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A Pain in the Neck: The Widow and the Judge

October 21, 2007

Glynn Cardy

Pentecost 21     Luke 18:1-18


It’s a familiar story. A widow, living in poverty, with no resources save her voice, petitions a wealthy and powerful judge. She wants justice where justice has been denied. Probably her late husband’s estate has denied her support. There is no other support – no widow’s benefit, no WINZ office, no nothing. She cries out to the judge. The judge treats her as a nuisance and ignores her.


It’s a familiar story. Poverty is not just something that happened in the first century, in Palestine. It is something that happens in every century and in every place. It happens because we don’t feel intimately connected with each other. If our left arm was freezing or malnourished we would do something about it. We would do something about it because our whole body would be affected by the state of our arm. We don’t care for those who are cold and hungry because we see them as separate from us, needing to stand on their own two feet. We don’t see our physical and spiritual health stitched together with that of the whole community.


The judge in the story is not a God-fearing man. He might live in a nice house, say nice words to his friends, have gone to good schools, and looks after for his own family, but he cares not one iota for those who are poor. He couldn’t care less about the widow. In Jewish thought he therefore couldn’t care less about God either. For God’s heart has made room for the widow, orphaned and persecuted. God embraces the whole community, and cares especially for the least. To ignore the least is to ignore God.


The judge was also one of those impervious individuals who didn’t care less what others thought of him. He didn’t care what the press said – ‘they’re always wrong you know’. He didn’t care what the priests’ said – ‘religious do-gooders know nothing’. He didn’t care what the public said – ‘ignorance breeds ignorance’. He didn’t even care what his judicial colleagues said – ‘professional rivalry’. He cared about one thing and one thing only: himself.


In 1st century Jewish legal practice a judge was required to give priority to a widow’s or orphan’s case. The judge’s initial response to the woman therefore has led some to surmise that the beneficiaries of her late husband’s estate have bribed the judge to ignore her, or the woman was too poor to bribe the judge to hear her case. Others think the judge was just a right sod.


The judge in our story is a caricature of heartless and powerful bureaucracy that is more concerned with its own needs rather than the needs of others. Every society creates institutions that administer the social and structural apparatus of the state. These bureaucracies, staffed largely by competent and well-meaning people, have minimal effect on the lives of the well-fed and relatively affluent citizenry. They have, however, inordinate influence in the lives of people who aren’t well-fed and who struggle. Their power is huge.


Bureaucracies in time cultivate cultures that reward what they perceive to be efficiency, and therefore consciously or subconsciously prefer dealing with matters that are straight-forward, easy to understand, and resolvable. They don’t cope well with multiple languages, ethnicities, complex problems, and non-resolvable issues. However the poorer you are, the longer poverty has shaped your life, the more likely you fall into the category of those bureaucracies call ‘difficult’. Negative assumptions will be made about you. So despite individual goodwill from a staff person the poorer you are the harder it is for the bureaucracy to relate to you as an equal.


For those who work for a bureaucracy there is an ongoing need to de-institutionalize your mind. To keep yourself compassionate you need continual training in understanding others – particularly those who feel foreign to you. You need to develop a spirituality that embraces the whole of human existence, that sees all life intertwined, and understands management, justice, and care to be inseparable. For at the end of the day to believe in the equality of all people is an act of faith, not a reflection of reality.


One of the amazing things in our story of the judge and the widow is that the woman did relate to him as an equal. She says to him, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” She doesn’t say, “My Lord, please hear me, there is no other possibility but to turn to you, if you would be so kind…” She doesn’t use ingratiating language. She doesn’t use the expected language of one from a lower and impoverished social class. She doesn’t use honorific titles. Instead she uses strong and direct language, as one would with an equal.


The other amazing thing about the woman, and the main point of the story, is that even in the face of such heartless indifference from the judge she doesn’t give up. If the judge is obstinate, she is doubly so. If the judge is determined to ignore, she is more than determined to be heard. She is persistent, insistent, in her call for justice to be done. She may have a hunger pain in her stomach, but she is for the judge a right pain in the neck.


I find it interesting that the Greek word used by the judge to describe the woman’s effect on him, translated as ‘wear me out’, is more accurately translated as ‘batter me down’. It is highly unlikely that she physically assaulted him. Rather it is an indication that the judge is losing perspective. He is interpreting her assertiveness as aggression. He is hearing her call for justice as an injustice against his own person. He is magnifying the threat to himself.


The great irony of the story is that the mighty judge who fears neither God nor cares less about what others think of him comes to fear a lowly widow, the weakest member of society. While this would have created a smile on the faces of the audience and maybe on our faces today, we need to remember not the judge who finally acquiesced but the widow who finally prevailed.


Will we persist in the pursuit of justice for those in poverty? Or will we be rebuffed by the reasonable sounding arguments of those who wish to maintain the status quo? Will we see our spiritual and physical health interwoven with the health of all members of society, and do something about it?


At its best our society is one great patchwork quilt. But it’s been torn and unpicked. It hasn’t been convenient, efficient, or profitable to have us stitched together. Some patches have been discarded as useless, smelly, or ill-fitting. Our task, the task of all, widows and judges, church goers and rough sleepers … is to sew it back to together. And the thread is Aroha.

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