Sermon, October 16

This parable of Jesus – one of these little stories he tells to get people thinking – this is one that can seem superficially straightforward. It’s about prayer! Or maybe, it’s about justice! 

But if you look at it more closely, it starts to get messy fast. 

I want to share three things that I notice about this story, today.

The first thing I notice is that the judge in this story does not represent God.  There are parables of Jesus in which someone DOES stand for God, or at least the story is clearly meant to tell us something about God – like the Lost and Found parables we heard recently. And there are parables that point us to the kingdom of Heaven – to how God’s ways are different from human ways. 

And then are parables of Jesus that are more meant to call our attention to how things work here, in this world. How people treat each other. We’ve had some of those recently too; Luke’s Gospel contains quite a few. 

This parable is pretty clearly about the way things sometimes are in this world, rather than the way God means for things to be. A judge can’t be bothered to grant justice, until he is literally pestered into it.And then Jesus says, Listen, if even a judge like that can be badgered into doing the right thing, do you think you have to convince God to respond to the cries of God’s beloved ones? 

This judge is a contrast with God – not a likeness. I love the description of the judge as having “no fear of God and no respect for anyone.” He’s like the rich man in the Lazarus story that we heard a few weeks ago. He’s an extreme type, almost a caricature. He’s a judge who genuinely does not care about justice. Literally the ONLY way anyone can get through to him is by disrupting his presumably comfortable life. 

So that’s what this woman does. We don’t know her situation. Somebody is taking advantage of her. It’s significant that she’s named as a widow, one of the core categories of social vulnerability in the Bible, along with orphans and immigrants. In a society where men held all property and legal authority, being a widow could mean she had nobody to protect her or advocate for her. She was at real risk of becoming totally destitute. She’s pestering this judge not out of strategy, but out of desperation. It’s the only thing she can do – for herself, perhaps for her children. 

So if the judge isn’t God, where is God in this story?  I think God is the courage and dogged determination that keeps this woman showing up and demanding justice, against all odds. God helps her get up every morning and try again. Nevertheless. And God is the force that makes the judge relent and do the right thing, if only to get some peace and quiet. 

God is in the capacity of people and systems to change, to be transformed. God is the Source of holy persistence, of faithful courage. God is in the nudge that reminds us of our need to turn, to change, to make amends and set things right. Even if sometimes we do it for the wrong reasons. 

The second thing I notice about this story is that this widow is demanding justice FOR HERSELF. Presumably because nobody else cares; there’s no one to stand with her, to join her in her daily visits to the unjust judge. So she shows up and pleads her own case.  Saying – probably SHOUTING: I’ve been treated unfairly! Give me what I need, what I deserve! 

That kind of behavior can be a cultural stretch for those of us who are middle-class white Midwesterners. It can be hard for us to do that for ourselves. It can make us feel uncomfortable or disapproving when we see others doing it. We’re all in on advocating for others, that’s great! But to speak up for YOURSELF… for your own needs… that’s a little unseemly. It’s not part of “Midwest nice.” 

A commentary on this Gospel pointed me to a speech by Frederick Douglass, given in 1857. Douglass escaped from slavery as a young man and became a famous speaker and writer against slavery. He is one of the great voices of our nation’s history. In this speech, he is responding in part to arguments that protests and insurrections on the part of enslaved people in the American South, were “prejudicial to their cause” – in other words, were turning public opinion against the plight of enslaved people. (Those familiar with Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement, a century later, may note some resonances.) 

He talks about so-called white allies who want to take the lead and call the shots in the abolitionist movement, instead of African-American leaders like Douglass: “This class of Abolitionists don’t like [Black] celebrations, they don’t like [Black] conventions, they don’t like [Black] antislavery fairs for the support of [Black] newspapers…They don’t like any demonstrations whatever in which [Black] men take a leading part. They talk of the proud Anglo-Saxon blood as flippantly as those who profess to believe in the natural inferiority of races… I hold it to be no part of gratitude to allow our white friends to do all the work, while we merely hold their coats.”

