10/20/2013 sermon: Is God the judge or the widow

Location: Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, VA
Text: Luke 18:1-8
22 Pentecost, Proper 24, Year C

Is God the judge or the widow?

I have been wondering this week, “Is God the judge or the widow?” in our gospel lesson for today.

Maybe you will tell me that God is the judge, and we are the widow. This is what I would have told YOU, had you asked me this question last week. As the child of a preacher, I can’t begin to tell you how many sermons I have heard about this parable. And in each and every one the message was clear:

Be like the widow who keeps asking the judge for justice. Pray hard, be persistent, and God will give you what you ask for.

In other words, nag God into submission.

In reflecting on this lesson for myself this week, I have come to understand why we preachers all go this route. We take this approach because Luke himself interprets Jesus’ parable this way for us.

Luke introduces the parable by telling us what the parable means. Luke says, “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” We know that this was Luke’s interpretation, Luke’s sermon, because Jesus only rarely told his disciples what a parable meant. And when he did, the text made a big deal out of both Jesus’ explanation and of the disciples’ seeming inability to interpret for themselves what the parable meant. But in our gospel lesson today we only have Luke telling us what the parable means, then the sharing of the parable itself.

In other words, the interpretation Luke gave might not have been original to Jesus. I feel fairly comfortable in saying this because Jesus’ parables defy being so neatly interpreted. There is always room in Jesus’ parables for another point of view.

The point of view I would like us to think about this morning is from the inside of the parable. You see, the traditional interpretation of the story of a nagging woman and an unjust judge rests on us being the nag and God being the judge. Luke thinks that we should be persistent in prayer, even when we don’t get what we ask for right away. And Luke is right about this. Luke’s idea is that God will be even more inclined to give us what we pray for than the unjust judge.

The trouble with Luke’s thesis is that the God I know isn’t always like this—is he? Does the God to whom you pray always let you pray him into doing what you want, let you pray him into giving you whatever you want?

Sometimes. Just this past week our whole community prayed for the brother of one of our members to be healed. Let there be no mistake; the man who needed healing was at death’s door, with very little hope for recovery. Yet our community prayed, and the man was healed. But what if the man hadn’t been healed? Haven’t we all prayed for physical healing that did not appear to happen?

Luke says to pray hard, and keep on praying. And I, too, think that this is prudent advice. And yet I wonder if this is all that Jesus’ parable about a widow and a judge means.

And so I wonder, what if God isn’t the judge? What if WE are the judge? Aren’t we the ones who can be unjust? Aren’t we the ones who can let ourselves be nagged into doing the right thing? “Wait a minute,” you might say, “If we are the unjust judge, who’s the woman who keeps asking the judge for justice?”

I read one theologian this week[1] who suggested that God is the woman, the widow. He thinks that we can reinterpret, can recast, Jesus’ parable in this way because of God’s great concern for the widow and the orphans among us.

In fact, all throughout the Old Testament God judges people and nations by how well they care for the widows and others who just can’t fend for themselves. And in Psalm 68 we read that God IS the widow and the orphan. Isn’t God always nagging us, nudging us, and cajoling us to recognize God in the poorest and neediest among us?

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me…[2]

If this theologian is in any way correct, today’s parable isn’t just about the need to not lose heart when our prayers don’t seem to be answered. If this theologian is in any way insightful, then Jesus’ parable also can speak to us today about our need to listen to the poorest and the neediest and to let their prayers move us into action to make our world a more just place, a more God-filled place. Isn’t moving us into action in the name of justice what following Jesus is all about?

My own experience is this: If we, like the widow in today’s gospel, importune God for justice, beg God for justice, quite often before I know how such a thing has come to be, I myself have become God’s instrument of carrying out the very justice that I had demanded of God.

Like Jacob in our Old Testament lesson today, I spent many years begging God for a blessing. And what I have learned is to get a blessing, I have to be a blessing. Isn’t this how God works most often, by making us his instruments of justice, of healing, of reconciliation? God doesn’t let us go until we do for others what we have asked him to do for us.

There was a time in this church’s history when we begged God for racial equality and justice. And God has made us an instrument of helping bring that justice to pass. There was a time in this church’s history when we were very concerned about the poor, prayed for the poor to have food. And God has made us an instrument of feeding those in our community who are hungry.

As to whether God is the judge or the begging woman, like most of these questions, the answer is “Yes!” So, I say to you today, “Pray without ceasing, don’t lost faith, but don’t be surprised when God uses your prayers in surprising ways.”


[1] The Rev. Dr. Steve Griffiths, see http://www.stmaryslinton.org/node/49.

[2] Matthew 25:35

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