|| Luke 18:2-8 || a reflection by Dan Spragg
While I was beginning my work on the sermon this week I noticed a little marker at the end of verse 5 in the parable indicating there was a footnote to be read. So, I went down the bottom to read the footnote and here is what it said, “so that she may not finally come and slap me in the face.” Ha! Why didn’t they use that one in the main body of the text, it’s far more interesting! ‘…yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not finally come and slap me in the face!’ You can just imagine the scene can’t you as the widow approaches the bench… Anyway, it got me thinking about that judge. If this Judge was to make a ruling simply because he was afraid of a dust-up in the courtroom then what kind of judge is he? It doesn’t appear that he’s particularly good at his job anyway because he doesn’t seem interested in the proper process. He’s not interested in hearing the widow’s case with the evidence for and against and making an informed decision after weighing up both sides of the story. Jesus calls him the unjust judge – unjust yes because it appears as if he is a ruthless, self-interested, power-loving type, and our heartstrings are pulled at because the other character is a widow. Perhaps he is also unjust because he just doesn’t seem to want to operate within a justice system at all which is probably a pre-requisite for being a judge. No wonder he was afraid of the impending slap to the face! It seems he could well have dug his own hole on that one.
It’s not unusual for us to read the parables that have a judge character in them and try to reconcile the idea that God is the judge in the story. How are you with this one!? What happens to you when you imagine God as this unjust judge? Dr Mark Davis an author and translator of ancient Greek introduced me to the idea this week that what if we didn’t only assume that the God character is the judge?  What if we were open to finding God in other places in this parable? What’s your reaction to that? That could be possible. Yet, another author, the often provocative ‘poker of the bear’ Robert Farrar Capon is very clear that God is the unjust judge! So, what are we to do? Who is the God character in this story? I wonder if this parable really is trying to tell us something about what God is like.
So, what if God was the widow? Well, for one I can quite easily imagine God giving a good old face slapping to a self-interested, power hungry, corrupt, and unjust judge can you? In all seriousness though can God be seen as the widow? The widow of course which in this place and time wouldn’t necessarily have any income to pay for the court hearing, wouldn’t necessarily have had any credit to her name, wouldn’t necessarily have had any place in the social picture. Widows were defenceless, sometimes they were homeless. Their best chance of survival was if they were taken in by another family or managed to marry again. This is why Israel is encouraged time and time again throughout its history to make sure it cared for the widows in its midst. They were vulnerable and certainly didn’t carry any sort of power or influence. When Jesus talked of the least and the last, widows would have made the cut. This widow though, she has courage and she has persistence in the name of justice. There is something about her that the judge can’t ignore. What if God was the widow? Can God be seen as one who is least and last? This woman does succeed in the end, justice is granted. There’s a sense in here that she has been the voice of truth, the truth teller from the margins, the voice of the oppressed, the voice of those not supported by the system. There is no doubt that as one reads through the entire Bible, God has a preferential option for those who are under oppression. Whose side is God on? God is always on the side of the oppressed. Can God be seen as the voice of this widow, the voice from the place of weakness calling out the oppressor, urging justice be done? In 2nd Corinthians Paul writes that God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness (2 Cor 12:9) Out of death – the ultimate point of weakness – comes resurrection. Light shines best when it is surrounded by darkness. God as the voice from the margins, standing in solidarity with the oppressed, urging justice, telling truth to power. In a world where injustice, brutality, racism, greed, and abuse of power in many forms seems to be getting away with a whole bunch of stuff, I’m quite happy with God being seen as the voice that persistently urges for justice and tells the truth that the powers that be need to hear.
The slightly trickier question for us is the one of, what if God was the unjust judge? Is this a fair representation of God? What would this be trying to tell us about God? God as the merciless, self-interested, harsh, brutal, champion of injustice – well that doesn’t seem right. I’m happy to say ‘no’ to that God. But what about God as the unjust judge who is only unjust because he doesn’t seem to play by the rules that we are expecting. If we put what we understand to be a fair trial onto this judge, as I said before, he makes a terrible judge – one would have to wonder how on earth he got his job! No care for weighing evidence, he simply operates as an independent force dishing out justice whenever the time seems right and to whoever he pleases, even if it is just to avoid a sore face. He even dishes out justice to someone who by the system’s rules doesn’t have any rights to start with and he even dishes out justice to someone who believes that the only way to get justice is to plead, to beg, to prove themselves worthy – that is just about the most important point. What about God as this unjust judge who actually is quite full of justice because once again, as in so many of the other parables, we see here a character who steps outside of the normal system – the system that we created – and dishes out justice via grace and mercy for no apparent reason apart from deciding that he would.
