Landscape from Young, NSW 2011

Living Justly in an Unjust World

The Text
Luke 17:20-21 Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; 21nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’

Luke 18:1-8 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” 4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” ’ 6And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’

Like many of the sermons on this site, this is a work in progress. It will change before Sunday, perhaps markedly.

Well, it was Ride to Work Day on Wednesday, and a cyclist was knocked down and killed by a truck on the Northern Expressway. I know the corner. It's a deadly high speed slip lane into the main expressway, and it's dangerous enough for cars. If you're on a bike there are special cross over lanes; it's wise to stop and take not the least chance when you go across those slip lanes. A mistake can kill you.

Of course we wonder if the cyclist was not obeying the rules. Or if the truckie was not paying attention, or straying into the fog lanes where the cyclists ride. And of course, all the usual prejudice about cyclists and motorists is being broadcast about the media and net, often with little understanding or compassion.

When something like this accident happens, all that commentary is really about people trying to make sense of evil. Why did someone die? Why should it be that the truck driver will always have to live with the trauma. We hate the idea that an inquest might find it was just a meaningless accident. It is so much easier to deal with if we can make it someone's fault.

You see, if no one is to blame... if it was no one's fault... if there is no reason... then there is no reason for something like that not to happen to us! It is terrifying that mindless evil happens to good people. It means we have no control.

What's wrong in a world where evil happens without warning, even to those who do not deserve it? What the hell is God up to letting that happen? What is going on that God lets good people get exploited, and lets bad people flourish? Humans have been struggling and complaining about this for millennia. The whole book of Job in the Old Testament is devoted to it.

There is one clear fact when it comes to evil: evil flourishes and we do not know why. All the attempts to explain evil as a consequence of our wrong doing in some way, or as God testing us, or whatever you choose.... they all fail to provide an adequate answer. We are left with the horrible fact that a good life should on average yield a good result, but sometimes it does not; it suffers mindless arbitrary evil.

Just being Good does not solve the problem.

The Church and the Faith, have only one answer. It says in John chapter one:
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it....

Evil is not only arbitrary. It is entrenched. The whole system of a country or an organisation can be rooted in evil and exploitation.

For example, the judges of the time of Jesus were not about justice. They were not about doing what is right. They were not about an impartial interpretation of the law. In Jesus day “judges worked for and were responsible to the political-religious system... They interpreted the law in ways that would protect the system. They were not so much interested in supporting justice as they were to interpret the Torah, the law, in ways that would both maintain and extend the power and wealth of Israel’s ruling elite, including themselves. ... The task of the judges was to serve the interests of their rulers, not to dispense impartial justice. (Linthicum)

So even if the widow was in the right, if what she wanted was against the interests of some rich person, the judge would fob her off. We tend to read the story as saying that eventually she wore him down to make a just judgment.... but that's not quite the case.

You know how it says “I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming?” The Greek is more like “ she will not give me a black eye by her continual coming!”

What's happening is that week after week, in the public gates of the city (eg Ruth 4:1ff) the widow is making her plea to the judge, and people are watching. Week after week they are seeing him deny justice. He is getting a bad reputation; he is getting “a black eye” from this woman.

We know what happens in a situation like this. The corrupt person who neither fears God nor respects people realises they are having a public relations disaster, and need to fix things. We know sometimes they do it by trumping up charges and having the widow put in prison. Sometimes the people complaining just disappear. Sometimes a rich person, or company, offers a “settlement” to make the problem go away. This time the judge decides the easiest way to make the problem go away is to give in to her.

She did not get justice- she got expedience! He simply did what was most expedient for him. When the next widow came to him, he would first of all try and to fob her off, as well. The system was corrupt. We all know life is like this. We have all seen examples of things like this.

How shall we then live?

When will this thing called the Kingdom of God come? When will there be an end to injustice? That was the question people asked Jesus in chapter 17 in Luke. (20,21)

There is good news and there is bad news.

The bad news is that doing the right thing, and imagining that we will fix the world's problems is going to let us down. We may do good. But it will lead us to compassion fatigue and despair if we think we will solve the problems of the world. “The poor will always be with you,” was not a throw away line by Jesus. It's the truth. There will always be injustice. To think that we will fix things is a vanity. By all means do the right thing, but do not think that it will solve the world's problems. Sometimes... and only sometimes.... doing the good may help. We may make a difference, even a huge difference, but evil will still be, and we will never understand why it is so.

