19th Sunday after Pentecost
A parable is a lot like a present someone gives us, perhaps a little gold gilded box. Jesus gave the parables to us as a gift and sometimes parables also have lids on them. "We need to uncover the box the so we can see what might be inside.”
So let’s take the lid off this parable that Jesus tells us this morning to see what might be inside the box. At face value the meaning of this story of the unjust judge and the widow might seem fairly obvious. The usual explanation of this parable which is typically preached from pulpits on the Sunday it appears in the lectionary is the importance of praying without ceasing. Jesus assures us through this story that God will do justice in the end. Jesus told this parable to encourage his followers to persevere in prayer and to struggle against injustice while awaiting the coming of the Kingdom and reign of God.
Still let’s look under the lid where we might find a surprise. The first thing we might discover is that Jesus is not literally suggesting that God is like that judge—an unjust person who only gives in when he is badgered. In fact, the spotlight in this story is not on the judge, but on the widow.
The jewel in this context is this: there is a special place in God’s heart for vulnerable people—widows, orphans, the poor, the lost, the oppressed, and the broken hearted.
This parable has to do with the struggle and endurance of a poor widow, a woman who found new energy to continue resisting within the context in which she lived. The setting of the story is a certain city, which city we don't know, but we all know that there are authorities in every city who are too often corrupt and seek their own interest and expect to be adulated and revered by the people. In the time of Jesus, they often made alliances with the priests, governors, military chiefs and the rich. In the writings of the Prophets we read the critiques of the kings, judges, priests and false prophets of Israel and Judah. The insistence in the Scriptures on doing justice for the widow and orphan is due to the fact that generally, for those living in poverty, there was no justice. It is a simple, ugly fact of life: wherever there is money and power there is corruption.
We learn from the story that the judge was a bad dude who did not fear God or respect human beings. He preferred to listen to those who had power, prestige and money than to those who sought justice. Twice the parable makes the point that this judge respected no one, not even God. He represented someone who was the complete opposite of the widow. She was poor, a woman, a widow—in other words she was totally vulnerable and defenseless—who had a legal case pending against someone who had wronged her.
In the culture of first century Palestine, widows, orphans and foreigners were the most unprotected persons, frequently overlooked and their rights often denied. It was the male-controlled, patriarchal system that was responsible for the problems experienced by widows. Women belonged to men as if we were little more than objects, and did not have the right to make decisions about or for themselves. Widowed women were essentially on their own.
While the parable doesn't tell us what injustice had been committed against her, it was not uncommon for widows to have their homes violently taken away from them. We don't know why the woman went to the judge, but surely it had to be something important for her survival, since she insisted interminably that he hear her petition. Repeatedly this woman went before the judge saying, "Grant me justice against my opponent, simply demanding her rights before the courts of justice.
One day the judge said to himself, "Because this woman keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” The judge didn't concede out of his own good will; the rights of widows did not interest him. The judge gave in because he was overcome by the widow's perseverance. He wanted her to go away.
Are there really people who have no respect for God or regard for fellow human beings? Yes, but they usually manage to convince themselves that they are acting from noble motives. Consider what comes out of the mouths of some elected officials.
Times have not changed that much in this regard and this parable has real contemporary applications. Women still struggle for justice. American culture is not as oppressive as the culture in which this widow lived but there are many parts of the world where women are treated very poorly. And in this land of the free, women have struggled for justice for the right to vote, for equality in academe and in the work place, for the right to ordination in the church. There is still great disparity between women and men in some arenas.
We can add to this mix of the marginalized people of color, immigrants, the homeless, lesbian, gay and transgendered people, those differently-abled, children living in poverty, and the elderly. The internet has provided another way of breeding injustice. Last month we saw again the horrible consequence of cyberbullying that ended in the death of a 12-year-old Florida girl.
When we take the lid of the box that holds this parable we do find Jesus telling us to be persistent in making our requests known to God. Jesus told this story to teach us about the reliability of God. But there’s much more here. The widow in this parable gives all of us a great example of how we have to keep working for justice in the present day social order, no matter what the cost. We can't passively allow ourselves to be imprisoned in the roles that society assigns us. We cannot simply accept the injustices that are committed against so many people in the world and just shrug our shoulders, cross our arms, and feel helpless. Yes, we must pray but we must also resist; we must fight; we must persevere.
When the odds are great, and there seems no hope for change, our God, who is not like the bad judge, will respond. In the end, justice will triumph. But even as we pray without ceasing, it is also our responsibility to be obstinate, and to remain steadfastly present in the struggle for justice.
Resistance is crucial for those of us who aren't satisfied with a life of submission, a life filled with obstacles to one’s inner peace and self-actualization as human beings. When we challenge and wrestle with the wrongs of the world like Jacob, and do not collapse against the forces of injustice, we begin to attain what we seek. Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s words ring so true: “Do your little bit of good where you are; it is those little bits of good put all together that overwhelm the world.”
You may have seen this posted on Facebook. It was a wake-up call for me. A young man is sitting next to Jesus on a park bench having a conversation. The guy asks Jesus, “So why did you allow poverty, homelessness, war, discrimination, violence, and so much injustice to exist in the world?” Jesus looking directly at him says, “That’s funny, I was about to ask you the same question”