Today is an odd occasion in our common life. At the end of services today, I will embark on a six week sabbatical. It will be the longest period you and I will be apart since I came to Grace in 2009. It will also likely be the longest period during which I will not celebrate the Eucharist since I’ve been ordained a priest, and the longest period I will go without preaching in more than 15 years.
I think of preaching as a conversation you and I are having together over these last years; an ongoing conversation around scripture. Granted, it’s mostly a one-sided conversation with me doing the talking, but many of you share feedback with me and your concerns and questions help to shape my preaching. Over and above that, as you know, my preaching reflects our engagement with our cultural context and as I leave during an especially critical and fraught election season, I will miss the opportunity to reflect with you through the gospel on current events.
Today’s gospel reading seems especially appropriate for our current moment. At its heart is a brief, simple, yet fascinating parable. A widow repeatedly comes before a judge and cries out to him, “Grant me justice against my opponent!” But the judge refuses. It’s hard to listen to this little parable and not draw connections with our present cultural and political moment. In an age where it seems the justice system is rigged for the wealthy and powerful; where bankers get off easy and African-American are incarcerated for the same offenses that whites receive probation; at a time when Voting Rights are under assault, when victims of sexual violence are blamed and ignored, the plight of the woman in our story seems all too familiar, all too real.
Grant us justice!
We have heard over the last three years about the deep racial injustice and inequities in our state and in our county; about the devastating effects of mass incarceration on the African-American community; the economic inequality, the racial gaps in educational achievement and life expectancy. We have heard the cries for justice from that community, and too often we’ve turned our backs to their suffering, shut our ears to their cries, or joined with those who claim that the statistics lie or are misleading.
Grant us justice!
Our hearts break as we see images of the devastation in Aleppo; the senseless violence and horrific suffering. There seems to be no end in sight, no end too to the lengths to which those perpetrating the violence would go to regain control. Outsiders seem impotent to affect the situation, to bring about a ceasefire or resolution to the conflict.
Grant us justice!
Hurricane Matthew has devastated Haiti. The destruction of that island by natural disaster, coming on top of three centuries of neglect, oppression, and exploitation.
Grant us justice!
Grant us justice! We can put ourselves in the place of the widow. Many of us have struggled for justice for years—protesting in the streets in 2011, or last year after the shooting of Tony Robinson. We have struggled for justice, but it seems further away than ever before. Indeed, at this cultural moment, true justice seems under threat in our country in ways it has never been before. We are fearful, disheartened, in despair.
When we hear this parable, the widow’s pleas reverberate across the millennia, echoed by countless millions over those centuries who have cried out for justice. Her pleas echo today; her voice joined by all those who cry out for justice in an unjust world. We hear her pleas; we know her suffering; we even think, across the millennia that we understand this little parable.
But do we? For that matter, did Luke? If you look closely at the context, Luke’s introduction to the parable raises difficult questions about the parable’s meaning. He says that Jesus told this parable to instruct the disciples about “the need to pray always and not lose heart.” A laudable sentiment indeed but it would seem to force a particular interpretation on to the parable.
Luke wants us to allegorize it; to see the judge as God and the pleading woman as a persistent prayer. But if that’s the case, then God doesn’t come off very well. Jesus describes the judge as unjust and no respecter of persons. The judge uses the same language of himself and indeed, he relents only because he’s tired of the woman’s constant pleading and wants to get rid of her. Is that an image of God with which you are comfortable? Is that an understanding of the efficacy of prayer that makes sense? If you keep at it long enough, you’ll eventually wear God down and get what you want.
Let me add another layer to our effort to make meaning of this. Widows were among the most vulnerable people in the biblical world. There are numerous stories in the Hebrew bible and even the gospels that show them living on the margins of society. If they had no male relatives who could or would take care of them, they were left to struggle on their own. So Naomi and Ruth in the book of Ruth, return to Naomi’s home town of Bethlehem and glean in the fields for their food. During a famine, Elijah encounters the widow of Zarephath who is down to her last bits of oil and flour and is preparing a last meal before she and her little son die of starvation. The Torah, the Law of Moses, is consistent in its commitment to care for widows and orphans and the Hebrew prophets railed against the injustice and maltreatment of these weakest and most vulnerable members of society.
So in this light, the parable becomes a story of a vulnerable, marginalized woman, who has been wronged in some way. Perhaps she’s been robbed of an inheritance or had land taken away from her. She seeks redress in court; some commentators posit that the judge may even be a male relative, whose special responsibility it would have been to help her. But the courts are stacked against her. The rigged system ignores her and it’s only because of her persistence, the inner strength that keeps her coming back, again and again, that eventually wears the judge down.
On this reading, of one wants to allegorize it, God is not the cruel and unjust judge but God is the persistent widow. Like the Hebrew prophets, the widow continues to bear witness against the injustices meted out to the most vulnerable in society. Like Jesus who is about to enter Jerusalem and challenge the imperial of Rome, the widow bears witness to God’s justice against the injustice and oppression that dominate. The widow becomes a model for us, and a beacon of hope. Our cries for justice do not go unheard.
In the midst of all of the injustices and suffering that surround us; when we may be overwhelmed by despair at the tone of our current election season; God hears our cries. When we may be fearful at the violence and hate that is bubbling up around us, we can be sure that God hears our cries for justice.
For in the midst of all of the suffering, violence, and injustice, there are signs and evidence of change. Here in Madison, after years of setbacks and struggle, the county seems to be a few months away from opening a permanent Day Resource Center; and after more than thirty years here at Grace, there is a real possibility of a permanent men’s homeless shelter designed for that purpose with adequate space and facilities to accommodate the need. I couldn’t have imagined either of those things happening three years ago; five years ago. One might say it’s a miracle.
Do not lose heart. It is so easy to fall into despair, to look around in our lives, our community and around the world and see the signs of violence and injustice; to be overwhelmed by it all and lose hope.
Our God is a God of justice and love and even in the midst of the greatest injustice and suffering, our faith proclaims that God is present. Our faith proclaims that we see God most clearly in the midst of violence, injustice, and suffering. In Christ’s death on the cross, we proclaim that God is present. Our faith proclaims that in his suffering, we see Christ’s love. Our faith proclaims that Christ overcame death and the grave; that God is making all things new.
God is here, in the midst of our struggles, our despair, our pain; in the midst of injustice and oppression. In God’s time, God will make all things right.
Do not lose heart!