St Andrew, Glencairn
Glencairn Methodist Church
In the current series of Strictly Come Dancing there is a male celebrity called “Judge Rinder”. Now “Judge Rinder” is a British reality court show that has aired daily on ITV for a couple of years. It stars criminal barrister Robert Rinder as the judge, who oversees a variety of cases, such as disputes over basic consumer issues, business/personal/neighbourhood disputes, and allegations of negligence. I’ve seen this daytime programme a few times but not yet have has the interest to watch it all the way through.
Anyway, Robert Rinder has chooses to dance under his TV name – perhaps he feels he is better known to the public this way. So far (31st October) he is still in the competition.
In his courtroom, a person comes with a complaint about another person, who also comes to defend him- or her-self against the complaint. This mimics the situation in the real world. After hearing all the evidence, the Judge gives his judgement for one or other of the warring parties. I doubt that this TV performance would have any standing in law, but I expect that the participants have agreed to accept Judge Rinder’s verdict and judgement.
In real life an accuser, called the plaintive, accuses someone, called the accused or defendant, of some bad thing he or she is alleged to have done to the plaintive, such as slandering them. The plaintive takes a “civil action” against the defendant. Both parties may have a legal team to help them and the case is decided by a judge alone or a judge and jury. There are lots of fictional court cases and factual ones also on TV and in books.
However, if someone has broken the criminal law then the police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) will take a “criminal action” against the person suspected of breaking the law. Again this case will be decided by a judge alone or a judge and jury. A judgement will be made and a punishment pronounced.
In the ancient Jewish courts of law, all cases, both civil and criminal, were contested in the same way with a plaintive and a defendant. So if someone had, say, murdered your brother, then you had to take a court action against them. There were no police and no CPS. You had to call witnesses and produce other evidence to persuade a judge of the rightness of your case.
The first story we read, in Luke 18: 1-8, was like that. It is set in a court room with a widow bringing a charge against “her enemy”. She cries to the judge, “Judge my case. Vindicate me!” In other words give me justice, and we hear a lot in the news all the time about people with a grievance seeking “justice”.
The NIV and the NLT both call this the parable of the persistent widow. We read that she pesters the judge time and time again. But earlier versions of the Bible, and some more recent ones like the NRSV, call it the parable of the widow and the unjust judge. You see, Jesus makes it pretty clear that this judge doesn’t fear God and doesn’t care what the people think of him. (He must not have had to face re-election!) For a time this judge refused the woman her case, but eventually relented because he was fed up with her pestering. The widow’s persistence paid off. She was vindicated or "justified" and her enemy, who had wronged her, had to pay the penalty.
We can think of this as a parable about the need to persist in prayer. We may be suffering an injustice as many, many Christians and others suffer right now. And we pray to God for “justice”. We can read many such prayers in the psalms Psalm 3 and Psalm 22 are just two examples.
We can take comport that God will, in the end, vindicate us, because, if this unjust judge in our story, who is nothing like God, the complete opposite in fact, if he can vindicate the widow, then surely our God who loves us will vindicate us. St Paul writes that we are “justified by faith”, that is, by believing in God and his Son Jesus, are sins are forgiven when we confess and ask for God’s mercy. There is no need anymore for us to be punished for our sins; they are washed away and we are justified or “put right” with God.
What about the second story in the reading about the Pharisee and the tax collector? In Jewish eyes, the tax collector was a sinner, and in this story he recognises this and simply appeals to God for his merciful and gracious forgiveness. He offers to God “a broken and contrite spirit”, which the psalmist says is a sacrifice acceptable to God (Ps 51: 17).
Now look at the Pharisee! You can’t help but look at him as he is standing up in a clear space so that everyone could see him, and he prays out loud. I suppose you could call it a prayer of thanksgiving. “Dear God, thank you that I am not a sinner, I thank you that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector over there cowering in a corner! 12 I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.”
Isn’t that a pretty awful prayer? It’s all about "me" and “what a good boy I am”. And Jesus said, “I tell you, this tax collector, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Now we can see similarities between this parable and the court room case in the first story. The Pharisee has turned it into a contest, praising himself and condemning the tax collector by making the comparison. But Jesus revealed what the divine judge thought about all of this. The humble sinner was vindicated, rather than the outwardly good man. St Paul reminds us that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
These two parables together make a powerful statement about what St Paul calls “justification by faith.” The wider context is the final lawcourt, in which God’s chosen people will be vindicated after their life of suffering, holiness and service. Though enemies both outside and inside may denounce and attack them, God will act and show that they truly are his people.
This doesn’t mean that anyone can tell at any time exactly who God’s elect are simply by looking at the outward badges of virtue, or the keeping or the minutiae of the Jewish Old Testament Law, or indeed by the keeping of the minutiae of the laws that some churches seek to impose on their members.
If you want to see where this final vindication is anticipated in the present age, look for where there is genuine penitence, genuine casting of oneself on the mercies of God. What was it Jesus said about the penitent sinner? “This one went home vindicated", and these surely must be among the most comforting words in the whole gospel.
Ken (31 October 2016)
Note that this Message is inspired in part by Tom Wright's commentary "Luke for Everyone".
NOTE - Previous "Monthly Messages" are archived at http://glencairn.connor.anglican.org/previousmessages.htm