THE COMMUNITY in which I joined the Methodist Church earlier this year hosts a short telephone service on Sunday afternoons – like a Christian conference call! Yesterday I was invited to offer a five-minute reflection on the Gospel reading of the day:
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “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.”’ And the Lord said, ‘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 yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’Luke 18: 1-8
This story from Luke’s Gospel, known as the parable of the unjust judge, might be more appropriately called the parable of the persistent widow, a poor, powerless person who refuses to be passive in the face of injustice.
She asks the judge: ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ In one older translation she says ‘Avenge me of mine adversary’, which sounds much more dramatic!
Throughout the Bible, the treatment of widows, and orphans, is a measure of how just and merciful a society is, or is called to be. We don’t know the widow’s name, or the identity of her opponent. She could be any of us.
Jesus introduces her as a reminder ‘to pray always and not to lose heart.’ He compares his listeners – including us – with the woman, and God with the corrupt judge. Jesus doesn’t mean God is corrupt, but that if persistence pays off with a corrupt human of limited power, how much more will it pay off with a just God of infinite power?
It’s not just a parable about prayer – it encourages us to persevere in faith against all odds, challenges people in leadership, and offers hope to people facing oppression.
Contrasting a corrupt judge with a just God implies that God’s will is at work even in a corrupt world. The judge’s job is to do justice, and this judge does justice by the time the widow is finished with him! We are called to do the same with people in power today. When was the last time we contacted councillors, MPs, or faith leaders to share how we feel about society? We can’t right every wrong in the world in our lifetimes, but it’s a reminder never to give up hope, or stop working for the greater good in an imperfect world.
The parable also suggests that God can bring about miraculous justice in a corrupt world. Suddenly, the Berlin wall fell and ended the Cold War, apartheid in South Africa gave way to truth and reconciliation, the Good Friday Agreement promised peace for the whole island of Ireland. All seemed impossible for limited human will and imagination. Thank God they happened, though we need to persist in acting justly so we don’t undermine those profound breakthroughs of justice and mercy.
In the parable, God doesn’t intervene. The widow’s persistence alone leads the judge to act justly. But Jesus says God will intervene ‘for his chosen ones who cry to him day and night’. The widow both prays to God and stands up to the source of injustice. She ‘cried day and night’. For Luke’s audience, that phrase would evoke Israel’s slavery in Egypt, when they too ‘cried out day and night’ (Exodus 2:23).
These prayers cry out to God who advocates in solidarity with marginalised people. From the lowly manger to Jesus’ resurrection from an unjust crucifixion by an occupying force, God stands with those who have their backs against the wall, or as the African-American priest Kelly Brown Douglass says, those who have no wall to even place their backs upon.
Luke’s account of the good news is not that Jesus was crucified, but that his crucifixion has been undone. Crucifixion happened to people deemed a threat to the status quo that privileged some at the expense of many. Jesus lives, dies, and is resurrected in solidarity with those crying out for justice, inclusion, and mercy. His community held the hope of the prophets that one day all injustice, oppression, and violence would be put right. It wasn’t hope of getting to heaven after they die – it was about turning this world right-side up.
Jesus portrays God standing with those who face injustice at the hands of those who benefit from the way things are now. As Jesus followers, we’re called to be like the widow: crying out day and night to both God and the powerful; to be people of resurrection, undoing injustice in our communities today.
To say this story is only about prayer and God’s actions doesn’t hold to account those who hold power to shape our societies into safe communities for the marginalized, but instead act in ways that do harm. Seeing this as solely about prayer would leave injustice untouched, and those who face oppression daily passive in the face of it.
Change doesn’t happen without prayer and action, and action is how transformation is maintained. As Pope Francis said:
‘You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.’St Peter’s Square, Sunday 21st July 2013 (paraphrase from original Spanish