If I were to paint you a picture of my home town, we would need to start with a grid of streets, neatly laid out, their only curved edge the boundary of a river flowing by. Some blocks were longer than others, some streets wider, but the known universe for the little girl version of me was bounded by High Street and Washington Street and Crawford Parkway, built along the river when I was very small.
On the corner of High and Dinwiddie Street stood the Governor Dinwiddie Hotel, with the coffee shop where my grandmother and my godmother used to take me for lunch. I always ordered a cheeseburger, and later I had chocolate ice cream for dessert, a hard ball in a stainless steel ice cream dish that kept it very, very cold.
Another block down Dinwiddie stood the Methodist church, where that grandmother and my father went, but you had to turn down Queen Street and make your way to the corner of Court Street to find MY Baptist church.
And because I had a daddy who liked little girls to know their way around, I knew that if you completed the square to High and Court, you would get to the court house, that mysterious place my daddy sometimes went instead of his law office. On those days he did not come home to lunch. He had to speak to the judge.
I knew what a judge was, because among our family friends there were many. I called some of them Uncle John and Uncle Henry, because they had known my daddy since boyhood. I knew they were people you could trust, because otherwise they would not be judges. I knew they wore robes and sat on “the bench,” and I knew we believed they would listen to both sides of a story and figure out what was fair.
I had a child’s understanding, of course.
I didn’t know that judges needed to understand volumes and volumes of legal precedents, that there were tools available other than their sense of fair play. I just knew we had to listen to a judge, and in my experience, they were people you could count on to see that justice would be done.
And that was very much the way it was for a judge in Jesus’ time. He tells a story about a judge in “a certain city,” sort of a once upon a time beginning. We have no idea if this story came completely from Jesus’ imagination or if it was the kind of story that had immediate associations for the listeners. “In a certain city,” there was a judge, and because he is described as having no fear of God, that judge would have been a Gentile, most likely. Judges or magistrates were unpaid public servants, so the value of the job derived from the power it gave to the person holding it. That person’s only law was his conscience.
And this judge described by Jesus does not have a conscience, at least not the sort of conscience understood by the people Jesus taught. A widow had rights. She might not inherit directly from her husband, but she had a clear right to be supported by her dead husband’s estate. The widow in our story has come to the judge to ask for what she is already supposed to have.
It’s a pretty dark person who can deny a person what she has a right to, isn’t it? We might be able to think of worse words than “unjust” to describe the person who prevents her from receiving all that should be hers. As a widow, she really had no other recourse. She needed the judge to bring things into balance. Why would he be so reluctant?
Why didn’t he just know what was right and do it?
We can look around the world and see plenty of places where we feel things are out of balance. We might wish for the opportunity to set things to rights. We might wish we could, depending on our own discretion and the size of our imagination, solve the health care crisis or reorganize the state government or make sure someone we care about never has to deal with worries about money or housing again.
I feel certain the world would be very different if judged by me. I like to think it would be better, naturally! I would rule beneficently, hearing all sides of a question and then issuing my opinion, to be followed, to the letter, or else.
The trouble of course is that when there is no law to which to refer, as was the case for this judge in a certain city, there is only personal opinion and experience, and I can tell you almost certainly that mine, by itself, would not qualify me to be a judge.
I want to think the world that influenced me, the world of Uncle John and Uncle Henry, and the city streets laid out in such an orderly, understandable fashion, would make me a good judge, that my values would override my lack of legal knowledge and judicial temperament. The unjust judge certainly lacked that last part. He did not care about what God thought or about what people thought. We never even hear an explanation for his reluctance to give the widow her due. We only know he decided to give in, just to get her to leave him alone.
The implication is that she asked and asked and asked, leaving him no peace. In my mind I see the old courthouse in my hometown, and I imagine a judge leaving his chambers at the end of the day, walking home down the city streets, in his suit and his overcoat and his old man hat.
And I picture the widow, standing at the nearest corner, waiting for him to leave at the end of the day, day after day, finding a different place to meet him on the way home, even appearing at his back door or his kitchen window.
“This widow will wear me out!!! Her insistence is beating me down!!!”
Have you ever given in just to make someone stop asking?
That’s the unjust judge.
And just to be clear, that is not God.
Keep praying, Jesus says, and we hear the little story about the judge and then we hear that God will answer our prayers, and we do not stop to sort out the thoughts. We’re used to hearing these stories and comparing God to the person with the power: the king, the landowner, the judge.
But here, the judge is me. And you. The judge is all of us. We are the ones who decide how the world ought to run, and we don’t always remember to consult with God.
Remember where we started: “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”
He was talking to his disciples, the ones who had traveled with him, the ones who should have understood by that time the ins and outs of the things he taught them. He tries to tell them, in yet another way, that God loves them, that God is listening to them and understands them. It’s not that we *must* wear God out with our prayers in order to be heard. It’s that God is listening and we are not praying.
You could judge me for that. Here I am, a lifelong churchgoer, even a person with theological training, currently a preacher on her third go-round with this particular passage. “Pray without ceasing,” Jesus tells us in the King James Version of this passage. Pray without ceasing.
And I must confess: I’m not always good at doing it. Sometimes I don’t feel like having the conversation with God. Sometimes, like the judge, I have my own opinion and go my own way, based on my childhood values or my life experience, hoping that Sunday School will have been enough and forgetting, conveniently, that one of the things I learned there was to pray.
“When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on earth?”
Jesus sounds frustrated. He knew his time was running out. But I take hope in knowing that despite the shock and trauma they would feel after his crucifixion, the disciples, with one exception, stayed together and formed the first community based on the teachings they understood to matter most. And in those first communities they put into practice both the specific lesson here, prayer, and the lesson embodied in the parable. They set aside people in their community to look after widows and others in need.
Those practical tasks are almost easier. They comfort us when other things seem to be out of control. Can I help this person with a grocery store gift card? Can we send that family home with pet supplies and food? Can you stop in to see if an elderly neighbor needs anything? The harder part is having the interior relationship, really letting God inside and trusting that God will not judge me, or judge us, as the unjust judge would, answering our pleas if they are loud enough or last long enough. The harder part is living in the faith that a God beyond our seeing and our understanding cares about us.
God is the persistent widow, and the balance that needs to be set right is in our power. We can go out into the world and work to make things right, but we need to start from the inside, talking to the God who is waiting to hear from us, steadfastly. Thanks be to our loving God. Amen.