Short Stories by Jesus: The Widow & the Unjust Judge

November 12, 2017
by Rev. Melanie Homan

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(Short Stories by Jesus Sermon Series)

“The Widow and the Unjust Judge”

November 12, 2017

Rev. Melanie Homan

Luke 18:1-8  Then Jesus[a] told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’”[b] And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 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. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

I was emailing back and forth this week with Jim Gaughan, who is a retired United Methodist pastor here at Lake Harriet, and I was lamenting. As a pastor, I listen to the worries and concerns and frustrations of others, and sometimes, I need to vent. I’ve found that retired pastors are good for that! So, I was venting and lamenting. “Jim – what am I supposed to do. I did the soul wrenching work of writing my ‘thoughts and prayers and gun violence’ sermon a month ago, but here we are again, over and over. What am I supposed to do?!?!? Plus, the connection between domestic violence and shootings is particularly concerning to me, and now I have to figure out what to say about the widow and the unjust judge.”

We each need someone we can go to with our burdens. I’m lucky to have Jim. If I had been more strategic and less plaintive, I could have asked him to preach. He probably would have said “yes”, because that’s just the kind of person Jim is, but I didn’t ask. It’s my job to figure out what to say. Just as importantly, though, he provided a listening ear.

Hear these words from the Book of Lamentations:

“My eyes are spent with weeping;

my stomach churns;

my bile is poured out on the ground because of the destruction of my people,

because infants and babes faint in the streets of the city.”

These words – from another time and another place – they are our words.

“Cry aloud to the Lord!

O wall of daughter Zion!

Let tears stream down like a torrent day and night!

Give yourself no rest, your eyes no respite!

Arise, cry out in the night, at the beginning of the watches!

Pour out your heart like water before the presence of the Lord!

Lift up your hands to him for the lives of your children,

Who faint for hunger at the head of every street.”

The laments come from the people after the destruction of Jerusalem, when all they knew was suffering.

I feel an affinity to this community from ages past because we bear witness to the suffering of others that keeps coming, wave after wave, crashing over us. Not “us” as in Lake Harriet United Methodist Church, but “us” as a human community, the world over, who suffer the consequences of violence, hunger, illness, and war, over and over. There is no break from it these days. One could argue that there has never been a break from it and that what has changed is just our awareness of suffering as a result of the 24/7 news and social media.

We’ve had 24/7 news for quite some time, though, and social media, as well. Somehow, it feels different this year. It feels constant and heavy.

The good news is that I have people like Jim that I can vent with, so that you all don’t have to hear it. Oh wait…I guess you sort of did! I think it’s important to name our reality and to find the places in our spiritual history that resonate with it. So, along with the people who lamented the suffering and destruction of Jerusalem, we lament and we cry out to God.

We cry out to God, sort of like the persistent widow. In this story we focus on today, we find that she will not stop. She cries out, day and night, seeking justice. She Will…Not…Stop. However, we find that she is not crying out to God, she’s crying out to a judge. But, not just any judge. This is a corrupt judge and one who doesn’t care even a little bit about her or her problems. The judge is described as someone who neither feared God nor had respect for anyone. The judge Does…Not…Care. Yet, the widow persists. She will not give up.

It’s the widow’s persistence that resulted in justice. Her persistence didn’t transform the corrupt judge. It didn’t make him change his mind and decide to start following a new set of moral guidelines. It didn’t cause him to CARE. Justice came, even without a miraculous personal transformation for the judge. In this case, justice came simply because the judge did not want to be bothered by the widow any longer. His concerns were selfish, but the widow probably didn’t care because her persistence brought justice.

The persistent widow got the justice she sought, even if the judge remained corrupt. The reason she received the justice wasn’t because she prayed hard enough, as Luke would suggest. Sometimes we pray really hard and we don’t get what we pray for, no matter how much we pray. God doesn’t just “give” us the things we want, whether it is healing, or a job, or direction in life. We risk reading this parable and coming to the conclusion that all we need to do is annoy God with our constant begging and praying to get the thing we really want and God will eventually let us have it, just like the corrupt judge. But, God is NOT like the corrupt judge. Perhaps the reason the widow received justice was due to her trust that God is ALWAYS moving the world toward justice. Her persistence was a sign of her TRUST in God to eventually bring about the justice that is sought.

