Persistence paid off for the woman seeking justice from the unjust judge. Jesus calls us to be tenacious and courageous in our approach to God. Do not lose heart; do not give up! Let us persist in seeking justice!
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?’
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
Growing up, I distinctly remember my mom saying to me, “If I say ‘no’ to you once, I mean it. So don’t’ bother asking again.” That was to discourage a younger, more persistent me from asking about sleeping over at my best friend’s house over and over again, as she and I were prone to do on any given weekend.
I learned early on through her and through the society we lived in, that it was rude to bother or pester people into getting my way. And I know I’m not alone in this because Sharon R. Blezard, a pastor and commentator says:
“I grew up in a culture where it was considered poor form and impolite to be a bother or to pester someone. Children were ‘seen, not heard.’ Adults were civil, or worse yet, nice (a word laden with baggage in the South). Folks who either ‘made a stink’ or ‘raised a ruckus’ were highly suspect and sometimes even the objects of outright ridicule.
If you follow the rules, keep your composure, and do what’s right, the hope is that everything will turn out okay. If it doesn’t, well, you still aren’t supposed to do too much grousing because after all, no one ever said life was fair.”
Anyone else resonate with this kind of up-bringing? It values being polite over being honest,
being long-suffering over making demands, and being compliant over being stubborn.
And sometimes I think our own faith culture, this thing we call Christianity, has somehow morphed and changed to value being “nice” over anything else. Anyone ascribe to the “Gospel of Niceness”? You know it’s credo: don’t stir the pot; don’t cause trouble, and above all else, be nice.
One writer says it like this: “Many Christians believe that the highest calling God has placed on us is to be nice. These Christians are wrong. God has not called us to be nice. Rather, God has called us to be good. Here’s the difference: nice people never confront evil. Good people do.
Nice people are weak. Good people are strong. Jesus wasn’t nice. He was kind, he was compassionate, he was caring. But he was unbending and unflinching when it came to standing for the truth. And it cost him his life.” Friends, the “Gospel of Nice” might be safe, but it’s not the faith of Jesus-followers; it’s the faith of the empire trying to use religion to exercise control over the people. Because let’s face it, Jesus was not always nice; always loving yes, but not always nice.
One of my favorite memes on the internet shows a picture of Jesus overturning tables at the Temple and says, “If someone asks, ‘What would Jesus do?’ Remind them that turning over tables and chasing people with a whip is within the realm of possibilities.” And this morning, we hear Jesus lifting up as an example for his disciples someone, who didn’t turn over tables, but who pestered and nagged and annoyed someone so much, that he eventually gave in, just to be free of her persistence.
As Rev. Blezard writes: “In the story of the Unjust Judge and Persistent Widow, Jesus seems to be saying to avoid the route of asking nicely and then waiting to see whether that get results. Advocating for justice is messy work… and a process that can be long, wearysome, and frustrating. Yet we are not to lose heart but rather keep on praying, pestering, and persevering.”
Our faith is not about being nice. It’s about love, and the kind of agape love that demands justice, so that all may flourish. Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish New Testament scholar, points out that the common translation of what constitutes the judge’s motivation for justice doesn’t quite capture it. She writes:
“The NRSV’s mild suggestion that the widow will ‘wear out’ the judge is another taming of the widow. The Greek uses a boxing term: the judge is concerned that the widow will give him a black eye.” (Levine, Amy. Short Stories by Jesus, p. 225) The widow is not only out-spoken; she is “in your face,” unrelenting, and seemingly even on the cusp of belligerent. This is the persistence and pestering of a woman who is left with no other options but to try and try again. Now, widows, in Jesus’ day, lacked status, power, and privilege. They had no voice in the public sphere. And in Luke, we see widows, certainly as those on the margins of society, but Luke also portrays widows as prophets, as those who can show us how and who we are to be.
Meda Stamper notes that:
“… in addition to being vulnerable, widows also appear as prophetic, active, and faithful; certainly the widow who gives her last coins is not only vulnerable but also a model of faithful generosity. The first widow of the Gospel is Anna (2:37), a prophet, who spreads the good news of Jesus’ birth. Jesus in his inaugural sermon at Nazareth mentions the widow of Zarephath (4:25-6), who feeds Elijah from her meager supplies in a famine and whose son is returned to life by the prophet…
All of these appear only in this Gospel, including the widow of our current parable,
who is persistent, active, and forceful enough to get the justice she demands even from an utterly unjust judge… ”
The widows in the Gospel of Luke and in this parable today shows us that those on the margins and without power, those who have nothing to lose and everything to gain, can be for us an example of how to faithfully live as God’s people in this world.
