Love and Justice

There is no justice without love. Jesus came into this world with a bold proclamation: that every person on the face of this earth deserves love…. The first act of injustice that the unjust judge makes is this: he fails to love the widow. He fails to see her as a child of God.

Sermon Preached: Sunday, Oct. 16, 2022 at Trinity on the Green

Proper 24, Year C: Genesis 32:22-31 | Psalm 121 | 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 | Luke 18:1-8

May I speak in the name of God, who is to us Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

“In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.” So our parable begins today. In this short parable the unjust judge is confronted, again and again, by a widow demanding justice. Eventually, the judge gives in – not because he has heard her story, or believed in her cause, but rather because he is so darned tired of being bothered.

This parable reminds me, surprisingly, of the last four and a half months of my life as a new mother. Babies are very persistent. They will cry and cry and cry until their needs are met – even if they aren’t exactly sure what those needs are. Sometimes it’s hunger, sometimes it’s tiredness, sometimes it’s teething, sometimes it’s simply the primal scream of a little person who hasn’t yet figured out how to speak with words. There are some days when I feel a bit like the unjust judge, so overwhelmed by the relentless cries of one persistent human being.

But then again, there is a world of difference between the unjust judge and parents, like me. The ultimate reason that I try again and again to meet my daughter’s needs is not because she is loud and annoying (though she certainly can be those things). The reason is: that I love her. So no matter how hard she cries, or how quiet, I will always try to meet her needs. I will feed her when she is hungry. I will pick her up and change her diaper. I will walk her around the house at 1am, and 2am, and 3am – on the nights when she struggles to sleep. And I will do my very best so that her persistent cries do not go unanswered.

This week, as I’ve reflected on the difference between the unjust judge and a parent, I realize that I’ve also been reflecting on the difference between the unjust judge and God. That is, after all, one of the metaphors scripture gives us for how to think about God— as our father, our mother, a parent to us all. When God answers our prayers, it isn’t because we have knocked on the door so many times that we gave God a migraine. It’s because God loves us, and wants to meet our every need— even the ones we don’t know how to ask for.

On the surface, today’s parable is a lesson on how to pray. The Gospel of Luke explicitly frames it in this way: “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” We are invited to imagine ourselves in the position of the widow who asks and asks again. And yet, I can’t help but wonder what this parable has to teach us if we look at it from a different perspective. What if we imagine ourselves in a different role– as the person who is the target of the widow’s persistent cries? How would we read this parable differently, if we look at it through the eyes of the unjust judge?

Now imagine: you are a judge in a certain city, just trying to do your job. A widow comes to you again and again. “Grant me justice against my opponent,” she says. The widow goes away for the day, and you are finally able to check off some of the tasks on your to-do list. But she returns again the next day. “Grant me justice against my opponent,” she says. The widow goes away, and you breathe a sigh of relief. You are finally able to complete and organize the paperwork on your desk. But the widow returns again the next day. “Grant me justice against my opponent,” she says. You are at your wits’ end. Again and again the widow comes, breaking you down bit by bit until you realize that the only way you will get any work done is to grant her request. Fine, you say to yourself. You sit down with the widow, sort out her affairs, order appropriate reparations, and then go back to business as usual.

Returning to the text of our parable today, it’s important to note that the unjust judge does not become just, even after he responds to the widow’s plea. “Listen to what the unjust judge says,” Jesus says, as if to underscore this fact. The judge remains unjust in spite of his actions. “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?”

Today’s parable is not only a lesson in how to pray without losing heart; it is also a lesson about justice. What does true justice look like? What does God’s justice look like? In this parable, justice is not simply a matter of fairness. Justice is not simply a matter of the judge issuing the appropriate legal damages for whatever harm the opponent has caused the widow. True justice is more than that. God’s justice is more than that.

What is the difference between the unjust judge and God, I ask again? The difference is love. The difference is not which decision is rendered, in the case of the widow versus her opponent. The difference is how God sees the widow, and why God would listen to her request. God does not see the widow as a liability, a pest, or a problem to be solved. Instead, God sees the widow as a human being, as a child of God, as someone who deserves attention and respect and above all– love. God’s justice starts with love. It doesn’t start with duty or fairness. It starts with love.

This is an important reminder for each one of us here today: there is no justice without love. There is no justice without love. Jesus came into this world with a bold proclamation: that every person on the face of this earth deserves love. Those who are rich and those who are poor; those who are sick and those who are healthy; those who are surrounded by friends and those who are alone– each and every one of us deserves God’s love. The first act of injustice that the unjust judge makes is this: he fails to love the widow. He fails to see her as a child of God. And yes, the judge also continually ignores the widow’s request for tangible justice in a situation where she has been harmed, and pushed to the margins. Yet all of this would have been different if the judge had led with love.

In western cultures it is traditional to depict justice as a blindfolded woman holding a balanced scale. It’s an image that dates back to Roman mythology. According to this image, Justice is cool, impartial– unswayed by human feeling or emotion. There are many virtues contained in this image of justice. And yet, I don’t think this is the best example for what justice looks like, from a Christian perspective. What if we were to envision justice as a different kind of woman, a woman who approaches decisions with both love and reason? What if we were to envision justice instead– as a mother? As a mother, or a father, or truly any parent who replies to the persistent cries of a child first with love, and then with action. I believe that that is a much better image of God’s justice. 

God is more than just a judge to us. God is our parent– and we are God’s children. God desires justice for each and every one of us– and for God, that justice begins with the love that each and everyone of us is due. Love and justice. We cannot have one without the other, because God’s justice begins with love.

Sometimes we are in the position of the widow: praying to God and asking for justice. But sometimes, in this world, we are in the position of the judge. We are in the position of being asked for help from others– we have the power to make change– and it is up to us to do it. I’m sure that many of you have heard cries for justice. Perhaps you have heard these cries from a family member or a friend; from a neighbor or community member; from someone on the news or someone outside on the New Haven Green. These persistent cries for justice can be overwhelming at times– and it’s true that we cannot be all things to all people. However, as Christians we commit to doing more than the unjust judge, who simply sees these cries as a nuisance. As Christians, we commit to starting with love. 

Whatever role you have to play in making this world a more just place– whatever power you have at work, or at home, or in the community, or when you vote – remember this: start with love. I am convinced that fairness will only take us so far, as we seek to heal the brokenness in our world. But love– love has the power to transform us entirely. As Jesus shows us again and again throughout his ministry in the Gospels, there is no justice without love. Love and justice are inseparable.

In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for the people. How different this story would be if it began in this way: “In a certain city there was a judge who loved God, and who loved the people.” Start with love today. Start with love like the love you have for your family. Start with love like the love God has for each one of us. Start with love – and let justice grow from there. Amen.

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