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?”
This week I finished reading a new book entitled Know My Name, a memoir written by Chanel Miller, who until recently was only known as “Emily Doe,” the victim in a very publicized rape case in 2015.
During the trial, the defendant Brock Turner, a Stanford University student and an All-American swimmer, was portrayed as an innocent young man whose enormous potential in life had been cut short by accusations from a woman who had had too much to drink at a frat party, had blacked out, and had still somehow willingly consented to his actions. Turner was found guilty of three counts of felony sexual assault, for which the maximum sentence was 14 years. Yet he was sentenced to only six months in county jail, and then ended up serving only three months. In 2016, “Emily Doe” made headlines when major news outlets published her victim’s impact statement which she had read at the sentencing hearing.
The trauma to Ms. Miller – not just the assault itself, but the ensuing events, including the trial and sentencing – was profound. In the eloquent and heart-wrenching words of her memoir she vividly describes how difficult it often can be for a rape victim to be recognized as an innocent individual, and how the legal process she endured served as its own kind of re-victimization. By the end, her book is very hopeful, as she implores readers to challenge and question the systems that aren’t working, and to seek to prevent and prosecute sexual assault cases.
In short, she calls for justice.
In many ways, Ms. Miller is a modern-day version of the widow at the center of today’s Gospel lesson. This parable describes a judge who lacks compassion and is repeatedly approached by a poor widow who is seeking justice. While initially rejecting her demands, the judge eventually honors her request so he won’t be worn out by her persistence.
At first reading, this passage is about persistence in prayer, urging us not to lose heart. Much like an earlier passage we find in Luke about a man ceaselessly pounding on his friend’s door, it’s often read as an instruction to “nag” God with our repeated requests, so that God, like a weary and worn-down parent, will eventually give in and give us what we want. In some views, the judge in this parable is like God, who will ultimately hear our pleas if we’re only persistent enough.
But let’s look at this passage a bit more closely.
In Biblical texts, widows are counted among the most destitute of society, alongside other vulnerable groups such as the poor, orphans, and resident aliens. Widows were considered almost non-entities, and were presumed to be silent. In the patriarchal Mediterranean world, only men played a public role. So this widow, speaking to the judge on her own behalf, is acting outside the normal bounds when she finds her voice and speaks up for herself.
She has been treated unfairly, without respect. We don’t know how she’s been wronged – perhaps she hasn’t received the proper support due her from her deceased husband’s estate. Or maybe her brothers-in-law weren’t living up to their responsibilities, especially when the scriptures so often taught that, of all people, widows should be looked after. If this judge really is her only hope, she was probably feeling pretty hopeless. Nevertheless, she persists – I can imagine her daily waiting for the judge to arrive at his office in the morning, daily being the last face he sees as he leaves for his comfortable home. She’s a badgering pain in the butt, seeking justice by irritation.
We read in this passage the judge’s words: “…because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” In the original Greek, however, the phrase “so that she may not wear me out” is literally translated “so that she may not give me a black eye.” Our English translations have tended to soften the words, implying that the judge is “worn out” by her persistence. More accurately, however, she is actually perceived as not just a nuisance (as you know we women can be! 😊) but as a physical threat.
Afraid that the widow will, in effect, beat him up, the judge is also threatened by public embarrassment. Imagine being beaten by a woman? So he says he’ll give in – not because he’s changed his mind, but simply to shut this woman up, get her out of the picture. But her behavior – however insolent, obnoxious, socially intolerable – results in justice.
So what are we to learn from this story? What does Jesus want his listeners to understand?
I think one purpose of this parable is to encourage those people who are suffering injustice to continue their complaints and calls for justice. Jesus wants to inspire two things in his listeners: a belief in God’s justice, and working hard to make it happen. A recognition that sometimes it takes extreme, even socially unacceptable behavior to effect change. And a recognition that because God gives special attention to those who are most vulnerable, we should persist in our complaints – even to the point of embarrassing the powers that be in order to bring about change.
Jesus wants us to act like the widow. We’re not to wait quietly, accepting our fates in an oppression-ridden world. Instead, we’re supposed to resist injustice with the will and tenacity of the widow. We’re supposed to persevere in our faith, crying out to God day and night. This is what persistent prayer looks like.
We also read in today’s passage that Jesus 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.”
Jesus claims that the persistent receive justice quickly and without delay. To which I have to ask: Really? Because it doesn’t seem like that to me.
I think I’m not alone in questioning this idea of “quickly” granting justice. It’s been a couple thousand years since this parable. Yet where is justice today? When mass shootings and suicide bombers and human trafficking and sexual assault fill our headlines? Where is justice when the Rohingy, Kurds, and other minorities are slaughtered? Where is justice when immigrants and people of color and LGBTQ folks are persecuted, even murdered?
I don’t know about this idea of “quickly.” But I do believe that God seeks to grant justice. And God asks us to seek it as well, however long it takes. One theologian has said that “We’re like moths trying to fly to the moon. We all know there’s something called justice, but we can’t quite get to it.”
That doesn’t mean we don’t keep trying. Our very longing for justice shows that our hearts are beating with God’s heart. That’s all God asks – that our hearts beat with God’s heart. It’s this longing which we always must live on, a longing always showing up in our prayers, our words, our actions, our persistence. God’s justice may not come quickly, but God’s justice will come.
In 2016, a few months after Brock Turner’s sentencing, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill into law that requires minimum sentences in sexual assault cases. And in a 2018 ballot vote, the judge who ordered Turner’s lenient sentence was recalled by the citizens of California.
In her memoir, Chanel Miller quotes one of her advocates, who told her “Social change is a marathon, not a sprint. You do all you can in the time that you have.” Miller then reflects that “…over the span of our lives we may not see everything we want corrected, but still we fight.”
The widow persisted. So do we. May we not lose heart. Amen.