The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s196g07 Sunday 29 21/10/2007
'the unjust judge' Luke 18.6
The first part of our gospel is not an easy parable to interpret, and the temptation is to focus on the second part, the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector in the Temple praying. However as I often do, I like to look at what the hard parables might tell me. I confess that I want to take these words as literally as possible. So let me take it one stage at a time.
This 'unjust' judge doesn't fear God, and the only one who legitimately has no fear of God is God him or her self. God has no need to fear. This is the essence of the monarchy and (rightly or wrongly) security of tenure for clergy - that they can say and do what they like without fear of retribution. It is why judges wear funny wigs, so that they are anonymous and therefore cannot be 'got at'.
Secondly this 'unjust' judge is no respecter of persons, and we know that God is not a respecter of persons. In the passage of scripture for the first lesson each and every Easter Day, Peter in his first sermon after his conversion proclaims to his gentile audience: 'The truth I have now come to realise is that God does not have favourites.' Acts 10.34
So we come to the question of the relative justice of this widow against her opponent, and the fact that Jesus describes the judge as unjust.
Hebrew law tells us: 'You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with the wicked to act as a malicious witness. You shall not follow a majority in wrongdoing; when you bear witness in a lawsuit, you shall not side with the majority so as to pervert justice; nor shall you be partial to the poor in a lawsuit.' Exodus 23.1-3
Wikapedia tells us that: 'A Roman equivalent of one aspect of Hellenic Themis, as the personification of the divine rightness of law, was Iustitia (Anglicized as Justitia). Her origins are in civic abstractions of a Roman mindset, rather than archaic mythology .. Portrayed as an impassive woman, blindfolded and holding scales and a cornucopia, the sculpted figure outside a county courthouse is Iustitia or Lady Justice ..' True justice, and from this we take it what God administers, is like this, blind to the petitioners and their relative standing in life. God knows the 'secrets of the heart' and renders a true judgment, regardless of the relative station of the petitioners. If anyone can adhere to the precepts of Leviticus 19: 'You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbour', surely God must. (Leviticus 19.15)
We are given no clue whatsoever about the relative justice of the widow and her opponent. Time and again I see segments on the TV news after the sentencing of an offender, where the relatives of the victim are appalled by the leniency of the sentence whereas the relatives of the perpetrator are appalled by the severity of the sentence. Justice is, of course, very much in the eye of the recipient. One has only to think of the number of Israeli and Palestinian widows petitioning their God for justice this very day, and who would suggest that either were unjustified in their suit?
But one needs to be careful for God will not be swayed by the relative persistence of the complainants. One needs to pick up the power differential that underpins this parable. Whatever the nature of the power differential, God has a preference for the powerless, even if the powerful consider themselves just in their actions. The power differential might be 'christian' against 'non-christian' God will decide against the powerful whatever their denomination or faith. As 'christians' we cannot oppress 'non-christians' even though we might think we are in the right. To take one example, 'christian' schools refusing to employ gay or lesbian teachers.
It strikes me that widows, consumed by grief, are persistent in their petitions to their God. It seems to me that this parable tells us that God hears the cries of the widows of this world rather than (for instance) the arguments over the relative justice of the Israeli and Palestinian causes.
The widow, by definition, has nothing to give to God in return for granting her request. So God listening to her rather than the other contains no possibility of personal benefit for the Almighty. She has no one to support her and if we were to take her widowhood metaphorically, she has lost not just her husband but her relationship with God.
If we spell this out in more detail, God will not grant justice to the widow who might become a Christian if her petition is granted, whereas not grant justice to the widow who will remain a Hindu! Christianity is portrayed as being the true faith, where God answers our prayers because we are Christians! This is neither just nor scriptural!
So despite it appearing initially difficult, this parable tells us that God is not prescribed by our notions of justice. Affirmative action for the poor, the marginalised and the alienated is much more characteristic of God.
No matter what the relative justice of our cause, the thing that God hears is the cry of the poor, the widow, the alien, the persecuted, the marginalized and the alienated; and of course there are enough of these in the world to suspect that God is able to hear little else! It doesn't matter if these poor, widows, aliens, persecuted, marginalized and alienated are 'christians' or 'calathumpians', women, people of different race, colour, creed, gay or lesbian, God listens to them, and not 'christians' (or anyone else) bleating about injustices done to them.
Turning to the second story, I note how unjust it is of God to listen to tax collector and disregard the prayer of the Pharisee. Therefore by implication from the words of the Pharisee, how unjust it is for God to take notice of thieves, rogues and adulterers and to dismiss the prayers of the person who fasted twice a week and tithed - but again this is the plain meaning of the words. No wonder they had Jesus killed!
The favourable answer to our prayers will not come from our ear-bashing of the Almighty, the relative justice of our case, our religion or lack thereof, what we offer to God in payment, or on our real or pretended humility. The favourable answer to God's prayers is for us to also be on the side of the poor, the widow, the alien, the persecuted, the marginalized and the alienated.
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