October 16, 2016
Proper 24, Year C
Not Waiting for Justice
When I lived in Chicago, I was part of an organization that worked on policy issues that affected young adults. Some members of the group were “dreamers”—undocumented young adults who came to the United States as young children and were seeking access to higher education. Other group members were especially concerned about access to health insurance. In that case, the group supported a bill that would have allowed young adults to stay on a parent’s health insurance until the age of 26 in Illinois. The bill didn’t pass during the normal legislative session, but the governor at the time rescued the bill later. With a program he called “Re-write to Do Right,” he revised and reintroduced bills of his choosing.
The provision for young adults under the age of 26 to stay on a parent’s health insurance became Illinois law. A few years later, another politician from Illinois incorporated the policy into federal law.
That governor, on the other hand, is currently in federal prison.
Our gospel this morning comes from a similar rough-and-tumble world of messy justice. It’s not a parable we can read through extreme stereotypes, like a merciless, corrupt, power-hungry judge, versus a poor, defenseless, and dependent widow. The judge may be unjust, but he doesn’t seem unduly motivated to dominate others or to take corrupting bribes. He just delivers justice to the squeakiest wheel, and for his own convenience. As for the widow, she sure doesn’t meet the common New Testament expectation that widows be quiet and prayerful recipients of charity.
But the realism of this parable about the persistent widow and the unjust judge includes two pieces of good news. The first is that this world has a just judge, the Son of Man. The Son of Man judges this world by our commitment to “the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow” (as the book of Deuteronomy puts it) [Deu 27:9]. But the second piece of good news is that we don’t have to wait for the Son of Man to appear in the heavens before we get a taste of justice.
In the gospel of Luke, this parable follows right after Jesus’s teaching about the Son of Man and the kingdom of God. When some Pharisees ask Jesus when the kingdom of God is coming, Jesus tries to tell them that the kingdom was already among them, or within them, or in their presence. The kingdom is within their grasp.
Jesus also warns his disciples that the days are coming when they’ll long to see the Son of Man’s judgment, but they won’t be able to find it. And yet as this parable shows us, the disciples don’t have to simply sit around, watching and waiting for the Son of Man’s perfect justice. We don’t have to be paralyzed when we recognize the gap and delay between the world as it is and God’s kingdom. And we don’t have to let the gospel’s advice about keeping the faith and not losing heart be reduced to platitudes. The widow’s example shows us that persisting in prayer and keeping faith aren’t always peaceful and patient activities.
Our translation today tones down this parable to make constant prayer and keeping faith seem like quieter business. The judge complains that the widow is “bothering” him, which makes her sound something like a pest, a fly buzzing in his ear. But more literally the widow is “causing” the judge “labor”—making him work, taking him to task.
Also, the judge complains that the widow will “wear [him] out.” This again makes her sound like a tiresome bother, a nagging voice that just won’t go away. But the term is also used to describe boxing matches, with suggestions of violence. One person suggests translations like “I will grant her justice, so that she may not beat me up,” “strike me in the face,” or “give me a black eye” [Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, p. 254].
Finally, the widow herself asks the judge to “Grant me justice,” but she’s really asking the judge to avenge her—to give her opponent what she thinks he deserves. We don’t know for sure that the widow’s cause is just or whether her motives are pure. She simply wants to win her own case against her enemy.
None of this is to say that the widow is actually blinded by vengeance and using violence to force a judge to meet her demands. But we should know that the temptation is very strong, especially in church, for our translators, and maybe even for our evangelist Luke, to make praying and keeping the faith sound like tame activities.
When we face injustice, is this parable telling us just to persist in prayer and wait for Jesus? How often victims of injustice are told to be patient, peaceful, and prayerful. Yet for some, like this widow, “keeping the faith” is less about clutching it to their hearts with hands clasped in prayer, than about knocking and beating on doors that have been closed to them.
The widow’s story tells us something powerful about prayer and faith on this earth. She shows us that we don’t have to wait for some measure of justice to come our way. We don’t have to wait until all of our leaders are filled with compassion and finally see things our way. We don’t have to wait for everyone to experience conversion, or for all people to experience the emotional catharsis of reconciliation before demanding what is right. And such faith can be seen on this earth, in our midst.