Jeremiah 31:27-34 ; Luke 18:1-18
Luke tells us that the first parable is about our need “to pray always and not to lose heart.” What does that mean to us? I suspect most of our prayers are for two things: for the health and well being of those we love, and ourselves; and secondly, we pray to accept the bad luck and hardship that befalls us. Both of these kinds of prayer are good and biblical. But they are both pretty passive. We pray for God to do something we are not able to do; or we pray for God just to stand by us as we deal with something distressing beyond our control. Passivity makes a lot of sense. We are supposed to rely on grace, not on our own works, as Paul and Martin Luther remind us. That’s especially important in our culture, since we are pretty obsessed with control. Sherry Sickler taught me the phrase: “Let go, and let God,” which is a kind of antidote to our obsession with being in control. We learn to turn things over to God. We may have a hard time doing that, but I think we all understand why that view of prayer makes sense.
But that’s not the way of prayer represented by the widow in this parable at all. So Luke is doing something interesting here, something we do not expect. Before he tells us the parable of the unjust judge and the widow, he explicitly says what it is about: “Then Jesus told them [the disciples, one can assume] a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” So we know that this parable is a commentary on what it means to pray, always. And as we’ll see, the parable has a twist and turn or two, like the parables of Jesus almost always do. But we can hardly understand this parable to mean that we should passively accept whatever happens as the will of God. It does not mean that we should take on the patience of Job: “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the Lord.” (And anyone who has read Job knows that, aside from that comment, he is the most impatient and cantankerous man of God in the whole Bible.) So let us attend carefully to this parable and see if it really is saying something very different about prayer than we expect to hear.
Sometimes the parable is called the “parable of the unjust judge.” The judge is an interesting character in the parable, to be sure. And so you might think that the point of this parable is to tell us something about God, by analogy to the judge in this story. That kind of works. God is sometimes pictured as a kind of judge; we might have an image in our minds of God sitting on the throne of judgment. In Jesus’ day, a judge was not like in our times, someone whose office is separated from the executive branch; our judges are very different figures from our presidents or our generals. But in biblical times, Kings were the typical figures who acted as judges. The king or ruler of the city would come out to the main gate of the city, and there hear cases in public from people quarreling and demanding justice. There are fine examples from the stories of King Solomon, judging which of the two women has the right to the disputed child. (Well, let’s cut it in half, he said; because he was so wise.) Somehow we got this image in our heads of God judging us individually; but the judges of ancient times, like judges today, judged between two or more people. Justice was thus always social, never about whether an individual is righteous or not. The king or ruler who judged had to have real integrity and wisdom to uphold justice among the subjects. That background gives us the ideal of the judge; but all we know specifically about the judge in this parable is that he neither feared God nor respected people. So, if this judge is supposed to tell us something about God, we know right off that there is also a big contrast.
Then we are also introduced to a widow. Like the judge, we learn little about her; the parable relies on types and stereotypes. Widows in the Bible represent those with no power and no protection. They lack social power and authority; nonetheless, the widows of the Bible are often strong and surprising women, like this widow, who is no shrinking violet. But since men controlled formal power and wealth, a widow, especially one without sons, were vulnerable. So the widow often had no place to turn when wronged or deprived of a living except to throw herself on the mercy of a king or judge, as this widow does—but again, she is no pathetic damsel in distress.
I am pretty convinced that both this judge and perhaps the widow are intended by Jesus to be funny characters. We should imagine Jesus sometimes making his audience laugh. Aristotle says that comedy displays people “worse than ourselves.” The judge is precisely that. Surely we are meant to chuckle when, very soon after Jesus tells us there was a judge “who neither feared God nor had respect for people,” the judge, speaking to himself, echoes Jesus’ unflattering description of him: “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone…” He is a stereotype who even proclaims himself to be a stereotype.
