In this morning’s gospel we have a very strange parable in which Jesus posits a kind of ant-hero in the place of God. Luke tells us right off the bat that the parable is about prayer – the need to pray consistently and persistently. That much is clear – yet there are some other elements at work too.
First, let’s examine the cast of characters. The parable’s central character is an unjust judge. He is a judge who admits that he is totally unfit for his position, for he has no respect for God or for people. That means he doesn’t care about truth, or what is right or wrong. Nor does he care about the welfare of the people in his courtroom. He only cares about himself and his own comfort.
Not the best job qualifications for someone called “Your Honor”. Jesus’ characterization of the judge is jarring. It would be like a lawless police officer, or an atheistic minister, or a mountain climbing guide who is afraid of heights.
The second character we meet is the importunate widow. To be importunate is to be persistent, especially to the point of annoyance and intrusion. Think a whining 3 year old who wants what he wants when he wants it and how he wants it. The widow keeps showing up in his courtroom, following him to the gym after work, busting into the bar he goes to with his fellow cronies for martinis, banging on his window when he’s watching the 11 o’clock news. She’s desperate for “justice against her opponent” as she says, and the judge holds all the power. So she has no recourse but to be importunate.
But it is also important to remember that widows in Jesus’ day were the most powerless of the powerless. Because they were so vulnerable, the Hebrew law had provisions in it for their protection and care, along with other distressed classes of people. Clearly the judge would have known this and therefore should have immediately upheld the widow’s rights according to the law, but since he “neither feared God nor respected people” he does not.
The other major element in this parable is the notion of justice. I want to focus on justice, because this is what this parable really seems to be about. And I think it is where it touches down in our actual lives.
The widow wants the judge to grant her justice against her opponent. Jesus calls the judge “unjust” even though the very purpose of a judge’s job is to uphold justice. The judge says to himself that he will grant the widow justice simply because he is tired of her bothering him.
He’s like a parent who finally breaks down with annoyance at the 3 year old’s whining, and gives the child what he wants just so he will shut up. Then Jesus concludes the parable by saying that if the unjust judge granted justice for the widow, won’t God grant justice to His people?
I want to focus on the parable’s attention to justice. This is what the parable seems really to be about, in addition to prayer. People are very interested in justice. That’s why there are so many reality TV shows about justice – Judge Judy, Hot Bench, The People’s Court. Here’s an undocumented sociological observation: it seems like the older people get, the more Judge Judy they watch. But aren’t most dramas in print or on screen about some kind of crime and punishment?
People are consumed with justice from early on. I remember when our then 5 year old daughter made a compelling case for us to join the Goat Justice League, even though we live in the city and we do not have goats. I had not known that Goats had their own Justice League, but we seriously considered joining the fight for our shaggy, caprine friends.
Obviously, justice in this world is important and there are clear times when we are to be on the right side of justice. As I said, provision for the poor and the marginalized is an integral part of God’s law. We live in a world where injustice is omnipresent and any part we can play in securing justice for those in need is obviously a good thing. It’s how we end America’s Pledge of Allegiance – “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
But I want to take this demand for justice from the macro to the micro. In the parable, the widow is demanding justice for herself against a specific opponent. We aren’t actually told that her demand for justice is legitimate. Think about where you want to see justice done in your life. Often a demand for justice may be shortsighted or not fully informed, especially when we are seeking some kind of justice for ourselves. We see things from only our own perspective.
One of the consequences of Original Sin is the onset of spiritual myopia. Technically, myopia is simply nearsightedness and is correctable with a good set of glasses. Metaphorically, myopia is inability to see anything else that is not right in front of your nose. Myopic people – all of us – see a set of close up “facts” and draw all kinds of hard-set conclusions. We are blind to the teeming universe of other factors at play in any given situation. Like the widow, we are obsessed with getting justice for ourselves against our opponents.
Writer Anne Lamott summarizes this spiritual myopia when she quips, “My mind is like a bad neighborhood that I try not to go into alone.” And when we are out to get our opponents, she says, “You can safely assume that you have created God in your own image when it turns out that He hates all the same people that you do.”
The other thing we know about justice is that even when the demands of justice are satisfied, you rarely feel satisfied. Maybe momentarily, but there is a reason that the scripture says, “vengeance is mine, says the Lord.” Don’t get me wrong – justice is good and necessary in this world. It’s just that justice doesn’t satisfy our deepest needs.
A Netlix series called Unbelievable gets much closer to describing our deepest needs when it comes to our desire for justice against our opponents. The show is based on the true story of a young woman. An egregious crime was committed against her. She went to the police to seek justice against her opponent. But there was no hard evidence or corroborating witnesses, so the police dismissed her case. The young woman continued to suffer from the crime, now without hope of justice.
A few years later, two other detectives in another part of the country picked up and pursued her case, having found crimes of similar natures. Finally, the criminal was caught and brought to justice. And this is what the young woman says to the detectives.
“Out of nowhere, I hear about these two people in some completely other part of the country, looking out for me, and making things right, and…more than anything else…more than him being locked up…more than the money I got, it was hearing that, about you guys, that just changed things completely. I wake up now, and I can imagine good things happening.”
More satisfying than the criminal being locked up, or the money from the damages was her knowing that she had people looking out for her. Finally, the unjust judge looked out for the widow. And Jesus says that if the unjust judge looks out for the widow for all the wrong reasons, how much more will God look out for His own people?
With liberty and justice for all. The irony, of course, is that justice is finally not served. Were we to stand before a just God and plead our case, we would all be locked up. As the psalmist says, “If you, O Lord, kept a record of our sins, Lord, who could stand before you?” God, our Judge, does deliver a just sentence, for “the wages of sin is death.”
It’s just that justice is then diverted. And that’s the gospel, my friends. The judge gets out from behind his bench, is stripped and shackled and led off to the cross to fulfill the death sentence himself. In the end there is justice for none, but there is liberty for all.