LEARNING FROM LUKE: Vindication
Luke 18: 1-8
The political and social climate of the first century world was clearly different from that of our twenty-first century. One would think that, after 2000 years, we would have made peace with people of different cultures, genders, and incomes. But alas, we have not. We still have inequality of earnings between different groups and inequality of opportunity. In Jesus’ day, Romans ruled the world and Jewish men ruled religion, poor men begged and poor women (usually widows) also begged or prostituted themselves. There were haves and have nots. There were those with power and those without. In some ways things have not changed in 2000 years.
If you were here other times this fall, you’ve heard me say how, in a play or a film, I try to figure out who the redemptive person is, the one, I said, “wearing the white hat.” They are sometimes tough to spot. Editorials in our day can be biting, insightful, or sarcastic, and political cartoons comment on the current state of affairs. But in Jesus’ day, aside from graffiti etched on public walls, no such written means for of discourse were widely used. But Jesus did learn the ways of the world. How? Growing up in Nazareth, there would have been little work to sustain a carpenter, (literally a teckton, or stone mason) certainly not enough to make a living. So most scholars believe that Jesus, and perhaps his father, would have found work in the nearby Roman city of Sephoris. There they would have built structures along side of other men who were Roman, Jewish, or perhaps even Syrian. They would have heard the talk of the day, much like we form our opinions by watching news, reading blogs or newspapers, or talking with friends. Jesus would have heard the prejudice, the frustration, and the heartaches of men with whom he worked. So later as he began his ministry, some believe his parables were part comic section, part editorial section, and part blog for the first century world. The parables were not children’s stories. They are adult stories often told with surprising turns of events. Just as Gary Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” is not a child’s comic, but a biting commentary on current events, so editorials are often written like that. News stories by the media are supposed to have a firm line between facts and opinions, but the line has been clearly blurred in the past 25 years. In Jesus’ day, it was men in town squares, or women at markets, who shared opinions with each other. But there was a new man in town who was riveting with his stories and insightful with his comments. It was Jesus of Nazareth, and he shared his opinions in parables.
In today’s parable, the two main characters are a judge and a widow. When I was growing up, respect for judges was almost beyond reproach, but in recent years even judges have come under attack. Conversely when one thinks about widows, and our church has a number of them, first century stereotypes do not fit. So today, let’s look at this widow, and this judge, with fresh eyes. It is Luke, the narrator of our text, who tells the reader: “ Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.” Even though Luke has the best of intentions, he puts his own spin on Jesus’ parable, telling us what HE believes it is about before we hear it. That colors our hearing of the story. Mary Ann, for example, does not like to hear what a movie is about, and certainly not about the ending, before she sees it for herself. I, on the other hand, love people like Luke to guide me: tell me what I’m about to see and hear! The world has both kinds, but if you want to hear this parable afresh, do not read Luke’s interpretation first! As we continue, Luke records exactly what Jesus said: “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.” Already my head whirls, does yours? In am from America, a nation whose coinage says “In God we Trust,” and where some state Supreme Court buildings have had religious writings like the Ten Commandments. To hear that a judge does not respect God makes me question the judge, though if I think it through, there are probably decent judges who are agnostic. But I need to digest what I am hearing. Further, this judge also did not respect people. So that means what? If God is not his authority, and if he doesn’t respect others, does that mean he is his own final authority? Frightening. Who can gain reflection or insights without consulting others? Yet this judge consults no one but himself, as I read it, because he respects no one but himself. So he’s a judge, but maybe he’s not the good guy in this story. Jesus then goes on: “In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’” In the first century, often widows were helpless and needy because the only breadwinner of the household had died. But if this widow had children (and we don’t know if she did) then it changes the story. I have seen single parent women do herculean things to try to provide for her children, working long hours, doing demeaning things, or gaining a backbone to stand up against power and injustice. This, I suspect, was just such a widow: the one who seems weak until an injustice is done; then she seems powerful, present, and in your face.
Again, we may need to keep changing our frame of reference in this parable to understand it. As one New Testament professor put it:
Is the parable about how “You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down”? Or is it about “Persistence in Prayer”? Is it a comic parable meant to make us laugh at the ludicrous picture of a powerful judge cowering before a helpless old widow? Or is it a deadly serious portrait of one small victory for justice in the faith of shameless systems of rampant injustice? [Barbara Reid, Parables for Preachers, Year C, 2000, The Liturgical Press, p. 228]
So is she—the widow—the redemptive character in the story? Let’s look back at the judge, and what Jesus says that he is thinking. According to Jesus, the Judge thinks: “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for people, because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice so that she may not wear me down by continually coming.”
I like the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Jimmy Stewart’s character has pure motive and an innocence of character that makes him believe our government works the way the textbooks say it’s supposed to work. Do you mean to tell me that some judges, at least the one in the story, make decisions based on expediency and levels of irritation? Mr. Smith and I hope that those who sit behind a bench provide a fair trial and due process. But reports, even in the past year, have come out about one judge and an attorney left a courtroom full of people here in Florida to have a fist fight outside! So there is a human factor in justice. Not every judge is like the one in the parable, but that one is. And not every widow is like the one in the parable, but that one is. After this part of the parable is told, Jesus said to the crowd, (and to us as we hear it): “Listen to what the unjust judge says.” Did you hear that? Even Jesus calls him an “unjust judge.” This judge is not God. This judge is not even a good judge. He is one who passes unjust judgments. The quotation marks in the passage are puzzling, making it sound like the entire rest of the passage is said by the judge; but they are said by Jesus actually, as interpretation, like an editorial cartoon of its day. So we have an unjust judge; and we have a widow who needs a good decision offered by the court and she needs it now. But with whom should we identify, if at all, as Jesus goes on to say “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?” Ah. Now we have it. Now we have the point of this editorial message called a parable. If a judge that did not fear God nor respect others answered the persistent cry of a widow, how much more will a just judge—like God—listen to and often grant the heartfelt and tearful requests of people our Lord not only cares about, but loves?
So we close looking at the example of Hurricane Matthew. part “As that storm was coming up the east coast of Florida, it was stayed off shore. At one point south of New Smyrna Beach, it jogged west, coming perilously close to making landfall. But people who love this church, and who love their Lord, in this community, across this country, and even across the globe were praying, not just that people would be spared, but that the hurricane would move east, just enough to spare the church building too. Even our missionaries in Sri Lanka were praying that our church building, and our congregation, were spared. And a widow in Pennsylvania, who used to be a Winter Visitor here for years, called my home to ask if her congregational prayers had spared our church. And the hurricane track, if you look back on a weather map, jogged east just off of Daytona Beach! That’s a fact; the editorial musing of a man of faith wonders if our prayers pleaded enough that the hand of God moved the storm right. There is often a debate between science and faith; perhaps something scientific moved the storm. But Jesus taught us, using flawed characters, that if a persistent but powerless widow can get her desired outcome from an unjust judge, why wouldn’t we try asking the just judge of the ages for things that will bring safety and gratitude to many people? Let’s not be afraid to ask.
Let us pray:
Dear Great Judge of us all: some here today plead with you for a good outcome of a procedure, a surgery, or an illness. Some need financial help or human assistance to help put their homes back in order. Hear their prayers for you to intercede in their lives, make changes that will bring others relief, and bring you glory and gratitude. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner October 16, 2016