The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Jesus 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.’”
Today’s Gospel lesson is the parable of the Persistent Widow from Luke 18:1-8. It begins with a brief introduction by the evangelist who says, “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart,” and sometimes we stop right there. We may listen to the rest of the passage but we already know what it’s about: it’s about praying always and not losing heart. So, when we’re praying for someone, and our prayers aren’t being answered, we just pray harder. But if you look closely you will notice that Jesus doesn’t use the word pray at all. Instead he uses the word justice, and he uses it four times.
I’m reluctant to bring it up because the word justice has fallen on hard times lately. Some Christians hear it as “social justice” and confuse it with socialism. But let me be clear: the word socialism is found nowhere in the Bible. The word justice, on the other hand, is found 173 times. I’m not talking about social justice; I’m talking about biblical justice, because the God of the Bible is a God of justice.
Here’s the way I think about it.
I think of injustice in those situations where you look at something and say, “That’s just not right.” And there are plenty of those, aren’t there? They may look different to different people but there are some things almost all of us can agree on. One of the things the Bible agrees on is that when we mistreat widows and orphans we are doing a great injustice. Widows and orphans are among the most vulnerable people in society, and when we make sure that they have what they need to live that’s justice. So, Jesus tells a story about a widow who needed some justice.
The word in Greek is ekdikeo. It has the same root as the word righteousness, but it begins with the prefix ek, which usually means “out of.” This woman is trying to get some righteousness out of a bad situation. She comes to the judge saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent!” And the word for “opponent” is interesting, because it has that same root, the one we find in the word righteousness, but here it is preceded by the prefix anti, which you can probably figure out on your own. This widow’s opponent is “anti-righteousness.” He’s against it. He has done something that just isn’t right and now she wants to see if this judge will help her get some “rightness” out of the situation.
What did her opponent do? We don’t know. Jesus doesn’t tell us. But it wouldn’t hurt to imagine something just to make this parable a little more concrete, and to make this widow a little more human. So, let’s imagine that her husband (when she still had one) worked in a quarry (which would have been a dangerous place to work), but his boss had assured her that if her husband died on the job he would see to it that she was taken care of. He would give her an accidental death allowance of one denarius a day, which would be enough to live on. Well then, let’s suppose that something did happen to her husband, that a huge slab of granite fell on him while he was working in the quarry and he died. And then let’s suppose that the owner of the quarry told the woman that it was her husband’s own fault, that he had been reckless and careless on the job, and that she wouldn’t be getting so much as a widow’s mite from him. You and I might say:
“That’s just not right!”
And so the next day this woman (now a widow) got up and went to see the judge. But here’s the problem: apparently there was only one judge in her town. Everybody knew that he was a scoundrel but nobody could do anything about it. If you wanted justice, that’s where you had to go: to the unjust judge. So she went, and she made her case, but this judge didn’t have any regard for God or people—he only cared about himself—and this particular case didn’t interest him. After the widow had poured out her heart he dismissed her with a wave of his hand. “Next!” he said.
But she would not be so easily dismissed. She came back the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that. She just kept coming and pleading for justice until the judge finally said, “Enough already! Even though I have no regard for God or people I am going to give this widow some justice so that she won’t wear me out with her continual coming!” And that’s when we usually say, “Yep, that’s how we’ve got to pray. We’ve got to keep coming to God no matter what. We’ve got to wear him down until he gives us what we need.” As if God were an unjust judge! But Jesus says, “No! God is the opposite of that. God is the most just judge there is. He will quickly grant justice to his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night, and yet when the Son of Man comes will he find faith on earth?”
Luke tells us this is a parable about our need to pray always and not lose heart, but it wasn’t until I noticed how many times Jesus mentions the word justice that I wondered what it is we are supposed to pray for. That question took me back to Luke 11, where one of Jesus’ disciples came to him and said, “Lord, teach us to pray.” It might be another way of asking, “Lord, what are we supposed to pray for?” which is an excellent question, especially when you are keeping company with Jesus for whom physical healing—the thing we pray for the most—doesn’t seem to be a problem. So Jesus said, “When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.
Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer is shorter than the one we usually recite from the Gospel of Matthew, but it has a lot of the same features, including the request that God’s kingdom would come. Suppose the disciples started praying for that, and suppose they did it every day, in the same way this widow appealed to the unjust judge. “May your kingdom come,” they would say, and the next day they would say it again. Because when God’s kingdom comes, and when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, then all will be right with the world. Did you hear that? All will be right with the world, from the same root as the word righteousness or the word justice. And can I say this? I’m praying that God’s kingdom will come and God’s will be done, because God is the only one I trust with making things right in this world.
