Have you ever thought about how much of Jesus’ teaching was done through the use of parables? Rather than put forward a complicated philosophical treatise, he would tell a story to make his point. Stories which were usually multi-layered, and kept you thinking about them and discovering something new in them every time you went back.
I may have already shared this idea with you, but it’s worth repeating if I have. One of the ways of digging into those parables Jesus tells is to ask yourself “Who are the characters in this story? Who am I in this story? With whom do I identify? With whom do I wish or think I’m supposed to identify?” But another way to approach the story to day is to ask, “Who is the main character of this story? Who are we supposed to be paying attention to?”
I suspect that many of you, like me, tend to focus on that judge, who “neither feared God nor had respect for people.” Okay, I remind you right now I didn’t choose this passage for this particular week, the lectionary gave it to me. If certain public figures jumped to mind as you heard that, it’s because every generation has such people, and our society is strangely prone to granting them power they neither earn nor deserve. So as tempting as it may be, try to think about this story without any particular face on that unrighteous judge.
But the main character of the story is actually the widow, clamoring for justice and not giving up. We don’t get the full impact of what Jesus is doing here. We don’t understand why this story might have made the people who heard it first burst into laughter. The widow in this story would be a source of amusement to the crowd, because the image is absurd. No woman in that culture would stand up for herself, no woman would go into a public place and be confrontational like this. And she is not just a woman but a widow, which makes it even more absurd. Remember—widows had no power. I read this week that the word for widow in Hebrew literally means “silent one” or “one unable to speak.” This is not a woman with status, not a woman who can throw money or influence around to get what she wants. For this widow to be so very vocal, persistent—one might even say pushy—she must have been quite desperate. One of the commentaries described her as “shameless”—and in a culture that was driven by honor, that’s a strong word indeed.
But here’s the thing. Her shamelessness is exposing the unrighteous judge’s shame. He doesn’t finally relent and ‘grant justice’ because it’s the right thing to do. It’s because she’s making him look bad. That phrase, that she “keeps bothering me” is much too tame. The literal meaning is ‘she’s giving me a black eye.” By being ‘shameless’ she is putting his reprehensible behavior into the spotlight for everyone to see.
Jesus is doing something really startling. In one little story, he is changing the cultural narrative of the time. Rather than put all their energy into bemoaning the injustices of the world, railing on and on about the unjust judges, rather than wishing that they had all the money and all the power and all the prestige, Jesus pushes them to identify with the powerless, the voiceless, the marginalized.
And then to do something about it.
What is the first line of this reading today?
“Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”
I want to be absolutely clear. This is not telling us to keep bringing the same wish list of prayers to God and expecting God to grant them if you just say the right words often enough. Prayer is not the coin that triggers some sort of divine vending machine.
Prayer is intentionally being open to the presence of God, and allowing yourself to be changed by that presence. Prayer is sharing your whole self, the good and the not-so-good with The Divine, and trusting that the One we know as Trinity will respond with creativity, redemption and/or sanctification, as needed. God does not need to be shamed into acting on our behalf; God is not an unjust judge.
As the old hymn says, “God is working [God’s] purpose out.”
But it doesn’t happen overnight. And it requires our cooperation and persistence. We need to allow God to write this new covenant on our very hearts, to borrow an image from the first reading. We need to allow that new law, the law of love and forgiveness, to become so much a part of ourselves that we can’t help but be persistent in “proclaiming the message” that the kingdom of God is near.
I know that can be hard to believe, right now. Some days it feels like the perfect reign of God is further away than ever. Some days it feels like the answer to Jesus’ question, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” is a resounding NO.
But that’s why we must pray always, and not lose heart. We must continue to speak up for justice, even when we feel as powerless as that widow in the parable. We must not let ourselves get discouraged by focusing all our energy in the wrong place. The bad guy is only the main character of the story if we let him be. The “Son of Man” will find faith on the earth if we remain faithful.
History is cyclical, and it seems that we are living through the particularly ugly turn of that wheel. But here’s the thing. The wheel is not on its axle, spinning uselessly. The wheel is on its rim, moving forward with every revolution, bringing us ever closer to the kingdom of God.
God is working [God’s] purpose out as year succeeds to year:
God is working [God’s] purpose out, and the time is drawing near;
nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be,
when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.
(The Hymnal 1982, #534)
Pay attention to what you pay attention to. Don’t get distracted from proclaiming the message of God. Don’t get sucked into the gloom and despair, but hold fast to the promise that God is working God’s purpose out. Amen.