Sermon from July 25: Vignettes: Justice

Vignettes: Justice
Pentecost IX; July 25, 2021
Luke 18:1-17

“When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

That seems a strange question, especially in context. What does that have to do with the parable of the unjust judge? Stepping back, though, and looking at it from a distance, I’m convinced that it is very much to the point. In a time when, on the one hand, faith is being replaced by cynicism and, on the other hand, it is being replaced by certainty, you and I may well ask the question: Whenever Jesus wanders among us, does he find faith on earth?

Let’s work our way there, though, by getting inside the parables. Jesus told two parables here, and each of them has two characters. Just to do something different, let’s get inside the stories and imagine ourselves as the characters. I’m going to ask you to share your thoughts, so get your imaginations engaged.

The first story Jesus tells involves a widow and a judge. The widow has a lawsuit pending; Jesus doesn’t suggest what sort of thing it might be, but she hasn’t been able to get the judge to hear her case and give her justice. Here’s a question for you: What might the issue be?

Maybe he threw her out of her house. He’s a tax collector and over-taxed her. He’s the reason she’s a widow, responsible for her husband’s death. He rear-ended her car in traffic.

Well, she went to the judge’s court repeatedly. She got in his face. She wasn’t taking indifference for an answer. “Grant me justice against my opponent!” Think of the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires. From April 30, 1977, women have marched in front of the Casa Rosa – the President’s house – every Thursday afternoon at 3:30, demanding answers about the fate of the approximately 30,000 persons who have been “disappeared.”  Of course, during the pandemic they have taken their march virtual, but think of it: women have protested every Thursday for the last forty-four years.[1] “Grant me justice against my opponent!”

Or, closer to home, Raleigh, North Carolina, where on April 29, 2013 the Rev. William Barber of the NAACP led the first Moral Monday protest. Mondays when the North Carolina legislature is in session, those advocating for civil rights go to the State Capitol and ensure that some of them are peacefully arrested by entering the building.[2] The idea of Moral Mondays has spread to other states, including Nebraska and Iowa. “Grant me justice against my opponent!”

Now, imagine we’re the judge in this story. “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone,” he says of himself. Is anyone truly that self-aware, that honest? “I don’t give a darn about justice; I don’t believe that I need to answer to God.” Can you imagine why he doesn’t do his job?

He doesn’t care. He doesn’t want to give her the satisfaction of giving in. He’s a male chauvinist. It’s too much work. It’s too trivial for his notice. He’s holding out for a bribe.

Finally, though, he’s had enough of the widow’s harangue, and gives her what she asks. And the funny thing is that in this parable Jesus compares the unjust judge to God; if this creep will finally give in and give the widow justice, will not God give justice to those who cry out for it?

And that’s when Jesus wonders if he will find faith on earth. I take it to mean that he wonders if you and I will have enough faith that God wants to give justice to the oppressed that we will keep demanding it, even making a nuisance of ourselves like the widow and like the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo and like the protestors in Raleigh. It takes faith not to give up. It takes faith to pray for justice, to march for justice, to advocate for justice. When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?

The next parable is related, in that it is also about justice, but a different sort of justice. In this case, the question isn’t about justice against an opponent, but justice before God. How can you and I be found to be just in the sight of God? If you or I stand before the judgment seat of God, how will we know we won’t be convicted and sent away?

There are two men in this story, both at the Temple, praying. One is a good and righteous man, who has always tried hard to do the right thing, who keeps all the rules, both civil and religious. And he knows it. He prays, “God, I thank you that you have made me better than everyone else.” Maybe I’m giving him too much credit; the way Jesus tells the story, the man says, “God, I thank you that I am better than everyone else;” he doesn’t give God credit for it.

Please don’t reveal names or talk about people here, but does the attitude sound familiar? Let’s get inside this guy’s head for a moment. Do you ever cop that sort of attitude? That is, in what ways are we inclined to think of ourselves as being on the right side of the justice of God?

“I’ve worked hard for all that I have.” “When’s the last time YOU were in church?” On the freeway: all those other, terrible drivers.

Well, the other guy is a tax collector, a collaborator with the Roman occupation government and probably someone who cheats his neighbors. And this is his prayer: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” We don’t need to explore that, but here’s the issue that comes to my mind. Jesus says that the good guy, the Pharisee, goes home unjustified, but the tax collector is justified before God. You and I get that; he humbled himself before God and trusted in God’s mercy. Better to say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” than to say, “God, thank you that I’m so great.” We get that.

But did he know he was justified before God? And if so, how did he know? What do you think: how do we know that we’re justified before God?

Remember your baptism; that’s how we know we’re forgiven. It’s in the Bible! “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so…”

Then these stories are followed up by Jesus taking the children and blessing them, and saying that you and I need to be like them in order to inherit the Kingdom of God. What does that mean? Well, children are annoying; they keep asking for what they want. Jesus wants us to be persistent in asking for justice. And they are dependent on the grace of adults for food, shelter, and clothing, just as we are dependent on the grace of God for our life.

“When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Dare we have faith enough not to give up on justice for all God’s people? Dare we have faith enough to trust in our own justification before God? The two are not really different; when we’re confident in our own justification then we can stick our necks out for justice. When we pray for justice, we can pray for our own justification. “Grant me justice against my opponent!” and “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” are related prayers. As long as we keep saying them, the Son of Man will find faith on earth.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska