A Matter of Justice

Posted: July 19, 2016 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 9C 17.07.2016

Luke 10: 25-37

A Matter of Justice


The churches discussions around the place of women in society, the place of women in the church and the obvious need for equality and justice have led to this story being a crucial one in the life of the church and I want to revisit it again today both as a matter of justice and an example of justice. The context of this passage in Luke is that it follows the Good Samaritan and precedes the Lord’s Prayer, it is in the presence of the disciples, not necessarily the 12 as it may include the 72. I want to ask that you hang on to that context right through the story because I want to suggest that underlying the story is a message about justice. The story has two major players, Martha and Mary but the audience is the disciples.

In the traditional presentation of the story, Mary seems to be the ideal disciple because she spends her time in devotion instead of activity; Martha seems to be the more emotional even hysterical woman who has lost perspective; and Jesus seems to be someone who takes all of his provisions for granted. It’s a bit like the preacher who goes on and on about not working too hard in order to take time to listen to Jesus, only to go home and sit at the dinner table without any thought as to how much work went into preparing the dinner which is on the table.

Because hospitality is an important virtue in Middle East culture we need to approach this text with a little more sympathy for Martha and what she is experiencing. In the end, the story makes it clear that it is Mary whom has chosen the good and necessary part. But, does that mean that sitting is better than serving? Is the issue of this passage the question about the value of the contemplative listener or the dutiful activist or is there something else at play here? I want to suggest there might be. I wonder if it is about doing what is needed in the moment. Having just argued for the radical response of a ‘Good Samaritan’ an upside down response to culture, in fact an advocating of a religiously dangerous response, we need to ask; is the writer now removing the abstract nature of the story and bringing the reader down to the everyday and interpreting a further development of the justice issues surrounding equity of status. Putting them into the context of the hospitality mode or situational justice sometimes we need to listen, to be Mary and sometimes we need to act, the Good Samaritan, and Martha?

The story here pits women against each other as if there is a choice to be made, but is there? If we censure Martha too harshly, she may abandon serving altogether, and if we commend Mary too profusely, she may sit there forever.  This suggests there is a time to go and do, and there is a time to listen and reflect.  Knowing which and when is a matter of discernment. Here we have the nature of Justice unfolding as a living everyday matter. Being in the moment is about looking beyond the presenting, looking beyond the issues of duty and routine for a way of being just, looking beyond the presenting need for closure based on retribution and seeking justice. Seeing revenge for what it is, just another round in the right verses wrong cycle, rather than reaching a point of justice. Justice in its seeing beyond, uncovers the injustice, holds it up to scrutiny within its context and provides a way through. In so doing it breaks down social, religious, economic and political issues to do what is needed.

Another way of putting this is to say that the message the disciples are hearing in this story is that breaking down social barriers is required to do what is needed.  In that culture women were not allowed to sit at the feet of teachers, but in the story Martha does, because that is what was needed at that moment. Faith is not about being the perfect host- which Martha is – it is about being open to relationship. Hospitality is more than invitation into the house- it is invitation into the soul. Hospitality is about a willingness to listen and be changed by that relationship.

The other point to consider here is that Justice is not sitting out there waiting to be found. Just as revenge struggles to provide closure as opposed to a continuation of the pain so Justice is like the words “God” or “love,” the term “justice” does not explain, but must be explained. All three words, in fact, share something of the same fate, insofar as each is taken as foundational to human social life and language even though there is little consensus of what any the terms mean. Each describes something universally familiar, yet fundamentally inexplicable. D J Hall in his book ‘Feasting On The Word” says something about this need for situational focus. He might say, of Mary that, ‘Activism without contemplation ends in aimless “doing” and that that doing usually aggravates existing difficulties…On the other hand, of Mary, “only the unthinking could fail to recognize the myriad ways in which thought—including very serious biblical, theological, and other scholarship—regularly serves the duplicitous purposes of those who, their rhetoric notwithstanding, simply do not wish to ‘get involved.’” Neither response is complete in itself, both responses need a purpose beyond themselves. Alternatively we can see that a triangulation is going on as Martha is not focused on being hospitable or serving, she is rather focused on what her sister is not doing and Martha does not address the issue directly to Mary, but instead triangulates with Jesus who refuses to participate.

