The Parable of the Unjust Judge
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?”
Some Pharisees ask Jesus when the Kingdom of God will arrive. When will long-suffering Israel at last receive its glorious reward? When will God’s avenging angels decimate the Roman legions? When will the collaborators be punished, the faithless humiliated? When will the righteous be vindicated? God accepts us and rejects them: when will the world see it? When will there be justice?
Jesus’ answer shocks them. He predicts a horrifying apocalypse. What’s coming will be like the days of Noah; sudden destruction overcoming the unsuspecting: wedding parties swept away in the flood. Like Sodom; fire and sulfur raining from the sky. People snatched away to disappear into captivity.
Not the vindication that they anticipate but hell on Earth. That’s where their quest for justice leads.
It’s in the face of this impending horror that Jesus says not to “lose heart,” and tells the little tale about the justice humankind is ready to live, die, and kill for. Our hope and help is the justice of God, not human justice.
Jesus puts human justice in its place. We keep score. We calculate each person’s due, who ought to get what, good for good, evil for evil, punishment and reward proportioned to our just desserts. This is human justice. But its relentless pursuit leads to disaster. This thing we call justice can be deadly.
And justice can be a joke. It’s mostly bogus, true not even to itself. Not ultimately to be taken too seriously. The judge, human justice embodied, is unjust. He says to himself, “This widow keeps bothering me. I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out!” Our translation obscures the comedy. The term blandly translated, “wear me out,” is literally something close to, “give me a black eye.” The pugnacious old woman gets what’s hers not because the judge cares about what she deserves, but just to shut her up. Justice is what happens when the woman’s badgering finally outweighs her opponent’s payoffs to the judge.
Maybe the case has dragged on interminably; whatever was once at stake has receded into insignificance in contrast to the need to win, to be vindicated, not to let that SOB get away with it, to get justice. Maybe she’s gotten a bit crazy over it: that’s how these things go. Maybe everyone involved is in for a little mockery.
The standard lesson: even an unjust judge will give you what you ask for if you persist in asking. How much more confident can we be that God, who is just, will hear our pleas?
Maybe this is not exactly wrong, but it seems a bit off. Note quite what Jesus means. The woman isn’t asking for what she wants, or for what she needs. She is demanding her due. She insists that the judge grant her what is hers by right.
Whatever we hope for from God, it’s not this. It’s not justice. What we seek from God is love, help, mercy, grace, forgiveness, none of it deserved. When it comes to giving, with God it’s always more and better than we can ask or imagine, not what we deserve. Nor, on the down side, do we want an exacting divine judge who sees to it that we get precisely what our misdeeds warrant. (The other guy, sure, but not me!)
When it comes to God, justice bites the dust: the prisoners are freed, debts forgotten, sins forgiven. Someone said, “Let justice be done, though the heavens fall!” but this is not the voice of God. God speaks from the cross, and he says, “Father, forgive them.”
Yet God is just. But the justice of God is not the justice of human beings. God’s justice, the biblical righteousness of God, is something else altogether. This is the contrast that emerges in the parable. It is nothing less than God’s unshakable faithfulness, his firm commitment to his covenant, his steadfast love for his people, no matter how unworthy of that love we manage to be.
God is just: this means that God is love. God’s justice does not compete with his love and mercy; it’s one thing, not two. He is not—thank God!—the judge who metes out what we’ve earned, but the compassionate one who hears us and does not delay in helping us, not because it is our due, but because he is true to his love for us.
God’s justice and human justice are easily confused, not simply because one word denotes both; but because they overlap. To help those in need and to avoid harm to all is to practice justice on either account. But the overlap is partial: God’s justice is not an ideal version of our justice: it is discontinuous with it and ultimately at odds with it. The justice of God also calls for actions that are in human terms outrageously unjust.
Individuals, and communities, of faith are called to share in God’s justice, to ignore the humanly all-important question of who deserves what, and to take up, so far as we can now, between the times, God’s righteousness. Forgive seventy times seven. Turn the other cheek. Pray for those who persecute you. Forgive your debtors. When they demand your coat, offer your shirt too. No doubt, our propensity is to underestimate the possibilities to do God’s justice, and to overestimate the inescapability of mere human justice.
Put in its place, our justice, as a component of human morality, an articulation of our innate moral sensibilities, has a reality and integrity of its own. Human justice finds its humble and temporary home in the political realm. Government is not God and doing God’s justice is not its function. At its very best the state enforces something that approximates authentic human justice. God’s justice is not its concern. Unconditional love, unstinting forgiveness, indifference to what we deserve: God alone has the wisdom and power to act on these principles.
Governments that try produce little that is good and do much that is bad. Plenty of mischief follows from confusing our justice and God’s, and doing so results in neither. A good deal of what some call ‘social justice,’ the pursuit of equality, and pacifism are examples; but all that’s another story…