Do you understand me? I'm not saying don't do good. We desperately need people to do good.

And I know I'm saying nothing new by saying we can't fix everything by doing good. We know we can't fix the whole world by doing good. We know that we can only do the best we can in the world. That's practicality.  It's all we can do.

But understand that just doing the best we can will not satisfy our hearts. The Spirit of God in us, which creates us and shapes us and inspires us, will never be satisfied with just doing the best we can.  That  will never be enough for our hearts. Our hearts want more.  The heart wants the good and the godly simply because it is good and godly. The heart wants God.  When we talk about being saved by faith and not good works, this is what we are talking about.  Doing good does not save us. God saves us and makes us whole.  If we look back on our lives and the good things we have done, we will not be satisfied. It will never be enough. We may even be well pleased at some things, but there will also be a great disappointment in the godliness of our heart.

This is the paradox: do it because it is right, not to make things better. If we do things right because we think that should solve the fear of evil for us, we miss the point.

The good news in in Jesus' words.

“When is the kingdom of God coming asked the pharisees?” And Jesus gives an enigmatic answer that suggests the kingdom is both present in his life (it is among us) and yet to be revealed in public for all to see. (Jensen)

The story of the widow is part of his answer to the question of the Pharisees. We are not to be discouraged or lose heart as we live out this paradoxical Christian reality. We should, rather, look to the example of a woman who did not lose heart. Her persistence evoked a response even from an unrighteous judge. God is not unrighteous. God will come and grant justice to the righteous ones. God will grant justice to those who stand firm in their faith. Faith is strengthened through prayer! (Jensen)

I'm quoting those words from one of the commentaries. What do they mean? I think we are dealing with this thing we call Mystery (capital M Mystery.) It is where we have the glimmer of an answer, but no answer we can fully understand.

I think Jesus is saying, “Be like the widow.” Keep on looking for justice. Keep on doing the right thing for its own sake. Keep on living right, EVEN though you know justice will not be done.... (everyone listening to Jesus knew the judge was not interested in justice) Keep on being like the widow.

To live like this is to live in faith. To live like this is to live righteously; it is doing what is right for no other reason than it is right. It is to do right even though it costs, and even though it may not succeed in gaining justice. This is the paradox: do it because it is right, not to make things better.

This kind of faith can permeate every part of our lives. It is living right for Jesus' sake when we don't succumb to the temptation to nick fruit in the supermarket without paying, and when we don't steal the Sunday paper of our neighbour's lawn. It is living right for Jesus' sake when we decide what to do with our church property based on what is right, not what we get out it.

And prayer is the talking to each other about the struggle to do right. It is the complaining to God that things are not happening. It is our cry to God when we are being crushed and drowning in exhaustion and despair. It is our singing the hymns with all our might. Sometimes we sing with joy because we have caught a glimpse of the kingdom. And sometimes we sing to spite evil, to "give it the finger" (Beck) as it were, because we are committed to the Christ and to the Good.

And this kind of living changes us.

Yes... the world will go on. It may seem that for every thing we have done, all the good living we have tried all our long life, that nothing has changed. Nothing is better. And yet.... and yet.... the kingdom will be among us. There will be the times when we realise as we struggle and pray and choose the right again, that something is touching us in this place.

Evil will continue. People will still get knocked off bikes. Children will still be stolen. Refugees will still be imprisoned. In the arbitrary, impossible-to-understand ways of evil, it may be that unfair, unjust circumstance comes to us, and we are the one whose tragic death merits a few lines in the paper... or we are the one who dies early from some arbitrary illness, whilst the selfish slob down the road gets richer.

“Will the Son of man find faith on earth when he returns?” Jesus asked. He will if we have been faithful in prayer that our faith not lose heart, says one of the scholars. (Jensen) Pray to be inspired by the vision of what is right. Pray to be inspired by what is good. Pray to have your heart melted with compassion, and toughened and tempered with courage.

We are the people of God. We are marching, sometimes struggling towards the light which is not over come by the darkness. And the kingdom is among us.


I was assisted in this sermon by the commentary of Brian Stoffregen who quotes Jensen's Preaching Luke's Gospel, and by the commentary of Dr Robert Linthicum. If you are interested in this approach to evil you may enjoy reading Richard Beck's classic post Theodicy and No Country for Old Men. My own commentary on Luke 18:1-8 is here.

Andrew Prior October 14 2010
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

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