Jesus told his disciples 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?” Luke 18:1-8 NRSV
If the Son of Man were to come back today, would he find faith on earth? Dropping down into America, less than a month before our presidential election, I doubt his pronouncement would be, “Wow, this place is so full of…faith!” I picture his earthly tour guides, keeping him away from TV and the internet, saying, “You don’t want to look at that!” then taking him instead to the nearest shopping mall to show him around saying, “See how much we love your birthday? We’re getting ready for it already!” Of course, he’d be very confused about what plastic fir trees and fake snow had to do with his birthday, but I’m sure he’d be fascinated to hear the explanation.
And we would be fascinated to hear his explanation of what he means by justice (ekdikeo), which he mentions four times in this parable, apparently assuming that what we think of as an abstract concept needs no explanation. Which makes sense, because his followers surely would have understood quite a bit about this, for us, abstract concept of ekdikeo-justice. First off, despite the presence of a judge in the story, this is not about justice in the legal sense of right and wrong before the law. We know this because, as a woman, the widow has no standing under the law. Women couldn’t go to court on their own and would have to have a male relative appear on their behalves. Since this widow is haranguing the judge on his own time, it’s likely that the reason she can’t get a male relative to appear for her is because her closest male relative is actually her opponent. Women weren’t entitled to receive an inheritance, so that’s not her issue, but male relatives were obligated under the law to provide for widows, so he may be refusing to fulfill that obligation, or perhaps the widow entered the marriage with land or property that the male relative is now trying to keep, knowing full well that without the ability to go to court, she won’t be able to sue him. But whatever the specifics, this is clearly an economic justice issue. Jesus chooses a widow as the hero, someone completely outside the power structures, with no legal standing, no tangible hope of justice, and no financial resources, to show that God’s justice will be realized, even and especially for the weakest among us, no matter how impossible are the odds stacked against them. And Jesus features the judge in the story instead of having the widow go to the male relative directly because the parable is not ultimately about what she gets for herself, it’s about justice for all, and by highlighting an authority figure, Jesus is showing that, like the widow, we have to keep “wearing out” unjust powers no matter how impossible it seems.
And, to our credit, we have done that in various times and places over the centuries. In South Africa, many worked tirelessly and even lost their lives until apartheid was finally worn out. In our own country, we have worn out slavery and Jim Crow and many other oppressive laws. So, rather than being ashamed and hiding from Jesus the ugliness in our culture, we might be surprised to hear him say to his tour guides, “You know, I really like what you’ve done with the place. In my day, women didn’t even vote, much less run for office–actually, men didn’t vote either. So democracy–that’s a huge step in the work of justice, you should be proud of that.”
“However,” Jesus continues, “I keep hearing about things that don’t seem to fit in with the notion of a democratic society, for example, people of one race are incarcerated almost 10 times more than those of other races, and they are being shot by the police at a rate 5x higher.” And the tour guides say, “Seriously, Jesus, we told you not to watch the news.” And Jesus says, “No it’s okay, I get it. I can’t say that I’m not disappointed that you haven’t done more with what I gave you 2,000 years ago, but I’m pleasantly surprised that you haven’t lost faith. You keep striving for justice despite setbacks. You’ve done a lot of work, but more needs to be done. Maybe I’m rushing this whole Second Coming thing. Maybe I’ll give you another couple thousand years and stop by and see how much progress you’ve made by then.”
And the tour guides say, “Nooo, don’t you understand? This is the best we can do, we’ve worked so hard just to get here, we can’t do any better, we give up!” So Jesus tells them a parable to show that they ought always to pray, and not lose heart; a parable of a persistent widow, a marginalized outsider who doesn’t give up her demands for justice.
Justice can be an intimidating concept. There is justice writ large, the kind that calls for rallies and marches and changing laws and changing governments. But there is also everyday justice. The kind that comes in small conversations and encounters with our neighbors. The widow did not set out to change the world or even change the law, she set out to change one person’s mind. If you are so sick of politics you could burst, then this story is good news for you, because hope doesn’t rest in how you vote or who you vote for. Hope rests in the everyday actions we take towards justice, the everyday conversations that change minds. If you’re frustrated with this political season, Jesus says don’t lose heart. Go do the work of justice yourself instead of waiting for your president or your senator or your congressperson or anyone else to do it. Personally, I encourage you to vote as well, because this whole democracy thing will really impress Jesus someday. But the people we vote for are not our saviors, they’re at best, hopefully our partners. Partners in creating the world of justice envisioned 2,000 years ago that we’re still working on today. And if they’re not good partners to you and your community, throw them out and try again, but don’t make them saviors. We have a savior. And he tells us to work for justice. But he also tells us to not lose heart. To be faithful. To know that we have a God greater than all the petty noise and all the heartbreaking violence, a God who has shown us that justice is possible.
And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. From Elie Wiesel’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, 1989
God’s justice is speedy, it’s earthly justice we have to wait for and work for. God hears our pleas and our cries for a more just world, and God is on our side. If we want to be sure that we are on God’s side, then we must continue striving for earthly justice. Whenever unarmed people are killed by the police, we are not going to lose heart. When one of two choices for the highest office in the land spews forth venom and filth and treats people like things to be used or discarded at his pleasure, we are not going to lose heart. We know that God’s justice will be done. It may not be as speedily as we would like, but it is certain. Do not lose heart. Pray always. Be on God’s side.
Based on sermon preached at Church of the Angels, Pasadena, October 16, 2016