Oct. 16th, 2022
Rev. Rebecca Migliore
Knock, knock, knock. Louder: Knock, knock, knock. Louder still: KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCK. Persistence. Whether it be someone knocking on your door. Someone calling you on the phone. Someone asking you for a favor. It’s hard to continue to say no. It’s hard to block out noise that is non-stop. It wears you down.
That’s part of what I hear Jesus saying to us in the parable for the morning. Have a persistence faith. He draws a picture of a judge, the one in those days who would sit at the gates of the city, and people could ask to have their case heard. Being a judge gave you prestige. Being a judge meant you had clout in society. Being a judge probably meant that you got invited to the best parties, and were asked to sit at the best seats, and were showered with attention. In other words, you were a big deal. And you were a big deal, even if you were not religious, or even ethical. As Jesus put it, this judge “neither feared God nor had respect for people.”
And there is a widow. Of course, we know that this widow is not a big deal. Being a widow in this society meant that you had no clout. Being a widow in this society meant that in all likelihood you were poor. Being a widow in this society meant that you often existed on the margins of society, you depended on the good will and generosity of others to stay afloat. And this widow brings a case to the judge. We don’t know if the case has merit. We don’t know if the “accuser” is someone who is prominent or is as low on the societal ladder as is the widow. We just have a widow with a case and a judge who doesn’t seem to have a moral bone in his body.
So Jesus has set up this scenario—big deal judge and inconsequential widow. Who is going to win in the end?
And we think we know the answer. The judge thinks he knows the answer. And so, I imagine, with a wave of his hand, he dismisses the case. Be gone, peon. You are wasting my time with your petty case. And he goes home, satisfied that he has dealt with a nuisance. Until the next day, she shows up again. Dismissed. And the next day, Dismissed. And the next day, and the next day, and the next day. In this Groundhog Day situation, the judge probably goes through a variety of emotions—amusement, annoyance, anger. He knows himself. He knows that he will not grant justice because it is the right thing to do according to Torah (which he might if he feared God, if he followed the commandments, if he was a righteous person). He knows that he will not grant justice out of the goodness of his heart—because he does not respect people, in other words, he doesn’t care about others. But, he does care about himself.
And because this woman becomes an annoyance to him, is “wearing him out” with her presence, with her pleading, with her persistence, he decides, against everyone who would have bet on the outcome, to grant her justice.
It’s a nice story. It’s even a rousing story, meant to gird the loins of all of us, even the lowest in society, even those who think they have no possibility of justice. If we can be persistent, we might even wear out those who would not do the right thing for any other reason than to get rid of our bothering them!
What complicates this whole story is the frame (the sentences that lead into the story and what is tacked onto the end of the parable). The gospel writer says that this story is told because Jesus wanted us to know that we should pray always and not lose heart. I don’t notice a lot of praying in this parable. (Maybe the widow goes home and prays which gives her the courage to keep going to the judge every day. Or maybe the widow is praying under her breath as she approaches the judge “God grant me justice.
God turn the heart of this miserable judge. God grant me justice …” We know the judge isn’t doing any praying since he doesn’t fear God, although I think he might have muttered under his breath, “O Lord, will you not rid me of this meddlesome woman!”)
I might be willing to see the importance of telling us beforehand that the story was not about losing heart—but only a dense person would not figure that out all on their own by hearing the story. And worse yet, talking about praying and losing heart inserts God into the mix. For who else do we pray to? Who do we expect to grant us justice in the end?
In the same way, look at the “tag.” “The Lord says, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to God day and night? Will God delay long in helping them? I tell you, God will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
So, what is Jesus saying here? Why have we jumped to God granting justice, when it was the unjust judge? Was someone suggesting that God was like an unjust judge? Or that since God is much better than an unjust judge, of course, God would grant justice to us. And quickly. Except that I have to say, God seems to have waited God’s sweet time in granting justice on some things.
If we were to look at just the parable of the widow and the unjust judge—it wouldn’t have to have anything to do with God (other than the fact that our judge doesn’t fear God). And it seems to me that the take away might be different from the parable and what I am calling the “frame.”
If we look just at the parable, it seems a lesson in staying active in the world. This widow gets up every morning and goes to plead her case. She might get discouraged, we aren’t told, but she goes again and again and again. I see that as being active.
