Twenty-second Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 29C, October 16th, 2016
Jeremiah 31:27-34, Psalm 119:97-104, 2 Timothy 3:14—4:5, Luke 18:1-8
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
When you’re reading the Bible, one of the important things to do to help you understand it better is to consider the context. What else is going on around it? How does this passage fit into the larger pattern of Scripture? This is tough to do in a worship service, since we usually don’t have time to read large swathes of the Bible, and so focus on smaller passages. Today’s Gospel reading, for example, is a parable. This single parable that we read is just one part of a section that goes from Luke 17:20 through 18:14. It starts with some Pharisees asking when the Kingdom of God was coming. And Jesus started by saying that the kingdom of God was already among them, that it wasn’t coming in the big obvious things but in the little ones we might overlook. Then he spends the rest of chapter 17 and the first half of chapter 18 explaining what he means by that. The parable of the widow and the unjust judge is part of that explanation.
So this is a parable about the need to pray always and not lose heart, but it’s also a parable about God’s kingdom among us. There’s a widow—and in those days, a widow was a lot worse off than widows are today. Women usually couldn’t own much property or a business, so a widow—a woman with no male relations—would have very little way to support herself. And women couldn’t bring legal suits or use the courts to defend themselves without a man to support their claim, which a widow probably wouldn’t have. In other words, the system gave them almost no protections, economic or legal, against anyone who wanted to prey on them. A judge didn’t have to be corrupt to add to a widow’s misery; all he had to do was follow the letter of the law. You can imagine what a corrupt judge such as the one the widow faced might do!
But the widow was persistent. The widow kept on demanding justice. She kept on showing up, even when people tried to shut her down. I imagine the judge wasn’t the only one annoyed by that widow. I bet you that everyone else in society—all the judge’s friends and neighbors, his colleagues, and the leaders of the town—thought she was aggravating and irritating. I can almost hear them: “She lost! Why does she keep harping on it!” or “Yes, of course it’s a shame, but that’s life—what did she expect?” or “He was wrong, but she’s just too loud—if she were quieter, more polite, maybe he would have listened,” or even “Well, he’s a judge, he must have made the right decision, I bet she’s just hoping she can get special treatment or cheat the system.” The whole system was against the widow, the judge was against the widow, and it’s very likely that the rest of the community was against the widow, too. But she persevered, she kept on, she never lost faith in God or faith that justice could come even for her. And eventually, that faith and persistence paid off, and the judge relented and gave her justice. Not because he agreed with her or saw the error of his ways, but just to shut her up.
So this leaves me with two questions: where is God in this parable, and what does this parable have to do with God’s kingdom? Let’s start with the first question. Although we usually assume that God is the authority figure in a parable, that is obviously not the case here. The unjust judge is not a metaphor for God—he can’t be, because we are told both that he is unjust and that he does not fear or care about God. And the widow obviously isn’t a metaphor for God, either—she’s the one seeking God’s justice! God’s place in this parable is a little less obvious: God is supporting the widow and giving her courage. God is helping her in her quest for justice in a million ways, big and small. God is working behind the scenes to change the judge’s heart and mind. This is made more obvious in a different translation of verses 7 and 8: “Then will God not produce the vindication of his elect who cry out to him day and night, even bearing patiently with them? I say to you that he will produce vindication to them in quickness. When the son of humanity has come will he find faith in the earth?” Where is God? Bearing patiently with those who cry out to him.
As I studied this parable this week, I was reminded of a friend’s struggle with her insurance company. She has a chronic condition, which can be treated with medication. Without this medication, her quality of life is pretty bad. There are two different meds that are commonly prescribed for her condition. One is expensive, the other relatively cheap. Her insurance company only covers the cheaper one. But while that cheaper drug works for most people, it is not effective for her. Not only that, but she finds that the side effects it creates are almost as bad as the condition it’s supposed to treat. So she’s been struggling with her doctor and her insurance company for quite a while to get the medication she needs that will actually manage her condition instead of making her feel worse. Where is God? Helping her get through each day. She is not suffering is because God isn’t listening to her; she is suffering because her insurance company isn’t listening to her. And because our entire health care system is messed up. Like the widow, she prays and draws strength and courage from God and has faith that one day she will receive justice. One day, she will get the medication she so desperately needs. One day, if she makes enough trouble, even if the insurance company never gets better, they’ll give her what she needs just so they don’t have to keep fighting about it. And meanwhile, God is with her. Just like God is with the widow in the parable; just like God is with us in our struggles against the injustices of this world.
So if this is a parable about the kingdom of God, where is the kingdom in the parable? Partly, the kingdom of God is in the future when the Son of Man comes back to earth. Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead, and he is a righteous judge (unlike the one in this parable), and we are to have faith until that day. But remember, Jesus starts this whole section by telling his listeners that the kingdom of God was already there among them. So where, in this parable, is the kingdom of God? Again, it can’t be the judge. Because we are told throughout the Bible that God’s two most important desires for humans are justice and mercy, love of God and love of our neighbor. The judge has neither justice nor mercy, and loves neither God nor his neighbors. The unjust judge is, in fact, the exact opposite of God’s kingdom.
The judge’s whole job is to work for justice, and he isn’t. And it is the job of all human beings to love God and love their neighbor, and the judge isn’t. In fact, he’s taking his God-given job and actively working against God’s wishes. He is a part of an unjust and unmerciful system, and instead of working to correct it or help those hurt by it, he is completely upholding the worst parts of it. He is taking something meant for the good of all people and using it only for his own good, not caring how that hurts people and interferes in God’s will. Unfortunately, this is something that we are all too familiar with today. The healthcare system is supposed to heal people, or at least help them. We all know just how often that isn’t the case. Our justice system is supposed to protect all people, and all too often it persecutes the most vulnerable people and ignores the crimes of the powerful, just as it did in our parable. There are so many cases in our world today where people who desperately need justice or mercy are denied both.
And yet. Even with all the injustice and cruelty in the world, Jesus says that God’s kingdom is here among us. Now. In our hearts and in our communities. And I wonder: is the kingdom in the parable the widow’s persistence? Is that what the kingdom looks like in the present world? Jesus says the kingdom of God is here, and it is not coming in things that can be observed. We look around us and we see a world filled with injustice, a world filled with hate, a place where there is little justice and mercy for those who need it most, a world where people love neither God nor their fellow human beings. Where is God’s kingdom in all of that? God’s kingdom is in the people who persist in faith and love. God’s kingdom is present every time someone strives for justice in the face of greed and prejudice. God’s kingdom is present every time someone chooses to respond with love instead of hate. God’s kingdom is present every time we have faith that this world is not the sum total of reality. God’s kingdom is present every time we have faith that God will win in the end. May we persist in our faith until Christ comes again.