Justice is not easy to come by. We know that justice is not easy to come by. We know that people don’t start off in life with an equal chance. We know that the laws that we make deepen that injustice. And we know that often enough politics, and police, and the whole machinery of law—the very system that is supposed to guarantee justice—is hopelessly biased. Justice doesn’t come easily if you are not male, if you are not white, if you don’t have money, if you don’t live in the right place, or you don’t speak with the right accent.
We know it, we joke about it. It’s a fact of life. And it seems to be getting worse.
Luke’s parable this morning is a joke about justice. But to hear the joke we first have to get the characters right—the Justice and the Widow. Our model of justice puts great stock in balance and impartiality. A judge is supposed to deal with everyone in the same way, without fear or favour. By those standards today’s judge seems admirable: he isn’t swayed by respect for anyone. He isn’t to be frightened into a verdict. He is impartial. But by the standards of Luke’s time and place those very qualities are what make him unjust. A judge in Jesus’ culture was supposed to be biased. A judge was not meant to treat everyone alike. Judges were meant to be heroes and defenders; they were meant to fight for the rights of those who had no rights, they were meant to champion the cause of those outside the system, especially the traditional triad of widow, orphan, and immigrant. Sadly, this is not to say that they did. The unjust Justice was a stock character, one the audience understood only too well.
Widow’s for their part were stock characters. What they shared with orphans and immigrants was a total lack of rights. They belonged to no one, were owned by no one, had absolutely no economic or political power.
We tend to jump to the modern conclusion that our widow was old. Most likely she was young: widowed in some fishing accident or through the latest round of disease. With no one to defend her she would be at the mercy of men to take her in and give her some precarious safety in return for her labour and maybe for her womb. It is, in all likelihood, her own family that she names as her opponent in the parable: a son or brother-in-law. And as a woman she would have been expected to take all this quietly. Women were supposed to go about veiled, to speak only when spoken to, to keep their eyes downcast, and know their place.
But our widow seems to have a mind of her own. If our judge was a predictable stereotype, the widow would have been an outrageous surprise. She doesn’t keep quiet. She pesters the judge. She cries out for justice, she demands her rights, she won’t shut up. She is even physically intimidating. She is not a good widow.
This is Luke’s joke. See who’s intimidating who? See how Jesus turns the world upside-down? Luke clearly lifts her up as an example of what we should be—tireless in bothering God with our prayers. Luke is afraid that his community is losing heart. Against the background of a second coming that won’t come, Luke’s community are losing heart so he wants them to pray constantly and wait to be vindicated by the Son of Man who will burst through the heavens as the true and just judge who will put all things right for them. Luke promises that God will come speedily and adds just enough of a threat that perhaps they should rather like God to delay until they get their act in order.
But for us who are so little concerned about the second coming I think it’s just to take Luke’s words this morning to wonder at a deeper vision of God in the parable?
Is God the judge? Stereotypical not in long-suffering worldliness but in the swift power to vindicate, to mow down the enemy? Or is God the widow? If God is the widow what is the heart that we are losing?
God is the widow always in our midst, crying out for justice. God is the one who can’t even get a hearing. God is the one who is being pushed outside the boundaries of decent living. God is the one who doesn’t belong. God is the one who will not be owned. God is the one who will not be silent about her treatment. God is the one who will not leave us alone to be patient and impartial. God is the one who has to stand up and embarrass us in the streets to get our attention. God is the one who has to almost black our eye to get noticed.
If she is God, this widow, then justice is in our hands. In this season of Renew will we be able to ignore her, even if it means losing our heart, or will she disturb us into noticing her?
Things are not the way they should be. They are getting worse. Thank God she will give us no rest until we give her what she wants.