By the Rev. Darren Miner
In the season after Pentecost, the Old Testament reading and the Gospel reading are supposed to share a common theme. Sometimes one is hard put to figure out what that theme is, but that’s not the case today. There is a clear and definite theme to today’s readings. And that theme is made explicit in the Collect of the Day: we are to “persevere with steadfast faith.” We find perseverance in the story of Jacob struggling all night with his mysterious opponent. We find the author of 2 Timothy urging his readers to “be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable.” And we find perseverance in the parable that Jesus tells about a widow and an unjust judge, which will be the main focus of this sermon.
Now, Luke tells us that the parable of the widow and the unjust judge is about “the need to pray always and not to lose heart.” And I won’t gainsay him. But I think that there is more to be learned from this parable than that. In this story, a widow repeatedly comes before a judge who has no respect for God or man. Again and again, she appears in court demanding justice. Now, in Jesus’ day, a woman would not ordinarily plead a case in court. That was the job of her nearest male relative. So we may assume that she had no male relatives and was forced by her need to transgress a social boundary and plead her own case before the unjust judge. She fails again and again, but rather than give in to despair, she bravely, and obstinately, keeps on demanding the justice that is due her.
We are told that that unjust judge eventually acquiesces. Here, as in so many places in the New Testament, a knowledge of Greek comes in handy. Most English translations have the judge saying that he has decided to give in because otherwise the widow will “wear him out.” But a literal rendering of the judge’s reason for giving in goes something like this: “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for any person, because this widow keeps causing me trouble, I will vindicate her, lest she finally come and punch me in the eye.” Modern translators literally take the punch out of Jesus’ punch line!
After telling this parable, Jesus continues by saying: “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.” Now, there is a name in Hebrew for the type of reasoning by analogy that Jesus is using here. It is called qal vahomer, and it is a favorite rhetorical device of the Rabbis. The idea is that you make your point for a lesser case and then conclude that the same conclusion must also apply for the greater case. Here, the lesser case is that of an unjust earthly judge yielding to fierce perseverance and granting justice, and the greater case is that of a merciful God granting justice in response to the pleas of his elect.
Of course, life experience tells us that we don’t always get what we pray for in this life—including justice. And Jesus knew that as well as anyone. So what does he mean when he says that God will quickly grant justice? To answer this question, it is helpful to consider the larger context of this parable. Jesus is having a conversation with some Pharisees about the coming of the Kingdom of God. They ask him when the Kingdom of God will come. And Jesus concludes the conversation with the parable of the widow and the unjust judge. It is the last half of the final verse in today’s Gospel that provides the key to understanding the whole point of that parable. There, Jesus asks, “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Given both the earlier conversation with the Pharisees about the coming of the Kingdom and this final question about the Second Coming, it becomes clear that the part in between, Jesus’ parable about the widow and the judge, also deals with the Second Coming and the need to persevere to the very end.
So, in return for our perseverance, we are promised blessing and justice, either in this world or the next. In the Old Testament reading, Jacob wrestles with a mystery man, who may, in fact, be God himself, and he keeps on wrestling even after his hip has been dislocated. In return for his persistence, he receives a great blessing. In the parable of the widow, we have a situation in which a socially disempowered widow finally gets her day in court despite the long delays of an unjust judge. And the reason she finally gets justice is that the judge is convinced that the widow will stop at nothing—up to and including giving him a sock in the eye!
Jesus promises us that at the Second Coming, we will all be granted justice from a merciful judge, provided we persevere and don’t lose heart. But in the meantime, like Jacob our forefather and like the widow in the parable, we can expect to have to struggle. Our struggle may take many forms. In our personal lives, we may have to struggle with grief and loneliness, with illness and pain, with poverty and injustice. In our communal life as a parish, we have our struggles, as well. We struggle to gain new members. We struggle to raise money to pay the bills. We struggle to reach out to the surrounding community. We are told by Luke to pray always and not to lose heart. And that is undoubtedly wise advice. But we are encouraged to do more than pray. Both the story of Jacob wrestling all night long and the parable of the widow and the unjust judge teach us that we are called not only to pray, but to fight—and to keep on fighting, no matter how great the effort.
And so we continue to gather week by week to worship God. We continue to hold bazaars and book sales to raise funds for this church. We continue to host concerts for the benefit our neighbors. We continue to support the Interfaith Winter Shelter for the sake of the homeless. We continue to support each other in times of need. And we continue to pledge money to this parish. As you may or may not know, the parish stewardship campaign is underway, and pledge cards are going out. I stand before you yet again and beg you to support our common struggle and to put your money where your faith is.
Now, there are times in our struggle when we are tempted to give in to worry, even to despair. Speaking for myself, I still have great hope for this parish. And today’s readings only bolster that hope. From the story of Jacob, I am reminded never to underestimate a man with a wonky hip—and we have one or two of those in this congregation! And from the parable of the widow and the judge, I am reminded that so-called “little old ladies” can pack a powerful punch—and we are graced with a veritable plethora of plucky women of a certain age! So I ask you, with folks like that—or rather, with folks like you—fighting side by side for the Kingdom of God, how can we be worried about our future? And with God himself watching over our “going out and our coming in from this time forth for evermore,” why on earth should we be afraid?
© 2016 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.