Justice seems to be a desirable state as well as the enactment of ideals. But let’s return to the suggestion that the issue of our story is less about the different response of the two women and more about the balance or the outcome of the story a sense of justice perhaps? Let’s also remember that in spite of the ambiguities justice is a commonly used word with lots of meanings. We hear of bringing people to justice as if it is a place, Justice Kennedy as if it is a person, senior justice writer as if it is a condition and tipping the scales of justice as if it is a balancing act. We also hear of rallies for justice as if it is a deficiency that needs rectification, we hear of people anticipating justice as if it is some sort of retribution.

In short justice is a concept upon which many things exist. It is invoked by politicians and people. It is utilized by religious adherents and secular atheists. It is spoken by victims, perpetrators, and legal representatives. It takes place within families and in prisons. It restores and it punishes. It is demanded by people at the margins and it is touted by those in the center of power. The question is how can such a word be utilized meaningfully in all of these contexts?

One approach is to see our passage as tipping the scales towards some expressions rather than others. In this case Mary’s approach is preferred. If there is such a thing as divine justice then there can be a differing approach to notions of retributive and distributive justice, normative ethics, social contract theory, social justice, among others. I think our text rather than seeking a uniform definition, has the aim of developing a functional approach based on the need to ask questions that discern just what someone might intend (and not intend) in a particular use of the word “justice.” This is the only way perhaps to value the scales which allow for a weighted-ness to lower or raise the outcome, the outcome being a just response.

When talking about the scales of justice, like the story of the two women and their different yet valid approaches to hospitality the scales have a deeper place in our thinking. Lady Justice is the only cardinal virtue to be memorialized in stone and paint. While her cousins Temperance, Prudence, and Fortitude primarily inhabit the pages of myth, Lady Justice adorns classroom walls, lurks on album covers, and oversees courtrooms. In ancient Egypt, Lady Justice was known as Maat, a philosophical hieroglyph meaning levelness or evenness that evolved to a personification of the “interrelated order of rightness” (Karenga 2004, 7). The Egyptian Book of the Dead presents Maat as the “goddess of unalterable laws” depicted in female form with her signature feather (Budge [1960] 1990, 185). Egyptian funerary art depicts the heart of an individual being weighed against the feather of maat—a role later delegated to Isis—as the measure of one’s participation in a harmonious order, determining if one passes to the world beyond.

In Greece she became the goddess Themis, consort and counselor to Zeus, and the original oracle at Delphi, commanding social assembly, inner balance, and ecological order. “Her very name means an ancient, divine law, a right order established by nature itself for the living together of gods and humans (Donleavy and Shearer 2008, 1). The Romans combined the story of Themis with her daughter Dike together to form Justitia, or righteousness, immortalized today often with blindfold, sword, and scales. Sometimes she is accompanied “by a dog (for fidelity), a snake (for hatred) . . . [and] an ostrich, whose supposed ability to digest anything was seen by the ancients as a useful attribute for the machinery of justice” (Kennedy, online).

Among these images of dogs, swords, and feathers, is the question just what precisely do the scales balance for us now? Maat and Themis weighed the individual heart and mind against the interrelated and “eternally consistent” harmony of nature (Hall [1928] 2003, 130). Popular contemporary definitions place truth in one side and fairness in the other. In today’s judicial system a blindfolded Lady Justice promises impartial decision, free of whims and prejudice, weighing evidence of support or opposition in a given case. But that is merely one form of institutional justice. The scales invite other comparisons between punishment and mercy, between what one offers the world and what is received, and between inherent value and distributed goods. When we call for justice in the streets or in our communities, what exactly are we seeking to balance?

Most contemporary explanations suggest that the truths of society rest in one scale and fairness—or the attempts to fairly enact those truths—rests in the other. But what is the content of and source for these foundational truths?