Now, most of us, including me, have a lot more to lose than this widow did when we stand up against unjust policies, politicians, powers, and principalities. Most of us worry about saving face, being liked, and being included. And we are often afraid to speak up or to speak out too loudly because we don’t want to lose the status and the privilege we have built up. As a people, as a society, we have been conditioned this way. But that is why following Jesus is so counter-cultural and revolutionary. And that’s why it’s so important for us to stay connected and to stand in solidarity with those in our society who are being oppressed, who are being pushed to the margins, and who are being silenced. Because that is exactly where Jesus told us to look in order to know how we should live. As Christians, as followers of Jesus, we shouldn’t be getting our cues from the most powerful in the room, but from the most vulnerable and marginalized in the room.
This week, we lost Representative Elijah Cummings who was the representative from Baltimore.
I will miss his voice in congress. As a politician he held great power, but he never forgot from whence he came, and he was committed to listening to the most vulnerable in his district. He once said, “My life is based on pain, passion, and purpose.” That to me is the life’s work of all Christians: To intimately know pain by willingly standing with those who suffer; to be passionate about creating justice for all; and to work tirelessly towards that purpose. In that way, Rep. Cummings was very much like this widow.
So what about us; are we like this widow? Willing to give everything else up for the pursuit of justice, relentlessly advocating for what is due; persevering day in and day out for equity; creating holy trouble and raising a ruckus; determined to wear down all that opposes God’s will for God’s people on earth? Or, are we more like Jesus’ disciples much too often were? Failing to follow through with the simplest of requests; willing to go with the flow and acquiesce to the powers that be; meekly and passively allowing injustices to take place right in front of their noses; upholding the status quo and staying silent? Jesus says be like the persistent widow. In spite of everything, in the face of adversity and rejection, nevertheless, to persist.
I think many of us can probably, in some way, see a bit of ourselves in the widow, but I wonder if we, as a society, are sometimes most like the unjust judge. Not because we neither fear God nor respect people, but because, in our day to day lives, the cries of those who are suffering the most go so easily ignored. It’s not that we don’t care; it’s that there are so many voices crying out, so frequently, that we have become accustomed to the amount of trauma and pain in the world. It’s become background noise. The things that used to shock us are now commonplace, expected even, and while still unacceptable, certainly no longer surprising. Take immigration detention or the separation of families or the bans on those from certain Muslim countries, or the water crisis in Flint. Yes, they are horrible and awful things. But somehow, over the course of time, borrowing the words of Rev. Traci Blackmon, these crises have become conditions that we now live with. And that’s what’s so frightening for me. How easily we can become accustomed to unjust conditions. How quickly we go from outcries to silence.
Dr. Raj Nadella of Columbia Theological Seminary was a panelist at the CoInspire conference I attended last week, and he lifted up this very phenomenon for the conference as we reflected on the story of Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones. He noted that most people would freak out in a valley of dry bones. If you or I ended up in a valley full of bones, we would not be okay. But for Ezekiel, death and destruction had become so common place, that he is no longer fazed by it. He walks around this valley, totally calm and collected. And that is the tendency, perhaps even the need, for us as humans. We learn to live with and become complacent to that which should provoke an uproar. Things that once caused pain and shock slowly become a way of life. And so, perhaps today’s parable is, for us, that persistent widow that cannot be ignored. Perhaps it is just the wake-up call we need to be shaken from complacency. Perhaps it is the pestering disturbance we are forced to hear, so that we might be moved to action and justice once again. What have we accepted as merely the ‘way of things’ these days? And what must we do to stand with the widow and demand justice yet again? That is what God’s word can do for us if we are open enough to the Spirit’s moving.
Our greatest hope from today’s word is this: God is not like the unjust judge. God hears and honors our perseverance for justice. And not only that, God is with us when we choose to be annoying and pestering in our demands for justice. In fact, God’s Spirit is what spurs us to be so reckless and outspoken in the face of power and to push back. God is with the oppressed, so when we stand with the oppressed, we work alongside a God who also works tirelessly for justice.
We are not alone, and through God, justice shall prevail.
But not if we stand idly by.
We must speak up, be loud, be obnoxious. We must disrupt and challenge and confront.
That is Jesus’ call to us in this parable.
And God’s promise to us in all of this is that God is with us.
So, go and be the widow. Refuse to be the judge. And know that God is with us in our persistence.
Thanks be to God, Amen.