(The work of tattoo artist Erica Flannes, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
Daily Office Readings for Friday, November 23, 2018:
Depending on who you read, this parable, unique to Luke, is known as either “The parable of the unjust judge” or “The parable of the persistent widow.” In Roman occupied territories, the system of local magistrates was notorious for corruption, basically working on the “If you’ve got the money, honey, I’ve got the time” system of justice. Our judge seems to be straight from that mold.
Widows seeking compensation (usually from greedy or oppressive family members or stepchildren) were a fairly typical sight in the courts, if we examine the caseload of surviving judicial record papyri. The stage Jesus set in telling this parable was one that would easily be recognized by his listeners, and they would have been quite aware that the widow was a woman of “little to no legal status” in the justice system of that time.
We might expect the widow to be deferential, even meek, in such a situation. It’s certainly the street coaching oppressed minorities are often given when appearing in court–to use the proper decorum, to let others speak completely before speaking, to be respectful, to be hyper-aware of the power differential. Yet what we see is a woman who has nothing, and has nothing to lose. She does not use the deferential salutations to the judge like “Your honor.” She doesn’t frame her request as a question, or frame it passively. Instead, she consistently and repeatedly says “Grant me justice.” It’s a demand, not a request, and it seemingly ignores that the usual path to justice is to gain favor of the one whose power it is to grant it. It is almost if she is going straight to the ears of Lustitia (Lady Justice) and bypassing this corrupt judge.
Despite the fact she’s doing everything wrong, she receives justice–not because the judge feels a moral compulsion but because he feels worn down by her constant request. The NRSV obscures the pugilistic character of this interaction through the phrase “wear me out.” A more literal translation of the Greek might be “so she won’t give me a black eye.” He is clearly more worried about his reputation than he is about the merits of the case.
It’s an uncomfortable fact in the history of civilization that, more often than we realize or like to admit, in the story of the long arc of history bending towards justice, sometimes the right thing gets done for the wrong reasons.
For instance, most of us don’t realize Rosa Parks’ defiant act was preceded by an almost identical one in Montgomery nine months earlier, by a woman named Claudette Colvin–but Claudette, fifteen years old and pregnant by a married man, wasn’t a case that would easily garner public sentiment. So the NAACP made a decision to wait until the next incident occurred, and in Rosa Parks, who was the secretary to NAACP leader E.D. Nixon. It wasn’t fair to Claudette Colvin at the time, yet, in the end, justice prevailed.
How many widows before the persistent widow did the judge dismiss before the persistent widow wore him down? How many after her became the beneficiaries of her persistence once the judge set precedent in his decision? We simply don’t know. What we do know, though, is this parable is prefaced by Jesus explaining to the disciples the need to continue to pray (the assumption is the widow was a woman of prayer)–yet he tells them a parable that hinges on action, not prayer. At the same time, we see the widow understood thoughts and prayers were not enough. Her prayer called her to act–and act she did–persistently, with no worries if she was being “good enough” or “polite enough” or even if it would be effective. Eventually, the scales of justice tipped in the direction they needed to tip.
As Christians, we are always called to pray–to pray devoutly and earnestly for the needs of the broken world in which we live. Yet sometimes, those prayers call us to act in some way–despite the power differential, despite the cost–and with no idea if it’s effective action or not. Although each of us might be called to action in different ways, or for different roles, God’s justice invites us to participate in both the yin and yang of contemplation AND action. Sometimes we might even discover in retrospect we did the right thing for the wrong reasons.
When is a time prayer called you to act against the odds and against the power differential?
Maria Evans splits her week between being a pathologist and laboratory director in Kirksville, MO, and gratefully serving in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri . She presently serves as Interim Assistant Priest at two churches, Church of the Good Shepherd in Town and Country, MO, and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Manchester, MO, as they explore a shared ministry model.