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Donald Phillipps


Donald Phillipps explored justice texts
in a presentation to Mornington and Glenaven —
October 2004

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"The first time I had to present my defence, there was not a single witness to support me.
Every one of them deserted me."       II Timothy 4: 16

The two stories in Luke 18 which the lectionary set down for last Sunday and today have one particular thing in focus – the nature of justice – and that is what I want to explore with you now

When I first began my university studies in Wellington over fifty years ago, my friends who aspired to be lawyers were required to pass a paper in Roman Law before they were permitted to proceed beyond their first year.   It was taken for granted that a knowledge of the origins of Western legal practice was essential for anyone wishing to practise

It was not just a matter of being able to quote Latin phrases to demonstrate their acquaintance with an ancient profession.   I don’t doubt that lawyers and judges then had an awareness of and respect for tradition – theirs was a craft based on the wisdom of the ages and well-established precedent.   Such a respect for the past is not confined to Western legal practice – let me share an account of a trial, within recent enough history, in the country we now know as Iraq:

Opposite the door (of the village hall) sat the Cadi, the local judge, half buried in cushions, and surrounded by secretaries.  The front of the hall was crowded with people, each demanding that his case be heard first.  The wise ones whispered to the secretaries and slipped over bribes, and had their business quickly despatched.  In the meanwhile a poor woman broke through the orderly proceedings with loud cries for justice.  She was sternly bidden to be quiet, and reproachfully told that she came every day.  "And so I will do," she loudly exclaimed, "until the Cadi hears my case."  At length, at the end of the session, the Cadi impatiently asked, "What does the woman want?"  Her story was soon told.  The tax collector was demanding payment from her, although her only son was on military service.  The case was quickly decided and her patience was rewarded.

Last week’s Gospel lesson was about exactly that same thing, about an unscrupulous judge and an importunate widow – in a perverse way, the judge’s desire to be rid of harassment meant that the woman had a judgement made in her favour.   Justice, for the woman, came because the judge wanted quiet, rather than because he had a concern for the widow’s rights - it was self-serving justice, if justice it was – who knows whether right was on her side.

The observer of that more recent incident that I shared with you added this comment at the end: ‘If she had had money to pay a clerk she would have obtained justice much sooner.’   Who would deny that money still buys justice!

A few weeks ago it was announced that an agency of the United States Government was now ready to proceed a case against two of the principal cigarette manufacturers.   The figure they were going to ask for in damages (based on the alleged dishonesty of the manufacturers in denying the health dangers in smoking) was astronomical – something like 280 billion dollars as I recall.

The comment was made, (a sort of throwaway at the end of the news item) that the case was likely to last at least six years, and given what is at stake that seems an optimistic hope.   Compared to that, the decision of the Serious Fraud Office to take Messrs Richwhite and Fay and others to court on the charge of insider trading or some such offence to the value of thirty million or so seems small beer.   And the current uproar over Mr John Tamihere’s purported golden handshake of 195,000 dollars sounds positively footling.   But surely there’s a principle at stake which has something to do with justice, and especially with even-handed justice, so that the rich are as liable to prosecution as are those less well off.

The administration of justice was as important an issue in Jesus’ time as it is for us today, and I have a sense that we are at a watershed in New Zealand society at this very moment in our understanding of what it means.   There is wisdom in long tradition – maybe within the practice of law respect for tradition has greater warrant than almost anywhere else, theology or the knowledge of religious truth not excluded.

I have quite some uneasiness about what is happening in this regard – my concern being to do with an apparently unquestioned belief that we know what is best for ourselves.   There is a larger and very experienced world out there, and I wonder, for example, whether the wisdom that was available on appeal to the Privy Council is always matched within our own legal profession.   What is meant by justice cannot ever, in my judgement, be confined by national boundaries and cultural assumptions – we belong to a world crying out for justice, and we need to listen to other voices

We have to look at this crucial question with eyes and minds open to any and every possibility – I think that’s exactly what Jesus meant when he advised his disciples to be as wise as serpents.

