on the way with Jesus: “a way of persistence”

Luke 18:1-8

In a certain city by a certain river
on a certain country’s east coast,
there was a … and the Greek word here goes back
to an obscure etymology not many people know,
there was, literally translated, a “congress person,”
who neither feared God nor had respect for people.
In that same city there was also a widow
who kept petitioning this “congress person” for justice.

Teasing out just a couple of implications
based purely on the identification of these two characters:
we have a “congress person” who is an authority,
deserving or not—
who decides how we will live together.
“In ancient Israel, the duty of a [congress person]
was to maintain harmonious relations
and adjudicate disputes between Israelites”
(R. Alan Culpepper, The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary
and Reflections
in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary
in Twelve Volumes, Volume IX
[Nashville: Abingdon, 1995] 335)—
So, just to be clear, not to sustain acrimony and to create disputes,
but that’s just according to Scripture—
the Word of God, you know, for the people of God.

So just a few more implications—
obvious things, really, if you stop to think about it:
congress people don’t worry about health insurance;
they don’t worry about retirement;
they don’t worry about where the next meal is coming from
or whether they’ll be able to pay all their bills this month;
they don’t worry about sending their kids to college—
by virtue of all of which, they are separated from the vast majority
of people they supposedly represent
who are greatly preoccupied with such concerns
which create enormous stress and great anxiety—

particularly for a widow without power, without resources,
who needs others to provide for her, to protect her,
to look out for her—
who’s certainly without the resources to buy and pay for anyone
like congresspeople expect to be bought and paid for.

And this gospel, along with so much of the Bible—
the Word of God for the people of God,
is “particularly sensitive to the plight of widows
(see 2:37; 4:25-26; 7:12; 20:47; 21:2-3; Acts 6:1; 9:39, 41),
reflecting a host of scriptural precedents where God is their advocate
(see Exodus 22:22-24; Deuteronomy 10:18; 24:17; Psalm 68:5; Malachi 3:5)”
(David L. Tiede, Luke in the Augsburg Commentary
on the New Testament
[Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1988] 305).

But even with an explicit job description in the Torah,
“Give the members of your community a fair hearing,
and judge rightly between one person and another,
whether citizen or resident alien.
You must not be partial (or partisan) in judging:
hear out the small and the great alike;
you shall not be intimidated (or bought) by anyone,
for the judgment is God’s” (Deuteronomy 1:16-17)—
even with such an explicit job description,
penned by Moses himself in one of the five books of the law,
what hope does a widow have
before one who does not fear God or respect people?

But she was persistent, in the story as it’s told.
And though the congress person unashamedly reiterates,
“Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone,
yet because this widow keeps bothering me,
I will grant her justice.”
Because of that persistence, right?
Because she “keeps bothering me”—”wearing me out,”
according to some other translations.
The etymology here actually goes back to language
from the context of boxing—
“Not wanting a black eye, I will grant her justice.”
Understandably, it’s usually taken metaphorically,
as we tend not to think the widow poses too much of a physical threat.
The congress person simply didn’t want to be bothered, we think—
didn’t want a black eye in the community—
didn’t want his reputation besmirched.
That’s how this is normally heard.

But as unlikely as it is that a person of authority and power
would be physically threatened by a widow with neither,
it’s equally unlikely, don’t you think, that a congress person would care
about a widow’s persistence?
Particularly, remember, this congress person who didn’t care about people—
had no respect for people.
Our text says that twice.
And besides, any press is good press, right?
And who cares what the facts are anymore?
And a besmirched reputation is but a news cycle away from old news.

So in the story as it’s heard, Luke, even thousands of years ago,
offers “a dark commentary on society”
(Richard B. Vinson, Luke in Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary
[Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2008] 564)
in which we, as hearers of the story know—we know,
ruthless men of power don’t care about powerless women.
We know people elected by virtue of vast financial resources
(and who isn’t, right? name even one middle class congress person)—
people elected by virtue of vast financial resources
don’t care about other virtues or those without such financial resources.

We know justice, like freedom, is a popular subject
as long as it doesn’t mean anything.
For congress people love words made impressive sound-bytes
separated from the implications and consequences
of what they supposedly truly mean—
making of what they mean, in truth, a sham—
a powerfully beautiful image that does not live up to itself.

And we know all too many congress people don’t even hear
the cries for justice at their front door
because they’re all in some back room
receiving whatever benefits
are offered
by those who buy their attention.

