(Jeremiah 31:27-34, Luke 18:1-8)
Justice is one of the great themes of the Old Testament and remains a key theme in human experience. We all hate, on a personal level, to be dealt with in a way that seems unfair; we are alert to the minor injustices that we suffer: ‘That person got served first at the bar, but I’ve been waiting longer’, for instance. But, justice is concerned with more than minor instances of unfairness.
On a communal level we rely and depend upon a criminal justice system that we hope and expect to deliver justice – but we know that it too is a fallible, human system. The long and arduous fight of the people of
to secure justice for the Hillsborough victims makes us deeply aware of the
forces that seek to prevent, or delay justice being done. The Judge in our New
Testament reading denied and delayed justice to the widow simply out of
laziness. Only when it became more effort to deny justice than to give it, did he change his behaviour. Just as
we are all deeply sensitive to being treated unfairly, so too do we generally
seek to avoid being blamed for things that have gone wrong; when we have done
something wrong, especially something that has terrible, if unintended
consequences, the first human reaction is to seek to cover it up, to lie. It
takes a courageous person to own up and to suffer the consequences. In the case
of sexual abuse and rape claims, especially where drugs, alcohol or the
powerful are involved, the ability to secure justice becomes even harder. We
only have to glance at the paper to see such stories and experiences, and not
least we have the on-going, painful and distressing saga of the public inquiry
into institutional child sexual abuse.
Justice is a fundamental human need - but it is found to be difficult to secure. Justice is something that ultimately resides with God, who we hope can somehow sort out the complex dramas of guilt, culpability, blame and suffering that we desperately need him to. Indeed the purpose of Jesus’ parable in Luke is to encourage us that God will grant justice.
In Jesus however, God answers our questions on justice in a surprising way. We know the story, but we need to keep re-learning its message: The innocent victim, Jesus, is crucified for his goodness. Instead of coming and dividing the sheep from the goats, Jesus actually takes on the sin of the world. He bares it on his body and he does so without blame or anger. As he suffers, he forgives. And so we realise that the way that God deals with injustice is to take it all upon himself – he declares himself to be the victim of all the wrong decisions, the wrong pronouncements, the murders, the rapes, the stealing, the unlawful imprisonment and the rest. He says, ‘here I am: I will bear them for you’. And in so doing, it is revealed to us that it is only in loving forgiveness that injustice can be redeemed. God’s justice is always surprising, upsetting our human notions of tit for tat, eye for an eye.
Think of the parable of the workers in the vineyard, in which those who have only worked for a few hours get as much as those who have worked all day. For those who have worked all day, the generosity of the employer seems unfair, but Jesus is introducing us to theological justice. In theological justice God’s generosity appears unfair to those who jealously guard their purity and goodness. But the point is, in God’s worldview, all of us fall short of his love and thus all of us require his grace and generosity in being redeemed. When we recognise our own standing in front of God as a miserable sinner, it is then that we start to appreciate how God’s justice works.
We continue necessarily with our earthly human systems that do indeed reflect eternal justice: we try suspected criminals, we fight for justice that has been denied, we advocate for the vulnerable and ignored (like the widow in our story), and we seek to expose institutional failings, but as Christians we do so with the underlying knowledge that ultimately justice is to be found in Jesus Christ. It is his example to us of what loving forgiveness looks like that sets us free; and it is only in him that peace will be found.