Updated: Nov 3, 2021
Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 3rd of Second Month, 2019
Speaker: Alex Dimick-Eastman
Scripture: Luke 18:1-8, NRSV
The Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge
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?”
Good morning, everyone!
Today is my favorite day of the year. Don't get me wrong, I love Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Eat Ice Cream for Breakfast day, as much as the next guy. But Super Bowl Sunday will always have a special place in my heart. I love the Super Bowl because of the football, of course, the end to another great season, to watch a game that will be immortalized in NFL history. I love the halftime show, although I have to say, I'm nervous about the pairing of Maroon 5 and Travis Scott- I'm not sure how that's going to work at all. I love the commercials, which turn something that is usually annoying into a spectacle of narrative storytelling and cinema. I also love how uniquely American the Super Bowl is. Nearly everybody from coast to coast gathers in front of their televisions to watch sports and eat their body weight in nacho cheese.
All of this is to say, I've had football on my mind recently, and I've been thinking about cheesy High School football movies. At first I thought I would tell a specific anecdote about a specific movie. But I realized that since all High School football movies are more or less exactly the same, I feel no pressure to keep from generalizing here. In the scripture this morning, Jesus's parable is introduced as showing his followers to "always pray, and never give up." Nearly all of High School football movies hit on both these things. Persistence, because most High School football movies are based in Texas, where a lot of value is placed on High School football, and a state known for its hard work and sticktoitiveness. Prayer, because most High School football movies are based in Texas, where there is absolutely no comprehension of the separation of church and state. In nearly all of these movies, the coach drills into their players that they have to work hard and keep trying if they are going to win. They'll use phrases like "Keep your head up," "Keep fighting," or "Don't quit" to inspire their team, which is always trailing by three or four points with two minutes left to go in the big game.
I'll eventually get to more implicit themes in this passage, themes that have no relation to football, but I wanted to start with persistence because it is the most overt theme- the bible literally goes out and says that this is what the followers of Christ should take away from the parable. So, this widow has kept coming to the judge, demanding justice, and the judge, time after time, is ignoring her completely. When I visualized this scene, I kept coming back to the miners trapped in a Chilean mine in 2010. Local officials were kind of dragging their feet, and so the families went out into the Chilean desert, and camped there, right outside the mine to pressure the people with power into doing the right thing. They set up so many tents it looked like a miniature city, and in many ways it was. The families called it Camp Esperanza, camp hope, and it had a schoolhouse for the children, and practicing doctors. Needless to say, the widow is probably not literally camped out at the house of the judge, but she does keep the pressure on him, and her passion is no less than the families in the desert.
We don't ever get to know what exactly she's upset about, Jesus never specifies, but it is clearly very important to her, which is a major part of persistence. Being able to diagnose what is vital and important, and what is not is integral to being effective at advocating for yourself. It's not a very good strategy to be bugging people all the time about the slightest little things. But part of the power of this widow's testimony, I think is that she is someone who maybe doesn't usually complain about things, but is speaking to the judge from a world of deep pain and hurt. It has to be really hard for him to ignore her. But he does. And she keeps going, day after day. The widow is really good at picking her battles. She has somethings that she needs more than anything else, and she's willing to work hard to make it happen. This goes back to what Brian said last week about active hope versus passive hope. Hope isn't about sitting around and waiting- it's about doing something. To have hope is to take risks. And that is what the widow is doing here. She's putting her situation in her own hands, she's taking charge. And she risks her reputation, she risks being seen as this crazy person who can't shut up about her problems. She risks being turned down completely by the judge, never getting justice. But she knows that risk is worth it. She knows that hope is worth it. What she knows more than anything, and what is important for us to see, is that it is not only perfectly acceptable, but necessary to be really annoying to powerful people if it means fulfilling hope about something that is more important to you than anything else in the world.
