Text: Luke 18:1-8
This past Wednesday those of us who attended the Wednesday night program listened and participated in a program on Islam led by some of our friends from the Islamic Center. As you may know, Muslims pray five times a day—at sunrise, mid-morning, two afternoon prayers and then at sundown. Actually, Muslims, much like those who practice Celtic spirituality, offer prayers before and after almost all daily routines and tasks but it is their ritual to stop what they are doing five times a day to offer prayers to Allah. At some point in the evening, it was acknowledged that sundown was going to occur while we were in our program and one of the leaders asked if there was a room where they could go to pray. I’m not sure exactly how it was decided but instead of leaving to go pray, they decided to integrate their prayer time as a part of the program so that we non-Muslims could observe their ritual. As I watched, I thought about the beginning of our lectionary text: “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”
I am often asked if I believe in prayer and my answer is consistently, yes. But the only way I am able to say “yes” is to also acknowledge the complexity and mystery of prayer. I sit with people all the time who say, “I pray but I don’t really feel anything or it doesn’t seem that my prayers make any difference.” For these people, and at times I have counted myself among them, it seems that prayer can lead one to lose heart instead of staying strong of heart. There are few things more disillusioning for one’s faith than to feel as though your prayers are not being heard by God. And yet, throughout his ministry, Jesus reminds us of this need to pray. From my own experience, what I know about praying is that the practice of prayer is what makes the difference in my life and is ultimately what keeps me from losing heart in times of distress. Prayer is not about what I say or how I say it or where I am when I pray. It is about doing it. Our Muslim friends reminded me of this truth Wednesday night—my own need to practice prayer.
But the parable of the widow and the unjust judge is not just about our need to persist in prayer, it is also about justice and how our faith can lead to justice. The parable itself is odd in many ways—jumping around between a persistent widow demanding justice, an unjust judge who neither feared God nor respected people, and an ending that poses what seems to be an out-of-place question.
Jesus begins his story by introducing a nameless judge in “some” city. Since the judge does not fear God, Jesus probably has in mind a Gentile judge. To give a bit of context it is helpful to know that public service was not considered by the Romans to be a profession. Roman magistrates or judges received no remuneration. They did, however, have supreme administrative power to execute the law within their jurisdiction. But possibly, more significant to the parable, is the fact that the magistrate dispensed justice based on his own personal feelings or prejudices (or as one commentator suggested “at his own discretion.”) Within this context, one can begin to see how an isolated judge receiving no salary and having extensive power in a small area with few guiding laws might easily abuse his power. So those listening to Jesus’ parable would have related to the kind of judge that Jesus described—a judge who felt no responsibility to any authority or, more importantly, who had no respect for his fellow human beings.
The judge in Jesus’ teaching raises a significant question for our society and culture today—the question of what it means to have respect for others. It’s hard to read this parable today, and specifically that line “…nor had respect for people,” and not think about some of the latest news headlines. I immediately thought of the horrific and tragic story coming out of Rutger’s University a couple of weeks ago—the story of the college students who video-taped one of their male roommates having intimate relations with another male student and posted the video to the internet, leading the young gay man to jump off the George Washington bridge to his death. Or the story of the Assistant District Attorney in Michigan setting up a facebook page that propagated violence and hate toward the student body president of the University of Michigan simply because he is gay. Or yet still, the young woman who recently graduated from Duke who posted a “mock” thesis that went viral detailing sexual encounters with 13 male students, naming each of the 13 by name. But you know it’s not just the younger, technologically technology-savvy generation who is struggling with this question of respect. Go back a few more weeks to September and recall the impact worldwide when the Christian preacher in Florida threatened to burn the Holy Scriptures of one of the world’s major religions. There may not be a more blatant disrespect than what he proposed to do, all in the name of religion. Or consider the disrespect for other human beings when one super power nation preemptively starts a war. Or when elected leaders consider only their children’s educational future rather than all children’s future. So many of our current societal headlines beg this question of what it means to show respect for others. And today our faith raises the question.
But this parable that Jesus tells does not just raise questions about persistence in prayer or respecting others. It is also about justice. The widow was seeking justice. Even as Luke seeks to highlight in his gospel Jesus’ concern for the oppressed, Luke makes sure he included this parable showing Jesus’ concern for the state of the widows. The judge should be her advocate but rather is acting in conjunction with her opponent. Jewish widows, after their husbands died, had the right to be financially maintained by the heirs in her husband’s house. However, later in Luke, Jesus tells us that even the religious scribes were attempting to “devour the widows’ houses” and “stealing their properties.” Jesus chose the widow to illustrate a person who is in a defenseless position in society and truly needs justice. Once again this parable raises for us a significant question: Who are the widows in our society today? Children, immigrants, the homeless, the LGBT community, the working poor, the mentally ill. The scriptures affirm over and over again that God’s justice always sides with the oppressed, the marginalized, the despised, the defenseless, and the forgotten. While it may seem to us at times that there is no justice, our faith is a faith that proclaims a just and merciful God. We must not lose heart!
In the end, we come to this big and final question that Jesus poses in the parable: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” The answer to this question may very well lie in our willingness and courage to be like the widow in the parable. Will we stay persistent? Will we hold vigil and practice prayer—praying always for God’s justice? Will we dare to not lose heart when justice seems delayed? Will we summon the strength to be a counter witness to the judges of our world who judge with a hard and insincere heart? Will we have the discipline to respect our fellow human beings and follow Jesus’ teachings to “do unto others as we would have them do unto us?” Will we persist in upholding justice for the oppressed, the marginalized, the despised, the defenseless, and the forgotten? These are not simply rhetorical questions; they are serious questions of faith. And how we answer them will depend on whether or not Jesus will find faith on earth. But let me remind us, Jesus’ question about finding faith on earth is not about the future. It is about the here and now.
Our Muslim friends ended their presentation Wednesday night by saying that the Islamic faith is about sincerity of heart and the sincerity of one’s intentions. Likewise, the lectionary group that had met that same day to discuss the parable of the widow and the unjust judge concluded the same: it all comes down to intentions. In the parable, ultimately the unjust judge dispensed justice. And ultimately, God is a God of justice. In the end, the lectionary group pointed out, you can have the same outcome but with two very different intentions.
As expected, I have held up the widow as the example for us to live by. And yet, the unjust judge also serves as a kind of example for us. As comfortable, privileged people living in today’s culture of power, the question he invites us to ponder is this: Do our intentions come from a place of respect—respect for God and God’s justice? Do we respect those who are marginalized and vulnerable or do we actually hold contempt for them and simply act out of obligation, or so that they (or our conscience), will stop bothering us? The deeper question embedded in the unjust judge’s actions is “Why do we do what we do for the oppressed and the marginalized; the despised, defenseless and the forgotten?”
Faith is about sincerity of heart. It is about our deepest intentions. The unjust judge causes us to ponder our intentions. The widow says to us, “persist always for justice.”