Pentecost 21 Luke 18:1-8
I have to confess I don’t like the parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge very much. I never have. That may explain why I don’t think I’ve ever preached on it before in my 30 years in various pulpits. I would much rather go with Jeremiah. He tells us God has given up on getting the people to follow the Law: A smart decision in my view. Instead he is going to give us a new covenant that is written on our hearts. Not only does that sound more convenient than carrying stone tablets around, transforming our hearts clearly sounds like good news to me. Certainly better news than finding something edifying about the stroppy widow and corrupt judge…
I don’t think I’m alone in my lack of enthusiasm for this story. Matthew, Mark and John don’t choose to share it. Even Luke struggles to explain the strange story about a woman who is denied justice and pesters day and night the judge who can, but resists granting her relief. He finally does, not to dispense justice. Not out of compassion for her plight. He relents only to get her off his back.
A parable is supposed to give us an alternative view of reality. It is intended to interact with the listener without being explained. If resolved for us too quickly we stop thinking about it. For that reason Jesus never explained his parables. But this time, Luke puts an explanation in Jesus’ mouth that I’m not sure improves it.
Luke’s Jesus tells us that God is the judge, only nicer. Not exactly a shocking revelation is it? He then goes on to say that the widow is an example to us of faithfulness in her perseverance and that the nicer God won’t be any worse than the judge if we pray without ceasing. Inspiring isn’t it?
I guess I really only have three problems with Luke’s interpretation: How he views God. That he equates faith with perseverance. And lastly, how he understands prayer.
My problems with Luke’s portrayal of God, begins with the image of God as a judge. A judge dispenses justice and the world I see is a far cry from just. Any of us could give a long litany of the injustices that surround us near and far. My list would include asking where is the justice in a group of financiers on Wall Street causing a worldwide recession that has harmed millions if not billions of people, while they are made even richer by being bailed out instead of jailed? And of course we don’t have to look as far as America. We only have to look to South Canterbury to see the rescue of investors at the expense of those in need.
If God is a judge and this is justice then at best “He” is inept. I say “He,” because Luke’s God is male and a supreme being in the sky. I envision him having an answerphone for us to leave our prayers on. I wonder if this God even listens to his messages or does he just hit the “delete all” button?
On to my second objection: I have a real struggle with the idea that faithfulness and perseverance are the same. Perseverance is not always a virtue to be admired. Yes, we can admire the perseverance of the engineers in Chile who drilled down to the trapped miners. Over two months of dogged perseverance freed them. The miners showed perseverance as well, patiently waiting in interminable darkness for rescue. So did their family and loved ones persevere, holding faith that there would be a happy ending.
But when is perseverance simply stubbornness? A refusal to move on in our lives when circumstances we can’t control alter our expectations? Is perseverance a virtue when what we seek is self-serving at the expense of others or just plain evil? When does perseverance become an obsession that consumes us and all else that is good in our lives?
And lastly, when perseverance is our only choice does that constitute faithfulness? We feel compassion for those who live in poverty, those who struggle for enough food and clean water; those who live with life-threatening and incurable disease. We certainly admire their courage, but is that the same is faithfulness?
Then there is the issue of prayer. Luke seems to say if we nag God long enough we will get what we want. Is prayer really all about us? Sounds like that old Janis Joplin song:
Oh lord won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz.
My friends all drive porsches, I must make amends.
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends.
So oh lord won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz.
I would suggest prayer is a way of life. It is being open to the love of God within, between and beyond us. It is intentionally choosing transformation, not of the world to meet our expectations but of our selves to be true to who were made to be.
As I reflected on this parable this week, I thought, if this is what Jesus’ parable is about, I am ready to avoid it for the rest of my ministry. But then I thought more about the nature of parables. Their purpose is to turn our expectations and understandings topsy-turvy. That’s when it occurred to me that Luke may have gotten more than faithfulness and prayer wrong, he may have misunderstood who was who in the story.
The parable suddenly makes sense if God is not the judge but the widow and we are not the widow but the judge. We are the ones with the power to make things different, but don’t. We are much too busy asking what is in it for us. The history of human behaviour suggests that we pay God little mind nor respect God’s people. God as the widow is the one who comes to us in humility to nag, cajole, and even hound us, but not to coerce us to do justice, love tenderly and walk humbly alongside her. This God as widow does not accept the status quo as the way it always has to be.
When perseverance is applied to the “Widow” God, it becomes a virtue. She keeps battering away at our defences hoping to break them down. The Widow God persists in pursuing us for as long as it takes that we may one day see that dispensing justice is in our self-interest. Any other way is self-destructive. For instance, the present economic meltdown is accelerating the gap between rich and poor. To let this continue will eventually destroy even the rich. Let’s do something about it.
The Widow God demonstrates her love for us even in our obstinacy. She is the example the poet Samuel Crossman describes in the hymn A Song of Love Unknown: “Love to the loveless shown, that they might lovely be.”
We won’t always recognize her in her widow weeds. Sometimes she comes in the benign guise of a sermon or a religious book or even a parable. But more often she comes through a difficulty, a failure, sickness or maybe even a widow seeking help.
We will know we have glimpsed her when our prayers are no longer addressed to her. We will be on our way when our prayers are no longer demands of her, but listening for her demands of us. Then we will know that making our world more just is our work. It is then that we will know Jeremiah’s words have come to pass: A new covenant of love, compassion and forgiveness has been written on our hearts.