18Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” 6And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Our scripture for this morning might remind you of a passage from Luke chapter 11 that I preached from a few months ago, the parable of the persistent knocker. If you recall that sermon you will notice that some of the principles will apply to today’s text as well. But today’s text is not simply Jesus taking the same principle and coupling it with a new illustration or a new parable. I believe that there is more here that we are supposed to pick up, learn, and apply to our lives. So let’s walk through the text and see what Jesus is trying to communicate to us today.
Verse one of our text says that Jesus told this parable to his disciples so that they would know about their need to pray always and to not lose heart. This sets today’s parable off from some of the others that we have looked at because here Luke is telling us Jesus’ purpose for sharing this parable. Pray always and don’t lose heart. That’s the point. Amen, we can all go home now. No, we have to ask the question “What are they to pray always for or about?”
Jesus says that in a certain unnamed city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. Sounds like he was motivated entirely by what made life easier on himself or better for himself. But there was a widow in that city that kept coming to the judge asking him to grant her justice against her opponent. Now Jesus doesn’t spell out for us what injustice has taken place, but we can assume that this woman has been wronged and she is looking for the judge to help her make it right again. Unfortunately this judge really doesn’t care if she gets justice or not. He doesn’t care about her, he doesn’t care about the situation, and he doesn’t care what God would have him do in the situation. He just doesn’t care.
But here is the pivot point of the parable. The judge grants her the justice that she is seeking. Not because he all at once began to care, but because he just wants the woman to stop bothering him. Her persistence has paid off. Then Jesus adds to this parable by saying, “7And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them…”
There is a dangerous mistake that we make here if we try to simply assume that Jesus was likening the judge to God. I don’t think that Jesus was likening the judge to God because God doesn’t grant his people justice because it will make us stop whining. God doesn’t grant his people justice because he simply wants them to go away so that he can get some peace and quiet. No, Jesus is contrasting the unjust judge with God. If the unjust judge will grant the widow justice because she wears him down, how much more then will a good and loving God grant his people justice out of his love for his people? Jesus even says that God will not delay long in helping them, and will quickly grant his people justice.
So we can see some common themes with today’s scripture and the persistent knocker from Luke 11. Keep at it and God will answer. If a wicked and selfish person will answer, then surely a loving God will answer. But my question for you to ponder on for a moment is “Answer what?” or more specifically “What is justice?”
I’ll answer that question, but we are going to take the long way there. Let’s look again at verse 8. Verse 8 says, “I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” What??? Doesn’t that seem a little out of place? Who was even talking about the Son of Man coming? If I was writing a parable, I probably wouldn’t end it like this; it doesn’t really bring closure to the parable. It seems to be out of place. Or is it?
In both the NRSV and NIV, the first word in Luke 18:1 is “Then.” This shows continuity from the previous chapter. And we can back up to chapter 17:20 to find the beginning of this conversation. Verses 20-21, “Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; 21nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”
This passage is about the kingdom of God. The Pharisees wanted to know when it was going to come and Jesus said, It is already among you and you don’t even know it. Drawing from some other passages we might infer that Jesus is saying that the kingdom might be small, it might be hard to detect, but it is here. And though it is as small as a mustard seed, it will grow and expand! And this kingdom will be fully realized when Jesus comes back and heaven and earth collide! That is why Jesus closes the parable with a reference to the Son of Man coming. This isn’t a totally unrelated thought, this is the conclusion of the thought he began in Luke 17:20.
So how does knowing that this passage is about the coming and growth of the kingdom of God change our understanding of the parable that Jesus tells in the middle of this passage? The widow goes to the judge and asks him to grant her justice against her opponent. I think the understanding of this passages hinges on our understanding of the word “justice”.
It has become a bit of a controversial issue lately to talk about justice in the church. If you haven’t been a part of the conversation about social justice in the church, well maybe you should consider yourself lucky. But I don’t think that the question should be whether or not we work for justice in the church. The Bible is full of references to justice, 134 references in the NIV. Justice is important to God, so justice should be important to us. So again, the question isn’t whether or not we are called to work for justice. I think the question needs to be “Who defines what justice is?”
When we think of justice, I would guess that most people in the Unites States have an unhealthy understanding of what justice is. If you want an example of this, all you need to do is watch a few movies.
One movie that comes to mind is a movie that is now 10 years old that is simply known as “Gladiator”. Please know that I am not endorsing this movie from the pulpit and it is not a real “Mennonite” movie as it is full of violence. But between you and me, it is a good movieJ.
