Luke 18:1-8 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?” *************************************************************************************************************
Pestering Persistently:The Parable of the Unjust Judge
Jesus ends this parable with a question:
"When the son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?" I don't like when Jesus asks a question like that, because in my mind, the answer is almost always "no," at least from me. You see, things happen in my life that cause me to question all the time, instead of being faithful- or "faith-filled." When something happens to the people I love, sure, I keep vigil for a while, and keep I the faith, that is, keep praying... and praying... and praying... But when things don't happen fast enough- or healing doesn't come when I want it to, or when things don't turn out the way I think they should, or the verdict doesn't come down in my favor- sometimes I don't keep "faith-filled." And if you want the truth, I fall away... "Come on God, what are you doing?" And that is pretty common I guess, for Christians... except... if we are the church, and if we're bold enough to admit that we fall away... well, "when the son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?"
But... I'm thinking that Jesus knows us- and Jesus would have known the answer to that question before he asked it. And I'm not sure he would not have asked it to make his hearers (or us) feel guilty about our faith. Jesus doesn't motivate by guilt or fear... so perhaps he asked it for a different reason.
So let's look at the parable without the lens of self-deprecation, or negative self-assessment. In fact, let's take "self," out of it all together, and look at this parable for what it is- an illustration of a way to bring about justice in our world.
We begin with an unjust judge- "A judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people." So right away we know a few things about this judge- most importantly- the judge is not God. And we can guess he is self promoting, and has most likely risen to power on the backs of the poor. A note about judges 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." http://www.rclinthicum.org/fullset/RCL_Cycle_C_Ordinary_Time_29.pdf
Let's look next at the widow. She represents someone who has been treated unfairly by "her opponent" as she calls it... She represents the most exploited, the bottom of the barrel in her society. She has no one to speak for her, The judge refuses to help her by coming down with a verdict against whomever or whatever is oppressing her. So, based on what we know about judges (wanting to sustain and even promote the systems in place), we can surmise that there is someone who was within the system benefiting from her situation.
Jesus says that she used a strategy that has been used by the oppressed for centuries in order to get the judge to relent. Take a look: 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."
Why did he relent? Yes, she bothered him- she persisted. What does it take to persist in going back for justice? Last week in our church we talked about Psalm 137- the Israelite's who were being taken from their home, and how they held a protest when their captors tried to humiliate them. We talked about standing up and speaking out in protest; saying "no more," to injustice.
Protests are one way to fight injustice. But today we learn that it's not enough to stand up once; as effective as it is to stand and on the curb with a sign in our hand for an afternoon, (and hear me clearly, mass protests certainly do wonders to sway politicians and power brokers)... but the widow teaches us the power of pestering persistence in getting the justice she needed.
Mind you she had nothing to hold over this judges head- she couldn't threaten to have his job- or vote him out of office, or even lessen (or withhold) her yearly giving. This is important. Sometimes in our quest to go after change, we want to pull out all the guns we have- "well, if they don't give it to me, I'm going to (fill in the blank. with whatever your term for retaliation is" i.e. "I'm quitting." or "I'm pulling back my donations" or whatever...) Perhaps Jesus picked a widow (literally translated, one without) to represent the oppressed in this story because the widow truly imposed no threat... she had nothing to withdraw- no recourse- no violent or non-violent revenge... she simply used what she had... and it was the only thing she had... her persistence, to evoke change.
Where does that come from? When you have no power at all, where do you get the gumption to speak truth to power? I believe that somewhere inside of her, she knew she was worth fighting for- she knew who she was and was able to name what she needed. And from that place, she gathered strength (daily) to go back to the judge, even though she knew she would be rejected over and over- she gathered strength and she persisted.
I keep thinking about the civil rights movement; and how the coordination of that movement by Dr. King and others used this concept of persistence, coupled with love, to change a nation and ensure justice for the oppressed African American community. And I know amazing figures like Gandhi and others have used the concept of persistence to bring about justice, but for the thing that sets apart the Civil Rights Movement in America, was that Christian Scriptures and the Church were used to teach and promote human value (the naming of who one is, one's worth, value, and unconditional acceptance) coupled with non- violent non-compliance... and persistence.
We saw it most recently in NJ, (and we participated) in the fight for marriage equality. Persistence- relationship building- bridge building- the LGBTQ equality movement wasn't coordinated with threats of violence or withdrawal. And that started way before this fight came to NJ.
I think about leaders like Harvey Milk- the nation's first openly gay politician. In the movie about his life, there is a wonderful scene where Harvey has just been elected and a gay activist comes to see him at City Hall. He is dressed neatly in a suit and tie, and Milk comments: "You're wearing a suit." "I got it from a friend." "No, no, no, no, no, no. At any time you come here, I want you to wear the tightest jeans possible. Never blend in and never take the elevator. Always use the stairs. You can make such a grand entrance by taking these stairs."
Milk knew that it's not about anyone conforming to fit the system. It's about the system doling out justice to everyone, regardless of what they look like or who they love. For that young man, showing up every day dressed the way he was would speak truth to power- would be the pestering persistence that wear people down, and wear down injustice.
As the church, how would we go about working for justice with pestering persistence... without threats... without retaliation... without withdrawal? Speaking with our pocket-book works (definitely- and that is needed), but... How about taking a stance from a human rights, dignity and equality standpoint- naming, teaching and relying on those scriptures that affirm our unconditional worth in Christ and acting on them? How would that play out... and how would it look to work toward justice in the mode of only love? It's easy to get angry with the oppressors, and demonize and even hate- but Jesus shows us in this parable that persistently speaking truth to power by using worth and human dignity can be an effective vehicle for bringing about justice.
Jesus ends the parable with a question. "And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” As disciples of Christ, living faithfully, is how we help bring about peace... not as one who has no voice, but as ones who speak for those who have no voice...
But Jesus also tells us this parable is about praying... and I believe it is. Because, my friends, this is what active prayer looks like. We are not the widow approaching an unjust judge. We are a people of God approaching a benevolent, loving, compassionate Creator... Jesus says, "Won't God grant justice to those who pray to God day and night?"