A few years ago, I was a pastor in Nashville, TN. The congregation I served met in a large, mostly white, commuter church in the city. But this congregation consisted of people from public housing across the street and many unhoused neighbors. Between 150-200 people met every Sunday night for a table-fellowship service. Each year, we would order dozens of pizzas on Super Bowl Sunday and have a viewing party in the gym. This was just one way we worked toward inclusion into normalized relationships with people who experienced routine exclusion.
One woman, Claire, who struggled with mental illness and moved from tent site to tent site, made her way toward the pizza. Claire was strong-willed and assertive, never one to hide what she was thinking. But she also gave the impression of not being totally present in the moment, as if her mind was slightly torn from her body. One of the participants serving pizza that night locked eyes with her and asked,
“What would you like?” (referring to the kind of pizza available).
And without missing a moment, Claire pronounced, “Justice."
Claire clearly and simplistically touched on an essential truth, a truth she experienced each and every day on the streets. That is, all is not well with the world. Our world is out of sorts, our relationships with one another and the created world we inhabit are marked more by strain and brokenness than by righteousness. Claire knew that her life was a witness to the mass injustice of homelessness. But she’s not the only one. Millions of refugees sit in a liminal status in Greece, Turkey, and Jordan. Our communities are marked by injustice when African Americans are incarcerated at a rate six times higher than their white counterparts. Our communities are marked by injustice when the poor and ethnic minorities suffer disproportionately the effects of climate change.
These voices crying for Justice stand in solidarity with the persistent Widow in Luke 18. Here we have a story of a woman disadvantaged and facing a system working against her very life. And yet, the very one who is to dole out fairness and justice – to set things right – neither fears God nor cares about people (not the exact traits one would want in a judge). This woman has nothing on her side; no wealth, no influence, no powerful friends. She has only her tenacious thirst for justice with which she wears down this unjust judge who reluctantly gives a righteous judgment.
Jesus starts the parable by simply saying that the disciples should “always pray and not give up.” I suggest that this parable fits more broadly into the scheme of the coming judgment for which the disciples pray. In this way, prayer is the outworking of our faith that God is not like the unjust judge; rather, God is a God of justice. This is most clearly portrayed in vs. 8 in which Jesus talks of the coming of the Son of Man. We do not give up in our prayers for vindication because all authority and dominion has already been handed over to the Son of Man who will judge the nations and bring all that is broken and estranged back into health and wholeness. The Son of Man in Daniel 7 establishes a new society that doesn’t come from the chaos of the sea, as beasts who feast on violence and power, but rather from heaven and reflects God’s way of being in the world (which is the opposite of violence and human power).
This only highlights what the Gospels say over and over again. Namely, the Kingdom of God has come. But this new Kingdom which has arrived in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus requires judgment. The ax is already at the root of the tree (Lk. 3). This judgment has far reaching consequences. It’s certainly Good News. For the homeless, incarcerated, victims of violence, and the poor and marginalized of the world, a good God who comes to judge the sins of the world is very Good News indeed. In fact, Jesus in this passage says, “And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night…I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly."
But if I’m honest, this leaves me dissatisfied. Not because Jesus promises a swift judgment that topples the unjust structures of our world. No, it’s because I see that those unjust structures have yet to be toppled. Where is this swift Justice? Why is there still crying, groaning, and suffering all around us? Why am I anxious to wake up to read the latest headlines? The time is fulfilled, Jesus says, the new age of God’s righteousness is here. We don’t have to wait for it. Salvation has come for the widow, and yet our world is still full of crying widows!
It’s in these moments that we run the risk of perceiving God as the unjust judge in the story. Perhaps the responsibility of this burden should not be fully placed at the feet of the judge. As if it’s the judge's fault for the very injustice the judge is arbitrating. No, the responsibility for the injustice we see firmly rests within the community of people, with us. In what ways are we the ones blocking God’s righteousness from coming on earth as it is in heaven? Gerhard Lohfink succinctly reminds us about the today-ness of the Kingdom, “It cannot be today, because in that case we would have to change our lives today. So we prefer to delay God’s salvation to some future time. There it can rest, securely packed, hygienic, and harmless…The ‘not yet’ of the reign of God thus does not result from God’s holding back, but from the hesitant conversion of people” (Does God Need the Church?, 136, 138). I suggest this is what Jesus means when he openly questions whether the Son of Man will find people of faith on earth.
Our good God swiftly arbitrates justice. We are the ones who have yet to convert when we hear the the cry of the widows, the homeless, the marginalized. We are the unjust judge. We have yet to fully fear God or care about people.
It’s fitting that Claire would pronounce her cry of justice in the halls of a church. We have too long allowed the work of justice to be defined by other stories detached from the story of Christ’s death and resurrection. We are too willing to allow justice to properly belong to the nations. We think, or at least practice, that justice is government work, while the church takes care of souls. This homeless woman teaches us that our dualistic tendencies keep us from living into the reign of God’s righteousness. This separation remains foreign to the Kingdom of God. Faith doesn’t separate justice from other aspects of life. Faith, however, does lead to hope. It is the firm belief that though this world does not reflect just relationships, God is already transforming it, reconciling all things to God’s self. May the church be that place where God’s reconciling grace takes root and forms a new society in the midst of some very ugly beasts.