The widow is a more serious character, it seems. She is protesting before the judge for justice against her opponent. And she does this so fiercely that one translation has the judge saying, “She’ll end up giving me a black eye!” because the Greek word could mean a loss of reputation or physical harm. So that’s kind of funny—the feisty widow who might sock the judge in the eye. But we find her funny in a different sense, because I think we have a hard time identifying with what she is pursuing and how. When you think of what makes someone an ideal Christian, do you think of someone who petitions without ceasing, “Grant me justice against my opponent?” That might sound petty to us, or vengeful. We are forgiving people, aren’t we? We, or people we know, may have been victims of senseless, tragic crime; but we hear God calling us to respond with forgiveness. So we don’t have enemies or opponents, and if we do—(and I know some of us do)—we certainly wouldn’t go around badgering a judge to “grant me justice” against this person; some translations have her demand, “avenge me.” I am too good of a Christian to seek such things.
Yet this widow’s demand is a common refrain in the Bible. The Psalms are filled with prayers to God for victory over my enemy or my oppressor. The Psalm from which our call to worship came is seeking God’s help against “those who taunt me,” and later the Psalm prays, “Let the arrogant be put to shame, because they have subverted me with bile.” We are often embarrassed by such talk, and indeed our lectionary often skips over these passages, which is why you might not recognize them. We’re tempted to say that such sentiments reflect the vengeful spirit of the Old Testament, not the forgiving spirit of the New Testament; but that can become dangerously anti-Jewish, and is just inaccurate: Jesus will soon conclude a parable in Luke 19 with a king declaring: “But as for these enemies of mine…bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.” We can agree that Jesus’ central and most important message is when he urges his disciples to “love your enemies” and “pray for those who persecute you.” But notice he is still talking to people who have real enemies and face real persecution, as he did himself; he is not saying, “If you follow me, you won’t have any enemies. You will be above all conflict and everyone will like you.”
So we find the widow’s pursuit for justice against her opponent strange and alien, but I’m not convinced that it is simply because we are so much more forgiving and loving than she. Why don’t we have opponents like she does? (Her opponent is not just a personal enemy; the Greek word is “antidikos,” literally the “anti-just one,” someone who has violated justice toward her.) Why aren’t we out there pestering some corrupt judge to grant us justice against some opponents? Are we above such behavior? Or is it that we are mostly comfortable, mostly middle class; mostly we enjoy the relative benefits of peace and prosperity that comes with being white Americans; mostly the law, the courts, the market, and the system are on our side. Most of us have known suffering or hard times. But how many of us have known injustice?
But there’s no reason the widow should be completely unfamiliar to us. We can find women like the widow today. If not among us, then among the many widows and grieving mothers whose mostly black husbands or children have been shot by police with such haste and regularity that at least it looks like some injustice is going on somewhere. Or among the father or mothers of immigrants who have deported and forced to leave their children behind. Or single mothers trying to find a just way to raise their children while working to support themselves and fighting the system at just about every step. Or women who have been groped by the wealthy and powerful without much recourse, until the unjust judge called our media machine finds an amenable occasion to give them the justice they had long sought.
We do know such women—and men who are similarly vulnerable—and the Bible shows a particular concern for them. God pours out love and compassion on us all, to be sure. But the Bible here and elsewhere lifts up the poor and especially those who suffer from injustice, because God takes their side, and they tend to know God in a way that the comfortable do not. That’s why it’s vital for us to go out and serve the poor and suffering: not because we have a noblesse-oblige duty to be “charitable”—that’s not how the Bible talks. If we want to know and experience the power of God’s justice, then we have to put ourselves in the midst of those struggling for justice in this world—face to face, arm in arm. It doesn’t do to simulate this very biblical struggle for justice with popular modern substitutes: the struggle of the action hero against the caricatured bad guy, or the struggle of our sports team against the rival team. God has nothing to do with these struggles. You won’t find God in these substitute struggles. (Maybe that’s why we find them so enticing.) You find God in this widow’s struggle for justice against the one who has exploited her vulnerability. /So if the widow’s fierce pursuit of justice against her unjust one doesn’t resonate with us, so much the worse for us. Maybe it’s time to get out there and stand in solidarity with the widows.
