But at first reading, this parable about the persistent widow and the unjust judge sounds just like this, doesn’t it? “Grant me justice.” “NO.” “Grant me justice.” “NO.” “Grant me justice.” “NO.” And Jesus framing this with the admonition to pray and not lose heart makes it sound like we need to nag God repeatedly for a proverbial cookie and eventually we will get what we ask for. Now you and I know this isn’t true and, as a wise old grandfather named Mick Jagger once said, “You can’t always get what you want.” So what is this parable really saying to us?
As Biblical scholars, and we are all Biblical scholars learning at various rates, when we read or hear the Scriptures we have to look for clues in different ways than when we read a contemporary document. When the books of the Bible were set in written form, the science of written language was in its infancy – writing was very primitive. What I mean is that the innovations we take for granted which tell us what words or phrases should get the emphasis in a story had not been invented yet. Innovations like bold, underlining, italics, large fonts, punctuation – none of these things existed. Even miniscule letters were not there – everything was in all caps … so today we might think the ancients were shouting. That’s the downside: the upside is Comic Sans did not exist either so we must take the good with the bad.
So how do we interpret where to focus given these visual clues just are not there? Well, the ancient linguists and scribes had a way of telling you what was important: repetition. The repetition of a word or a phrase was a way of focusing your attention to the main point. Writers also used literary devices such as rhyme, homophones (words that had similar sounds to the main idea) and puns (there are a lot of puns in the Bible which get lost in translation). If we go back and listen to the Gospel reading again, the word which comes up repeatedly is: justice. Pray only shows up once, so clearly this isn’t the focus of the story. The other thing which gets repeated is the description of the unjust judge. Jesus describes him as neither fearing God or respecting people and the judge himself in a bit of internal dialog (a narrative device unique to Luke) also says he has “no fear of God and no respect for anyone”. This is important because when we hear a parable, on first blush we unconsciously allegorize it and try to figure out who the characters are. When we hear there is an authority figure, like a judge, we might be quick to assign that role to God. Even Jesus’ original audience might have done so as a traditional blessing at a Jewish funeral is the Baruch Dayan Emet: “Blessed are you Lord God, King of the Universe, the True Judge.” This is why Jesus goes out of his way to repeat this is an unjust judge – and his contrast of unjust only helps repeat and underscore the widow’s cry for justice being the central focus of the story.
Justice is at the heart of God’s concern for humanity. It is a central theme in the Bible. There are three words in the Bible used to speak of justice: two in Hebrew (tzedeq and mishpat) and one in Greek (dikaiosyne). All three of these words can also be translated as righteousness. Justice and righteousness are the same and they speak of right relationships between people and with God. We get a strong clue of what that looks like to God from the Scriptures because over and over we hear admonitions about how we are to care for the most vulnerable in our society: the widows and orphans. In ancient times, to be a widow was to be vulnerable because you lacked the protection and economic support of your husband or father. If you had sons, they were to provide this support; however, a widow without sons was at the mercy of the extended family or society at large. Orphans have always been vulnerable, even to this day. So in our more modern context, we might substitute “widows and orphans” with “vulnerable people” as we read the admonitions of where God’s concerns are. God’s concern is with those who are at the mercy of others and in our world that includes the poor, the homeless, those struggling with mental illness or addiction, those who cannot find meaningful work, the disabled and the chronically ill. Scripture tells us we and our whole society will be judged by God in light of how we treat those most vulnerable among us. This is why in the parable God’s lot is cast with the widow and it is God who is demanding justice for her.
Interestingly, the unjust judge finally grants her request, but not as an altruistic move on his part. The NRSV actually cleans up the translation here but he really says he’s going to grant her justice so that she “will not come and strike me on the face below the eye”, meaning she won’t come and give him a black eye! Even the unjust judge knows there is a point beyond which people will break and he is, quite honestly, acting out of his own selfish interests; but sometimes we do the right things for selfish reasons, don’t we?
I believe the contentiousness of our current election cycle is deeply rooted in the injustice people have experienced – and I hear this from both sides! It doesn’t matter whether you support Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton – both camps are crying out for justice. I’m hearing the pain and frustration of people who have been left behind when their jobs went away after factories closed and there was no money or support for job retraining or relocation. Rural people are hurting in America! We have family farmers who are trying to make a living working the land and finding they need food stamps to feed their own families. Where is the justice for them? Brunswickians – you know what it’s like when the big business walks out of your town and leaves you high and dry. What happened when CSX pulled out of here and took all the jobs? Was there any money or help for job retraining and relocation? Or did that get cut so that wealthy people could get tax breaks? The working class is hurting and crying out for justice. Women who have been on the receiving end of sexual violence and oppression are saying “enough is enough” and crying out for justice. LGBT folk are tired of living in the shadows and being bashed or killed because of who they love and they are crying out for justice. People of color are tired of being racially profiled and under what feels like constant suspicion and they are crying out for justice. Every single one of us is longing and aching for right relationships – we all want justice.
And Jesus tells us our response to this longing: to pray and not lose heart. Now I’m not talking about prayer being some empty chatter directed at God. If that’s what your prayers are, let me assure you that God is not impressed. I’m also not talking about praying for a specific outcome in this election – you know, praying for your candidate to be elected. I’m telling you to ask God for right relationships, for justice. That means right relationships between each of us and with the people who right now are pressing all of your buttons and with whom you are angry. It means you pray for the candidate you support AND for the one you do not support – God knows they need it. It means you ask God what you should do, what you should say, what you should Tweet or post BEFORE you do it and ask how you can be a force for setting relationships right. This is a prayer which isn’t passive at all! You need to be prepared for this kind of prayer to change you and make demands on you. We cannot undertake the mission of Christ without being ready to lay down whatever gods we have worshipped which are getting in the way of doing justice. God will not act outside and apart from human agency – you are to be a part of this plan to be repairers of breaches and justice makers. The prophet Micah summed it up this way: we are to “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” May we do so.