I love stories. I love to read stories. I love to listen to good storytellers. I love to tell stories. I love stories. And Jesus was the best storyteller I know. He told stories about a merchant, a shepherd, a bread baker, a Samaritan, a prodigal son, a Pharisee and a sinner, bridesmaids, laborers in a vineyard, a persistent widow, an unjust judge, and more. I love that I get to stand up here week after week and remind you of the stories of Jesus – by Jesus and about Jesus.
Today I want us to look at the parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge but before we get to that I have a little lecture for you. I know I don’t ever start with a lecture but I need to today because one of the things that concerns me is that I think some of you wait to have me tell you the stories of Jesus and then interpret them for you as if there is code you have to understand to get Jesus’ point. Actually I think most people come to the Bible with the attitude that it is some kind of riddle we need to unlock so that we can see what Jesus is really saying.
Jesus’ parables aren’t some kind of puzzle only preachers can decipher. They are real, earthy stories told about the life Jesus saw all around him. Take the parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge. Jesus knew lots of widows. Widows show up all through the Book of Luke. Widows were part of Jesus’ followers. It was a widow named Anna that first greeted Jesus’ parents in the temple when Jesus was only eight days old. When he preached his very first sermon to his hometown crowd Jesus referenced a Gentile widow and it made the listeners so angry they tried to throw Jesus off a cliff. Towards the end of his ministry he watched a widow in the temple make an offering of two mites and Jesus heralded her as the example of generosity.
So as we look at the widow in today’s story I want you to see her as a real person…not a fictional character. I believe that Jesus knew the persistent widow in this story….or a widow much like her. The widows Jesus knew and talked about weren’t fragile flowers. The widows Jesus knew were prophetic, active, faithful women.
I also believe that Jesus knew an unjust judge…or one very much like the one in this story. I believe that somewhere along his journey he met a good Samaritan along the road. It sure seems like he had first hand knowledge of a prodigal son and had been dismayed by a self-righteous Pharisee.
Jesus told these stories because these were real people. They were real people he knew and they are real people we know. That is why he told these timeless stories. It makes them immediately accessible to us. We have direct experience of the truth in the parable we are about to explore together. I am begging you to walk into it with me today. There is no riddle here. You get to walk into this story and see what you see. We each have different experiences in life and it colors the way we interact with a story. It impacts what we see. So walk into this story and look around.
I wish I could give my little lecture to the author of the Gospel of Luke. Luke does something with this parable that is very unusual. Luke starts the parable by saying: “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” Before we even hear this parable Luke tells us what Jesus wants us to get from this story, which is always the way to kill a good story. Who starts a story by telling the moral. Jesus never does that. Jesus tells a story and says, “Let the one who has ears to hear, hear the story.” “Walk inside it. Look around,” Jesus says. “What does it tell you?” But for some reason, Luke feels like he needs to pin down the moral of the story. Something Jesus never did…because it limits it…maybe even ruins it. “It’s about prayer and not losing heart,” Luke says with authority. “There you go,” he says. “I’ve sucked the life right out of it for you. You’re welcome!”
Besides, you know how many times Jesus mentions prayer in this parable? That would be a great big goose egg. But Jesus mentions “justice” four times while telling this parable….four times. I wonder if Jesus knew he was telling a story about prayer or if Luke had to interpret it for Jesus?
If you tie up this story in a neat little moral bow about praying then the widow recedes into the background and she is just too important of a character to fade away. In fact, if we let her disappear that would be ironic because this whole story is about the persistent of this woman who refuses to vanish. She simply refuses to go away…from the judge’s dismissal of her and from the pages of our Bibles.
Okay, so let’s take a look at this story. Jesus tells a parable about a widow…a vulnerable woman alone in the first century…a woman without a voice in the structure. Under rabbinic law women were not allowed to testify in court because they were considered too emotional. Since a widow was a woman without a man to testify on her behalf, this law made widows sitting ducks for corrupt behavior directed towards them. There simply was no way for a widow to defend herself within that culture. That is why the Torah explicitly says that no one should take advantage of a widow. In fact, it says it over and over again in case you missed it the first three times it was stated.
Jesus makes sure to tell us that the judge does not give two hoots about rabbinic law or this poor, unnamed widow. She has no power over him. But….that power inequity doesn’t stop her. She doesn’t go quietly to her corner and give up. After all, what does she have to lose? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. People who have nothing to lose are some of the boldest people I know. Don’t mess with widows. They have nothing to lose.