Now the widow pesters the unjust judge until he finally gives in and grants her justice—maybe he has someone arrested or forces someone to pay her support or return her land. And then we get to what seems to be the point of the parable: if even the unjust judge grants the widow justice, then how much more will God grant justice to those among his chosen ones who seek it. There is a classic Rabbinic rhetorical move called qal wehomer or “how much more.” We see it when Jesus says, consider the lilies of the field…will God not much more clothe you?
So the point of this parable, like the parables of the lost sheep or lost coin, seems to be about God: God is much more just than the unjust judge and so will grant justice quickly. It’s funny that this parable would compare someone so low and unworthy to God; Jesus precisely says, “Listen to what the unjust judge says.” In fact, the humor of the story demonstrates how ridiculous the comparison is. It’s a nice reminder that God is far beyond this world and its standards, even laughably so. But if the parable is about how quickly God responds to prayers for justice, why then does Luke say it is a parable about praying always and not losing heart?
Maybe this parable is not really about God. As I read it, the key to this parable has to be its arresting concluding sentence, which turns a funny parable into a riddle. The parable ends with a question left hanging in the air, leaving us in stunned silence: “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Wasn’t that the line that made you go, “huh?”)
First of all, the Son of Man language comes from earlier in chapter 17. The Pharisees ask Jesus when the Kingdom of God is coming, and Jesus tells them that the Kingdom of God is among you—that is, Jesus himself is enacting the Kingdom right before you and you choose to ignore it. But then he tells the disciples about the coming of the “Son of Man,” which is what we might call the Second Coming. The title “Son of Man” is used in the book of Daniel for the bringer of God’s final judgment. Once again, the Pharisees have to be told of God’s mercy and nearness; but for the disciples, who already get it, there is a message of challenge and persistence. So it is here. The parable of the widow and the unjust judge initially reassures us of God’s mercy and justice in answering prayer, but Jesus points the disciples beyond this to the challenge that corresponds to God’s mercy: will I find faith among you when I return?
This question acts as a pivot in our interpretation, and forces us to look back at the parable in a different light. We thought it was a parable about God answering prayer, but Jesus’ question makes us think that maybe it’s about the faith of the widow. Maybe she is the point: she challenges us to be like her, to pray unceasingly to God for justice; and the real heros of faith will the those who are most vulnerable, most victimized, but who maintain a dogged faith in God nonetheless.
A what a curious model of faith she is! If she is the model, then we should be pestering God day and night for justice. We should even be threatening God’s reputation, as the Greek suggests she does to the unjust judge. Now, this sounds almost blasphemous to Christians. Prayer should be meek, and of course God is always right. But the Bible is full of prayer like the widow’s—we’ve just managed to ignore it. Moses dares to suggest God issue a more just verdict on Sodom and Gemorra, and God changes his mind. The Psalms are full of bold challenges to God: “How long, O Lord, will you look on? Rescue me from their ravages, my life from the lions!” Even the mostly mild Psalm 119, which we read for the call to worship, has this: “With my whole heart I cry; answer me, O Lord.” This kind of cry is taken up in spades by Job, who relentlessly badgers and challenges God to justify God’s actions. We see a similar cry at the very beginning of the prophet Habakkuk: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” Bible scholar Denise Hopkins, a friend of mine from back a ways, likes to call this the chutzpah of the Old Testament. We meek and obedient Christians, we get the prayer of the tax collector: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” But we need to be reminded that it can be ok to call God out, even as God calls us out and challenges us.
So are we going to have the faith of this widow, who, lacking any rights and social power, nonetheless demands justice, even from God? Jesus comes as our savior, and yet he has a way of putting everything back on us and our faith. He repeats in chapter 17 verse 19 a common refrain: “Your faith has made you well.” Recall the passage in ch. 17 from two weeks ago, when the disciples demanded of Jesus, “Increase our faith!” And he basically tells them, You don’t even have the faith of a mustard seed. You don’t have any real faith to begin with. This widow has faith.
We pray for this-and-that and we wonder why God does not act, as if God maybe is not really just. Jesus is telling us that it’s on us: God has acted and will act, but we have to really want justice, we have to really pray without ceasing for justice, and if we are not people who really need to cry out for justice for ourselves, then we better get with those people who do. Maybe they can show us how to stand up to God.