19th Sunday After Pentecost
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from our God
who calls us to faith, prayer and acts of justice. Amen
We have another parable for our gospel today,
commonly titled the parable of the widow and the unjust judge,
now another parable doesn’t really surprise us
because Jesus loves telling parables,
these little teaching stories
that have multiple meanings
and often leave the listener more confused
at the end of hearing them than enlightened.
Which is why we should be suspicious
when Luke tells us what the parable is about
before giving us the parable.
“Then Jesus told them a parable about the need to pray always and not to lose heart”
Luke pre-interprets the parable for us
and I’ve got to say,
if this parable is only about prayer
then I’m not sure I like the picture it paints.
We’ve got two characters the unjust judge,
who we’re told right at the beginning that is bad at his job,
he doesn’t respect the law,
or God or other people,
and we have a widow
who in terms of the law
has very little power
a woman’s legal status and protection
came through either her father or her husband,
which meant if a woman were widowed
she had not only lost her husband
but legal protection as well,
additionally wives were not allowed
to inherit their husband’s property
leaving widows in an extremely vulnerable state,
which is why the law emphasizes over and over again
that special care is to be taken for widows
So in our parable we have a widow in a legal dispute with someone
and we assume her cause is just,
and we have a judge whose job it is to settle the dispute
and he refuses to do his job
but this widow doesn’t give up
, she keeps coming to him
asking him to do his job,
again and again she comes
until finally the judge grants her justice,
not out of any concern for God or the law or the widow
but purely out of self preservation,
we hear his inner monologue
“Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone,
yet because this widow keeps bothering me,
I will grant her justice
so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’
Now I discovered this week
that the translators really toned down the imagery
when the judge says the widow keeps bothering him
and gives her justice so that she won’t wear him out,
that seems pretty mild right,
more annoying than anything,
when in fact the greek uses boxing imagery,
this is a boxing match
and the direct translation is
: “so that in the end she may not come and strike me under the eye”
in other words, give the judge a black eye.
This widow is persistent,
in her pursuit of justice until it is granted to her.
I love this image,
the two characters in a boxing ring
the widow cornering the judge
landing punches until he gives up,
a true underdog match
but if this is about prayer
then I have a problem with it,
because at least at first glance
it seems that God is the unjust judge
and we are all the widow
and prayer is a relentless pursuit of God
to get what we want.
And I don’t think God or prayer work that way,
neither does Jesus by the way
his concluding remarks contrast God to the judge,
he says unlike the judge God doesn’t have to be badgered into giving justice
but will listen and respond quickly,
but I’ve got to say the contrast isn’t strong enough for me,
the image I am left with
is of the boxing match
and the widow throwing punches until she gets justice.
Now, if there were no pre-interpretation to this parable
that’s what I would think the parable is about.
Justice and the pursuit thereof,
the widow keeps coming
until justice is granted,
it often takes that kind of persistence
to get justice in the world
and we know we have a God who cares about justice,
In fact God fits the description of the widow,
one who continually comes to those in power in the world
until they do the right thing.
Think of the defining story of the exodus
where God sends plague after plague on Pharaoh
until the Isrealites are set free.
Jesus in his ministry
has been preaching and enacting justice too,
mostly among people in the place of the widow
with no power and few options,
he’s told them the world doesn’t have to be this way,
when someone is hungry, feed them,
when someone is sick offer medicine/ healing,
that is God’s vision for the world,
a vision that Jesus has been living all along the way
now Jesus is headed to Jerusalem and the cross
where the justice of God will be completed,
there are a variety of different ways to try to explain
what happens on the cross,
the words debt and substitution are often used
but these all fall short
but we do know the result,
for the sake of Jesus
God forgives us all the injustices we commit,
the breaches in relationship we’ve created
and God welcomes us with open arms.
Jesus concludes his interpretation of the parable like this:
“Listen to what the unjust judge says,
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 this interpretation makes sense to me
given what has taken place in the parable
and in the interactions between God and people.
But those of you who are paying close attention
know that there is actually one more sentence to Jesus’ conclusion:
“and yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
What? Where does faith come into this?
Just when we’d finally figured something out about the parable
faith gets thrown into the mix.
Just before telling this parable in Luke,
Jesus has been teaching his disciples
about the return of the Son of Man,
he’s told them that he will die,
rise three days later,
ascend to his father
and then after an extended absence return-
this is what we confess in the second article of the apostle’s creed
when we say “he will come to judge the living and the dead”
Jesus understands that this gap
will be long enough for people to lose faith,
but what does that have to do with justice,
or even prayer?
What is this parable about? Prayer? Justice? Faith?
Perhaps it’s all three,
Barbara Lundblad is a professor of preaching
and an amazing interpreter of scripture
and in a sermon on this text at the festival of homiletics last year
she suggested just that,
that this parable is actually about all three things,
prayer, justice and faith
because they are connected,
we can’t have one without the other,
if we pray but don’t seek justice
our prayers are empty-
this is why people react so strongly now
when politicians offer thoughts and prayers after a tragedy
without acting to correct the injustice that created the tragedy,
those thoughts and prayers mean nothing
if not followed by meaningful action.
On the other hand
if we work for justice and don’t pray
we will come to think everything depends on us,
we neatly cut God out of the equation
when in fact while our work is important
it is God who will bring about the full realization of justice in the world,
our actions are drops in the bucket,
meaningful drops, but drops all the same.
And finally Barabara Lundblad suggests
that if we manage to both pray and work for justice
but have no faith
we will give up when justice doesn’t come.
Think, how many times the widow appealed to the judge
before justice was granted her.
each round of the boxing match is harder to get up for.
Faith is often defined as trust,
lately I’ve been thinking that another good definition of faith
the willingness to wait for God.
Jesus wonders if he will find faith on earth when he returns,
so in the end,
perhaps the parable is about what Luke said in the first place,
about the need to pray always and not lose heart,
to work for justice in the world
as Jesus has commanded his followers to do
requires constant prayer
not so much to badger God
but to remind ourselves that we have a relationship with God
who acts for justice,
and it requires faith,
the trust that God will help us
and the patience to wait for the time when that justice will be realized.
So in whatever boxing match you may find yourself
pray, work for justice, have faith,
and don’t lose heart,
Christ is coming. Amen
Pastor Emily Johnson preaches weekly at Christ Lutheran. These are manuscripts of her sermons given at Christ Lutheran. Feel free to engage with them in the comments section of the blog.