Note: I preached a version of this sermon on Sunday, October 20, at Christ Lutheran Church in Dallas.
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Jesus said: “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.”
If you want to know how a society really works, go to a courtroom and watch. Don’t go for the big, flashy, notable trials, but for the everyday stuff: family court, civil court, small-time criminal court. You learn fairly quickly who has power and who doesn’t, who has time and attention to devote to a case and who doesn’t, whose interests matter and whose don’t.
It’s not that people are trying to be bad. Some people are, I’m sure, but for the most part everyone is just doing their job. The problem is that for the most part, their job is not about “justice” in any sense connected to right and wrong. There are rules that need to be followed, cases that need to be cleared, and outcomes that need to be reached. And these may or may not have anything to do with what is good or just.
In the parable Jesus tells today, we are invited to be suspicious of the judge from the start. He has no fear of God and no partiality for any human being. But when I hear it I think, “this checks out.” The administration of law in America, and maybe everywhere else, is not really about God. Even in countries that are designed to be theocracies, the law is a very human thing. And while it is my job to encourage everyone to have fear of God and the profoundest respect for all humanity, I have to admit: that’s not really a judge’s deal, most of the time. Maybe the judge in this story is just trying to follow the law.
Similarly, we’re probably inclined to sympathize with the widow. Widows are often figures of pity in the Scriptures, and not without reason. But this widow has access to the court and time to go back over and over again. Our translation says she is asking for “justice” but the word would be better translated as “vengeance” or “vindication.” She’s looking for a judgment against an opponent. It may be a just judgment or an unjust one. All we know is that she pushes, again and again.
So the judge talks to himself. Now in the Gospels this is usually a sign of bad character. And the judge doesn’t change his mind. He doesn’t decide that the widow is asking for true justice. He just says, “I better grant her the vengeance she seeks because she is giving me a black eye by continually coming to court.” That’s right—“wearing me out” is a pretty weak translation of an aggressive word. She is literally or figuratively beating him up so he just gives in.
So why does Jesus tell this story? What are we supposed to hear in this morally neutral clash of a stubborn, unappealing judge and a relentless, aggressive widow?
As it happens, Kerry and I have some recent experience petitioning a judge and other participants in a legal process. We were advocating for our foster child, and we did not believe the process was serving her interests. We are by upbringing and conviction very much rule-following people. We are cooperative and docile. But at some point in this process, we decided, “to hell with the rules.” We went around the foster care agency and the special advocate to talk directly to the lawyers and the judge. We went outside the court to a special master supervising the state child welfare system. I even offered to help anyone who wanted to run against this judge (I didn’t have any takers, but a friend offered to work his Chicago political connections to see if he could find some leverage).
In the end, it didn’t work—at least not in the way we intended. But the truth of the matter is that if I had been able to find that leverage—if I knew the judge’s political patron or parish priest or even had some embarrassing photographs I would absolutely have used it. I just decided to become unscrupulous too late. I won’t justify that. I can’t justify that. But there it is.
And the truth about people who do not fear God or respect humans is that they may look and sound and even feel tough, but in fact they are not. All it takes is the right kind of pressure to make the judge in the parable give in. The justice of the widow’s case is not his concern. His concern is only that he should not suffer or sacrifice for any particular outcome. His commitment to right and wrong may be real, but it is less powerful than his commitment to avoiding a black eye. I think we get some of these morally dubious parables from Jesus to illustrate this fact: in a world that runs on debt and power and money and even forced labor, you need to know where people stand and where you should push more than you need reminders of right and wrong.
The widow wins in this encounter because she has more at stake. She cares more. She is not afraid of looking bad or even acting in an unscrupulous way. And there is something very true and very powerful in that story for us. We simply have to care more than the world, more than the devil, more than the forces of sin in ourselves and around us. We have to recognize that we have more at stake. Jacob, wrestling by the river, may be right and he may be wrong but he knows he is fighting for his life. Paul warns Timothy that the times may be seasonable or unseasonable, but the Word of God must be proclaimed either way. They all have to fight with a tenacity that goes beyond right and wrong, certainty and doubt. They are not fighting to justify themselves. They are fighting to hold on.
And that’s real. It’s a daily struggle to hold the faith in a world that mocks the very idea of universal human dignity and has no way to even think about God. It’s a daily struggle to hold on to our souls in a world that will always try to reduce us to the money in our accounts, the neighborhood we live in, or the citizenship on our passport. It is a daily struggle to be just, and to demand justice for ourselves and others, in a world that does not know what justice means.
This is why Jesus tells us never to lose heart, and why he asks out loud whether the Son of Man will find faith on the earth. That’s why he calls us together to be built up in that faith, to hear oracles of hope and instructions in love. That’s why he gives us his body and blood over and over for strength and nourishment. That’s why he extends forgiveness when we have not had the strength to go after the unjust judge and when we have yielded to the world’s demands. That’s why Jacob’s life-or-death wrestling match ends with him winning and extracting a blessing, even as he walks with a limp ever after. That’s why Paul exhorts Timothy to be steadfast in season and out of season—because all the seasons and all the powers and all the rulers of the world are finally in God’s hands, whether they know it or not. Amen.