Perseverance is all well and good, but the widow is in a really tough spot here. When you persist in your job, it takes some willpower, sure, but you can kind of go on autopilot. You know exactly what you need to do, you just have to buckle down and do it. But when you're in the widow's position, you don't know exactly what steps to take. All you can do is try as hard as you can to talk to someone who might have those solutions. What the widow has is this grand problem that she doesn't know exactly how to solve. And instead of being completely swallowed up by it, as I, and many other people would be, she takes a hard look, and comes up with something she can do.
What is also important about the widow is her relatability. All of us have been in this kind of situation. All of us have tried to get other people to understand the things we are passionate about. We have all talked to our teachers, our bosses, our leaders, to say, 'if only you could do this one small thing, my life would be drastically changed.' And sometimes we fold. Sometimes we say, 'this isn't worth enough to me to keep going, to risk so much.' Other times we do all we can to recruit other people to help realize our dreams. And that's great! We do things like this infrequently, but enough that we know how to pick our battles. We have this finely tuned instinct that helps us know how important something is to us. We feel great sorrow and emptiness when something isn't right, and we feel joyful and free as we envision it being corrected. It's this feeling that spreads throughout our bodies and minds, either lifts up our spirits or crushes them. It is among the most powerful things one can experience, I think, with the power to keep you going forward or prevent you from going anywhere. We have all felt this in our hearts and souls. It manifests itself in different ways in everyone, and yet is easy to see in the faces and body language of others.
There are so many things that I admire about the widow. Of course chief among them is that she perseveres, but it's also because of how she perseveres. She picks her battles, she takes charge of her situation, turns her hope into action. She keeps herself focused through emotional trauma. She knows what she wants, and who she wants it from. She conveys her position clearly. Most importantly, though, in her deepest sorrow, she finds strength and courage. That's really admirable.
If the widow is our relatable hero, then the judge is certainly the confounding villain. He is introduced as "a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought." It has become really popular now, and perhaps always was, for people to not care, or at least pretend not to care about what other people think about them. Music artists sing about being above their haters, sports stars talk about proving detractors wrong. Our culture pushes people to brush off negative criticism. I think the judge is an example of how wrong that culture is, or at least, how much harm it could potentially cause. When we tell people not to listen to people who are critical, everyone becomes a yes man. What we ought to teach, and what the judge ought to do, is to become good at filtering out useful criticism from useless criticism, and then changing the way we act to get better. But the judge doesn't listen to what anyone thinks about him; he just wants to do his own thing, probably ruling to his own benefit. Even when we envision him as this very selfish character, it is still hard to see how he could hear this widow telling him about her pain and distress, know that it wouldn't take him all that long to solve her problem, and do nothing.
In the scripture, the judge seems panicked after the widow's repeated requests, saying, "I will see that she gets justice, so that she won't eventually come and attack me!" This line gets translated a lot of different ways in different versions of the bible. Some say the judge was simply afraid of being embarrassed, while in others he expresses a fear of getting beaten black and blue. It varies wildly, but the common thread is that the judge is fearful and feels threatened. The gap between perception and reality here is huge. What exactly does he think the widow is going to do to him here? What kind of power does she hold? It's this very dramatic response to an entirely reasonable request.
A very similar situation occurred last fall, when two protestors confronted Arizona Senator Jeff Flake in an elevator about his decision to vote for Justice Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court. These two women yell at Flake, they speak from their own pain and trauma. They feel both let down and downright angry. And Flake tries his best to ignore them, or shut them out, but you can tell he feels very similarly to the judge. He feels fearful and threatened. And then, Flake pushes for an FBI investigation into Kavanaugh. The difference between the protestors and the widow is that the protestors are far more aggressive. They only have a few seconds with Flake, and they are determined to make them count. The widow is assertive, for sure, and maybe angry at times. But she is certainly more pleading than she is yelling.
