Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Judge and the Widow

October 21, 2007 - University Lutheran Chapel, Berkeley, CA - Psalm 121; Luke 18:1-8

There’s an espisode from The Simpsons where Lisa and Bart, the two kids, are watching TV and an ad for the latest amusement park comes on. Thrilled by the pictures of the rollercoasters and screaming, laughing children, the kids immediately jump up and start asking their dad, “Can we go, Dad? Can we go, Dad? Can we go, Dad?” And, of course, as you would expect, their dad says No. The next scene is the kids getting tucked into their beds, and again, you hear, “Can we go, Dad? Can we go, Dad? Can we go, Dad?” Again, No. Cut to the middle of the night, the house is dark, everything is silent, Homer is asleep in his bed, and all of a sudden - “Can we go, Dad? Can we go, Dad? Can we go, Dad?” There they are, those pestering kids, bothering their Dad when he’s trying to get some sleep. So he looks at them, and he asks them if they’re ever going to stop, and they reassure him that, No, they’re not going to stop until they get what they want. And so, the next morning, we see Lisa and Bart, smiling in the back seat of the car, with Homer at the wheel, driving them to the amusement park.

I was reminded of this scene after reading the Gospel lesson we heard today - the parable where Jesus speaks of the unjust judge and the persistent widow. Now, obviously, for the widow, things are more serious than just a trip to the amusement park. The widow has gone to the judge to demand justice against her opponent. And what makes this case especially serious is that it’s the widow herself who has gone. Women in Jesus’ time almost never spoke up in public. They were supposed to sit silently and let their husbands or fathers or brothers do all the talking. So for the widow to speak up must have meant that her situation was pretty dire. It meant that she had no husband, obviously, no father, no brothers, no sons, no male relatives who could resolve her case for her. And so her last resort is to go, by herself, to the town judge, whom everybody knows to be a terrible man, who even admits to himself that he is a terrible man, with “no fear of God and no respect for anyone.” And this widow goes, not once, not twice, but again and again and again. The widow pursues the judge until he is just plain worn down by her petitions and her constant begging. Using the “Can we go, Dad?” method, the widow gets the judge to help her with what she needs.

Now, this parable has traditionally been interpreted in such a way that God is the judge and we are the widow. Even the writer of Luke, in his editorial remarks, says that Jesus told this parable so that listeners would know about “their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” And certainly, if we take the position of the widow in this story, we will see that when it comes to praying, persistence is valuable. The judge gives in to the widow because he is afraid that such constant public attention will not only wear him out, but will also draw the public’s attention to his total lack of respect for both God and the people - two things necessary for him to have in his job.
Likewise, if we are the widow, and God is the judge, then we see how, if the terrible judge of the story finally gives into the widow’s cries, how much more will God, who is infinitely better and more just and more caring of the people than the judge, respond to the cries of not only the widows, but all of God’s children. And so because of that, we are given hope. We are encouraged not to lose heart. If an unjust judge hears the cries of a widow after months of pestering, surely a loving, just, perfect God like ours will hear us the moment we open our mouths to pray.

Unfortunately, this particular way of interpreting the parable can leave us with more questions than it does answers. For one thing, is raises all sort of questions about prayer, and the nature of prayer, and how God responds to prayer. If this parable is telling us that all it takes is persistence, and very little at that, to get God to respond to our prayers, what happens when it seems that God isn’t? What does it mean, then, when we’ve been praying for something for weeks, or months, or even years, and nothing happens? Does that mean we haven’t been praying enough? That we haven’t been persistent enough? Does it mean that we’re not one of God’s “chosen ones” to whom God will grant justice? Or does it mean that God has retreated to the judge’s chambers and is done with listening to people for the time being?
And of course, there are the questions that are raised by God being portrayed as a judge in this parable. For one thing, if God is a judge, particularly a severe one, we’re hardly like to go to God with our problems, are we? The widow showed a lot of fortitude in going to see this judge who liked no one. And I wonder if we would have as much bravery in going to God with our problems if we pictured God as a judge who was liable to rain down threats and punishments on our heads for the smallest infractions. Besides, that picture of God as a judge, while it does appear more than once in our Bible, is not the predominant image we have of God. It’s not the image we see manifested in the person of Jesus Christ. And so we have a bit of an incongruency.

Well, more than that, because in addition to God not really being like a judge, God isn’t at all like this particular unjust judge, who has “no fear of God and no respect for anyone.” If there’s anybody who tends not to fear God or have respect for people, it’s us. If there’s anybody who tends to refuse requests for aid for no other reason than that we don’t like the person asking, it’s not God, it’s us.

And so that leads me to wonder if maybe we, and even the writer of Luke, haven’t gotten the parable a little bit backwards. If maybe, instead of God being the judge and us being the widow, we’re actually the judge and God is the widow. I mean, we’re certainly a lot more like the judge than we are the widow. As I’ve said, we don’t, as a whole, have much fear of God or even have respect for other people. How many times have you had to stand in line, or been going down the street, and been impatient or muttered under your breath or even been downright rude to the person in front of you? We all do it. Or how many times has someone come to you in need, and you’ve turned away because you don’t like who they are or what they stand for? We’ve all done it. We don’t agree with people, we think they’re wrong, and so we don’t help them, worse, we stereotype them, insult them, discriminate against them. We stop respecting people, and we become unjust. We become the unjust judge.
Which means that God, then, becomes the widow. Which is a very interesting position for God to be in. God becomes the one constantly pursuing us, persistently coming to us, seeking our attention, begging to be noticed by us. And that makes this story very different, indeed. Because, you see, the widow pursues the judge, seeking attention from him, even though she knows how terrible he is. She does it because she believes that this terrible man can do good in the world if she just keeps after him. He can somehow make things right. And that’s how God treats us. Even knowing all the horrible things we do, God still believes we can do good in the world. God believes we can make some things right. And so God chases after us, coming to see us at every opportunity, bothering us, pestering us, begging us to hear what God has to say. And God doesn’t stop. Like Lisa and Bart Simpson, God keeps at it until we finally turn around and accept the inevitable. God does whatever it takes to get our attention - from being like a nagging widow, to being like whining children, to wrestling with Jacob at the river, to coming down and dying on the cross.

And what does God say once God has our attention? Is it, “Why haven’t you been paying attention to me?” Is it, “What took you so long,” Is it, “Boy, you’re going to get it now that I have your attention?” No. Instead, God says, “I love you.” “You’re forgiven.” “I missed you.” God’s words to you aren’t the words of an unjust judge, they’re the words of a widow who is longing for her husband, or her children. They’re the words of mercy, and of love, and of forgiveness. They’re the words of the psalmist today, if I might paraphrase them. God’s words to you, the words that God will speak to you over and over and over are: “I will not let your foot be moved and I who watch over you will not fall asleep. Behold, I keep watch over Israel and shall neither slumber nor sleep; I, the Lord, watch over you; I am your shade at your right hand, so that the sun shall not strike you by day, or the moon by night. I, the Lord, shall preserve you from all evil, I shall keep you safe. I shall watch over your going out and your coming in, from this time forth forevermore.” Thanks be to God. Amen.