Jeremiah 29 v1, vv4-7, Luke 18 vv1-8
These two readings ask us to think about justice and rights: topics that get a strong profile in our daily news, yet are taken for granted in our daily lives.
I will concentrate on the Luke reading, but will refer to Jeremiah as we go along. The Greek word in the woman’s mouth in verse 3 and on God’s lips in verse 7 is the same even though they are sometimes translated differently. This word is sometimes (as in the Good News Bible) translated ‘rights’. And that leads to a host of related matters than you can follow up here if you want. The word is also sometimes translated as ‘avenge’ – but from what I have read this is not the best translation either. This story is about getting justice not getting revenge.
So – what justice should we expect for ourselves and what should we expect for others? And what is our role in bringing justice about? Jesus’ story reported in Luke 18 is a tale of contrasts and these will provide the organisation for this talk.
Contrast 1: Justice for me or justice for all?
The woman asks the judge for justice for herself. Jesus says God will provide justice for ‘the elect’: for his people, not just for an individual. The woman wants justice against her enemy – emphasizing that this kind of justice is about balancing rights between one person and another. Giving to one necessarily entails taking away from another. Norms, backed up by laws, in a society get established to justify a particular balance. But this parable suggests that God’s concern lies away from the fortunes of the individual. This is not a comforting thought if I expect God to intervene in human events to give me justice: To uphold my interests against someone else. The whole of the Sermon on the Mount should tell us this just ain’t so. People sometimes look for comfort in the old testament story of Daniel being saved from the lions or new treatment stories of miraculous releases from prison. But there are many more bible stories where it did not turn out so well. James and Stephen were martyrs before Paul started the missionary that ended with his own execution. Josiah had been Jeremiah’s royal patron but he was killed and his army defeated. The instances of miraculous rescue are stories about special demonstration of power and love. They are not about the dispensation of justice. The God portrayed in Jeremiah and Luke is concerned with justice for all.
Contrast 2: Justice now or later
The woman is made to wait for justice which only comes after prolonged badgering. In contrast, Jesus says that God’s help will come quickly. Nothing withheld. I find this difficult to make sense of. Waiting a long time for God’s justice is how it usually feels, surely? In what sense does Jesus mean quickly? In the next verse he sets the ‘quick help’ in the context of ‘when the Son of Man returns’. That’s not quick is it? There are echoes here of Jeremiah’s words to the exiles in Babylon. In the next chapter (Jer 30 v18) God says ‘I will soon make the tents of Jacob’s people as they used to be.’ But just after the verses from Jeremiah 29 he adds ‘Babylon will be in power for senty years…and then I will keep my promise’. That doesn’t sound quick either. Some might try to rationalise all this by quoting Psalm 90: ‘ A thousand years to God is like the passing of a day’ or even perhaps the inversion of this in 2 Peter 3 ‘one day is as a thousand years’ (as people often often experience in my talks). But that’s not much comfort either is it? It makes better sense to me to wonder if the help that God offers is not a perfect and complete resolution. It may be far from that. But it still could be real. And that brings us to the third contrast.
Contrast 3: Justice by the rule-book or justice from the heart
The woman calls the judge to account because he is not following the rules. Jesus says God will provide justice because he cares about his people.
What does justice by the rule-book look like?
- The rules change. Think of how many laws have changed in your lifetime. Abortions up to 24 weeks allowed (1967); Became illegal to offer different pay and conditions to women than men (1970); Smoking in public enclosed spaces banned (2007). In addition, tax and benefit rules have had major effects on the distribution of income and wealth.
- It all depends on access to the justice system. You can read a careful account of the decimation of our legal aid system since 2010 here. A new Legal Aid Bill was passed in 2013. The following year the number of cases funded by legal aid was less than a third of what it had been before the bill.
What does justice from the heart look like?
Well that all depends on the heart. The old testament prophets Jeremiah, Hosea and Amos had plenty to say about what God’s heart is like.
- Loves this world: Jer 31 vv3-5; Hosea 11 v1;
- Abhors inequality: Jer 7 vv5-6; Jer 22 vv15-16; Amos 4 vv1-2; Amos 5 vv11-12;
- Abhors fake news: Jer 27 v16; Jer 28 v15; Jer 29 v9;
- Seeks trusting, loyal relationships: Jeremiah 17 vv7-8; Jeremiah 33vv 25-26; Hosea 12 v 6.
And in the life of Jesus God opened his heart to the world to demonstrate each of these qualities and many more. But we can’t see God’s heart. And we do see plenty of injustice. So how can we make sense of the tension between these two things?
Here is a rather simple diagram to suggest a way of thinking about this tension.
At the bottom we have some – but by no means all of the deep lying causal forces on our lives. The extent to which any of these forces is active in our experience – or anyone else’s experience – depends on circumstances. There is a surge in populism partly as a reaction to globalisation. We live in a capitalist age which has fashioned the institutions and norms that govern much of our lives. Since God has chosen to channel his heart through people and particularly his people – then the critical circumstance here is how tuned in his people are to his heart and how active they are in affecting the circumstances of others. This, then shapes the experience people actually have, which in turns affects the way that experience is understand and spoken of. The curved downward arrows show how all of this feeds back over time affecting future generations.
So what about our role in all of this? When it feels like things have gone wrong for us or the people we love, there is a natural impulse to feel that God has let us down: we have been short-changed on the scales of justice. And what about the world in which we live that sometimes swamped in injustice? The bottom part of the diagram suggests that a creation in which humans are free to act necessitates that responsibility for what happens is shared between the human race and God’s love. God sometimes fights a losing battle in our lives let alone the rest of the world. It is very easy to see how some of the current leaders in the world deny responsibly for injustice they have helped to flourish. It is harder to see the same tendency in ourselves. We can change our perspective on our own circumstances by putting ourselves closer to God’s heart. I think this is what Jesus is referring to in Luke when he encourages his people to cry to God. Get yourself a bit closer to God by being open about how you feel and what you see. Get a stronger sense of what God feels and sees. This changes the circumstances which, in turn, changes how underlying causes – including God’s heart – are active in our lives. But we can also be active in changing the circumstances that affect others by what we do and what we say. God calls us to get involved in the world to be active in challenging injustice, disadvantage and pain. It is crucial to our fundamental purpose.
In case you are interested, the diagram uses the ideas of ‘critical realism’ to suggest a way of looking at the problem. Critical realism is a brand of philosophical thinking associated in the social sciences with Roy Bhaskar and elsewhere with Michael Polyani. Quite a few Christian thinkers have picked up on this and have tried to interpret their faith in these terms. You can find some entry points on Wikipedia, Unfortunately, an awful lot of the writing in the name of critical realism comes across as painfully convoluted and impenetrable. So the diagram tries to bring it all down to earth, which is, after all, where we all find ourselves.
The box at the top distinguishes between the experiences we go through and how we talk about those experiences. When my first grand son was just under 2 my son thought it would be a good idea to introduce him to the sad life of a football spectator – at West Brom of course. He quickly spotted the main event: the way that sprinklers emerged from the turf and sent plumes of water over the pitch. Then things became a lot less interesting as, for some reason, a bunch of people started running around the pitch with apparently no aim in view (I know, it was West Brom). No doubt they were very upset at having missed the chance to play with the sprinklers. He was at the same place as his dad and grandad but what he actually saw – and would have talked about – was quite different. Accounts of critical realism that I have read don’t draw attention to this distinction between what happens and how are minds interpret the experience (I know, I don’t read enough. I was always told that at school). The distinction is highlighted by theories of conceptual change that try to make sense of how understanding develops and why our minds frequently resist evidence that others think should challenge the way we understand the world.