Jesus told his disciples 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?”
Roadside billboards are a lot like political ads or infomercials these days. Buzzwords, clichés, and catchy phrases are all around us. I was driving down 776 the other day, minding my own business when I looked up at a bright yellow billboard that was most likely an ad for a local law firm, which shouted “GET ME JUSTICE!” When I got home, I checked out their website, which featured the picture of a well-dressed man who says, “My clients are not interested in revenge. My clients are interested in Justice.”
Well the billboard seems a little like the gospel reading today. “Grant me justice against my opponent,” was the widow’s cry. This woman in Jesus’ parable was not a poor, little old widow woman who sheepishly asked for somebody’s kind help. She was screaming aloud… AVENGE ME! Why did Jesus choose a widow as the focus of the parable? In ancient eastern cultures, women and children came under the authority and protection of a male patriarch. If he died or decided to cast them out of the house, they were left with no economic support. Their plight in life could become homelessness and dependence on the charity of the community. This was a common occurrence in this culture. Even the prophet Isaiah spoke of the struggles of the widow and the orphan. By mentioning a widow, Jesus was making a statement about a system of injustice that was prevalent in Palestinian culture.
Avenge me! Under the guise of justice, the widow cried for vengeance. She was not going to be satisfied with justice that could bring fullness of life, restoration of brokenness, healing and wholeness alone. No, she wanted vindication. From the narrative, we are not privileged to know exactly what happened that drove her vengeful attitude. Her husband may have been a soldier killed in battle, he may have been a fisherman who drowned, he may have been a victim of crime, or he could have died of natural causes or even a terrible disease. What we do know is that she was a widow who was lonely, angry, in pain, and wanted someone to pay. She cried for the savory taste of knowing that someone else was going to feel pain like hers, know a loneliness like hers and receive the anger which railed inside her. She wanted revenge and thus, she relentlessly pursued the judge. Some scholars say that her persistence was so sharp, that it was as if she literally beat him up until he finally answered her plea. Her idea of justice was based on the notion that with any tragedy, there must be punishment, but God’s justice is not that simple.
“Crime and punishment” is one form of justice, another form is the aligning a fair share of goods to all, and “putting things back as they were” is another form of justice. God is very clear about God’s notion of justice. Listen to what the prophet Isaiah said, “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? (Isaiah 58:6-7) God’s justice is preferentially directed to the poor, the lost, the lonely, and the broken. Remember the words of Our Lord, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, those who mourn, and peacemakers.” In the journal Christian Century, the Rev. Mark Harris wrote, “And the heart of God, whose preference is for all of us in our mortality and our various poverties, hears our cry . . . and comes close by, speedily.” God’s justice is directed in compassion toward those, for whom God is passionate.
So, we have this judge in today’s parable that did not fear God nor had respect for people. What a strange character Jesus chose to use to teach.. The judge was not capable of compassion or delight, and the only reason he responded to the widow’s persistent request, was so she would leave him alone. The judge is NOT a metaphor for God. This is not how God responds to our persistent prayer. Remember the Good News of God in Christ! God fully divine/fully human lived among us and gave us the example of God’s love fully revealed. Christ lived, died, and overcame death by the resurrection, which is the manifestation of the love that will bring about the ultimate restoration of all creation.
Christ stands alongside us and advocates for us. God calls us friend. God is the one who has felt the loneliness, the anger, and pain we feel. So, when we think of God’s justice, we must recognize that it is not cold and calculating retributive justice like that which the widow sought. God’s justice emerges out of compassion, love, grace, and mercy. We Christians live in the hope that God’s justice will be fulfilled in a time to come. We proclaim this each week in the Creed: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” God will restore all of creation, because God’s justice is based on God’s intimate, emotional engagement with humanity; with all creation. Prayer is the means by which we share in God’s intimate dance of emotional engagement.
A Grandpa was sitting in his big comfortable recliner and his five-year-old granddaughter walked up and tugged on his sleeve. “Papaw,” she cried. “Yes, my dear?” he said. “Can I have some gum,” she asked. He responded gently, “Not now dear, dinner will be ready in a bit.” The granddaughter came back a few minutes later and asked, “Can I have some ice cream, Grandpa?” “Not now my dear, dinner will be ready soon,” he answered. This went on for another 20 minutes, and each time she came to the chair, the granddaughter asked for something different. Finally, the little girl, who was getting a bit frustrated that Grandpa was not giving notice to her demands, began to recognize a sheepish grin emerging from underneath is scraggly beard. She gave in, climbed up beside him on that big recliner and sat very close to him. For the next hour, they talked about the bruised knee she got on the playground, the leaves she played with in the yard, the friend at school who was sick, and the little bird who had fallen out of the tree and died. Their eyes met and she beamed with joy. Suddenly and without notice, she wrapped her arms around Grandpa’s neck and said, “Do you know what’s better than ice cream and gum and candy Grandpa?” “No,” he answered, “What?” With those little arms, filled with love and excitement, she squeezed him tightly and squealed with joy, “Time with Grandpa.”
Our Lord did not encourage us to pray incessantly because God will get tired of our never-ending requests and out of frustration or sheer vexation, finally answer us. We are admonished to pray without ceasing, because God wants us to share our lives with us. God wants to listen and respond to our hopes, our joys, our needs, our desires, and our dreams. God wants to hear the stories of our lives when we are afraid, when we face desperation, pain, fear, loss and even death. The real possibilities we can share through persistent prayer is not so that God will respond by making all the troubles go away and will make all ok. Prayer is about holy conversation that keeps us grounded in a faithful relationship with God. Through the power of prayer, our hearts align with God’s heart. Our passions align with God’s passions, our hopes with God’s hopes, our dreams with God’s dreams. When we pray for ourselves and our brothers and sisters in need, we share with God, God’s passion and desire for restoration and healing for those for whom we pray and for our own needs. Pray without ceasing. Sit down close to God. Let God wrap His outstretched arms of love around you, and show you what compassion and never-ending love is really like. Freely and frequently pour out your heart to the one who is ready to hear and to respond.