It’s kind of like this picture: We’re playing a nice old game of noughts and crosses and God strolls on up, adds a circle outside the square, declares the win and the end of the game! It doesn’t seem fair at all, imagine how you’d feel if someone did this to you. God doesn’t appear to care one bit though which may drive us to feel like we might want to slap him in the face! I’m actually quite happy about this God as well as God the widow. God as the unfair judge who is only unfair in this story because as far as our rules of a fair trial and the expectations we have of what a good judge is like, this judge fails.
God as the unjust judge, only unjust because our categories call it that. But as we saw last week with the workers who all got paid the same no matter how long they worked, God doesn’t play by our rules (Matthew 20:1-16, the parable of the workers in the vineyard). God it seems is always the one who steps outside our frameworks and simply moves in perfect freedom giving perfect love via grace and justice. I’m quite happy with God as the unjust judge if it means that God is free to move in justice, grace and love towards us without being interested in our trying to prove that we are worthy and getting all worked up in the process. Perhaps the reference to the judge giving in because of persistence is simply Jesus saying that God grows tired of us demanding that we are to plead our case and prove our worth… God just doesn’t care about that… we are granted justice by love via grace even if there is no faith found on earth… it’s a done deal, God doesn’t play by our rules.
Can you see the picture that is being harmonised by these two seemingly opposing views here? God: a completely free (one who operates outside our rules) just, grace-filled, loving creator and presence who gives grace to all – especially to those who we don’t think deserve it (including ourselves) – and who in total freedom is truth and whose judgement calls out those who oppress others and pronounces love as the only game we are to play. So what of our question we are asking of all the parables – what does this tell us about how we do and be church? Well as we glimpse a bit more of a picture of who God is, we are reminded of who God created us to be and who we are called to be which lets us know what we are to do. It is a nice follow on from last week. God doesn’t play by our rules of what is fair or not (justice), and as we grow more into our living the ‘unforced rhythms of grace’ perhaps we are being reminded not to get caught up in our own rules of how things are whether they are in our society or in our religious systems. We are called out of this and into a different way, we are called to step outside of this game. It isn’t our job to set the rules to determine who is worthy or not, it is not our job to judge, nor is it our job to use all our energy trying to convince God to love us. I don’t get the sense though that we are to simply lie down with our feet in the air and passively drift through life being together as church. Once we step outside the frameworks and mindsets we like to inhabit that prop up the abuse of power, once we step outside of these it is all too obvious the truth that needs to be told. Perhaps this parable is reminding us that it is the way of God’s kingdom that is to inform us as to what we engage with and spend our time and energy on. Our systems of justice, of government, of commerce; our systems of being Presbyterian, all our systems; we make these as good as we can but perhaps we are being reminded that while we live within these systems God’s judgment of love is the ultimate ruling we are to live by which may mean that we have to speak up at times and be a voice from the margin that tells truth to those who need to hear it.
In terms of what this looks like for us, I don’t believe we need to look far in order to get on board with the Spirit of truth that is at work in our world; I’m a firm believer in all truth being God’s no matter where it is found. Alison Mau on the front page of The Press this week called out The Flight Centre’s archaic work culture that sexualises women and encourages a drinking culture all in the name of incentivising its sales teams, did you see it? There’s no doubt that this will dent their reputation, they’re done, aren’t they? As is the case for the law firm Russell McVeagh – abuse and oppression called out into the limelight for all to see. The #metoo movement that has spanned the globe for a good period of time now is a testament that when truth-telling is persistent and real, justice will come. It doesn’t always need to come on large scale levels though. I imagine you can recall times in your own lives when someone has advocated, stepped into the gap for you, perhaps with insurance issues or when you were up against a bully of some sort. Perhaps you have done this for someone? Perhaps there is someone that is needing you to step into the gap for them at this moment in time? And that’s the point I think, with our enlarging picture of who God is, we need not concern ourselves with proving our worth to God, or to anyone else. God in giving unconditional grace to all kind of suggests that the rights we should be fighting for are the rights of others – we’ve already received our verdict of grace, can we turn our attention to helping others embrace the gift that is already theirs? If we stop and think about this for a moment, if we do this as a community then we all win don’t we. Imagine if we were to do this as the human race together, imagine the justice that would prevail then.
 See Chapter 17 ‘God as the Anti-hero’ in: Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgement: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus, p329-336.