Reading Luke 18 V 1- 8
Introduction – What is justice?
Occasionally, when I look at the Lectionary in advance of a service, I’m taken by surprise, and today is one of those days. What I mean is that, despite a life-time of church-going, of hearing Bible readings and sermons, I’m still taken by surprise by something which seems new to me. Not that I’ve never heard it before (I probably have) but that I can’t at all remember having done so, and certainly have no memory of a sermon or reflection on the text in question.
‘Why so surprised?’ I hear you ask ‘after all, the Bible is huge, and there are great big chunks that we never ever look at, let alone remember the detail!’. Well, in the case of today’s reading, we have a parable from Luke’s Gospel – one of those books of the Bible that we really do know very well indeed, and more than this, one of the teaching styles of Jesus which has long been a favourite of all preachers, because story-telling is so comfortable to us, even if the story’s message can be difficult.
Good Samaritan? Tick. Prodigal Son? Tick. Lost coins, or lost sheep, Sowers, seeds, weeds and trees? All tick, tick, tick.
And then I came across today’s reading, and wondered whether someone had slipped this reading in when I wasn’t looking. Its theme is, in one sense, about the need to be persistent in prayer, and I’ll come back to that right at the end of the service. However, it is also about justice, and I think we need to unpack that a little bit to ask what it means.
What do you think of when you hear the word ‘Justice’. A legal term? For sure! But over 100 references in our Bibles show that as well as being a legal term, it has a wider range of use, especially in relation to the nature of God. Wider range that is if we don’t want to be branded as pharisee – where the ‘law’ itself matters more than what it is hoping to achieve.
For me, justice is made up of three elements – see if this works for you. First, it’s got elements of fairness. If, when a little boy, I would whine about something not being fair, my mother and her mother before her would reply “life’s not fair” –I suspect they had a point, but that doesn’t mean it’s not useful sometimes. Second element is what we might call equality, that is that everyone gets the same, and gets treated the same. I think that this may well be where most of us set out our stall when we think of justice. But there’s a third element, which is equity by which I mean (in this context – there are others) not that everyone gets the same, but that everyone gets what they need.
There’s a famous set of pictures which explains this in which three people are trying to look over a wall. I was going to try to describe this, but better if I try and demonstrate it.
We have some steps here at the front, and the best view is of course from the top step. In fact I want you to imagine that there are some things that can only be seen from a certain height.
The steps belong to the tallest person. And because they belong to the tallest person, we could say that it’s fair that the owner can decide who stands where. Not surprisingly, they might given themselves the best view, and might not be too bothered who else stands where. But we might still say it’s not fair; or my grandmother might still say, ‘life’s not fair’!
Equality might be achieved by allowing everyone to stand on the middle step – everyone gets treated the same. But even here, the tallest person gets the best view, and the shortest might not be quite able to see properly.
Equity is about giving everyone what they need, and in this case, by asking the tallest to stand on the floor level, and giving the shortest to stand on the top step, all may be given a chance to get a decent view.
For me – justice works as a combination of all these things – fairness, equality and equity. They work together sometimes, in different proportions; other times they can work in tension, especially when what seems to be fairness for one inevitably generates feelings of unfairness for another.
So we’re going to hear the parable now, and then after our reading and another hymn, I want to explore this a little more; I’m going to use some more examples and anecdotes from very recent and very public history, but as you listen to the reading, I want you to consider what may be said about fairness, equality and equity in this story. So less from me today about the persistence of prayer (I’ll leave that for another day) and more about the nature of the justice requested and eventually delivered.
Back at the start of September, I came across an article in the Observer newspaper, written by a security expert. Our expert reported that he had been invited to the United States to give some security advice to a group of extremely wealthy businessmen – and I do mean the super-rich, the billionaires rather than millionaires, the oil, energy and technology bosses, I think. The group was asking about security in the event of a catastrophic and global breakdown in the structures of society, whether the consequence of war, an economic crash, climate change or global health pandemic. How would they survive, how would they stay safe? The group have already taken certain steps to protect and survive; they haven’t managed to build a base on the moon or in space, but they have built bunkers and underground facilities in the US deserts.
It was understood that these people have also already contracted former US military personnel to act as their ‘private army’ if that becomes necessary – mercenaries who are paid to protect them and their interests. And one of the biggest questions, our expert explained, was how to organise such an army and how to maintain discipline; how indeed when a security force needs to know what they are protecting and why. Our expert went on to wonder what in the world the billionaires would be hiding for in a world where structures have broken down; privilege only works when it’s visible.
