06 October 2010

Seeking mercy and justice rather than legal redress

Patrick Comerford

Luke 18: 1-8

Ἔλεγεν δὲ παραβολὴν αὐτοῖς πρὸς τὸ δεῖν πάντοτε προσεύχεσθαι αὐτοὺς καὶ μὴ ἐγκακεῖν, λέγων, Κριτής τις ἦν ἔν τινι πόλει τὸν θεὸν μὴ φοβούμενος καὶ ἄνθρωπον μὴ ἐντρεπόμενος. χήρα δὲ ἦν ἐν τῇ πόλει ἐκείνῃ καὶ ἤρχετο πρὸς αὐτὸν λέγουσα, Ἐκδίκησόν με ἀπὸ τοῦ ἀντιδίκου μου. καὶ οὐκ ἤθελεν ἐπὶ χρόνον, μετὰ δὲ ταῦτα εἶπεν ἐν ἑαυτῷ, Εἰ καὶ τὸν θεὸν οὐ φοβοῦμαι οὐδὲ ἄνθρωπον ἐντρέπομαι, διά γε τὸ παρέχειν μοι κόπον τὴν χήραν ταύτην ἐκδικήσω αὐτήν, ἵνα μὴ εἰς τέλος ἐρχομένη ὑπωπιάζῃ με. Εἶπεν δὲ ὁ κύριος, Ἀκούσατε τί ὁ κριτὴς τῆς ἀδικίας λέγει: ὁ δὲ θεὸς οὐ μὴ ποιήσῃ τὴν ἐκδίκησιν τῶν ἐκλεκτῶν αὐτοῦ τῶν βοώντων αὐτῷ ἡμέρας καὶ νυκτός, καὶ μακροθυμεῖ ἐπ' αὐτοῖς; λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι ποιήσει τὴν ἐκδίκησιν αὐτῶν ἐν τάχει. πλὴν ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐλθὼν ἆρα εὑρήσει τὴν πίστιν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς;

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming”.’ And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’

The widow and the unjust judge

This parable is the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel reading (Luke 18: 1-8) for Sunday week, 17 October 2010, the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity.

It is a well-known parable. But, while we often know it as the “Parable of the Unjust Judge,” perhaps it should be known as the “Parable of the Persistent Widow,” for we are told to take her and not him as an example of how to pray, as opposed to example of how to prey.

And yet, let us take some time first to look at the judge.

Are we asked to think that God behaves like an unjust or capricious judge?

But this appears to be a judge who exercises his office without fear or favour?

Is justice about that?

Is justice about seeing that the law is enforced?

Or is it about seeing that justice is done, and is seen to be done?

How many judges implement the law without dispensing justice?

How many judges implement the law without dispensing mercy?

Is this not what happened in Nazi Germany and in apartheid South Africa?

How many judges in Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa merely applied the law?

Could a Jewish widow expect justice from a judge in Nazi Germany?

Could a black widow expect mercy from a judge in apartheid South Africa?

The woman in our parable is not asking for what is her legal right. She is not asking for her neighbour to be punished. But she may be asking for something she is not entitled to: justice.

When people say they cannot accept a judgmental God, is that because their image of a judge is of a distant figure who applies the full rigour of the law, rather than an accessible figure who dispenses justice and mercy?

These contrasting images of God are found too in the RCL Old Testament reading (Jeremiah 31: 27-34), which concludes:

No longer shall they teach one another, or say to one another,
‘Know the Lord,’
for they shall all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,
for I will forgive their iniquity,
and remember their sin no more.
– (Jeremiah 31: 34)

Who is “the least of them” in that reading?

Certainly, a widow would fall into that category at the time of Christ. She would have no man to argue her case for her, and so would go unheard. All other cases – commercial, civil and criminal – would take precedence over her request to be heard.

Who is the widow in this story?

The first part of our Old Testament reading might allow us to draw parallels between this widow and the chosen people who have turned their back on God: a people whose covenantal relationship with God has died, and a woman whose covenantal relationship, her marriage, has come to an end with death.

Without love, there is no covenant. Without love there is no true religion, and no true marriage.

Could we talk on Sunday week about a true relationship with God being marked by love – God’s love for us, our love for God, and our love for others?

If that love is the foundation of our Christianity, then justice becomes more important than law, and mercy more important than rules, and God the Judge becomes a loving rather than a tyrannical image.

Collect of the Day:

Merciful Lord,
Grant to your faithful people pardon and peace,
that we may be cleansed from all our sins
and serve you with a quiet mind;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a bible study in a tutorial group with MTh students on Wednesday 6 October 2010.

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