This is a story about a very important man. A judge no less, who like a mayor, but even more so, has to meet the highest expectations of good behaviour. Not only good but godly behaviour. Because he is a judge of the Torah court, the law that God gave to Moses, to ensure that every Jew can enjoy God’s shalom.
That shalom is broken most often by disputes over property and wealth, family honour and the proper roles of women and men. So you need a very wise, very impartial judge to deal with these issues. Ideally you had a panel of seven judges for every town with more than 120 people. So the fellow in this story is extra special, doing the job alone.
In a traditional society, the role of such wise elders was crucial for continued confidence and well being. Auckland Council may well survive Len Brown’s behaviour. It will be much harder for the Kohunga Reo movement to survive a bad outcome from the inquiry into its trust board led by kuia and komatua.
So even though there are lots of other people in this story, it is first and last about a judge.
Except, he’s an incredibly awful judge. Not only does he take bribes as most judges did, if you could afford to pay up you didn’t have to wait. Much worse, he had no respect for the God whose law he administered and no respect for the people he was meant to serve.
To work for God’s shalom, which means the justice and peace required by God, your actions and motivations need to be in balance, public and private, inside and outside.
This judge is a walking contradiction.
And what’s more,he seems to be utterly unrepentant about this, which is the worst crime of all. He is no hero.
It’s almost as though Luke tells the story to say this is more a figure of everything that’s unjust and obscene, rather than a real live villain. Like The Joker in a Batman movie, though not as believeable.
Maybe this is not really a story about a judge.
This is certainly a story about a widow; a very believable woman who is trying to have her case heard. She’s the heroine.
It’s most probably a case about inheritance. Her dead husband’s family is refusing to maintain her, or her brother in law is refusing to remarry her – whatever the option the widow faces poverty and ruin if she can’t be heard. Her survival is at stake.
What makes this woman famous is her absolute determination and shameless, constant persistence. Even a judge with the sensitivity of a concrete slab and the morality of an alligator is worn down by her. The Greek word literally means to blacken your eye. The widow verbally punches him into submission.
Now we’re not reading this story on the 29th Sunday in ordinary time as a lesson in Jewish jurisprudence. It’s a parable about the way God works in the world.
It’s a way of working that pays no regard to who we think are the heroes, the main men. Quite the opposite. Our pecking orders are turned on their head. What the NZ Herald gives front page treatment to, what rates in the television polls, is invariably the wrong place to start.
The virtue here is not wealth or property or public recognition. It’s unflagging, consistent, keeping faith, keeping on, night and day. Be persistent whether the times are favourable or unfavourable, says the epistle to Timothy we read this morning.
And it’s the persistence of the bystanders, those who have least and suffer most that God seems to be most impressed by.
But for this widow it’s more than persistence. It’s a willingness, born out of desperation, but still her willingness, to break the rules that governed the conduct of all Jewish woman. What she should have done was to find a man to represent her in court, to leave it others to negotiate a deal for her, to be patient and respectful, even if the system was corrupt, to accept the way things worked, to keep her dignity. Instead she acts shamelessly to pursue her cause.
What kind of faith is this story commending? What does the story say about the way God works and who God listens to?
It’s not so much a question of how as where God works? Everywhere across the whole creation is the obvious answer, but religion has filtered and shrunk that answer. God works through the good and the righteous and has a special interest in the church.
The whole inhabited earth, the oikumene, might be the house of God, but the church is living room, full of nice people like us.
If you believe that, then this parable is bad news. It’s about a disgusting judge in a corrupt system that leaves widows and children to starve. Yet it’s in that arena of wheeling and dealing, survival, greed and self interest that God is active, present and engaged, ready to listen and respond to the most desperate voices and the most hopeless cases.
Do we dare to believe that? Do we dare to believe that God could be involved in something so compromised and downright ordinary? Is God really there in the middle of the mess?
Well, I think it only starts to become possible to trust the promise of God’s justice in such unlikely places if we can begin to trust the presence of God in the detail of the ordinary and the everyday. In the repetition and the routine.
If God really was that close in such ordinary and familiar detail, it would be much easier to believe God is right there in the middle of whatever mess we are currently immersed in and might even have helped to create.
And it might just be a little easier to believe that God is not only present but active in helping us bring about the justice and shalom we know that God intends for all people. God is going to bring in that justice, whether we like it or not, and doesn’t expect to be thanked for it either, says the story. If we want to help in that, we need to get our act together, with our inside words matching our outside actions, as individuals and as a church community too.
But that might be getting a little too close for comfort. Because the justice the widow finally enjoys in this story is not only costly for her in struggling to find it; it’s costly for those who have to adapt and change. If we are comfortable with what’s good for us, God’s justice when it comes will be uncomfortable.
The kind of New Zealand we sang about in Shirley Murrays’ hymn, for example. A land that lets the mana of Pakeha and Maori stand together, where broken words have been healed, where every child has equal scope is a long way from where we now stand and grown accustomed to, right here in God’s own clean and pure country with soaring poverty and inequality gaps, child abuse and incarceration rates.
The promise of this parable is that if we dare to persist in seeking justice, even at the cost of our dignity, God will engage us and God will be present, even if the outcome is not convenient, or comfortable or immediate.
We talk a lot at St Matthews about God in creation from the beginning and a little less about God present here and now in the middle of the mess we’re making of it, but we talk hardly at all as progressive Christians about the God awaits us at the end of history, when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea. We leave that to the fundamentalists and the makers of post apocalypse movies.
This parable ends in the confidence that the justice sought by the widow for herself will be extended to the whole earth. To use the image of the old spiritual song, the future really is held in the palm of God’s hand. The course and shape of that, the timing of that is not ours to second guess, only to persist in working for, daring to believe it will come, abundantly, more than we can ever imagine or desire.