He continues to an often-quoted passage about the necessity of responding to injustice and bondage with struggle: “The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle… If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning…

“This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to, and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

Douglass talks about the case of the British government ending slavery in the West Indies. He says it took both William Wilberforce’s moral pleas AND the agitation of the enslaved people – showing the British government that slavery is wrong AND costly AND dangerous. Because knowing something’s wrong might not be enough to lead to change, on its own.

And he argues likewise that no one should expect the enslaved peoples of the American South to just wait for others to advocate or fight for them: “In the great struggle now progressing for the freedom and elevation of our people, we should be found at work with all our might, resolved that no man or set of men shall be more abundant in labors… than ourselves.”

Douglass doesn’t mention this Gospel text, but this speech almost feels like a commentary on this parable. When a judge, a government, an institution, a system, is unmoved by knowing what is right, then those who are wronged are called to struggle – moral, physical, or both. To pushing back against their own oppression, and demanding better. 

We all have opportunities for allyship – for listening to those who are crying out for justice today – especially in the lead up to a significant election! – and choosing to stand with them or respond to their calls. This parable might invite us to notice what we feel when we see people and groups speaking up for their needs, naming their demands. If that makes us uncomfortable, if that makes us pull back a little – maybe that reaction is something to sit with, and examine. 

And I think this parable could invite us to wonder whether there’s anyplace where we could dare to speak up for ourselves. Is there someplace you could be more bold advocate for yourself, or for a group to which you belong?cBecause that can feel very frightening. Very counter-cultural, depending on your culture! But it can be important to find your voice and name your needs. 

The third thing I want to notice about this parable is that it may or may not actually be about prayer. Luke, our Gospel writer, says it’s about prayer: “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” But that’s, like, just his opinion. This is one of the parables that’s only in Luke’s Gospel, so we can’t compare how it’s told or framed elsewhere.

It seems to me that a plain sense reading of the parable and the teaching that follows – without Luke’s gloss – would be something like this: Look, even the worst possible human authority figure will eventually cave and do the right thing if the demands of justice are sufficiently persistent and annoying. So, even when you feel lost and unheard, know that God, who is loving and just, hears you and will help you. 

I don’t think what we should take from this parable is that we have to annoy God into responding to our prayers! But the question about the relationship between prayer and justice does come up pretty often.

I found a short piece written by Abdullah Shihipar of Brown University’s People, Place, and Health Collective. He observes the “exhausting routine” that follows mass shootings and other tragedies: politicians offer “thoughts and prayers,” and frustrated activists and members of the public demand ACTION. 

Shihipar writes, “When people—especially those in power—call for thoughts and prayers without doing anything more, it’s meaningless. But prayer can be more than just a figure of speech; in its best form, it combines reflection with intent to act.”

He talks about how in both Islam and Christianity, prayer must be partnered with action. He tells a story about the Prophet Mohammed meeting a man who was leaving his camel without tying it up. The man explained that he was putting his trust in God. The prophet told him that he should trust God AND tie up his camel. Likewise in our Bible, the letter of James says that if you see someone in need, cold and hungry, and you say to them, “Go in peace; stay warm and well fed,” what good is that? Faith without action is as good as dead. 

Shihipar says that prayer without action is “asking God to take care of something we won’t.” 

So what is the role of prayer, for people of faith, in the face of tragedy or injustice? Shihipar writes, “All humans will falter at times—but that’s why prayer is a starting point, at which we clarify our goals and values and ask for God’s help along the way. And then, in tandem, we try.”

God is in the capacity of people and systems to be transformed; the Source of holy persistence and faithful courage; the One who calls us to repentance and renewal of life. And prayer, in its many forms, is how we open our hearts and our minds and our lives to that Source, that One, the Almighty and Merciful. 

Prayer is a starting point, a pause in which we clarify our goals and values and ask for God’s help along the way. 

And then, in tandem, with God’s help, we try.



Frederick Douglass:

Abdullah Shihipar’s piece: