2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Part of the life of anyone who preaches on a regular basis is we will have the opportunity, if one is being positive, or the curse, if one is being a tad melodramatic, of preaching from texts we don’t particularly like. So I will make the same confession I made 3 years ago when I preached from these particular lessons: I don’t like the parable of what is called either the parable of the unjust judge or the persistent widow.
But here I am once again, forced to confront a parable I find difficult or at least strange. It’s amazing how so many commentaries, through rather convoluted logic (at least in my humble opinion), attempt to make the case that the unjust judge is God. In essence, the judge, God, is acting like a jerk so the widow will see the need to become persistent, and then actually become persistent for the cause of justice. A trait all believers should cultivate in order to bring about justice in the world.
Now, while I certainly believe people of faith are indeed called to be, and must be, persistent in the cause of justice, to say God is the unjust judge in this parable makes no sense.
First off, if God really wants us to do something, God has a whole lot of better ways to make it happen. Ways based on love, grace, faithfulness, learning, teaching, at times silence and at others, direct action. Even a cursory reading of scripture shows us how God’s methods for dealing with us are not based on disregard, indifference, or malicious manipulation.
Second, such an interpretation can imply God’s actions in our lives and in the world are somehow dependent upon our persistence. A notion completely at odds with the God who does emerge from scripture: a God who desires to be in relationship with us, desires our well-being, as well as peace, and justice in the world.
Truly if our well-being or the well-being of the world was dependent on our efforts, what happened in the federal government over the last several weeks should make us more concerned than ever. If this is the kind of persistence we are capable of, God may want thinking it’s time to make a new planet.
But to take any of Jesus’ parables at face value is a fool’s errand which can leads us to a shallow interpretation which will be of little or no help when matters of life and faith become difficult. At worse, it can cause us to miss the point all together.
His parables call to us, actually demand we enter into relationship with them. To grapple with them, question them, struggle with them, allow new meanings to continually emerge over time, so they may in Paul’s words to Timothy we just heard, be “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”
So returning to the parable at hand, we need to ask, who are these people? Who are the unjust judge and the persistent widow? More importantly, what are they telling us about God, and what it means to be faithful?
My own answers to these questions have changed over the years, and no doubt will continue to, but at this point in time, I’ve come to see how together they represent both the ideal, and what is often the reality of our lives.
The widow is indeed a role model of what it means to be persistent. Persistent in prayer, persistent in the cause of justice, persistent in the face of the unjust judge. Who, if we are honest with ourselves, the unjust judge embodies our own indifference, avoidance, or even hostility to anyone or anything that challenges our desired way of being or world view.
Now in all fairness, our desire to not have our world shaken is usually not because we want to thwart justice. In fact, people here at the Cathedral have a firm commitment to justice, and want to do the right thing. To advocate, work for, and live our lives in such a way as to promote fairness, inclusion, love of neighbor, and protection of this precious creation so all may partake of God’s kingdom.
This commitment to justice is one of the many things that makes this Cathedral so special.
Ah, but even so, let’s be honest. There are times when the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. We are so busy, carrying for family, working long hours, balancing our resources, financial and otherwise so we can at least feel like we’re running in place and not falling behind. Maintaining the status quo of often feels like a huge victory.
So even if it is unintentional, which is often the case, nonetheless, we can close ourselves off, stop seeing what justice would have us see, perhaps even become very self-focused. It’s a defense mechanism as much as anything else. One more thing, feels like one more thing too many.
None of us are immune from this battle. I remember several years ago arriving home after a particularly long day. It was about 6:30 or 7:00, Skip was out for the evening and I was really looking forward to making some dinner, and having a rare evening to myself.
But almost immediately upon getting home I received a call from Christine Spalding who handles the pastoral emergency phone line, letting me know a man who had once attended the Cathedral had just passed away and the family wanted a priest to come to the home for prayers and anointing.
Without going into great detail, it is safe to say the persistent widow and unjust judge within me had quite a dialog. On one level leaving home was absolutely the last thing I wanted to do, I was tired. And yet I also knew I should go, and I mean “should” in the best sense of the word—it would be a very good thing to do.
And while she doesn’t always win, this time the persistent widow did win. Now as I look back over the evening spent with the family, I hope they received some comfort from my being there, because for me, being with them and seeing the love they had for each other and for the man who had just died blessed me so deeply. And continues to bless and sustain me to this day.
For most of us the persistent widow and unjust judge are destined to do battle within us to varying degrees all our lives. But we need don’t need to despair over this because the good news is that God be with us throughout. The evening I was blessed to spend with that family showed me this first hand.
Which points to one of the most powerful ways God is with us, and that is through us. Together. The unjust judge is much more likely to have the last word when we isolate ourselves and do not allow or avail ourselves of the love, support, and strength of our community when we are tired and weak, or for any reason just unable to see past our immediate self-interest.
But listen again the words of the prophet Jeremiah to the houses of Israel and Judah in their dark hour of their exile:
. . . this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of these to the greatest.By the grace of God as seen in the gift of Jesus, God continues to write these words of hope and comfort upon our hearts, from the least of these to the greatest. They are written upon the hearts of all here, individually and as a beloved community. Together, through them and strengthened by them, we will be able to set the persistent widow free to do as the Holy Spirit would have her do, so when the Son of Man comes, and he does, he will indeed find faith on earth.
The Rev. Canon Allisyn Thomas
20 October 2013