“A political parable”
I have to admit I’ve been warned against preaching on the gospel lesson today. I read an essay by Margit Ernst-Habib in the Feasting on the Word commentary series that observed that Jesus’ parable of the persistent woman and the unjust judge is inherently a political parable. Margit said that conservatives believe this parable means we should be persistent in praying for what we want. Whereas liberals hear the message in terms of communal indifference to injustice.
Big sigh. I thought I could come to church today to escape the whole polarized mess of our political thinking. But no—turns out, our political world view delivers up partisan interpretations of Jesus’ parable.
That, by the way, is the great thing about Jesus’ parables: they endure because they allow layers upon layers of meaning to emerge, room for diverse interpretations that make us think anew about what Jesus meant.
I know that the text in Luke, the only gospel that contains this parable, names an interpretation for us. Luke says, “Jesus told the disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.” So you can see what LUKE’s concern was: the people in his church community were praying and losing heart when they either didn’t get an answer, or didn’t get what they wanted. But you can bet that JESUS didn’t say, “I’m going to tell you a parable and here’s how you should interpret what I say.”
How we interpret Jesus’ parable depends on who you identify with in the story. So where do YOU locate yourself here: are you the persistent woman, or the judge the woman is pestering?
I’ve always thought of myself as the persistent woman. If I’m the woman, see, that aligns me with righteousness. And I’m praying for an outcome that is favorable to me, praying to God-the-judge who decides such things.
BUT WAIT! This perspective portrays God as uncaring, indifferent, remote, and disrespecting of people. So Jesus’ parable challenges me. NO amount of begging and pleading and persisting in my prayer can MAKE God change his mind. NOTHING I do can MAKE God act on my timetable. Sometimes the answer is “no,” or—through silence—“not now.”
But Jesus DID often heal those who persistently sought him. And Jesus DOES ask his disciples, “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” From this we learn that when we pray long and hard for something there are certain things that are expected of us:
- The first expectation is that our request must be just. Jesus asked whether God would “GRANT JUSTICE” to those who persistently pray to him. So Jesus expects that our prayers will be just.
- The second expectation is that God gets to choose the response. Jesus specified that God would grant justice “TO HIS CHOSEN ONES.” Has God chosen our prayers to fulfill? God gets to choose the response.
- The third expectation is that we must persist in our prayers, we must keep asking. Jesus says our just and PERSISTENT PRAYERS will be answered—by God’s choice—from among those who cry out to God “day and night.” We must persist in our prayers.
- Finally, we are to not lose heart. Our persistence will make a difference. The idea here is that if indifferent human judges who don’t respect people can be persuaded by persistence, a loving and just God will be persuaded quicker and better. Or maybe our persistence will just make a difference in us, help us to see that what we ask for needs to be adjusted in some way. But our persistence will make a difference, either in outcome or in our asking, so we are to not lose heart.
So the conservatives are right. We have to be persistent in our prayers. But, if you are a conservative, don’t forget that the prayers we’re talking about are those seeking justice, prayers seeking to bring the Kingdom of God into our world.
A few minutes ago I observed that which perspective you choose to interpret today’s gospel lesson depends on where you place yourself within the parable. There are two characters in the story: the woman and the judge. So if God’s NOT the uncaring and unjust judge, the inescapable conclusion is that GOD is the persistent woman. Isn’t God the one who begs, pleads, and demands for justice? Isn’t GOD the one who won’t go away, who won’t stop pestering us until he gets the justice he demands for those least able to care for themselves? Isn’t GOD the one who gets us to participate in making justice the norm in our world?
That makes US—you and me collectively and individually—the unjust judge. There’s just no other place to place us.
I don’t much want to think of myself as someone who doesn’t fear God and who has no respect for people. I don’t much want to think of myself as someone who will participate on the side of justice only when nagged into doing so, only when being just is in my own best interest.
So I’ll push against the whole idea of “justice,” paint “justice” as a liberal notion—or at least a notion the liberals have hijacked to get me to participate in their own brand of political activism, their own brand of harnessing religion in service of a political perspective.
We have to dig through all of that. We have to search for what Jesus meant by justice. We have to revisit the God-messages of old shared through the prophets on the subject of justice. And the inescapable conclusion is that justice involves looking out for those on the margins. The inescapable conclusion is that justice involves recognizing that those who can’t compete in our me-first system matter to God, and should matter to us.
Liberal. Conservative. Did you stop listening when I used those words? If you think today’s sermon is political, you’re right. All sermons are political, just as all of Jesus’ parables were and are political. OUR problem is that we are so bombarded with politics, especially in this most-difficult of Presidential-election years—that we think we can come to church to escape the fray.
The reality is that we come to church, are supposed to come to church, to recognize that WE, at our worst, are the ones who do not fear God and who do not respect anyone but ourselves. And then, moved by a God seeking justice, we leave church to do something THAT widow woman has been pestering us to do.