Widows, Judges, Labels, & Mirrors
Then Jesus 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.’” 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?”
One morning a widow wakes up and decided that she had had enough of the way she was living, and went to ask for help from an official who had the power to remedy her situation. There is so much to unpack just in that sentence that the sentence bears repeating. One morning a widow wakes us and decided she had had enough of the way she was living and went to ask for help from an official who had the power to remedy her situation.
Let's pull it apart: What is a widow? The word "widow" in greek means, "one without." (Without a husband, without money, food, means, voice, rights.) . She represents someone who has been treated unfairly by "her opponent" as she calls them... opponent is a legal term meaning simply "anti-justice." She represents the most exploited, the ones oppressed under the giant wheel of the system, the marginalized. The widow would have no legal grounds to do anything about their situation but rather was forced to live in poverty, most of the time in run down neighborhoods with unsanitary conditions, sub standard health care, no easy access to food, and no money to buy any. A widow would have no one to speak for her. All this she knew. Yet, she goes to a judge to grant her the protection she needs.
You could say she did It out of desperation- you would probably be correct. A desperate person might try anything to remedy their situation... or they might not. But we'll come back to that in a minute.
We also need to get to know what Jesus calls, the unjust judge- "A judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people." Right away we can surmise a few things about this judge- most importantly- the judge is not God. What was a judge then?
In 1st century Judaism: "A judge was not the person responsible for hearing trials under state law and adjudicating specific cases in that light. He was the primary interpreter of the Torah, who adjudicated serious differences between people in the light of the Torah. These judges were (as the Gospels called them) “scribes” who adjudicated the Torah while the rabbis taught the Torah. What was particularly important to understand was that, at the time of Jesus, judges worked for and were responsible to the political-religious system of their day (the Temple priesthood, Pharisees and Sadducees). Consequently, they interpreted the Torah in ways that would protect that system. Therefore, they were not so much interested in supporting justice as they were to interpret Torah in ways that would both maintain and extend the power and wealth of Israel’s ruling elite (including themselves) – and especially the priesthood. The task of the judges was to serve the interests of their rulers, not to dispense impartial justice. The point is that all peasants recognized this reality; none were so naïve as to believe that judges really represented honest justice. It is this reality that Jesus assumes his listeners will understand when he starts to tell a story about judges."
So now we can better understand the reason for the judge saying "I have no fear of God nor respect for anyone." He was probably on the take. And his job was to protect the ones above his pay grade; if he caused a riff, he would jeopardize his own future. So, based on what we know about judges (wanting to sustain and even promote the systems in place), we can surmise that there are people in high places benefiting from keeping this widow and those like her, in their present situation.
Why did he finally relent? Why would he reinterpret the law so that it would read in her favor? She bothered him- persisted. Putting up with her every day, says the scribe, was worse than changing the oppressive interpretation of the law.
What? Why didn't he just have her taken away? Why change your mind, why risk your career just because someone “could” exhaust you? Perhaps this judge, or scribe, is also, not what he seems.
Both the widow and the judge are archetypes in our story- they have been identified, categorized, and labeled, by the author of Luke, by Jesus, even by me. We understand them to act the way we think someone in their situation should act. So when they don't, like the widow finding the strength to fight for herself, and a powerful person risking their career for a marginalized person, it surprises us.
That's the problem with labels. While they may help us define a person, they also limit and box in our understanding of that person. And labels work both ways. In the same way that we identify another person, and expect a person to act a certain way based on that identity, we also identify, and label ourselves; and that's in all kinds of ways. I'm a pastor. When I say that to a person, there are specific things that come to the mind of that person about me, depending on what their understanding of "pastor" is. And they expect certain things of me, a way of acting, a way of listening, a way of being. But I've also got an understanding of what it means- so identifying myself as "pastor" gives me a certain understanding of myself in that light; how I will act, how I will engage people, the world, even God. “Pastor” informs how I move through life, my behavior, my beliefs. It can limit me, it can free me- to do or not do certain things.
Think about some of the labels you've put on yourself. We self-identify in all kids of ways- I'm retired, I'm single, I'm a woman, I'm gay, I'm diabetic, I'm unemployed, I'm an artist, I'm a cancer survivor, I'm divorced, I’m a student, I'm pregnant!... you have your own...
But for all the ways we self-Identify, there are an equal number of labels others have put upon us, or society has put on us, or even the church has put on us... like this widow... it was the scribe’s interpretation of the Torah that limited her to where she was. How many identities have we taken on because of interpretation of the religious community? I'm a Christian, I'm a believer, I'm a sinner, I'm not welcome, I'm not good enough, I'm saved, I'm unlovable the way I am…
And this Is where we have to look back at the widow, because everything In her experience, the way the world identified her, the way the church identified her, were all in agreement. Widow- stay in your place. But that wasn't going to cut it for her... because this widow refused to see herself in the way others saw her... when she gazed into that mirror in the morning, instead of choosing to see the reflection of one without, she saw instead her true nature- she had been made in the image of God-
Not the God she had learned about, not the God who had been labeled, “exclusive” or “wrathful” or “punitive.” No- she was a mirror reflection of the Creator God, a reflection of the Word, of the of the Universal Christ in everyone and everything- she was good, holy, even sacred.... she, despite what the world, the church, even her family might have told her, she was God mirror to the world, others would see the light of that reflection in her face, her walk, her actions, her being... and she was worth fighting for, not because of what she had or had not done, not because she was justified within the law or not, but because she was a valuable creation of God.
And I believe, that something, perhaps being confronted by someone who saw themselves as holy, and worthy, and the image of God, but something, changed in the unjust judge as well. Yes, she exhausted him, but again, this is someone who has no recourse, throw her out- put her in jail- stop her from coming! But he didn’t do that… why?
Because I don't care who you are, when you come face to face with the Christ in someone, you can't just brush them off. And no matter how hard the heart, seeing that person day after day after day does something to you… like it or not, sooner or later your eyes have to meet. Maybe not on day one- or day 10- but imagine seeing that person every day- every day… even at the seemingly lowest level, relationship is built up. You’ve sized each other up. And you’ve come to understand what one another is made of. And this judge could see that despite the his expectations for someone in her situation, this persistent widow was carrying something inside of her that would not let her give up on herself, and would not give up on him… she called him on him to do the right thing- and even he, not fearing God or anyone, gave her what she needed.
So I ask you… when you look in the mirror, what do you see?