(A sermon for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, Luke 18:1-8)
Judge Bennett lived at the corner of North Street and Court Street, in his family’s ancestral home. The courthouse is only a few blocks away, where Court Street meets High Street beside the Monument to our Confederate dead, and if you timed it right you could see him walking to his work early in the morning and returning home at suppertime, wearing a hat and carrying his briefcase, walking slowly and with dignity.
On a Monday morning, a case came before him that he did not feel was particularly worth hearing. It was a family squabble about an estate, and he did not care for the demanding personality of the plaintiff, a widow named Mrs. Doyle. Mrs. Doyle seemed more insistent than Judge Bennett deemed ladylike, and those well-dressed stepsons of hers appeared to be fine young men, so without much further attention to the situation, the judge dismissed the case.
Certain he would never see that challenging woman again, Judge Bennett donned his hat and prepared to make his walk home at the end of the day. He glanced across the street and saw, to his surprise, that just outside the store of The Famous, our local ladies’ department store, stood Mrs. Doyle, wearing the hat and gloves that were the uniform of ladies both rich and poor in my Virginia childhood. But she would be no client of The Famous, he thought, not after this morning’s decision.
“Lord,” he muttered to himself, “what is she doing?” For Mrs. Doyle was crossing the street, stopping at the monument for a passing car, and headed straight for him!
“Judge Bennett! Judge Bennett!” she cried. “May I speak to you for a moment?”
Decisively, he waved her off. “I cannot speak to you outside the court room,” he said firmly, and he continued home.
Tuesday afternoon he had gone half a block further when he saw her standing outside the stationery store. And the next day she waited on the front steps of the Baptist church. He continued to wave her off, even on Thursday, when she seemed to appear out of nowhere just a block from his home, at the corner of narrow little Glasgow Street. Would she never give up?
On Friday, he looked for her again, and decided, just in case, to stay on the other side of the street. He tried to look nonchalant, but his eyes scanned the horizon for her. And soon he saw her, peering from behind the large tree whose roots disordered the bricks in front of his house just as this widow had disrupted his entire week.
“Enough!” he thought. “I am worn out avoiding this woman. She will never leave me alone.” When he reached the corner, before she could speak, he said, “Mrs. Doyle, come down to the courthouse on Monday morning, and we will make things right.”
Of course, there was no Judge Bennett, but the terrain in my story is real, and the house on the corner was the family home of my father’s good friend, Judge Bain. By the time I was old enough to be aware of him, he lived out by the golf course at the country club, and my “big girl” friend, Amy, had moved into his tall house. As I pondered the story of the unjust judge and the persistent widow, it felt important to me to locate myself in the story. Who am I apt to know and be friends with, the widow, or the judge?
As a little girl, I lived in a house where judges and legislators came to visit frequently, a house where people you might have called Your Honor I surely called Uncle John or Uncle Henry. I was a long way from Mrs. Doyle and others like her, the people who lived on the margins in our time and place. And even they were a long, long way from the widow who pleaded her case so persistently.
In the time of Jesus, a widow did not have the same rights and protections that most of us assume will be present today. I used to hear my grandmother May say, “A widow never touches her principal.” But you have to have some principal in the first place to even be playing by that rulebook. A widow in the first century did not inherit her husband’s property. It went to his sons or his brothers, and if those men did not choose to treat the widow with justice, honoring her connection to her late husband, only a judge could intervene.
A widow, in first century terms, was as helpless as a child, a person with no standing. This may come as a surprise to us, because we live 2000 years down the road, in a world influenced by all the stories Jesus told. We know there are still places where widows have a rough time, but it’s hard for us to imagine anyone among us thinking that’s acceptable.
I think many people read this parable and take it too personally. We read it and think to ourselves, this is about personal prayer and stick-to-itiveness. We put ourselves in the widow’s place and presume we are to keep faith on our own behalf. If even an unfair judge will eventually give the widow what she wants, won’t God, who loves us, do even more? We run the risk of associating God with Santa Claus.
But Jesus, talking to his own disciples, the people to whom he would entrust the continued ministry on his behalf, is telling us something different. Jesus raises the contrast between established earthly powers, in the character of the judge who cares nothing for justice, and marginalized human beings, in the character of the widow. He is telling us not to lose heart in the quest for justice, but to continue praying. We are the ones we are waiting for, the ones who can make changes, with the help of the God who loves all people.
Jesus’ followers got the message on this. When they began to establish churches, as the author of Luke records in the Acts, chapter 6, they chose from among themselves deacons who would be responsible for the care of those in need. They asked the new church families to share things in common and to be sure that no one had to go without the necessities of life. They took particular care of the widows.
Who are the “widows” in our society? The people who have no advocates? It changes from generation to generation. You may know a lot of widows who live on an inheritance that no one would have considered taking from them. We have an expanded sense of what people deserve just by virtue of being alive.
I look at the children of the poor as the “widows” of our era. It is a rare week that I don’t get a visit in my office from a mother or a father struggling to put food on the table or diapers on the baby. There are times I wonder if I’m being told a story, but when a mother comes in pushing a stroller, eyes welling up with tears, she will usually find she has come to the right place. Whatever the reason for the family’s poverty, whether we would consider their parents to be among the “deserving” poor or not, these little children who have done nothing to create the situation in which they find themselves need our help.
So when I hear the debate about the SCHIP program or the birth control controversy at my daughter’s school, I remember the persistent widow and I wonder how, collectively, we can keep heart and work to make the world a more just place for those who don’t start life with an equal chance at health and well-being.
Sometimes it feels nearly hopeless. The debates and arguments we have along the way to deciding what’s right can sometimes take all the air out of our ability to act.
But as God’s people we have an empowering resource. When we commit to a life of faith, in the vows that we make at baptism or renew when we join the church, we acknowledge our relationship with God and pledge to deepen that relationship. We promise to do more than believe; we promise to act on those beliefs. At the same time we acknowledge that we cannot do it alone. “I will,” we say, “with the help of God.” Then if we work for peace or for justice, we do not work alone. If the unjust judge will a
ct on behalf of the widow who persists, only to get his own peace back, then how can we, who trust in a loving God, lose heart?