspect that, in its original setting, this story reflects the belief of the early Jesus followers in the imminent consummation and clean up of the world that would come with the realization of God’s kingdom on earth. The first wave of disciples was expecting this in their lifetime.

They did not believe they would be evacuated from the earth while the rest of the world destroyed itself in a global holocaust, as some Christians today believe. They did believe, however, that God would be wrapping things up fairly quickly, that the resurrected Christ would return in some interventionist way to make the world right. Obviously that didn’t happen, so the church has had to readjust its expectations.

Many Christians are still waiting and expecting some kind of visible or personal return by Christ to clean things up and bring the kingdom of God to fulfillment. Personally, I’m not one of those Christians. The living Christ is here (among us, in us, pervading our world) and our task is to be collaborators and partners with Christ in helping to create a just world. I think Christians today need to apply a spiritualizing, de-apocalyptic hermeneutic to such future oriented texts.

And what we may think of as a “delay” may not be a delay at all. God’s experience of “quickly” is most certainly very different from our experience of “quickly.” If 98% of the scientists in our world are right, it took approximately 13.8 billion years (give or take a few million) for life to evolve to its present state. Surely, God experiences time differently than we do.

The main point or truth in this story is not “when” or even “how” God will clean things up and make things right. The central point is that because God is the kind of God he/she is, there will be vindication for God’s chosen ones (little ones) who are beaten down by the powers that be.

These “chosen ones” are largely forgotten ones. For every murder or imprisonment or injustice that we hear about, there are thousands of others who suffer and die alone in silence.

The question is: Will they be vindicated? These who cry day and night for justice; these who suffer and die and are forgotten, will they be vindicated? Jesus says: If an unjust judge can be compelled to execute justice, then how much more will the loving, compassionate, just God of creation vindicate those who have suffered unjustly.

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