God is not the judge: The persistent widow and the persistent God

Luke 18:1-8

“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.” (Read the whole passage)

We are not that far from the end of the church year, in about a month we will wrap up Luke’s gospel for a couple years and begin the story of Jesus, starting with his birth all over again in Advent, this time using Matthew as our primary text.

Yet before that, we will take time to turn to questions of the end, questions about what are God’s big plans for us and for all creation. So we have a little bit of time to spend in Luke’s gospel yet.

And today we turn to another parable, a less familiar one than what we have been hearing so far – the parable of the Unjust Judge and Persistent Widow. Compared to the stories we have heard about lost sheep and lost coins, shrewd managers, dinner party advice, lazarus and the rich man… this parable might seem a little forced or contrived. Jesus seems to be making a point about what God is not like, but it may feel like the comparison doesn’t exactly work as it should.

Jesus tells his disciples about the need to be persistent in prayer. He starts with an an unjust judge. A man in a position of authority who neither fears God nor has respect for the people he is in authority over. Then a widow, a woman without much authority or power continually comes to him, asking for justice. And finally, because of her persistence, the harsh judge relents and gives the widow what she is asking for, if only to get her out of his hair.

And Jesus’ point seems to be that we if we persistent in prayer, imagine how a loving God will be much quicker to respond.

Except there is problem with the message that Christians have generally pulled from this parable. Sure it is good to be encouraged in our prayer, to come to God with our needs and concerns. But what is the message to those who are not granted justice? Have they not prayed enough? Have they not persisted?

As usual, the parable asks us to dig deeper.

When Jesus begins this parable it wouldn’t have sounded like a straightforward comparison as it does to us. It would have sounded more like the set up to a joke.

The disciples would have known judges like this. Men in positions of authority and power who lorded it over the people. And a judge, by the way, would not be the one we imagine in a courtroom with a wooden gavel. The Judges of Israel were like rulers or kings, warlords and protectors. The judge in this parable would have been found in a throne room, not a court room. And this judge is the epitome of human power and its misuse. He has no fear of God – who was the one who appointed judges, as we recall in the old testament. And this judge has no respect for people – despite the job description of a judge being looking after and caring for the people!

Still, the disciples would recognized this extreme judge in many of the ones who ruled over them. They would have known what the abuse of power looked like.

The joke part comes in when we get to the widow. Widows were at the bottom of society. They were property without owners. The best a widow could hope for was to beg on the streets or to collect the left-over grain in the fields that wasn’t good enough to harvest. Widows had no power or place in the world. Widows wouldn’t even be allowed to speak to a judge in public.  Yet, the widow in this parable comes to this judge so much that she wears him down. But not just wears him down by bothering him. The greek would be more accurate to say that she gives the judge a black eye with her persistence. A black eye both physically and in reputation. This lowly widow sullies this powerful judge’s resolve and reputation.

The funny part is that this would never, ever, ever happen in Jesus’ world. It is an absurd idea. Its like a 6-year-old Tim-Bit hockey player being put on the ice in the Stanley cup final, and scoring a hat trick. So absurd, it is laughable.

And yet, here is the widow wearing down this judge in this parable.

And Jesus point seems to be that God is not like this judge at all…

But let’s take a moment to think about this. If God is so opposite to the unjust judge, isn’t a “Just Judge” nearly the same in every way to the unjust judge except for a few key differences. Don’t both occupy positions of power and privilege? Aren’t both authorities in their community? Are not both asked to the arbitrators of justice? Isn’t the only difference between an unjust judge and a just one the length of time in how long each takes to respond to injustice. Hardly opposites.

So who is the opposite of unjust judge? Well, the parable gives us some clues.

There is one character who is the opposite in every way to unjust judge. There is one character who is powerless, who has no authority, who is deeply concerned with justice and who is quick to act.

The widow.

Could it be that when Jesus tell the disciples that God is unlike, even opposite to the unjust judge, that God is more like the widow?

If we can only imagine God in human terms, that God must be powerful and authoritative, in control and ruling over us… than we would never predict a widow-like God.

But consider who it is that is telling the parable.

The One who is conceived with an un-wed teenage mother. The One who is born in a manger, who is raised by unremarkable peasant parents. The One who becomes a wandering and homeless rabbi. The One who only has 12 ne’er-do-well followers. The One who is arrested, tried and executed as a common criminal on a cross.

Is not Christ more like the widow than like the unjust judge?

In Christ, God is a widow-like character. God chooses to give up power and authority and might, in order to persist with the lowly. God meets the systems and structures of human power with weakness. And God gives that power a black eye with God’s persistent demand for justice. God stands up to the powers of the world and exposes their dark ushering in reconciliation, forgiveness, mercy, and grace.

God is not the judge who will only hear our cries if we ask loudly enough.

God is not the uncaring judge afraid of no-one and without respect for life.

God in Christ is the widow who comes to us from the bottom.

God is the widow who cries to us for justice,

who calls us to respect and love and care for people, for those around us in need.

God is the One who shows us an absurd world

where the first shall be last and the last shall be first,

where forgiveness and mercy is considered shrew management,

where sitting at the lowest spot at the table is the place of honour,

where the down trodden and forgotten like poor Lazarus are welcomed into the bosom of Abraham.

Jesus has been pointing us to this reality this whole time. The reality that in God’s world, everything that we think is turned on its head and God comes to us from the bottom, using weakness and powerless to bring about the Kingdom.

God is not just the one granting justice, but also the one seeking justice. God is not one just listening to our cries, but who is crying out to us, calling us to see the Kingdom of God right here and right now. God is the one who meets us in the lowly Christ, yet who turns injustice to justice, brokennnes into healing, sin into forgivenss and death into life.

Today, unexpectedly, God comes to us in a way would we never imagine. God comes in the Christ-like widow, from the bottom, to turn our world upside down.

 

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