Anyone who has lived for any length of time realizes that living is challenging. I once received an email message from a friend in which she wrote about all the things going on in her life. The number of crisis-type things was high enough to cause me to write back to her the following: “I hope you are finding a path of peace through everything surrounding you now. There are times when we understand why famous writers in the past considered life a ‘vale of tears’ and wrote about the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.’ The faith life can be grounding, but it doesn’t take away all the sting. Hang in there, my friend.”
“Hang in there, my friend.” In other words, be persistent and persevere. The Gospel passage for today is all about persistence and perseverance in the life of faith. It begins with the sentence, “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” And it continues with an almost humorous parable about a widow that hounds an uncaring, non-God-fearing judge that finally gives the widow justice so that she will leave him alone! An alternative translation of a portion of the passage says, “I will grant her justice so that she may not finally come and slap me in the face!” She is so persistent and perseveres for so long, that the judge is afraid that if he doesn’t grant her justice she will come and assault him!
To end the story, Jesus points his followers back to God: “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.” Jesus wants to remind his followers that if an uncaring, non-God-fearing judge will grant justice for fear of retribution, then of course God will do so out of love. Jesus reminds his followers that God is to be trusted, God is responsive to requests, and God sees that justice is carried out.
We all know of heroes that accomplished great things in the name of justice. There were all those abolitionists that helped runaway slaves as they made their way to freedom in the North. There were all those people who hid Jews when the Nazis were seeking them. There was Mahatma Ghandi, who fought for civil rights in India, and Martin Luther King, Jr., who fought for civil rights in America, both of whom did so through non-violent means. There were the women of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that worked for equal rights for women. We know of these heroes, but have we ever stopped to consider what it was that kept them going, that supported their persistence and aided their perseverance? What enabled these ordinary people to do their heroic work in the face of danger and deprivation?
These people were fed by their faith in a God of justice. They were empowered by their knowledge of God. Their persistence and perseverance were rooted in the character of God. They could do the demanding and dangerous work they did because, as Jesus said, “[God] will . . . grant justice . . .”.
In preparation for this sermon I did some reading on Biblical justice. I read excerpts from a book by Howard Zehr titled, Changing Lenses: A New Focus for Crime and Justice. The excerpts were arranged on a website so that definitions of Contemporary Justice (justice as we know it in the United States of America today) were compared with definitions of Biblical Justice (justice as it is defined in the Bible). Organized in this way, a reader could see easily the difference between our human notions of justice and God’s notion of justice. I’m going to read you those different definitions. Howard Zehr contrasts three different definitions of Contemporary and Biblical Justice:
1) CONTEMPORARY JUSTICE
Justice divided by areas:
When we talk about wrongs having to do with the distribution of wealth and power, we call these questions of social justice. When we talk about wrongs legally defined as crimes we categorize this as the realm of retributive justice. . . .
We assume, that is, that one can separate the areas of justice and deal with them in different ways. (p. 137)
1) BIBLICAL JUSTICE
Justice seen as an integrated whole:
Biblical Justice is more holistic. It sees both spheres as part of the same whole. Injustice of any kind, in any sphere, is contrary to shalom [wholeness, peace]. The acts of the one who oppresses are as serious as those of the one who assaults or robs. Both are contrary to shalom. Justice [cannot be separated]. (p. 137)
2) CONTEMPORARY JUSTICE
Administrative justice as an inquiry into guilt:
Our system of justice is above all a system for making decisions about guilt. Consequently, it focuses on the past. . . . What happened? Who did it? These questions take precedence over what to do to solve the problems [that] the offense created (or out of which the offense arose). (p. 137, 66)
2) BIBLICAL JUSTICE
Administrative justice as a search for solutions:
[In biblical times] when wrongs were done, ordinary people went to the city gates to seek justice in a “legal assembly” in which citizens participated. The focus of this court . . . was not to satisfy some abstract concept of justice but to find a solution. . . . Restitution and compensation were common outcomes. . . .
