16 October, 2022 – Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
by Seminarian, Michael Thompson
Sermon preached by Seminarian, Michael Thompson
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
Let us pray.
Let the words of my mouth and the collective mediation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer and set our hearts on fire with your love. Amen.
This morning, we get another favorite parable. This parable goes by a variety of names: “The Parable of the Unjust Judge”; “The Parable of the Persistent Widow and the Unjust Judge”; “The Parable of the Persistent Widow.” What we call it says something about which characters we think convey Jesus’ message.
Most often I hear people call this “The Parable of the Persistent Widow.” That makes good sense. The persistent widow should absolutely be an example for us to follow. She’s great on many levels. She is a widow, which in Jesus’ time meant that she didn’t have a place in society. Women’s identities were defined by their husbands. So, to be a widow – especially a widow past her childbearing years – was to be without an identity and a place in society. The persistent widow is a person who has been pushed to the margins.
This widow, though, isn’t content to accept her place and stay at the margins. She has a grievance, and, sorry Elsa, but she is not going to let it go. She doesn’t care that the judge is more powerful, has standing in the community, or even that he neither fears God nor respects people. She speaks truth to power. She is going to have justice and nothing less. She annoys the you-know-what out of the judge until she gets what is hers: justice.
Luke’s introduction to this parable tells us that it is about the persistent widow He writes, “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” That’s what the widow teaches us. Luke wants us to get the message that we should be persistent in prayer and hope like the widow is persistent in her pursuit of justice. He is not wrong. We should be like the persistent widow. We should keep at it, trusting that God will grant us justice and is so eager to do so that God will do it quickly.
You were probably hoping that that was my sermon. I’m sorry to say it isn’t. Yes, that is one lesson we should take from this parable, but there is another character. It’s the character we don’t like, the bad guy. And Jesus tells us, “Listen to what the unjust judge says.” What if we did?
Neither of the two characters in this parable are named. We have a widow whom we call “the persistent widow,” but nowhere in the story is she called the “persistent widow.” “The persistent widow” is a title we have given her by tradition.
The judge is a different story. Jesus gives the judge his title: “the unjust judge.” That title is important in the parable. The widow seeks justice, so she heads to a judge – but she’s got quite the uphill battle. She goes to “the unjust judge.” As an attorney, I happen to have some experience with judges, and unjust is not an ideal quality. Persistence is a theme of this parable, but so is justice. That theme is reflected in that the widow demands justice, there is a judge, and he happens to be unjust. That’s quite the justice conundrum.
What is justice? The Law Dictionary, online resource, defines justice as “Protecting rights and punishing wrongs using fairness.” Justice is about doing what is right, punishing what is wrong, and accomplishing both in a way that is fair. Do what the law says to do; do not do what the law says not to do. Easy. Done.
This parable adds a wrinkle. The widow demands justice, and judge ultimately relents. “I will grant her justice,” he says. Right after the judge grants justice, though, Jesus again calls him unjust: “Listen to what the unjust judge says.” If justice is about doing what is right and not doing what is wrong, then why, when the judge does the right thing and grants justice, is he still called unjust?
This question triggers two memories for me. The first is from my very first day of seminary. At the Eucharist, the Gospel lesson was one in which Jesus was ragging on the Pharisees. Our preacher was one of our professors, a dynamite preacher, The Rev. Dr. K.J. Oh. K.J. said something shocking. “You are in seminary to learn to be Pharisees.” What?! K.J. isn’t wrong. A part of seminary is learning the dos and don’ts just as the Pharisees studied the Torah, the Law, and advocated strict adherence.
The second memory comes from a Hebrew Bible class. During that class, our professor, Rabbi Dr. Rachel Mikva, kept emphasizing that the Bible is not a Boy Scout Manual. Her point was that the Bible can’t be organized into “Do” and “Don’t” columns. It is not that simple.
An episcopal priest told us that part of our training was to learn the law and a rabbi told us that the Bible – the law – is not a list of dos and don’ts. Perhaps justice is more than just doing what is right and not doing what is wrong.
The unjust judge does the right and just thing, eventually, but it does not make him just. He doesn’t do the right thing for the right reason. He doesn’t grant justice because it’s just. He does it because he doesn’t want to be bothered anymore. He doesn’t experience any change or growth. He doesn’t decide to become just. He grants the widow justice as a momentary exception to his usual orientation because it serves his selfish purposes. The thing is, we love to identify with the persistent widow, but too often we behave like the unjust judge. That’s a real problem for people who covenant to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” [BCP p. 305.]
When we are the unjust judge, then who is the persistent widow? God is. Again and again, God has loudly proclaimed care for the oppressed and the marginalized as a divine priority. God exhorts us to follow a law that runs so much deeper than a list of dos and don’ts. God cries out for us to treat each other fairly, care for one another, and fight for the lowest among us. As Richard said last week, “God seems to want people we keep at the margins to be centered, and for our centers to become more marginal.” God wants us to step out into the margins and place those we force to the margins at the center.
God doesn’t hesitate to give us justice. God wants us to do the same. At the center of justice is not law but love. Love is why God does not hesitate to grant us justice. Love is what God wants engrained in us. Love is the law that God wants to put within us and write on our hearts. When we are quick to grant justice rooted in love, there will be no doubt that the answer to Jesus’ question “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth” is “Yes!” Amen.