This judge is not someone who feels threatened often, I don't think. He has lots of money and power, and he is surely used to being in charge of situations. But with the widow, he is no longer living on his own terms. He has to see this woman all the time, whether he likes it or not. That is the main reason for his fear. He is pushed outside of his comfort zone. And the discomfort that he feels turns to fear. But the fear is just so unfounded. The judge has just been inconvenienced, that's all. It's like when someone takes your parking spot. You get exasperated, maybe mad. You might talk curtly or honk your horn in frustration. But you don't feel threatened. You're not fearful. But the judge starts by feeling irritated, and that irritation turns to anger, and then the anger turns to fear. He begins to see how important this is to her, but that doesn't make him feel empathetic, rather it makes him afraid. He only considers how things are going to affect him, not how his actions are going to affect other people.
I keep coming back to how hard this all is for the judge to do. Not in that he's in a tough position or anything, he just makes it really hard on himself. Research shows that people feel happier after they've helped other people. And yet the judge resists doing the right thing at every turn, and only does once he feels threatened. If he would have just agreed in the first place, he could have saved himself a lot of grief. It makes no sense to me. Here is someone so self-absorbed, so focused on their own well being, and yet the judge doesn't take the opportunity to ring his own bell by helping the widow.
I want to finally get around to what I told you all I was going to talk about this morning- doing the right things for the wrong reasons. Once the judge finally caves, he does what he needs to do to get the widow off his back. And she seems pleased with how everything turned out. At the very least, we don't her from her again, so it's probably safe to assume that things got resolved adequately in her view. But I don't think she got the justice that she deserved. Because the judge might have done what the situation required of him, but he certainly didn't go above and beyond. He did just enough to get over the bar, and left it at that. His heart wasn't in it, to the detriment of both the widow and himself. If he had given it his all, he would be feeling much better about the situation, and the widow would get a much better end result. Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons just isn't enough. I'm not trying to say that actions don't speak louder than words, or that action taken under duress is invalidating of the effort that made the action possible. But although actions are important, it is the reasoning behind those actions that is most revealing about what the action was meant to achieve. For Jeff Flake, calling for an FBI investigation was less about his doubts about Kavanaugh and more about his faith in American institutions. For the judge, his actions were less about securing justice for the widow, and much more about getting her out of his life.
At the end of the passage, God says that he will not make people wait for justice, he will not put them off, as long as they persist and have faith. But it is not only in speed that God is superior to the judge. It is also in effort. When God speaks to us, and when he acts, we have no reason to question his motives, because we can rest knowing that He has our best interests at heart. God not only does the right thing, He does the right thing for the right reasons. His motives and intentions are clear, because they are our motives and intentions. And when they are not, when God responds differently than we would like, we must look deeper to examine if we had been misguided in our own search for justice.
I want to end by referencing another movie, much more timely than the cliche football ones from before. In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray plays a weatherman who is full of himself and doesn't care about the opinions of others. He is stuck reliving the same day, Groundhog Day, over and over again. He eventually understands that he can be using this opportunity to do lots of good, so he learns new skills that he never knew before, and saves people from various life-threatening mishaps that occur throughout the day. Bill Murray learns how to be a good person, to do the right things not because it makes him feel like a hero, but because it is the right thing to do. And he goes from this stuck-up arrogant guy to a really genuine, kind person overnight. I mention this for two reasons. First: it is never too late to rehabilitate someone into someone who does the right thing for the right reasons, not even the judge, or Bill Murray. And second: Bill Murray's character spent his whole life believing himself to be the widow in this story. He saw himself as the victim of every situation. He thought he deserved justice for anything that didn't go his way. In reality, he had the opportunity to be the judge, to help people out of the kindness of his heart. Rarely are our roles so clearly defined. Some of us find ourselves in the position of the judge more often than we find ourselves in the position of the widow. Some have the power and influence to pull the right strings to get things done. It is not always easy to see the power we have. Sometimes, those in power are confronted with a problem, and even if they are sympathetic to it, don't think they can solve it. But even if they can't, they can almost always try. All of us will be sometimes the widow, and sometimes the judge, and it's really important to identify when we are in which role, so that we can advocate for ourselves when we need to, but also know when we can help someone solve their problem.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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