Biblical Justice seeks first to solve problems, to find solutions, to make things right, looking toward the future. (p. 140-141, 152)
3) CONTEMPORARY JUSTICE
Justice tested by rules, procedures:
Justice is defined by the process more than by the outcome. . . . Have the right rules and processes been followed? If so, justice was done.
The appeals process in the U.S. . . . usually centers on whether correct procedures have been followed. An appeals court does not examine the original evidence in itself. (p. 78)
3) BIBLICAL JUSTICE
Justice defined by outcomes, substance:
The test of justice in the biblical view is not whether the right rules are applied in the right way. Justice is tested by the outcome. The tree is tested by its fruit. . . . Does the outcome work to make things right? Are things being made right for the poor and the least powerful, the least “deserving”? Biblical justice focuses on right relationships, not right rules. (p. 140, 153)
According to Howard Zehr, three things characterize Biblical justice: it applies to all areas of life; it searches for solutions; it is defined by outcomes and concerned with creating right relationships where there have been wrong relationships. A short way of characterizing Biblical justice would be to say that it seeks healing and wholeness. And that is what Jesus said he came to do: to heal and make whole.
The heroes mentioned above sought Biblical justice in a big way. They sought healing and wholeness on a large scale. And they achieved it through persistence and perseverance, both of which were based on their faith in a just and justice-seeking God. But if justice is about healing and making whole, about making wrong relationships right, then we can participate in creating justice on any size scale.
1) We can begin with our relationship to God. Are we in right relationship to God? That relationship comes first and foremost.
2) Then we can move to our relationship to ourselves. Are we in right relationship with ourselves? That relationship comes second because if we don’t treat ourselves justly then it is difficult to treat others justly. The commandment is to love our neighbors as we would love ourselves.
3) Then we can move on to our relationships with the people around us, our family members, our friends, the members of our community, the members of our church. With whom do we have wrong relationships that need to be set right? How can we do so?
4) Then we can move on to the structures in society that may not be just. Are there laws or procedures that are unethical? Are some groups in society being marginalized or persecuted? At this point, we are moving into the territory of the heroes mentioned before. Like tossing a pebble into a lake, we begin with ourselves and God and move outward in larger and larger circles until we are concerned with society at large.
Of course, all of this justice seeking is hard work. And hard work requires from us persistence and perseverance. And persistence and perseverance are fed by faith: faith in a just, holy, merciful, and responsive God.
There will be times in life when our faith in God falters, when we become overwhelmed, frustrated, and discouraged. Even Jesus had his moments, in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross. It is at those times that we depend on the faith of others. We depend on the prayers of others for us. We let others carry us for a while until our faith revives, our prayer gets back on its feet, and we march forward renewed and refreshed to fight the good fight of love.
My daily devotional for October 14 reminded me that suffering is inevitable, but that “pain and problems are opportunities for [us] to demonstrate our trust in [Jesus].” As the author of the devotional, Sarah Young, reminded me, when suffering strikes, we are to remember that God is sovereign and can bring good out of everything. We are not to run from pain or hide from problems. Instead, we are to accept adversity in Jesus’ name, offering it up to him for his purposes. In this way, our suffering gains meaning and draws us closer to God. Joy emerges from the ashes of adversity through our trust.
We will close our service today singing the hymn, “Lead on, O King Eternal.” As the hymn states, we are led by the Eternal King, whose grace makes us strong and whose life lights our way. May we trust our leader and his light. Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson at the Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, October 16, 2016, the Twenty-second Sunday After Pentecost.
*The image is from http://www.netforlife.net/Home.aspx?RedDate=10/17/2010%2012:00:00%20AM#
 Cousar, Gaventa, McCann, and Newsome. Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV – Year C. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994, 565.
 Howard Zehr, Changing Lense: A New Focus for Crime and Justice, Herald Press, 1990.
 Cousar, Gaventa, McCann, and Newsome, 565.
 Young, Sarah. Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004, 301.