Sermon October 16 – Luke 18:1-8, The Widow and the Judge Rev. Betsy Hogan
Do you ever judge a book by its cover? I mean literally. To decide if you want to read it.
I do this… all the time. I will heartily support the metaphorical meaning of “don’t judge a book by its cover” until the cows come home – but literally? When I’m trying to decide what to read?
I totally judge books by their cover. And I bet I’m not the only one. Because metaphorical proverbs notwithstanding, we know that book covers are designed to give us hints about the content.
A glimpse into the story, in the hopes the potential reader might be engaged. Including even, if the picture alone can’t be trusted to do the trick, sometimes a cover will include a nice tagline: a kind of “here is what this book is about”, in case this sort of thing interests you.
Which are actually quite helpful, these taglines. What they AREN’T though, is what we normally expect in a gospel passage right before Jesus tells a parable.
“Then Jesus told the disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.” That’s how the passage from Luke’s gospel that we heard this morning begins. And it’s a little weird. Because that’s not how Jesus telling a parable in the gospels usually begins.
Usually Jesus just tells a parable. It might be in response to someone’s question; it might be in response to something that’s happened – but usually Jesus just tells a parable.
He doesn’t announce in advance what it’s about, or prime the disciples to hear it in one particular way – the actual point of parables is that the meaning is elusive and hovering and grasped by the hearer as it’s being heard.
But this time? Luke gives us a tagline. Here’s a parable and it’s about praying always and not losing heart.
Which it’s not that that’s not true, but at the same time, it actually diminishes this passage a bit as a parable. Because thanks to Luke’s tagline we sort of head into this passage already prepared to some degree to ‘judge the book by its cover’. To look specifically in its words for what Jesus’ message will be… about ‘praying always and not losing heart’.
Which is fine… and here’s the widow who won’t give up, who won’t give in, who pleads and pleads and pleads her case and eventually, just by sheer force of will, she gets what she wants…
So don’t give up and don’t give in and pray always and don’t lose heart…
But there’s so much more than that here. Quite apart from the fact that if we hear this parable about the widow and the unjust judge the way Luke apparently wants us to, God really doesn’t come off looking good here!
Like, are we actually supposed to imagine that we have to pray always and not lose heart because God’s like this unjust judge? Who’s essentially pretty much going to ignore us for as long as possible until worn down by sheer force of will?
Because I’m not sure that’s the advertisement that God really ought to go with. There’s just a whole lot of wrong with a God who behaves like that. And that is NOT the way the God that Jesus talks about would ever behave. Like a parent fed up with a whining badgering child, who just wants the kid to shut up and leave him alone.
I don’t think Luke meant for us to hear this parable that way. But that’s kind of what happens because of that tagline. Here’s a parable about praying always and not losing heart – so we immediately fall into the allegory trap. The widow’s badgering becomes praying always and not losing heart, and the judge becomes God.
And we miss the depth of meaning that’s graspable, elusive, hovering, as the meaning of a parable. Because this isn’t an allegory. It’s a parable. It’s a story.
It’s a story, in fact, about a judge. Just a judge. Purveyor of justice. The one who facilitates justice being done here on earth, in our place, in our community. When there’s a conflict, when there’s been a disagreement, when some unfairness has been perpetrated by one party against another – this judge is in effect the go-between. On one side, the complainants. On the other side, justice and righteousness. And in between is the judge.
He’s the means through which those who find themselves in an unjust situation pass from there into a new situation in which there is justice. Or at least he’s the means through which people in an unjust situation move into a situation in which there’s justice – IF he’s doing his job properly.
If he’s listening closely, on the one hand, and also if he knows what a situation of justice actually looks like, on the other. Those are the two crucial pieces, for him to be doing his job properly. He has to listen carefully to the INjustice, and he has to know what justice actually looks like.
But THIS judge? He does not have these two crucial pieces, to be doing his job properly.
On the one hand, he apparently has NO interest in listening to whatever unjust situation our widow is currently dealing with –
And on the other hand, Jesus tells us that this judge neither fears God nor has respect for people. So he clearly has ZERO regard for God’s passionate desire for all God’s people to live in situations of justice.
He’s not doing his job properly. He’s the theoretical means through which this widow can move from living in injustice to living in justice as God passionately desires for all God’s people to live – and he’s not doing that job.