The plot of Gladiator is simple. Maximus is a commander in the Roman army and a dear friend to the emperor Marcus Aurelius. On his deathbed, Marcus Aurelius names Maximus as his successor as emperor rather than his own son Commodus. However, before word of this gets out, Commodus kills his own father, has Maximus’ family killed and tries to kill Maximus. Maximus is able to escape, but he is weak and sold into slavery and finds himself in Rome as a Gladiator.
A turn of events finds a masked Maximus face to face with Commodus some time after Commodus commits the murders and takes power as emperor of Rome. And after showing some reluctance to reveal his identity to Commodus, Maximus delivers one of the most famous quotes from the movie. To the emperor’s request to know his identity he says:
My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the armies of the north, general of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius, father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.-Gladiator, 2000
That seems to be our society’s understanding of justice. If someone does wrong to you, you return the favor. And it isn’t just in the movies. We see this in real life as well. When a murderer is executed by the state, we often hear people say, “Justice was served today.” And sometimes people even try to show that this is okay by drawing from Old Testament passages: “An eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth.” Is this justice?
The problem with justice is we all have our own idea of what justice is. Webster’s defines justice as “the administering of deserved punishment or reward.” When we talk about justice in the church, we must always ask, “Is this God’s definition of justice or my own?”
In the Bible, the word that we translate as “justice” in both the Old Testament and the New Testament is also translated as another word: righteousness. The same word is often translated as justice or righteousness. When the word is used to describe a system or it is used as a noun, we use the word justice. When the word is used to describe a characteristic, most often a characteristic of God, we translate the word as righteousness. And as Paul tells us in Romans 3, there is no one that is righteous. God alone is righteous. And righteousness has been revealed to us through the incarnation of God through the person of Jesus Christ. So I would argue that when we read the word justice in the Bible, it isn’t a reference to getting vengeance for the death of a loved one like in Gladiator, and it isn’t the administration of deserved punishment or reward as determined by the US legal system. When the Bible talks about justice it is always talking about making things the way that God would have them be. Biblical justice is bringing all things under the lordship of Christ.
When Jesus tells the parable of this woman who comes to the unjust judge and asks him repeatedly to grant her justice, and Luke tells us that Jesus told this parable to show his disciples how they are to pray always and not lose hope, I believe that Jesus is teaching his disciples to pray in a similar way that he did in what we often refer to as “The Lord’s Prayer.” Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. That is my definition of justice. The Pharisees ask Jesus when the kingdom will come, and Jesus says it is here. It just needs cultivation before the Son of Man returns and the kingdom will be realized here as it is in heaven. Then justice will roll down because all of the world will be as God intended it to be. God will look out over what he has created and he will once again say, “It is good.”
This is Good News. This is news of God’s eventual complete victory over all of the evils in the world. Throughout his life on earth Jesus gave us glimpses of this mustard seed kingdom where justice prevails, where everything is as God intended it to be. Where there were sick, Jesus provided healing. Where there was hunger, Jesus provided food. Where there was loneliness, Jesus provided companionship. Where there was war, Jesus brought peace. Where there was hate, Jesus brought love. Then on that first Easter Sunday, while it was still dark, Jesus provided the ultimate foretaste of the kingdom as he showed the world that sin, evil, yes even death itself could be overcome through God. Yes, there might be a lot wrong with the world today, but through Jesus, we find that God’s justice will prevail. And it all begins when we pray, “Thy kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
But it doesn’t stop there. We don’t simply pray for God’s justice to prevail, we work for it, we partner with God in growing that mustard seed kingdom. I can’t preach about justice without quoting Micah 6:8, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” God has told us what is good. So what does the Lord require? That we do good, that we do justice, that we do the things that help reveal the kingdom of God here on earth. One person plants the seed, another person waters it, and God will grow the seed.
Wherever the hungry are fed, justice is done. Wherever the gospel is preached, justice is done. Wherever the widow and the orphan are cared for, justice is done. Where the AIDS patient is cared for, justice is done. Not just any justice, but God’s justice; God’s will is done on earth at it is in heaven.
Biblical justice isn’t about getting back at someone; biblical justice is about getting back to the way God intended things to be. As the people of God, we are called to be God’s instruments of justice here on earth, praying persistently for God’s will to be done and for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.