Majid Khadduri suggests in The Islamic Conception of Justice that the scales and contents of justice are relative based on values of a given society. For example, the Prophet Muhammad sought to reform specific tribal norms by improving the status of women, the treatment of slaves, and prohibiting infanticide (Khadduri 8-9). The New Testament challenges a different set of norms that marginalized women, foreigners, and the sick; Jesus also critiques the rich, imagines uplift of the poor, and seeks to extend merciful care to those in need (Foster, n. p.).

Whatever the relative values, Khadduri invites us to consider two important categories for these sources of justice: one human, and one transcendent. The first “assumes that men [sic] are capable of determining their individual or collective interests” and thus able to “establish a public order under which . . . scales of justice are likely to evolve by tacit agreement or by formal action” (Khadduri 1). The second “presupposes that man [sic] is essentially weak and therefore incapable of rising above personal failings,” thus “a superhuman or divine authority is invoked to provide either the sources or the basic principles of the public order under which a certain standard of justice is established” (Khadduri 2).

In his analysis of justice in Jewish tradition, Haim Shapira suggests that the Torah and Talmud put hybridize (275) Divine justice and human judgment. Here, certain human judgments represent divine decision such as casting lots or trials by ordeal to determine guilt without human intervention (277-284). If you were thrown into a river, for instance, and survived, you proved your innocence according to the judgment of God (283). In human judgment, courts and judges (not prophets and priests) heard cases according to laws and evidence. God was implicit, rather than explicit, in this legal system; God did not decide guilt or innocence, yet a judge must be fair as a delegate of the Divine, and a judge might consult God for help with a decision (287-289).

Still another example of transcendent justice is that of karma or a natural law of cause of effect “governing physical laws such as gravity, but also as a moral law governing action” held in various forms by many Indian/Asian philosophical systems (Long 1). According to Jeffery Long, “If one engages in actions that are violent, or motivated by hatred, selfishness, or egotism, the universe will respond in kind, producing suffering in the one who is causing suffering to others” (1). He goes on: “Similarly, if one engages in actions that are benevolent, pure, and kind, the universe will respond benevolently, and one will have pleasant experiences” (1). Karma offers a form of transcendent, universal justice without a deity that seeks to explain why there seems to be so much injustice in the world. What one has done in a past life bears karmic consequences or benefit in this life, and how we act toward others today determines the quality of our future. Justice is somewhat self-inflicted in this natural causal matrix.

Transcendent and human sources are regularly conflated in our language about justice (putting one’s hand on a Bible in a court of law or the retributive adage “what goes around comes around”), obscuring the sources and norms that we claim to strive for or lack. It is important to identify these multiple sources that lurk within contemporary images of or calls for justice. If the truths, or normative ideals, of a society are in one side of the scales, it is imperative to identify the content and the source of those norms.

In other words we can return to our story and see that the choices between the two women’s approaches to hospitality suggest that foundational social values that become central in a specific context (who does what and which way is better?) can provide justice or injustice as notions of inherent dignity (who has it; who does not) and context-specific morality emerges and evolves. This happens in Jewish, Islamic, and Christian communities in which there is an abundance of injustice. One might again say our motto that, honouring the mind acknowledges the context, living the questions acknowledges the ambiguities and exploring the adventure of humanity creates a just response.

In the face of our apparent inability to get it right and alongside our best efforts to be careful and to listen to experience, the traditions we carry with us maintain a transcendent or ‘more than’ judge, that will somehow dole out the punishments and rewards people really deserve. One might argue that religious systems hybridize divine and human judgment yet retain a link between the two that is similar to that which is challenged by a social contract theory that necessitates a higher opinion of human capabilities to understand and agree upon mutually principles to govern a functioning, fair society.

Maybe then to summarize the challenges of the story of Mary and Martha we might hear what Immanuel Kant suggested when he wrote. “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end”. One cannot love the sinner while condemning the sin. Mary and Martha were right in their actions. As my title inferred; it is a matter of Justice. Amen.

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