He won’t listen to the widow, and he doesn’t care what God wants for God’s people.
What he doesn’t realize, however, is that our widow prays always and doesn’t lose heart. And she knows, even if our judge doesn’t, how passionately God desires for all God’s people to live in situations of justice – and she also knows, even if our judge doesn’t, just how long she’s willing to keep chasing that judge around town until he listens.
IE, as long as it takes. Until he does his job. Until he hears her. Until he operates as he’s meant to as the means through which she will leave behind her situation of injustice for a situation of justice. As God passionately desires for all God’s people.
Our widow does not lose heart. Because she trusts, she knows, that God’s passion for justice is unwavering. And if in between her and God’s passion for justice for God’s people is some judge who doesn’t much feel like stopping to pay attention to her? Well, she will just keep badgering him until he does. Because he will lose patience before she loses heart.
She’s a powerhouse, this widow. And of course, in this parable, she’s right! The judge does lose patience, he eventually gives in, he actually in the Greek word that Jesus uses to describe how the widow is badgering him – he actually gives into her in part because he starts realizing that his reputation is at stake.
The widow is starting to give him a metaphorical “black eye” in front of all his friends and neighbours and colleagues – it’s starting to actually get embarrassing that’s he’s refusing to listen to her.
So he finally does. She knew that God was passionate for her to live in a situation of justice, and finally the means by which that can happen opens up. The judge listens to her and hears her, so she can finally move from the injustice place to the justice place.
What’s crucial in this parable, when we hear it as a parable and without any priming from Luke’s tagline, is that we no longer jump to any conclusion that the judge is meant to represent God.
Which is so clearly not the case when Jesus describes the judge is not fearing God – and yet it’s such an easy pit to fall into. Where we wind up imagining that Jesus’ point is that God somehow needs endless badgering in order to display any sort of care for us.
Which is completely the opposite of what God is like in this parable. And the widow knows that! That’s why she never stops praying! That’s why she doesn’t lose heart! Because she knows that God’s passion for God’s people to live in situations of justice is wholly unwavering.
Which means that if someone is blocking that? If someone who ought to be a means through which that happens is refusing to pay attention? Then THEY’RE the ones who need to be badgered. Endlessly. Without losing heart, because God is good and God’s goodness will prevail, and eventually they will listen.
She’s a powerhouse, this widow, in her absolute refusal to lose heart -- because God is good and God’s goodness will prevail, and eventually those who don’t want to hear what she has to say about the injustice of the situation she’s in, those who could be, those who are meant to be the instruments by which that injustice can be turned into justice – eventually they will listen. So she will keep talking. As long as she has to. Until they become the allies that are needed.
Which is pretty powerful. Which is pretty inspiring. And if we’re honest, we should probably also consider it a little discomfiting. Or maybe challenging is a better word.
Because if we’re the ones living with injustice? We know that God has a passionate desire for all God’s people to live in a situation of justice – with enough to eat, and clean water to drink, and safe shelter that protects, and access to fullness of life. We know, like the widow, that God is good and God’s goodness will prevail – and there’s no need to lose heart. If we’re the ones living with injustice, she inspires us to keep badgering the powers that be, those whose job it is to make things right, until we get heard.
But if we’re not – if we have enough food and water and if we have safe shelter and we have access to fullness of life – then she’s a discomfiting challenge. Because we’re kind of like that judge, in our privileged position. We might be – we COULD be -- the means through which others reach the justice situation that’s God’s intent for all. If we’d just stop and listen. And maybe become instruments of that justice by being willing to change or make sacrifices – or even just become the allies that are needed.
Because the judge just wanted to finally get that widow to stop bugging him. It’s not great motivation, though at least it has the benefit of probably being roughly accurate, in terms of the way people sometimes are. Because Jesus is realistic. We’re meant to pray always and not lose heart in a conviction of God’s passion for justice as sure as that widow’s, that makes us its instruments – how it comes to fruition in the world.
Then Jesus told them a parable. That’s really all Luke should have started with. No tagline that jumps to conclusions, lets us judge a book by its cover – Luke really just should have said “then Jesus told them a parable”. And then stopped. So we could pay attention. Amen.