On the need to pray, and not to lose heart

A sermon at the Church of the Epiphany, October 20, 2019 (Year C Proper 24). The parable of the importunate widow and the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8)

Who does the judge in the parable represent?

You’re right: it’s a trick question.

After more than two thousand years of worshipping a God whose power is love, whose example is humility, who identified with and as a zygote in order to come among us and help within our helplessness, who was condemned as a criminal and sentenced by a most unjust judge, and who didn’t lift a finger to countermand his enemies but instead subjected himself to the powers that be in order to overturn them, in order to teach evil that it will not overcome love:

After more than two thousand years of this lesson, still, when we read a parable of Jesus Christ, we often leap like lemmings to looking at the one sitting in the position of power in the parable and seek to assign to him the authority that rightly belongs only to God.

But there are red flags all over this story:

He is an unjust judge. My God, do not call our God unjust!

He has no fear of God nor respect for anyone. My God, Jesus treated even the leper with dignity, the smallest child with the greatest and most tender respect!

He grows weary, while our God neither slumbers nor sleeps, as the Psalmist says, so that the sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night, for God will keep you from all evil, your going out and your coming in, from this time and for ever (Psalm 121).

Does this sound like the unjust judge of the parable?

Of course, the judge in the parable is an illustration of exactly what God is not like. God does not need our nagging to do what is just and what is right and what is merciful. God is not like a council president worn down by a succession of constituents to the point of appointing an investigation into deadly police actions.

God does not need our reminding to keep God’s covenant of steadfast love and faithfulness. God has already vindicated the widow and the orphan, the poor and the helpless, the abandoned and the lost sheep, throughout scripture, throughout the prophets, throughout the life of Jesus, who will himself appear before an unjust and unrighteous judge on the Pavement before he is crucified, a falsely accused man executed by the state for the sake of an unjust and unquiet peace.

The story does not end there.

But if the judge is more like us than like God, what about the widow? Who does she represent, in this parable about the need to pray always, and not to lose heart?

What is she petitioning for? She is not seeking a parking space or good weather nor even good health or a miracle cure. She is looking for justice.

I read a wonderful quote this week, from a very old letter by John Fischer in Harper’s magazine, which out of the blue and out of context reminded me of the determination and steely hope of Jesus’ message to his disciples, and the strong spine of the widow:

“The only corruption you really need to fear is the corruption of despair.”

The book in which I found the the letter quoted was written by one Charles E. Fager in 1967, and addressed moderate liberal critiques of the Black Power movement. It has been immensely striking, reading it today, to notice how many of the same arguments are still in currency, criticizing, for example, the Black Lives Matter movement, as being too loud, too divisive, too bold while overlooking the fact that the people involved, that the widows and the bereaved Mothers of the Movement and the orphans and the unjustly arrested are still knocking on the doors of some unjust judges, awaiting justice.

If the widow in the parable is a model of persistent justice-seeking, then we should imagine her marching the streets demanding justice for the victims of gun violence, skipping school to protest government involvement in and inaction over the climate crisis, lobbying for a living wage, and unmasking sexual abuse in the workplace and even in the churches. The widow is a woman who deserves vindication – and while God has already vindicated her in her heart, she is persistent in demanding that the world recognize her worth and her words.

She should not need to advocate for herself, if we lived in a more just world. She does it anyway, until that kingdom come.

Do not lose heart, Jesus admonishes his disciples. Keep the faith. Resurrection is coming, and the justice of God is already at work in the world, despite the unjust judges, the uncaring and corrupt forces that profit from their unequal power. They will not forever resist the importunings of God’s righteousness.

Do not lose heart, Jesus encourages. Keep the faith. Resist the “corruption of despair.”

Of course, the word “corruption” has been in the news plenty recently; but it also always reminds me of the Psalmist, quoted by Luke in the book of Acts to prove the resurrection:

“You will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience [the] corruption [of the grave]” (Psalm 16:10; Acts 2:27).

I don’t know about you, but I find myself quite capable of harbouring both the widow and the unjust judge within my internal narrative. I argue with myself over how much I am responsible for the injustice of the world, where I am a victim of it and where I am complicit in it. I want to justify myself. But that is not how grace works.

My internal unjust judge has a nasty habit of looking out from her bench and assessing everyone else in sight, instead of examining her own conscience and her own unrighteousness.

Jeremiah writes, “All shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge” (Jeremiah 31:30). Jesus says, “Judge not lest ye be judged” (Matthew 7:1).

In other words, pay attention to your own conscience before God, rather than judging anyone else’s.

My internal judge takes some wearing down. I put up defences for my actions and inactions, for my inherited and adopted attitudes, for my self-centredness and my self-protection, for my privilege. Sometimes, when I am angry beyond reason or resentful of someone whose gifts are demonstrably greater than mine, when I am careless of the needs of others, preferring to protect my own interest, I worry that the unjust judge within me will get the final word; that my heart is too hardened for change.

But the widow, in my internal narrative, is the voice of mercy, insisting on having the last word, insisting on being heard.

The unjust judge in the parable has fallen prey to despair. He no longer fears God nor cares about the opinion of anyone else. He has given up on the very idea of justice. He has given up on the hope of God’s mercy. He has compromised his own faith and the faith entrusted to him by giving in to despair. But the widow, by her very persistence, awakens at least some spark within him, some ember that turns him back, ever so slightly, towards justice. God’s justice. God’s mercy. God’s grace.

Sometimes I worry that the unjust judge within me is too far gone for mercy; but the persistence of that widow, that icon of God’s compassion and care for the world nags me back to prayer, insisting that God’s righteousness is the only kind of justice worth having; reminding me that even through death Jesus place us within reach of resurrection.

This is why it is so important for me to pray at all times, so as not to lose that heart of God that keeps insisting that justice is possible, that mercy is reasonable, that resurrection is coming. I pray, not so that I can change anyone else’s mind, let alone God’s, but so that God, by her insistence and irritating persistence can change my own heart and mind, bringing them more in alignment with the will and word of God. I pray so as not to lose heart, to hear over and over and over again that widow’s word that God’s justice is eternal, preexisting, loaded with mercy, and final.

I pray to avoid the deadly corruption of despair; remembering that every lost sheep will be found by the persistent shepherd; that God, like the widow of the parable, will not rest until I admit that there is more to God’s justice than justification, and that I am not abandoned in the corruption of my sin, but saved from despair by the grace of God.

John Fischer’s “Letter to a New Leftist, From a Tired Liberal” (Harper’s, Vol. 232, No. 1390, March 1966), is quoted in Charles E. Fager, White Reflections on Black Power (William B. Eerdmans, 1967)

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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