“It’s just not fair!”
How often have I wondered at what point in our journey of life that we learn this amazing concept of fairness? How often have we heard it said accompanying a temper tantrum of youngsters as their own desire is denied, or when the worries of the world get far too much to bear?
Behind the cries often lies an appeal for justice, an appeal for things to be right for them, and then, only when things are restored in the favour of the one who is making this claim, is justice served.
Can you imagine a world where we all ‘got our own desires’? If the only accountability that matters is that which restores that which is ‘just not fair’, then I would have some very serious anxiousness for what sort of community we live in.
Today, we hear about a persistent widow, and a rather non-community minded judge. The woman, in seeking justice, pesters the judge, who eventually gives into the pleading, and grants her justice. What may seem surprising for us, in this time and space, is that Jesus actually commends the judge. The judge has done the right thing, and is praised by the Lord. The woman leaves having received her righteousness, and so it seems, the Lord implies, that all is right. As always, however, there is a sting in the tail: “God will quickly grant justice to his people who cry day and night, and yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”1
For a long time, this parable has disturbed me. I look at the alleged unjust judge and actually wonder why Jesus would praise such behaviour. If the judge, not fearing God or respecting absolutely no-one only provides justice for his own personal gain (in this case, peace and freedom from being bothered), how can this be fair?
And therein lays the beginning of a quest to find out if being just is actually about being fair. To an extent, it is, but in terms of the strict biblical teaching that we hear in the words of the prophets, graphically today in the thirty-first chapter of Jeremiah, within the corpus that is the Psalms, and in the exhortation of Paul to Timothy, then fairness is not what it is all about. It is about justice, righteousness, and mercy. Fairness is our modern reading of the word ‘justice’. What we may think as fairness has a grounding in justice, but, it has nothing to do with our own needs, desires or wants.
So, what is justice, as written in the Bible?
Justice is at the centre of what is required by God. It is, in Hebrew, two words that when put together, really challenge. Misphat and tzadequa. Together, they implore the faithful to acquit or punish every person on the merits of the case, regardless or race or social status. Anyone who does the same wrong should be given the same penalty, and all life should be restored to right relationships in which all our relationships, family, society and with nature, are approached with fairness, generosity and equity. Together, they could be put together and simply mean social justice.2
Whilst fairness is certainly part of the requirement, it is not the centre. If we all lived in accordance to misphat and tzadequa, would we have need for courts? It is a good question!
At the heart of the idea of misphat, there were four key elements of society that required particular attention. The faithful were required to take up the care and cause of widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor. Some have called this the quartet of the vulnerable. Each one of them is entitled to be treated on the merits of their case and circumstance, and offered protection accordingly.
For a Church that is committed to social justice, this is very much at the heart of how we would see our own charter of being an inclusive church. It is at the heart of the understanding and aims of our outreach through the Food Centre, and as Judith’s portfolio is developed in her role as Assistant Curate, very much at the heart of what will be occupying a lot of her time, and hopefully, others in the Parish with her. For the devout Jew of the Hebrew Scripture times, the nature of the society was judged on how they responded to the poor, the widow, the marginalised, and the aliens in their midst. A just society would have their care as paramount, with those who are able to help to do so.
There were in synagogues and at the Temple misphat boxes: it was the requirement for those who could to give to this to enable justice to be fair and equitable, and the community to reach out to those in need. No wonder Jesus praised the widow who gave, without fanfare or drama, from what she had to those who were in need. It was out of her faith, her belief and her desire to share that she gave; others, making a show of their compliance with the law, also gave, and no doubt this was much needed and used appropriately, but what Jesus convicted was the purpose of the heart. It was an unjust faith that fed their egos, not a real concern for, as the prophet Micah asks, What does the Lord require?3
God loves and defends those with the least economic and social power, and so should we. That is what it means to ‘do justice’. In the 68th Psalm, God is the father to the fatherless,a defender of widows. This is where God is in the world. God identifies with the powerless,and takes up their cause.4
Our right relationship, or righteousness, is at the heart of what is being questioned. We know what we should be doing, but are we doing it for the right reasons?
The symbol of justice, as handed down through antiquity, is that of the scales and balances. To provide true justice and righteousness, one action is measured against the standards of the community, represented by the law, and equity is restored. This process, known as justification, is that which leads to all things being equal. If one side overwhelms the other, there is no justice. As with misphat, all decisions must be equal and fair, irrespective of who you are in society. The motivation to put things right is what we will be judged on, and after reflection, is quite clear in the readings set for today, and very much at play in the gospel. It is not so much about fairness, but rather, what is right.