And so it’s at this point that I have to add that our expert expressed too some Marxist tendencies – ironic in his view (maybe ours too) that these worries about global catastrophe stem, at least in part, from the behaviours of the super rich, the oil and energy barons in particular.
Using our model of justice – fairness, equality and equity – we might say that it’s perfectly fair that the rich elite prepare for worst-case scenarios with their money, but there is no equality nor equity in such behaviour. I think most of us would still say that it’s fundamentally unjust. And all of this can make quite depressing reading – though the thing which upsets me most is the realisation that there is one part of society which – if the going gets unbearably tough – would rather isolate themselves and hide than use their undoubted talents, resources and wealth to rebuild society. They remind me very much of the judge in our story, with no care for God or for people, and I find that really quite sad.
So much for rich billionaires and their preoccupation with self-preservation; there are probably more sermons which can use it as an illustration down the line. But what about something a little closer to home and the fuss made when two prominent television presenters, Holly Willoughby and Philip Schofield, appeared to jump the queue – 24 hours of it and more – to pay their respects to the late Queen Elizabeth. I should say here that I’ve got no axe to grind personally – I don’t watch daytime television as a rule, and don’t really know much about either presenter. And besides this, had it not been for the likes of fellow TV presenter Susannah Reid and football icon David Beckham standing in line with the public, perhaps few would have noticed. There was, after all, a very clear ‘fast track’ permission for so-called ‘VIPs’ to pay their respects, from politicians and heads of state, to properly authorised journalists. But a fuss has been made!
This episode struck a chord with some because what Willoughby and Schofield appeared to do also seemed unjust – they seemed to claim an element of privilege which others did not agree with, and this smacked of unfairness. Their defence – their only defence it seems – is that it was fair, because it was allowed; it was fair in the same way as it is fair that a billionaire spends his money as he wishes. However, just because something is fair, it doesn’t mean it’s either equality or equity!
There’s something of the British psyche at work when it comes to queuing; there’s something about a queue which by its very nature instils a sense of equality. I’m pretty sure that David Beckham and Susannah Reid could have pulled rank and got to the front of that queue somehow too, but the point is that they didn’t. On this occasion, perhaps because it was this occasion, claiming greater importance than the ordinary members of the public was just something they would not do.
So in this case, fairness might be using the permission given to go to the front of the queue; doesn’t make it right. Equality seems to be everyone being treated or asking to be treated exactly the same. That’s justice for most of us? What of Equity – treating people according to their need?
A few years ago, we went on a short holiday to Italy. Some of you may know that the budget airlines (we went Easyjet, but others are available) may be cheap at the headline price, but you can pay any amount for extras – and you may think it perfectly fair of course. One such ‘extra’ is so-called ‘priority boarding’ – essentially buying the right to jump a queue. Except, on this trip, I reckon about 70% had paid for priority boarding, which therefore was nothing of the sort, whilst those of us who had not calmly watched as people got annoyed that they had coughed up cash which hadn’t bought them the privilege they thought it had.
But equity was also at work – for the real priority in boarding was given to a small number of families with pre-school children and a few older people with mobility difficulties. I believe that there was similar dispensation for those with special requirements with respect to the queue to see the Queen’s lying in state. Equity remember is treating people differently according to their need. Someone standing in line for hours, someone else paying or pulling strings to go to the front of the queue, might not like this, but justice is wider than even equality or fairness!
All of which musing leads me back to our reading this morning – and some reflection on the justice that the widow was seeking and the punch lines delivered by Jesus.
Two things first about context because though we receive this as a parable about persistence in prayer, this isn’t my focus this morning. I’m more interested in the nature of the justice itself.
Contextual point one is that we don’t know the nature of the widow’s complaint, nor the strength of its argument. We assume that she had a case, that the judge was being unreasonable as well as ‘unjust’. We are drawn to sympathy by the fact that it’s a widow; someone who is amongst the unfortunate and rejected in society. All of that is fair enough, but read the story again, and you’ll see that the judge never actually rules on the case itself – we’re not even told what it was.