And if you’re drawing any parallels to a certain capital city just south west of us,
I hope and trust you will hear this parable not in any partisan form.
I’d be more than happy to sweep all our congress people out,
the good in both parties along with the bad,
and then to institute term limits,
to limit their pay to the time they actually serve,
to have them pay into social security like the rest of us,
and receive the same health insurance options available to the rest of us,
to provide dorm rooms for them for the time they have to be in the city,
and to prohibit them (and their campaigns)
from receiving money of any kind other than their salary,
to kick everyone out and then under these new provisions
(and only under such provisions)
to see who would want to serve
and to vote entirely new congresspeople in
(I would, by the way, be totally open
to writing off part of their student loans for their service).

Now am I being too harsh on our poor congress people?
I don’t think so. Maybe.
But it’s not just that it’s not been a good few weeks for Congress, though.
It’s not just that they deserve a lot of people angry at them.
It’s also that we are not responsible citizens
if we ignore what’s broken out of any so-called respect,
any so-called patriotism,
or the desire not to have to deal with fixing what’s broken.

Though in truth this story’s not about “congress persons.”
“Well gosh, John, you’re spending an awful lot of time
on people the story’s not about.
And if it’s not about them, shouldn’t you not be quite so disrespectful?”
Here’s the thing, I’m as respectful as the story is of judges—
those political leaders of ancient Israel
who have a whole book of the Bible named after them!

“And why isn’t this story about congress persons?” you might ask.
Well, because they are but representatives—
representatives of a culture
that stands in greater opposition to the way of God
than we’re usually prepared to acknowledge—
a culture whose Supreme Court, in its finite wisdom,
did not account for the unfolding ramifications of the scriptural insight
that if you can’t serve God and mammon,
neither can you serve mammon and country.

So when we have a culture that does not fear God
and does not respect people, just their resources,
and representatives who do likewise,
well, then from the perspective of those looking for the way of God,
we simply dismiss that culture and its representatives.
We dismiss the congress person in our story.
Such persons will be of no help.

It’s not how the story is told, I know,
the congress person ends up giving her justice (so-called justice).
But I think how the story’s heard,
is that this congress person is pretty much as far removed from justice,
from leadership,
from representative
as you can get.

And we know the real question is
who will hear the the widow at all?
Who is invested in the justice of her cries?

And it comes as no surprise, or it shouldn’t,
that the answer is God.
God, so vastly different from our congress people—
so vastly different from our culture,
God cares about people without financial resources,
without power, without a voice,
and cares about the meaning of words like justice and freedom—
not just how they fly as sound-bytes.

So the congress person is set up in the story
as the anti-God. Right?
The opposite of God by which the truth of God is known.
You want to know God?
Look at most of our political leaders and imagine the opposite!

And yet the story isn’t really about God either, is it?
Not really.
Because, obviously, God hears the cries congress people don’t.
Obviously, God cares for those left out.
I mean that’s who God is.
But also, because, can we be honest?
Because, obviously, at a very basic level,
while God, we believe, hears and cares,
what does God actually do?
Hungry people still go hungry.
Powerless people are still ignored.
Yes, God hears the widow and cares about her, we profess,
but her circumstances remain, nonetheless,
unchanged.

So, in the end, the question—the only question
with which our story leaves us—
the question Jesus himself asks,
is this: whether, in the fullness of time,
there will still be people of faith.

When culture ignores its vulnerable,
and those with power exercise it only on behalf of others with power,
when the way of God runs clearly counter to the way things are,
will there still be those who value the way of God over the way things are—

not just believing things should be different,
but living into that different—
loving the other way that is God’s way?

Not believing God will undo and redo reality as some magical happy ending,
but living into the undoing and the redoing?
Resisting the meaninglessness of sound-bytes and bumper stickers
and political and religious rhetoric?
Confronting our culture
with stories of justice and compassion,
and graceful love of neighbor?
Confronting those who turn blind eyes,
and deaf ears, and hard hearts to need and hurt—
still hoping—still praying,
waiting, trusting,
and maintaining justice as priority,
and compassion as calling,
grace as policy,
love as platform?

And will we have found the widows no one else hears?
Will we have listened to their stories and shared with them ours
and know their names and have welcomed them into community—
into our homes and into our hugs?
Into community that shouts out with them for justice
making enough noise at the front door
that even in the back room
they hear the noise?
Making enough noise in our living
that our culture will have to take note
and wonder what we’re up to?
Will we find the widows and shout with them
and support them in the waiting,
and weep with them at the pain,
in the midst of their deep, ongoing grief—
the pain of being ignored?

Will there still be people of such faith
seeking out the relationships from which too many hide?
Are there still people of such faith?
Are we such people?

Jesus wants to know.

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