Amy-Jill Levine has a different take on this parable. I tried walking with her down the path she took the widow and the judge, but I just couldn’t walk that path. From her perspective, neither character is good. The judge is a selfish mess, but so is the widow. For Levine, the widow is not seeking justice, she’s seeking vengeance. Vengeance and justice are two very different things. The view is that she’s threatening the judge with violence. Instead of annoying and “wearing him down”, Levine interprets the Greek to mean the widow threatens to “give him a black eye”. If you look at it from that perspective, it certainly changes the look and feel of the parable. Levine tries to argue that the widow might not have been vulnerable, as we assume she was, but rather that she was “wealthy, powerful, and vengeful.”[i]

I found that I couldn’t go there with her because much Biblical scholarship supports the notion that widows, like orphans and foreigners, were groups of people that particularly needed to be looked after and cared for. They were vulnerable, and often oppressed and destitute.

John Pilch tells us that “The word for ‘widow’ in Hebrew means ‘silent one’ or ‘one unable to speak.’ In the patriarchal Mediterranean world, males alone play a public role. Women did not speak on their own behalf. So, this “silent one” is acting outside the normal bounds when she finds her voice and speaks up for herself. Maybe it’s because she knows that there’s a special place for her in the heart of God, as the Bible often says. Widows, orphans, and aliens are all very close to the heart of God and the focus of God’s concern.”[ii]

Bernard Brandon Scott, in his book on the parables, calls this parable “You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down”. He argues that “widow” was not the word used to describe every woman whose husband had died. A “widow” was, specifically, someone who also had no means of financial support and needed special protection and support from the community.[iii] Judges were supposed to give priority to the cases of orphans and widows. If a widow, orphan, or foreigner was abused or wronged in any way, it was a sign, according to the Hebrew prophets Ezekiel and Zechariah, that the people had abandoned God.

Levine can say what she will, but I think this parable is about persistence. You can’t keep a good person down. I also think that it’s about trust. Trust that our God IS just, and that we can trust what is “just” will eventually come, even if we can’t see it.

This widow wasn’t the only one in scriptures who was persistent in expecting justice to prevail. Anna was also a widow. Anna was persistent in her trust of God. Luke says that she was a prophet. She was very old, she had lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple, but worshipped night and day, fasting and praying. When Jesus’ parents brought him to the temple, she began praising God and speaking to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. Both of these women were persistent in prayer and presence, expecting justice and redemption, and they received it from unlikely sources – a corrupt judge and an infant.

So, the more I think about it, the more thankful I am for persistent people – people who keep seeking justice, no matter what; people who show up day and night to pray for and insist on the redemption of the world – because that’s what we need right now. We need people who simply won’t give up when the suffering and struggles seem overwhelming and insurmountable.

Throughout our scriptures, such as in the Book of Lamentations, whenever we find lament, we also find praise. After all the crying, day and night, the stomach churning and bile poured out, there are also these words from Lamentations.

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, God’s mercies never come to an end;

they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.”

The Lord is good to those who wait for him,

To the soul that seeks him.

He will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love;

For he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.”

I believe the widow is the patron saint of anyone who speaks for the voiceless, who cries out against injustice, who trusts that God is just, and won’t. give. Up. So, keep waking up each day, pursuing and crying out for justice – whether you seek an end to gun violence, or want people to have a living wage, or ensure the safe care of children who are experiencing abuse. Whatever pulls at your heart, keep at it! Be persistent, and do not despair. Justice will come. We put our faith and trust in a just God.

That’s my reflection on the parable for today. After writing all of this, I had a follow up email from Jim. Here was his response to my ponderings on what to do with the widow and the judge:

“The parable of the widow and unjust judge strikes me as a hopeful message amidst the helplessness we feel regarding mass shootings, sexual assaults, domestic violence, police shootings of the unarmed, wars, economic inequality and all the other evils, represented by the judge who respected no human or God. It seems to me that it reminds folks in the anti-gun and other protest movements not to tire and surrender to the temptation to throw in the towel in the face of the seeming inevitability of such evil.  In the end, “We shall overcome”. But, in the interim, between the “already but not yet” time in which we live (Advent theme), encouragement is provided here to keep fighting the good fight, running the race, and keeping the faith, which is what the Christian community is all about. Keep on truckin’.”

To this I replied and said, “Great minds think alike!”

Keep on truckin’, you persistent people of God!!!

Amen.

[i] Levine, Amy-Jill, Short Stories by Jesus, page 250.

[ii] Huey, Kate, http://www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit_weekly-seeds_to-speak-and-be-heard

[iii] Scott, Bernard Brandon, Hear then the Parable, pages 180-181.