Contextual point two is that the judge gets bad press. This does not however mean that the judge is a bad judge all the time, or that his assessment of this case is plain wrong; again we’re not told what it is. In fact, here as with the parable of the Good Samaritan, the authority figure may be doing no more and no less than the law required and that the people expected. In this, there may be some parallels with the pharisees – more concerned with upholding the law than with the underlying purposes of law. We don’t know if those hearing this parable for the first time would have made that link, but that’s often the beauty of a parable – fresh thoughts, fresh ideas.
So the widow comes with her case. She is turned away at first, but returns time and time again. Eventually, the judge thinks he’s had enough of this and he gives her what she wants, not because he has been persuaded to her view, but because he’s fed up of the moaning. This is not, I would suggest, a particularly good model for decision making in general, and law making in particular, whatever U-turns our current government might be tempted to make as a consequence of backbench moaning.
Could it be that the judge of this case has been ruling on the law? We are told that he cared not for God or for people – the implication to me is that he cared only for the law and perhaps for his reputation in upholding it. Fairness and the law: it’s what is permitted and is therefore what is right.
I suspect also that the judge was applying some levels of consistency in his refusal of the widow’s claim – that he hadn’t allowed this sort of claim in the past and didn’t want to set a precedent for the future either. Equality: treating everyone the same. In other words, or from the judge’s perspective, the accusations of being ‘unjust’ were themselves unfounded – ‘I’m just doing my job, according to the law and case history’ he might well say ‘and I don’t mind being unpopular either’.
But as we have explored this morning, fairness and equality are only two strands of justice. The third is equity – treating someone according to their need. And this is where the real criticism of the judge is fully valid, full on and actually quite damning. Because the judge doesn’t rule on the grounds of equity for the widow either, he doesn’t rule on the basis of her needs at all. On the contrary, he changes his ruling for personal, selfish and self-centred reasons – he’s fed up of her moaning. He changes his ruling on the basis of his own needs. And this absolutely stinks. In short, it’s not justice at all.
Jesus’s summary of this parable is really quite simple, when you distil it in this way. The Kingdom of God is Justice and Joy. Jesus’s punchline is this:
The judge has settled the widow’s case only because of her persistence and the judge’s own selfish wish of having a bit of peace. And he took his time over it. God by contrast is always on the side of the people, and because God is always on our side, God’s justice – fairness, equality and equity – cannot be delayed. I think I’d go further here, in criticism of pharisees across the centuries: contrary to what we might get from the Old Testament, God isn’t even on the side of the law when it comes to treating people with the three strands of justice. God is and always will be on the side of the people; morning breaks, fresh every single day, like the first morning. It starts and it ends there Always.
Well, almost, because we then have this closing phrase, something of a mystery, and almost feels as though it’s been tagged on. “But will the Son of Man find faith on earth when he comes?” What on earth does Jesus mean here?
Well, in our hymn, we also sang ‘The kingdom of God is challenge and choice’; I think Jesus’ question is that challenge too and allows for that choice.
The contrast between the judge of the parable and God in the punchline is not about bad judge and good judge. It’s not about slow judge and quick judge either. If I’m honest, I really don’t think that the analogy between a widow going to a judge to demand justice and us praying to God is a good one at all. That’s a very warped idea of prayer – that those who pray hardest and longest will get an answer; and if you’re not getting what you want, you’re not praying the right way. No, that just won’t do.
Rather the contrast is between those who put up barriers to justice on the one hand, and simply being justice on the other. Justice isn’t a legal ideal to which we aspire; it’s the natural and eternal state of God’s World. The Kingdom of God is justice and joy, in the here and now.
And Jesus’s question to us, his challenge and our choice, is ‘just when are you going to get it?’
If you were listening very carefully, I did promise to return to the other theme of this story, for just a brief second, and that is the persistence of prayer; and in a moment we’re going to pray our prayers of intercession. Prayers of intercession, sometimes called prayers of petition are not our way of speaking to God to ask or demand what we are entitled to or even what we want. Again, the analogy just doesn’t work. Prayer is about dialogue, it’s about listening as well as speaking. Prayer is therefore a way of reminding us then that in God’s world, fairness, equality and equity aren’t just things which are nice-if-you-can-have-them. They are God’s World.
Perhaps Amos wasn’t so far wrong in his contrasting verses at the start of the service, for they remind us of our priority: Stop all your noisy goings on and, instead, let justice flow like a stream. Amen.