I think this is one of the reasons some Christians are so uncomfortable with the idea of social justice; it’s because the people who are talking about it have different ideas of what justice might look like than they do. For example: I went to a clergy conference on racial reconciliation this weekend where I was shown the huge disparities between white people and black people living in Richmond when it comes to things like jobs, housing, health care, education, and transportation. I didn’t have to look at those charts and graphs very long before I concluded, “That’s just not right!” And the other people at my table agreed with me. They had seen the same information. But if I stood in the pulpit this morning and said, “We’ve got to do something about the inequity between black people and white people living in the city of Richmond!” you might not agree with me. Those might not be your issues. You might not care about affordable housing… until you can’t afford to pay the rent; and you might not care about education… until your son can’t pass his SOL’s; and you might not care about health care… until you can’t pay for your prescription medication. But when you can’t, and you’ve done everything you know how to do, and nobody seems to want to help, that is, when you have experienced injustice then you might find yourself caring about justice, and you might find yourself praying that God’s kingdom would come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
You have to remember that Jesus was talking mostly to poor people, living under foreign occupation in a remote corner of the oppressive Roman Empire. They had experienced injustice first hand, and they had experienced it over and over again. So, the first thing Jesus taught them to pray for was that God’s kingdom would come, because when it did, when God (rather than Caesar) had his way in the world, then every wrong thing would be made right. “Pray for that,” Jesus said, “and keep on praying even if it seems like it’s a long time coming. Because if an unjust judge can grant justice to a persistent widow, then surely a good and loving God can grant justice to his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night. He’s not going to delay! He’s not going to drag his feet! And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” In other words, will he find anyone who still believes that God’s kingdom is on its way into the world?
I don’t know.
We talk about that here at First Baptist Church. We talk about bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, and sometimes we use the Lord’s Prayer as a guide. I say, “It’s the kind of prayer a soldier might pray before going onto the battlefield, the kind of prayer a missionary might pray before going onto the mission field. ‘Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,’ it says. ‘Thy kingdom come! Thy will be done!’ but then (don’t miss this part) ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’ Or, as we pray it in staff meeting each week, ‘In Richmond as it is in heaven.’ And then we ask God to give us our daily bread, because we’re going to need our strength. We ask him to forgive us our sins, because they would only drag us down. We ask him to lead us not into temptation, because we can’t afford to be distracted. And then, just in case we begin to have some success and think it’s because of our efforts, the prayer reminds us that the kingdom, and the power, and the glory belong to God forever and ever.
Richmond’s First Baptist Church wants to be an answer to the Lord’s Prayer, and there are days when I feel as if we are getting close. But there are other days when it feels as if God’s kingdom is a million miles away, and on those days I feel like that persistent widow, pleading my case in front of an unjust judge. That’s when I need Jesus to remind me that God is not an unjust judge; God is the opposite of that. If an unjust judge can grant justice to a persistent widow then how much more will God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night? And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
It’s a good question.
I came to that clergy conference on racial reconciliation Friday night. It was being held right here in our fellowship hall. I sat down at the assigned table and got acquainted with the other people who were there, but it wasn’t long before one of them asked, “How much longer are we going to have to do this? How much longer are we going to have to talk about justice in the city of Richmond before something actually happens?” She didn’t say it this way but I could tell she was on the verge of losing heart, the very thing Luke warns us about at the beginning of today’s Gospel lesson. She was tired. She was discouraged. She almost hadn’t come.
But then we had dinner (which was delicious) and afterward we had conversation around the tables that began to change the mood and maybe even her mind. Because here we were: white people and black people talking to each other, laughing with each other, understanding each other, relating to each other. Near the end someone at our table said, “If the whole city of Richmond could have the experience we’ve had around this table tonight things might actually change!” And then the musicians got up and began to sing. They sang a song about how hard it is to keep on hoping and praying when nothing ever seems to change, but then they segued into another song, an old, familiar song. They began to sing “We shall overcome,” and we all got up and started singing along with them.
We shall overcome,
We shall overcome,
We shall overcome someday.
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe
That we shall overcome someday.
And then something happened: as we sang we began to believe what we were singing. You could feel it. And one of the musicians got so excited that he began to sing, “We shall overcome today!” And everybody joined in, and we sang louder and louder until revival practically broke out right there in Flamming Hall.
When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth? Will he find anyone still praying that God’s kingdom would come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven? Well, if he had come to that conference on Friday night, he would have. And if he comes to First Baptist Church in the next thirty seconds he will, too, because, pray with me:
Our father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done, on earth,
as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil:
For thine is the kingdom,
and the power, and the glory,
for ever, Amen.
—Jim Somerville © 2022