In the Book of Job, failure to help the quartet of the vulnerable was reckoned as sin, offensive to God’s splendour.5 Our generosity and purpose of heart is at the heart of what is required. God requires mercy and justice, and our humbleness in pilgrimage through life in right relationship with the Divine.6 On both sides of the scales of justice, it is a putting right of that which is out of balance, not for the sake of individual gratification or sense of entitlement, but in terms of what is just, right, fair and honest. If we were to live by the principles of such justice, would we need to be advocating continuously or propping up law courts who are required to dispense punishment, often out of kilter with any sense of justice, in the name of keeping good order?
The readings for today make the case for justice and law in terms of righteousness. They do so in a way that does not call on us to do so out of any false sense of personal gain or will, but rather, because this is the Spirit of God at work within us. It balances out our own desire that what ‘we want’ is actually fair and just, but rather, keeps us in good relationships with not only God, but those around us. It keeps us focussed on those around us, ensuring that if we see something that is not right, then, out of conviction of our faith, and our love of God, our neighbours and our selves, then social justice, equity and respect will abound.
The prophet Jeremiah reminds the people of Israel, now exiled from the Holy Mount of God’s presence, that the covenant between God and God’s people is that this very sense of law will be within their hearts. There is no change to the law, but rather, a justification that will see the people restored to righteous living. It was not a promise to restore them to Jerusalem, but rather, to their relationship with God. The presence of God was within them, from the smallest to the greatest. Their iniquity will be forgiven, and their sin, their separateness from God no longer remembered. The covenant of renewal was one of righteousness that was beyond the desire to be in a place or situation: what was important for the people to remember is that through this justification, God is with them, no matter what they face.7
The Psalmist sings of the glory of God’s law, and how we should meditate on it all day long. It is sufficient for us, more than material possession or other distractions. Out of understanding of the law, this is how we are to live. It is at the core of our heart, our mind, our soul, and our strength. It is not law for law’s sake, but rather, the very principles of misphat and tzadequa in action in our daily lives.8
Paul reminds Timothy that not one part of this scripture has changed. It is there for our meditation and application. Everyone who belongs to God [should] be proficient, quipped for every good work.9 A small side note on 2 Timothy 3.16: at the time of writing, Paul did not regard this, or any other letter, as scripture. Scripture, as Paul understands it, was the law as handed down to Moses and the prophets. To apply this to Paul’s writing is perhaps a long, but alas, all too common bow to draw. What is at the heart of Paul’s teaching is to live according to what God has taught: remembering the quartet of the vulnerable, and being agents of righteousness, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
And so, the persistent widow harasses a judge asking for equity, fairness, righteousness and justice in a case against an opponent. Who that opponent is, we know not, but there in this parable, Jesus makes his case against us as we look on. It matters not that the judge gives justice from outside the understanding of the Hebrew laws. The justice is dispensed, the scales are now equal, and the widow, one of the poor and vulnerable of the community, has received what is hers. Whist the motivation of the judge may have us a little concerned, the principle of justice is being upheld. This is Jesus’ point. If even those outside the law can apply justice, then what does this say about those who are the keepers of the Law of God?
God, as we heard in Jeremiah, is one with the people. The law, written in their hearts, is to be lived. The poor, the vulnerable, those with needs, are to be treated with justice as anyone who has wealth should be. The charge against us is measured against, not what is fair, but rather, what the law demands.
When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth”10
In the 1970s and 80s, there was a popular bumper sticker that read
If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?
This is the same question asked by Jesus as recorded by Luke.
Justice is not about fairness that gives us what we want, or allows us to do our own thing, no matter how convinced we may be that we are right, but rather, measured against the community in terms of equity and inclusiveness. It stops the people with means of control from exploitation, and in terms of the Song of Mary, lifts up the lowly from their distress, humbles the proud, and makes strong the weak.11
It is nothing new, but rather, part of God’s covenant with us to live this in our daily lives.
It’s not fair if we think it is about us as individuals, but as a community of faith, a company of believers, witnesses to the presence of God in the community, it is the manifest on which we are based.
So, the words of the prophet Micah add to the charge of Jesus against those who know the law:
What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?12
When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?13
1 Luke 18-7-8 paraphrase NRSV
2 from Keller, Timothy, Generous Justice, Riverhead Books, Penguin (USA) 2012
3 Micah 6
4 Keller, op cit
5 Job 13:23
6 Micah 6 paraphrase
7 Jeremiah 31:33-34
8 Psalm 119:97-104
9 2 Timothy 3:14-4.5
10 Luke 18:1-8
11 Luke 1:46-55
12 Micah 6.8
13 Luke 18:8