Us in Justice
(Luke 18: 1-8)
Back when I was an Assistant District Attorney for the Smith County District Attorney’s office in Tyler, Texas, they had a saying the prosecutors used to use during the penalty phase of a trial to convince the jurors to assess a stiff sentence. If the defense attorney, in his closing argument during the punishment phase, made a pitch for leniency for his client, the assistant district attorney in rebuttal would say: “There’s me in mercy, but us in justice!” The ADA would then rail on saying that this defendant, who committed this offensive crime in your community, wants mercy. He’s saying that he, me, wants mercy. What about us? We want justice and the one way to insure that we, us, gets justice is to give this defendant a sentence he won’t soon forget that will serve as a deterrent to him and anybody else who is thinking about breaking the law in Smith County. As a defense attorney practicing in Smith County, I would try and carefully craft my pitch to the jury but, no matter how I tried to make a case for leniency, I knew the “justice for us” was coming. More often than not, the jury would dutifully return with a sentence my client would not soon forget as he would have plenty of time in prison to think about it. Where’s the justice in that I would think as I packed my briefcase and trudged back to my office?
Justice, God’s justice, is a major theme in both the Old and New Testaments. In Isaiah 3: 10-11, the prophet says, Tell the righteous it will be well with them, for they will enjoy the fruits of their deeds. Woe to the wicked! Disaster is upon them! They will be paid back for what their hands have done. The prophet is telling us that eventually the righteous will receive God’s reward and the wicked will receive their punishment. God will bring about justice in the end, and he will reward those who have been faithful.
But what about now? What about those folks who need and deserve justice now? Those who need relief from oppression and unjust conditions like poverty, hunger, homelessness, impoverished living conditions, disease, famine and war? Do we just shrug our shoulders and say that one day they will receive justice and their oppressors will get what is coming to them?
In our scripture reading for today, Jesus tells his disciples a parable about their need to pray continuously and not be discouraged. He tells them about a certain city where there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected the people. Also, in that city, there was a persistent widow who kept coming to him asking for justice in her case against her adversary. For a while he refused but finally said to himself, I don’t fear God or respect people, but I will give this woman justice because she keeps bothering me. Otherwise, there will be no end to her coming here and embarrassing me. The Lord said, Listen to what the unjust judge says. Won’t God provide justice to his chosen people who cry out to him day and night? Will he be slow to help them? I tell you, he will give them justice quickly. But when the Human One comes, will he find faithfulness on earth?
This is a parable about two kinds of people. You have the widow who represents the poor, the powerless, the disenfranchised. Widows and orphans were among the most vulnerable of all God’s people, and both the Old Testament prophets and New Testament disciples insisted that these needy people be properly cared for. The judge represents those people in power, those in authority who have their’s and will do what it takes to keep it, to maintain their status quo. They have been placed in positions of authority and have the means to remedy the problems of the people over which they have authority, yet their own self-preservation and self-interests are their top priorities.
The prophet Isaiah continues in verses 12-15, saying, As for my people, oppressors strip them and swindlers rule them. My people, your rulers mislead you and confuse your paths. The Lord arises to accuse; he stands to judge the peoples. The Lord will enter into judgment with the elders and princes of his people. You yourselves have devoured the vineyard; the goods stolen from the poor are in your houses. How dare you crush my people and grind the faces of the poor? says the Lord God of heavenly forces. Justice is part of God’s nature; it’s the way he runs the universe. Justice is a natural desire of every person. Even as sinners, we all want justice for ourselves. When government and church leaders are unjust, the poor and powerless suffer. Thus, they are hindered from worshipping God. God holds the poor in high regard. They are the ones most likely to turn to him for help and comfort. Injustice, then, attacks God’s children. When we do nothing to help the oppressed, we are in fact joining with the oppressor. An act of omission. Because we follow a just God, we must uphold justice.
So where do we stand as United Methodists on this issue of justice? Section D of paragraph 165 of our Social Principles, Justice and Law, found in our Book of Discipline, says that persons and groups must feel secure in their life and right to live within a society if order is to be achieved and maintained by law. We denounce as immoral an ordering of life that perpetuates injustice and impedes the pursuit of peace. Peoples and nations feel secure in the world community when law, order, and human rights are respected and upheld. “Must feel secure” implies to me a responsibility on the part of someone in authority to guarantee that they can live in a society ruled by laws that are applied evenly and justly. Anything less, we Methodists should find immoral and unacceptable. The section continues by stating, we commend the efforts of all people in all countries who pursue world peace through law. We endorse international aid and cooperation on all matters of need and conflict. As Methodists, even here in Jefferson County, we are concerned about peace and justice all around the world. Section D concludes by stating, we affirm our historic concern for the world as our parish and seek for all persons and peoples full and equal membership in a truly world community. The world is our parish, the fellowship of all Christians, and what happens there concerns us here.
Furthermore, section H in paragraph 164 of our Book of Discipline addresses Criminal and Restorative Justice which, in part, says, we further support measures designed to remove the social conditions that lead to crime, and we encourage continued positive interaction between law enforcement officials and members of the community at large. We are part of the community at large so that means us. It is imperative that we become engaged and involved in what is going on around us here in our community. There are social conditions that can be met and remedied that, if done right, will have a direct impact on many of the crimes that are committed such as theft and physical violence due in part to substance abuse, unemployment, homelessness and poverty. Section H goes on to state, in the love of Christ, who came to save those who are lost and vulnerable, we urge the creation of a genuinely new system for the care and restoration of victims, offenders, criminal justice officials, and the community as a whole. Restorative justice grows out of biblical authority, which emphasizes a right relationship with God, self, and community. When such relationships are violated or broken through crime, opportunities are created to make things right.
Last week I had the honor and pleasure of marching in the Rhody Parade as a part of the Theraputic Court entry. These were participants and graduates of Drug Court and Mental Health Court. These are programs designed to address the underlying conditions that play a part in these people’s eventual entanglement with the criminal justice system. We are entering another election cycle where candidates will be running for public office to represent our interests in government. They are our modern-day judges. Will we elect judges like the one in today’s scripture reading who don’t respect the people, all of the people, they are elected to serve or will we elect officials who are compassionate and show more than a passing concern for the lost and vulnerable who live among us? When we have an opportunity to speak to one of these candidates who solicit our vote, we should make sure that we, as United Methodists, are very concerned about the least, the last and the lost and want to know what concrete ideas they have to address the unjust conditions that negatively impact the lives of the helpless and hopeless. Don’t tell us what you can’t do, tell us what you can and will do.
The Wesleyan optimism of grace should impel those of us within the Wesleyan tradition to pray for justice and never lose heart, because God can be trusted to establish justice if we persist in prayer and when the opportunity arises for us to make a difference, to strike a blow for justice and stand up for what is right and just, we will be those people. We will be the Us in Justice.
Please pray with me.
Most gracious and merciful God, we know you hear the persistent pleas of your people who cry out for justice. We know that you care and that you will answer their prayers. Use us as your agents of change to be the answer to their prayers and to help bring them the justice they deserve as your children. Show us where we can help in making those changes and, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, give us the tools and determination to press those whose responsibility and duty it is to care and provide for the less fortunate who only seek the basic necessities of life and human dignity. Continue to use us daily in being your disciples here on earth who toil tirelessly for the transformation of the world. In the name of your most loving son, Jesus Christ, we pray, Amen.