Ours is an age of profound social crisis – if peace, for example, were to be established in Iraq or Afghanistan would we dare believe it was permanent?   If we hide behind the curtain of history, saying that the present is no different from times past we delude ourselves.   One social scientist has even said that ‘Today’s crisis is different from any in previous history because it is global, progressive and could possibly be terminal.’

I am not despairing, but for the sake of reality, for the sake of our own future, we simply must to be honest about the injustice that is perpetuated in our world.   For all our technological advances there is economic oppression which deprives people of food and clothing, shelter, clean water, medical care and education – is that justice?   The days of colonialism and slavery may be over but racial oppression still lingers, most tragically in the economic exploitation of two thirds of the world by the other third - is that justice?   There is the oppression of women – based on an age-old and unquestioned male self-view which finds expression in social structures of dominance and submission – is that justice?   There is the oppression of those who are beginning to find a new freedom in their understanding of their own sexuality – is that justice?

There is religious oppression – by those so enmeshed in a secular world that they cannot accept, and even actively oppose, anything that seeks to perpetuate what they dismiss as old myths – is that justice?   There is another religious oppression based on fundamentalism – a system of belief that allows no questioning, and would even destroy those who dare to question or differ – is that justice?   And finally there is nationalistic oppression, based on the extreme belief that one country and culture is the model for all others, and that the rest of the world, for its own good, must conform – is that justice?   How potent this last is, when is backed by immense economic power and specious arguments about democracy - the last two centuries have witnessed a succession of such attempts at dominance.  

When I set down this list of oppressions I wondered what possible relevance they had to this small and seemingly helpless part of the family of God.   Isn’t the worship of God about hope and peace and love – why talk about impossibly complex issues that are beyond our power to affect?   But how can we shut out the clamour of the world – how can be remain unaware or even uninvolved in these great matters.   Is the Good News no more than you and I being in a special, individual, safe relationship with the creator God through allegiance to God’s son, our saviour, Jesus of Nazareth?

And as I wrote that sentence I felt I was being quite hypocritical.   It is so easy to recite the familiar phrases of our faith – to mouth them without thinking – to burden God with our vain repetitions.   Let’s, instead, put a different stress on one of the most familiar phrases in all the teaching of Jesus – that God loved the world so much that Jesus, God’s son, became part of ordinary, frail, rebellious, perverse humanity, in order to save the world.

So, for a moment, let’s keep open our windows and our doors on that threatening, dangerous world – for even if seeds of destruction have been sown others are growing that we can nurture and protect.   Our scripture this morning provided us with two pictures.   The first, from the supposed letter of Paul to Timothy, speaks of a court of law, with the accused, Paul, lacking anyone to give evidence in his favour.   This most probably took place in Rome, and, it has been suggested, illustrates the Roman concern that justice should be fairly administered.   For when Paul first came before a judge, not one person was there to give evidence on his behalf – and, it seems, the judge decided to defer the case to a second hearing when Paul would have that support.

Paul ascribed his reprieve to God, standing by him and giving him power – I dare suggest that there is a place for us in all this - when great, or small, nations are on trial, even the most humble, who have justice on their side, have right to be heard.

But today’s Gospel story gives an even more powerful picture of what justice is all about.   Here are two disparate individuals – a Pharisee and a tax-collector – as far apart on the moral scale, according to the devout Jew, as possible.   Though the Pharisee is often enough the villain of the piece they weren’t always bad men – it was just that they, by the very nature of their beliefs, were separated from the real world of suffering and oppression.

And let’s not idealise the tax collector, parasites more often than not, making money from the poor by extortion and dishonesty.   This is no court of law, judgement is not passed – but for the tax-collector there is a sense of assurance that he is, as Jesus said, ‘at rights with God.   And why – because he admitted his sinfulness and threw himself on God’s mercy.

Is it unimaginable that great nations might own up to, take responsibility for, their sinfulness – is it unthinkable that a leader might seek forgiveness on behalf of his or her people for wrongs done?

For what more is asked of nations than of individuals, so that they can be ‘at rights with God’ - than to act justly, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly before God.


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