Sometimes I spend less time on a text than I would like, and this sermon was one of them. I had however never thought of the parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge as being about justice, despite Jesus' words to that effect in vv 7-8. I think I've previously thought of it as being about persistence in prayer, which is part of it, to be sure. At any rate, I'm happy I now see the text in a newer light. MP
A Sermon Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Diocese of Toronto, Barrie, ON, 20 October, 2019, the
Lectionary Texts for the Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost: jeremiah 31:27-34, Psalm 121, 2 Timothy 3:15-4:5, Luke 18:1-8
And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" (Luke 18:7-8)
This last week at work, one of my colleagues has spent a lot of his time with Canada Revenue Agency, trying to something fixed with his tax file. I’ve frequently looked into his office to chat and seen him on the phone, only for him to say “It’s ok, I can talk, I’m on hold”. Sometimes I could hear the muzak coming from his speaker phone when he was waiting for someone to get back to him.
After going through three or four different people, over the course of several days, my friend got his problem fixed. I’m sure you’ve all had similar experiences, perhaps with a bureaucracy of some sort, where you’ve had to get you want from sheer persistence, just by making a nuisance of yourself.
So there are times in life when we might feel ourselves to be like the widow in the parable which is today’s gospel reading. Of course, the difference between us and the widow is that the people and the bureaucracies we have to deal with are not wicked. They may be slow-moving, maddening to deal with, and their rules may be ridiculous and even stupid, but they are not generally corrupt. The widow on the other hand has to deal with “a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people” (Lk 18:2).
Certainly there are places in the world where justice, such as it is, is in the hands of the wicked and corrupt. Imagine if an updated version of this parable was set in some neighbourhood in Central America that was controlled by cartels, and the widow having to go ask a drug lord to help her settle a dispute. In this version of the story, we would admire the widow’s courage and persistence, while wishing that there was some way that she could obtain proper justice from people with integrity.
Jesus’ audience would I think have had a similar reaction. They lived in a society where tyrants and despots like Herod enforced the rules. The would have seen the parable through the lens of the psalms, which see people like the widow as being especially deserving of God’s justice: “Give justice to the weak and the orphan, maintain the right of the lowly and destitute” (Ps 82:3).
For those who first heard or read this parable, the point of it would have been the widow’s persistence. They wouldn’t have said, “Well, it goes to show, eh, the squeaky wheel gets the grease”. Rather, the point of it would be to reinforce the call in Israel’s scriptures for God to come with God’s justice:
“O Lord, you will hear the desire of the meek, you will strengthen their heart, you will incline your ear to do justice for the meek and for the orphan and the oppressed, so that those from earth may strike terror no more.” (Ps 10:17-18).
Jesus’ parable thus takes up a call for justice for the poor and powerless that runs throughout the Hebrew scriptures. Verse 7 of the gospel reading should be read in this context as a powerful promise that God’s will bring justice to the world: “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?” (Lk 18:7).
Jesus is explaining the parable as follows: If a stubborn widow can get some justice out of a wicked judge, how much more can the faithful get from God? The final lines of the gospel reading are eschatological, in that they point to a day of justice that God will deliver at a time of God’s choosing: “I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.” However the Gospel ends on a question that seems almost foreboding: “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"
There are several answers we could give, depending on how we read today’s gospel. if we read it as being about prayer, we could say that faith is measured by our persistence in prayer. However, I think that if we read it as being about justice, we could say that faith is the extent to which we believe in and strive for God’s justice, in our actions where possible, and in prayer often. In this context, “faith” is understood to include “faith/belief in God’s justice”.
Caring about justice doesn’t necessarily mean that we as Christians and as Canadian Anglicans need to align ourselves with any one political party or cause, though it does mean I think that we care about what happens in the political realm. I think we have pretty good instincts when it comes to looking around us and recognizing injustice. Injustice is simply that which isn’t right.
For example, it’s not right that children go to school with empty bellies
It’s not right that so many of Canadian indigenous communities do not have safe drinking water
It’s not right that God’s creation is being destroyed and that species are going extinct daily
It’s not right that hundreds of thousands of people are abandoned and left defenceless after two powerful men have a brief phone conversation
And on and on and on …
In this parish there are ways that we can and do act for justice. Our deacon’s cupboard is one example. Being an open and inclusive community is another. But as the gospel reminds us, we are called to pray always and not to lose heart.
Our prayers of the people should always include prayers for our community and for the world. We need to be as intentional and as deliberate in praying for Barrie, for Canada, for troubled places in the world, as we are when we pray for our families and for our loved ones. Praying for justice requires effort and patience, especially when it’s easy to lose heart. Praying isn’t a way of alerting God to bad things happening here or there. We can presume, I think, that God knows and God cares, passionately, and that God is acting in the world. Praying for justice, I think, is a way of aligning ourselves with God in the world.
I think of two men of faith who were in the news recently. Both exemplify the faith in and persistent work for God’s justice that are relevant here.
One is Elijah Cummings, the American political who died last week, The son of poor farmers and Baptist preachers, an advocate for residents of poor neighborhoods in Baltimore, champion of healthcare for the poor, he worked right up to the day he died
The other is Jimmy Carter - married to Rosalyn for 73 years, longer than some presidents have been alive. Now in his nineties, he still teaches Sunday school, and still devotes time to Habitat for Humanity, building homes for the homeless.
Both men are examples of good people who cared about God’s justice and did what they could to pursue it. As impressive as they are compared to what you or I might do, their efforts may seem like a drop in the ocean compared to the injustice in the world.
However, prayer reminds us of God’s purpose and plan to rescue and redeem the world, to return it to the way he created it. I think of another widow in Luke’s gospel, not the widow of the parable that we heard today, but one who is mentioned in the nativity stories, the prophet Anna, who lives long enough to see the Saviour born:
She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, 37then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. Luke 2:36-38)
Anna reminds us that prayer is heard and answered, that God does care for the world enough to send us his son, and that as Christians, are prayers are part of God’s ongoing work in Christ to save and rescue the world.
Gracious God, we thank you that you are not like the judge in he parable, and we thank you that you do hear our prayers. We pray that you give us hearts for your justice and for the world you have given us. Give us faith and persistence to pray, so that our work and prayers may become part of your justice. Amen.