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Doing the Right Thing for the Wrong Reasons

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 simi