In the frame (outside the parable), we are told to keep praying, to not lose heart that God will grant justice. That seems a more passive intention. The action is on prayer, but not necessarily on what we might be able to accomplish with our persistent action.
Do you see the difference? So did Jesus see this as a difference? Did he use the parable to tell us about prayer and God or to suggest we be as active in our lives as the widow was in hers? Was he suggesting both?
I’m not sure I can answer those questions, but here is what I’m hearing the whole reading say to me today.
We need to have a persistent faith. We are used to having things taken care of quickly. We order something online and we expect it to arrive quickly. We pay our bills online, and they are credited immediately. We get frustrated when the car in front of us doesn’t move the second the light turns green. We want big problems to be fixed on the spot, otherwise we are going to get bored and move onto something else.
I think Jesus is telling us to grow up. The part of the story that I sort of glossed over is the part that we might have to live with our whole lives. The getting up and going to the judge without getting any satisfaction, over and over and over again. Because we have heard the whole story we know what is going to happen in the end. But how did that widow keep going in the meantime? The answer is faith. She had faith that she was right. She had faith that God was somehow going to be on her side. She had faith that her knocking, her asking, her seeking, might move even an unjust person.
And that is a story I think we need to hear in this day and age. I look at the church and I think we need to talk more about persistence. Yes, there are huge problems we have to solve, and No, we are not going to solve them today or maybe even tomorrow. But that does not mean that we don’t work at solving them. We need to take our marching orders from that widow. We need to think more like that very persistent woman, who was willing to make her case, and stand her ground, and keep coming back, keep up the pressure on that unjust judge.
And to do that, we need to exercise our persistence muscles. We need to not get discouraged if at first we don’t succeed. We should try, try again. A Chinese proverb says that the journey of a 1000 miles begins with a single step. At the outset, you can’t imagine walking a 1000 miles (at least I can’t). But you won’t get anywhere unless you take a step, and another, and another.
If you have ever had to rehab from a serious illness or a broken bone, you know this. At the beginning it seems that you will never get back to where you used to be. Your steps are halting, or your leg won’t support all your weight. Your brain doesn’t say the word you are thinking, or you have no stamina in even standing for any length of time. But step by step, you can make improvements. It’s harder to see each and every day, but when a week, a month, a year passes, you say—look how far I have come.
Just because something seems almost impossible doesn’t mean it is. Maybe we need to break the impossible into more possible chunks. Maybe we need to cluster together to support one another as we get up each and every day and work on our impossible tasks. Maybe we need to have faith that our pleading and asking and showing up will move the world one inch closer to our goal of Shalom, justice and peace for everyone.
I find the most poignant part of the whole reading is Jesus’ question at the end, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Will there be people who, like that widow, will have continued to get up every morning and work for justice? Will there be people who, like that widow, will still believe that there is a place for a community of faithful (what we call church) in this world? Will there be people who, like that widow, have put one step in front of the other, have been unwilling to give up or give in, have made a nuisance of themselves, have refused to stop?
I think of the Iranian young women who in spite of threats and bodily harm are standing up saying “we can’t take anymore.” And the young men, and older folk who are standing by their side.
We don’t know the end of their story yet, but their persistence in the face of terrible consequences is awe inspiring.
I think of the Ukrainian people who seem to be gathering strength even against a foe who is bigger and has more weapons and is intent on causing as much destruction to civilian infrastructure and lives as possible. As President Zelenskyy has shown from the beginning, this is their country, and they will fight for it, with everything they have. They will be faithful to the end.
I think of individuals in our country who have been willing to put country above party, or those who have insisted on making sure that the truth of how certain laws hurt people is not forgotten. I think of all those who toil in thankless jobs, for little pay, who are face to face with need in this country, with violence, with food insecurity, with addiction, with unjust health care, with economic inequities—for all of those who get up every morning and start over in trying to show up and plead the case of justice in front of the unjust judge.
Maybe Jesus brings up God because he wants us to remember who is the ultimate judge and that there will be a reckoning. We should know what the final ending will be. But in the meanwhile, we are to be like that widow, showing up, never wavering. And if we don’t get justice today, we just have to redouble our efforts, our prayers, our faith. Persistence. That is what Jesus is trying to teach us.
May it be so, with God’s help, Alleluia, Amen.