Prayer and Relentless Engagement

Luke 18:1-8
October 20, 2013
Mary Hammond

There are some stories that assume the proportions of MetaStory, the longer we ponder them. They are Big, Universal Stories, whose characters are inter-changeable throughout the ages. The parable of the plucky widow and the unjust judge in Luke’s Gospel feels like this.

In an attempt to watch something on television besides the countdown toward government default, I happened upon the PBS Frontline documentary, “Outlawed in Pakistan.” It chronicles the story of a 13-year old Pakistani girl named Kainat. She is kidnapped by four men, sexually assaulted, drugged, and forced at gunpoint to sign papers she later learns are a marriage certificate. Tragically, this scenario is not uncommon in her country. What is uncommon, however, is Kainat’s response and that of her family. Her family shuns the advice of tribal elders, who blame Kainat and advise the family to put her to death if she will not go through with the marriage. Instead, Kainat presses charges.

The documentary chronicles the jailing of Kainat’s abductors before the trial; the exoneration of the men in the courts; and the murder of her brother, ostensibly in retaliation. At the conclusion of the story, still unfolding, Kainat is 16 years old. She does not leave home without armed guards by her side to prevent another kidnapping by the man who considers himself her husband. She is taking the case back through the courts, a process that could take ten years to resolve.

Kainat’s story is a living example of the parable before us today. It is the experience of countless, often nameless, individuals and communities who stand up to evil and injustice and just won’t go away.

In Luke’s Gospel, the disciples are longing for a warrior-king to deliver the Israelites from the Roman occupation. They hope that Jesus is their guy. Meanwhile, Jesus is preparing them for harder days to come. He’s encouraging them to remain steadfast and vigilant amid trials and temptations. His followers have no idea what the future holds.

How shall these disciples pray and not lose heart when their dreams for military victory turn upside-down? How shall they keep seeking justice when it seems so long delayed? How shall the people of God hold on in the midst of turmoil, catastrophe, and disillusionment?

In usual form, Jesus tells a story. It’s a tale about the ways of the world his followers inhabited. There are two main characters–a widow who has been wronged and a judge who could care less about justice and what God or humans think of him.

In first century Palestine, judges are appointed either by King Herod or other Roman officials. These arbitrators hold vast power and are notoriously corrupt. William Barclay (quoted in lectionarysermons.com/Oct1989.html) mentions that these appointed judges are officially called ‘Dayyaneh Gezeroth,’ translated “judges of punishments.” In a play on words, however, the common people call them ‘Dayyaneh Gezeloth,’ translated “robber judges.”

The aggrieved widow’s life stands in marked contrast to that of the unjust judge. In race, class, gender, and economic status, the two characters are starkly different. Everything is stacked against the widow. Yet, she still expects justice to prevail.

For years, I read this story and imagined that plucky widow, entering the courtroom day after day, demanding her rights. This week, I realized how deeply I had super-imposed my western views of “going to court” on this first century story about occupied Palestine. Women, what alone poor widows, were not allowed to represent themselves in courts of law during the times of Jesus. If any woman even attempted to enter the courtroom, she would be summarily dismissed by the Roman guard at best, or–worse yet–thrown into prison for her defiance.

How could a powerless widow gain access to a diffident judge? Such a scene could only be realized if the widow studied the judge’s comings and goings and made a scene on the public streets as the judge entered or exited the court. Her persistent, creative, nonviolent response ultimately led to transformation of the injustice for which she sought redress.

Does the widow convert the judge? No! Does she wear him down with her incessant badgering? Yes! Eventually, he realizes that it is in his own self-interest to grant her request, if for no other reason than to get her to leave him alone.

I think back to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. While hearts were not always changed, laws eventually were. This happened through blood, sweat, tears, and sacrifice. It happened through community, prayer, strategizing, and mobilizing. Multitudes rose up and proclaimed, “We are not going away.” Many were mistreated and jailed; others died. Yet their tenacity was not in vain.

Jesus does not compare the unjust judge to God, but contrasts the two figures. If a selfish, corrupt judge can eventually be persuaded to offer justice to a poor widow, how much more does God care for God’s own, who “cry to him day and night”? This phrase employs traditional language used throughout Israel in the context of community lament and prayer. It is a cry for liberation from oppression, a yearning for social transformation and the establishment of the Reign of God.

This parable does not provide a “how-to” set of instructions for securing our personal wish-lists from God. Far from it! The story is so much bigger than that. It encompasses the aching prayers and deepest longings of a people under occupation, crying out day and night, year after year, “How long, O Lord, how long?” It embodies the lament of a people who hope Jesus will bring a swift military solution to their dilemma.

Not all stories end as well as that of the widow in this parable. The global chorus, “How long, O Lord, how long?” is deafening. Victims continue to rage and weep across cultures, down through the ages. During the apartheid era in South Africa, grandparents admitted, “I may not be alive to see this society change, but it is enough if my grandchildren witness that change.”

Jesus doesn’t offer his disciples a timeline for relief or a blueprint for action. What grows within the plucky widow and within ourselves, with persistence and faithfulness, is vision, courage, hope, and resolve. Like Kainat and her family, we hang on to the conviction that right ultimately prevails, if not for us, then for generations to come. We trust a God who is on the side of justice and goodness, even when those in power are not.

Jesus concludes by asking his followers the haunting question, “How much of that kind of persistent faith will the Son of Humanity find on earth when he returns?”

His question dangles before us. Will we be among those who, in the words of our song today, “are not going away”? Will we be the nonviolent hecklers, societal irritants, and reckless lovers that point the way to the Reign of God, away from the machinations of Empire? Will we speak truth to power and stand faithfully on the side of the victimized? Will we persevere in the hard and difficult callings we have been given, even when the obstacles seem overwhelming?

These are the questions posed to us this day. May they blaze in our hearts like a fire that will not be put out. Amen.