This widow, with nothing to lose, behaves uncharacteristically in her culture. She ignores the rules and she keeps showing up and demanding the judge pay attention to the injustice against her. She is bothersome. She persistently pesters him. For a while he simply ignores her. But she doesn’t give up. She “makes a stink”. She “raises a ruckus”. She “rocks the boat”. She “upsets the apple cart”. She doesn’t act with the decorum and civility expected of a widow.
Eventually the judge thought, “I don’t fear God. I don’t care about anyone. But I think that I will have to do what this widow asks because she is wearing me out with her persistence.” Just a side note here — The problem with the English translations we are given of our Bible is that they are so often domesticated for us. What the scripture actually says is, “I’m going to give this woman what she wants because she is giving me a black eye.” Her incessant demand for justice is embarrassing the judge. He isn’t acting justly because it is the right thing to do. He finally pronounces a just judgment to get this woman off his back.
The persistent widow and the unjust judge are real people. They existed in Jesus’ life back then and they surround us today. The story Jesus tells is a story with a version you know if you just spend some time looking around inside it. Perhaps you know this widow. I have seen her. She has been put in a cage at our borders. This widow is marching on our streets today demanding racial equality. This widow is living on the street and showing up in our church office looking for help. This widow is a transgender friend asking to be seen and welcomed. This widow is Eric Garner’s mother who said after hearing the Department of Justice’s verdict last month: “You think it’s swept under the rug now. It’s not going to be swept under the rug. Because I’m out here. You all know my face. You’re going to see it even more now…We’re not going away.”
And our reaction is often, “Be patient. Justice will eventually come. Settle down now. Don’t push too hard. We need decorum and civility. Don’t raise a ruckus. Please.” We have some of the unjust judge in us because that judge is also flesh and blood…Jesus knew that judge and so do we. Some times we are that judge.
Jesus tells us a real story about a persistent widow and an unjust judge. He tells us a story about a woman who has every reason to give up because it is hard to fight a broken and corrupt system. But she is persistent because she refuses to let her hope die. Hope is the backbone of her life. It is what gets her up each morning so she can go once again and stand in that courtroom where she is considered voiceless and demand that she be heard. The world has let her down but she refuses to be patient any longer. She is tenacious in her hope. She thinks she can get justice in this kangaroo court….and, you know what, she does. Her hope…her persistence are the very reasons for her success in the pursuit of justice.
Maybe Luke was right. Maybe this is a parable about not losing heart…about keeping our rigorous hope that things can actually change…about praying for justice without stopping.
As I worry about all the injustices happening in our world and as I listen to the fears of those of you sitting in this sanctuary I am afraid that we are dangerously close to losing heart…to losing hope…to voting for decorum and retreating to our homes in the name of civility. What we hear in this parable is that advocating for justice is messy work. It is a long and winding road. I bet that there were many days the persistent widow contemplated not getting out of bed and trudging down to the courthouse. “Why bother? This is hopeless.”
But we have so many examples of other persistent folks winning the day…the versions of Jesus’ parable that jump out from our news feeds and history books. We are beneficiaries of the saints who went before us…women who demanded equality in the workplace…women who refused to be quiet….lgbt justice seekers who showed up in the courtroom and demanded that their case for equal rights be heard….Rosa Parks who sat down and refused to get up…tired of unjust decorum.
Jesus ends this parable by saying, “If the unjust judge finally listens, think how God listens to you, God’s beloved. God will grant justice.” But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He goes on to add, “When the Son of Man comes will he find faith on earth?” This parable is so confusing. Is Jesus now making this parable about faith?
Perhaps, a persistent, bold, hopeful demand for justice…for God’s will in this broken world…is an act of faith. Hopefully when Jesus shows up in our midst and says, “Where do I find faith?” we can say, “Here, in this unexpected, messy pursuit of justice for all God’s children. Right here with the persistent widow…in this unexpected place where we are raising a stink in solidarity with the marginalized…where we are raising a holy ruckus demanding justice…God’s justice.”
I don’t think Luke should tell us what this parable is about but if he does I think it would be more accurate to say: “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray for justice, persist with hope, stand collectively in the very act of faith, upset the apple cart in solidarity and raise a holy ruckus!” But that is what I see when I walk around inside this story. I want to hear what you see. Send me a text or an email this week and tell me what your life experience allowed you to see in the stories of Jesus. They are there a gift to you. What do you see? Amen.