The persistent widow and the unjust judge. Jesus tells this parable to remind his disciples to pray always and not to lose heart. A parable is a story that illustrates a moral or spiritual lesson. There’s more than one way to interpret a parable; for this reason Jesus’ friends found them really annoying. They’d go to him with a clearly defined question, the kind of thing you’d bring to court to settle once and for all. And instead of a verdict, Jesus would come back to them with a story.
In tonight’s gospel reading, Jesus entertains their desire for a legal ruling by telling them a story that at least takes place in a courtroom. It’s about a widow who keeps coming before this judge and the judge dismisses her time and time again. The judge knows full well that in the legal system of the day widows are particularly at risk for exploitation. Nevertheless he persists.
One day the judge decides to hear her out. Finally, he grants the widow’s request. The Jewish feminist and New Testament scholar Amy Jill Levine, she uses a boxing metaphor to interpret the judge’s ruling.[i] She imagines the judge as saying something along the lines of, “because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice so that she will not wear me out by continually punching me in the eye.” (The eye for many ancient near eastern traditions the seat of ethics—the place from which we exercise or fail to exercise justice). It’s like the widow’s persistence causes the judge to face the fact that he’s been unwilling to exercise justice, the very thing he’s paid and appointed to do.
But what exactly is the widow’s request, anyway? We don’t get much detail in Jesus’ parable. In Amy Jill Levine’s version, the widow’s motives aren’t exactly pure. Levine sees the widow as out for revenge, likely against the person who made her a widow in the first place. She wants her “opponent” put to death, a kind of eye for an eye scenario, which Jesus denounces throughout the gospels.
Yesterday I learned that the statue of Lady Justice on top of the Old Bailey courthouse in London (you know the one, where she’s holding the scales), well in the little tourist pamphlet it says that her “maidenly form” is supposed to “guarantee her impartiality” in matters of the law. Hm. Reading the widow as someone seeking vengeance challenges the notion that women, namely poor women, are two-dimensional, incapable of “unmaidenly” actions. It disrupts what is, perhaps, our usual picture of marginalized women—that they are perpetually meek, destined to be passive members of society (things happen to them, not for or because of them). I don’t mean to condone the widow’s motives one way or another. I only wish to ask the question: what if this widow were a complex individual with mixed motives—more fully human than how we’ve traditionally read her?
So which character are you most like in this parable? Are you like the unjust judge who refuses to grant justice to those who keep coming to you asking you to advocate for them? Could we be the judge who finally gives in because the injustice around us has become so great our privilege is no longer a protective fence or a palace wall, but a fist continually punching us in the eye?
Or maybe we are we like the persistent widow. We have been advocating for justice in a system that discriminates against certain people while easing the path for others. We are tired. And perhaps, like Levine’s reading of the widow, having been victims of violence we are now seeking to cause harm in what, sadly, dangerously, feels like the only way forward.
It’s possible after hearing this gospel that we might find ourselves in the judge’s throne or the plaintiff’s chair. But imagine for a moment that we are watching this scene unfold in a 21st century courtroom. What if we are the jury? What if each one of us, based on where we live and the communities we find ourselves in, what if everyday we participate in broken systems and adjudicate the fate of the people caught up in them—both the victims and the perpetrators?
Tomorrow is federal election day. It’s not my place as a priest to tell you who to vote for. It is my duty as a Canadian citizen to urge you to please exercise your right to vote. When you vote, be careful that you do not cast your vote as an unjust judge there to protect whatever fragile power will allow you to ignore the persistent calls for justice around you. I urge you to go to the polls as someone who believes in the value of their vote. Your vote matters. If I could rewrite the opening to our gospel in the context of the federal election I would say, “Jesus told them a parable about their need to vote always and not to lose heart in the electoral system.”
When we go to the polls tomorrow, I believe we are called to think of ourselves as jurors—people deeply aware of and involved in the systems of power that uphold this country, people with a front row seat to the persistent calls for justice happening in the communities we belong to and the ones we don’t, in the neighbourhoods where we live and those we won’t step foot in.
In the parable we heard this evening Jesus gives the disciples front row seats, juror seats, to this plaintiff’s persistent call for justice before an unjust judge. Perhaps our job as followers of Jesus is to take up our role as jurors actively, persistently engaged in balancing the scales of justice, maybe even rebuilding the scales altogether. If even the unjust judge eventually grants the widow’s request, how much more will a just God readily call a jury seeking to peacefully enact God’s law of love in the world?
[i]Amy Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler. The Jewish Annotated New Testament. Oxford University Press, New York. 2011. Page 137.