Luke 18:1-8, Jeremiah 31:27-34
When I was growing up there was a “puzzle” that made the rounds on the playground. It is a “puzzle” that I read again recently.
A boy and his father were in a car accident. They were rushed to the hospital. One of the doctors came in and looked at the boy. The doctor said, “I can’t treat him. This is my son!” How can that be?
Today, wouldn’t we say, almost immediately, that the doctor was the boy’s mother? Wouldn’t we decry the prejudice and bias that might not see that as a possibility? We could laugh at the limited sight the puzzle demonstrates.. But, limited sight persists. I read a story this week about a black woman doctor who volunteered to help someone on an airplane – and was told over and over again by flight attendants that she should get out of the way. What were her credentials? Could she prove that she was a doctor? A white man was accepted immediately, without having to prove himself.
All of us are biased in some way. I heard someone on a political show talk about the need for unbiased reporting. The host said that everyone has bias. It is unavoidable. The best reporting comes when that bias is not given free reign, when it doesn’t shut out other voices. Bias needs to be challenged –in others and in ourselves. Biblical scholar Kenneth Bailey said that we need to be aware of the bias spectacles that we wear when we encounter the Scripture. Every reading is an interpretation that is influenced by our assumptions which arise out of our life-experience and the culture in which we live.
That brings us to today’s gospel lesson, titled in the NRSV “The Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge.” It is a strange parable. Scholars point out that it is unique to the Gospel of Luke. What is the author or Jesus telling us about God in this story that tells about someone in a position of power who is willingly deaf to the needs of a powerless person? We know that experience too well in our own world. There is an increasing divide between the rich and the poor. There was an article in the Tampa Bay Times just this week that names cities in Florida as among the worst in the nation when it comes to that division. Miami and the Tampa Bay area both made the list! And, for many of those who live on the edges of society – in our own and other nations – the powerful seem to be unhearing and uncaring.
The parable seems to indicate that if we “pester” God, God will finally acquiesce to our demands. “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in answering them?” We’re told, it seems, that God is not like the unjust judge. Yet, how often do we find ourselves struggling because it seems that God is not attentive to our prayers? Sometimes we do theological gymnastics. We declare that, yes, God answers all prayers. Sometimes God’s answer is “No!” Yet, that is an un-satisfying answer for those who pour out their pain, their fear, and even their anger. God’s answer of “no” sounds suspiciously like the unjust judge.
This is one of those challenging parables. Now parables are not allegories. It is the story as a whole that embodies Jesus’ message. We can’t and shouldn’t easily or readily assign hard and fast identities to the characters. So, we can’t hear “judge” and think “God.” Biblical scholar Walter Wink suggested that we are to put ourselves into Biblical stories in multiple ways. We can’t always be the hero, or the faithful disciple. We are sometimes to see ourselves as Pharisees, Scribes or Sadducees. As we encounter this parable I think our first inclination is to see ourselves as the widow seeking justice. And, therefore, we place God in the role of the judge. We cry out to our powerful God, and hope for a judge who is more attentive to our plight.
John Buchanan points out that the focus of this parable is not “using God to get what one wants or needs – unless, of course, we understand that what God knows we need and what we think we want are not at all the same thing.” He is calling us to a spiritual maturity that recognizes that God is not the same as Santa Claus. You may remember the popularity of the prayer of Jabez – a prayer taken out of context. The prayer is, “Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from hurt and harm.” That got interpreted by modern Christianity as a directive that we should be selfish in our prayers – specifically selfish. Scholar Huston Smith observed, “When the consequences of belief are worldly goods, such as health, fixing on these turns religion into a service station for self-gratification and churches into health clubs. This is the opposite of religion’s role, which is to decenter the ego, not paper to its desires.” God is not the wish granter who will acquiesce to our prayers that we win the lottery. The issue in the parable is justice. Buchanan writes of growing up with loving parents who would not grant his every wish. Yet, they were concerned, always, about what he needed.
I am reminded of a wonderful folk tale about a widow who lost her only child. She heard about a holy man who had the power to overcome her loss. So, she went to the man and pleaded for him to give her son back to her. He listened. Then he advised her. “I will give you what you ask for if you can bring me a feather from a house that has never known sorrow.” She went with joy, expecting the task to be easy. She started at the home of a wealthy man. “They are rich. They can’t know sorrow!” she said to herself. As the door opened, she weeping. “What’s wrong?” she asked the servant. “The master’s child has died. The house is in mourning. She traveled to another house – and another – and another. Each household had tales of sorrow. Eventually, she forgot why she had started her journey. She became known, instead, as a wise woman who understood grief. She wanted her child back. What she needed was a deeper wisdom that connected her to others.
Now, to immerse ourselves more fully in this parable, we might ask how it would speak to us if we saw ourselves not as the widow but as the judge. We live in a complex world. What if part of the message of the parable is that God is more responsive to injustice than we are? It’s a sobering thought. It calls us to ask whose voices we discount. Who do we deem unworthy of our attention or care? How do we live with a lack of sensitivity to those who cry out for justice?
Again, Wink suggested we need to put ourselves into the story in a variety of ways. I wondered this week if maybe we shouldn’t do the same for God. We picture, often, God as the powerful authoritarian. And that has a profound influence on the way we view the world. We are drawn to the powerful. We dream of having our own power – power to make things in our lives the way we think they ought to be – and, perhaps, power to shape the world according to our own vision – however noble that vision may be. In the church, we look at and, perhaps, envy churches that seem to embody success evident in their size, programs, leadership, positions in the community, and finances. How often do we evaluate churches on the basis of their commitment to others? How often do we judge them on their mission and their giving beyond themselves?
When we are drawn to power and authority, perhaps it becomes easier to dismiss those who have no power and no authority – individuals and institutions.
Luke’s gospel often challenges our assumptions about who matters. He looks outside of expected norms to point us to God’s redeeming presence. This is the author who told us about the Good Samaritan. He relayed Jesus’ parable about the woman who searched for the lost coin. The least, the forgotten, the outsider are often portrayed as those who act in Godly ways. What if, in this parable, God is the one who comes seeking justice? What if God is the persistent voice in the face of injustice, demanding that wrongs be righted? What if God is the widow who won’t go away?
What we hear as pestering may, instead, be grace. God never gives up on us or on the world. God speaks to us through many, many voices, calling us to live into a deeper justice – and then calling us to be the widows in this world who pester the unhearing and uncaring powers that deny justice.
Buchanan noted that the early church, the first hearers of this parable, would have prayed for many things. He writes, “…it did not receive safety, protection from persecution…it did receive what it most needed: a sense of God’s loving presence and attentiveness, and the strength and resilience and fortitude it needed to survive.” And survive it did. Buchanan says, “Count on God to come down on the side of justice. Count on God to hear the ones who have no power, no influence, no voice. Count on God to hear those who have nowhere else to turn. Count on God not always to grant your requests, but to hear, with loving, parental patience, the persistent prayers of your heart.” And I would add, “Count on God to pester you with a deeper awareness and compassion for God’s beloved world.”