Weekly Seeds: Give Us Justice

Sunday, October 16, 2022
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost | Year C

Focus Theme:
Give Us Justice

Focus Prayer:
Just God, remind us to pray and not to lose heart, to persist and pursue justice until it comes. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Luke 18:1–8
18 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ ” 6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

All readings for this Sunday:
Jeremiah 31:27–34 and Psalm 119:97–104
Genesis 32:22–31 and Psalm 121
2 Timothy 3:14–4:5
Luke 18:1–8

Focus Questions:
1. What does it mean to fear God?
2. How do we demonstrate respect for others?
3. How does fear of God and respect for others impact the coming of the kindom of God?
4. Are you impatient for the kindom? Why or why not?
5. How will you know when justice has been granted?

By Cheryl Lindsay

Parables leave a lot to our imagination. These are brief stories (they don’t claim to be based in reality) that explain truth beyond themselves. In this passage, the gospel writer tells us the meaning up front: to make the case for consistent prayer and to remain encouraged. Luke tells us what Jesus is about to tell his disciples in this recount. The writer also names the literary form employed by Jesus in teaching this lesson.

A parable is different from a metaphor or a simile even if it shares some characteristics with those literary devices. Metaphors and similes draw comparisons. Metaphors are often utilized to make an abstract concept concrete. For instance, to proclaim that someone has a “heart of gold” uses gold as a metaphor for a loving, giving, and honest way of relating to others. Hearing that metaphor, we are expected to know that is a figure of speech; it is not literally true. That person’s heart is not made of the metal gold in part or in full. The comparison ascribes the value we associate to gold as a precious metal to the heart of a human being. Similes draw more direct lines of comparison. The expression “sly like a fox” recognizes a particular characteristic of one being and attributes it to another. The simile declares that two distinct beings or things are alike.

That is not the work of a parable. We sometimes treat the parables that Jesus uses as metaphor or simile. In doing so, we would read this focus text to suggest that the Holy One is like the judge. That would inform us that God is disinterested in justice and disregards the needs and concerns of their people. That does not sound like the God of grace and mercy…because this parable is less about God and more about us.

The parable itself is memorable, both in its vivid characterization and in the unusual actions its brief plot depicts. A judge who should know better ignores a widow’s repeated petitions for justice (on the mandate for compassionate justice in treatment of widows, see, e.g., Deut 24:17; Isa 1:17). Perhaps he does know better; nevertheless, he neither fears (reveres) God117 nor holds anything but contempt for other human beings—such is the parabolic narrator’s (Jesus’) harsh characterization of him (v. 2), and such also is the defiant self-portrait the judge himself paints (v. 4). He is the epitome of an “unjust judge” (v. 6).118 Yet the judge finally does intervene in the widow’s unspecified legal dispute with an unnamed adversary—not out of any commitment to justice, but out of self-concern pure and simple. The judge’s soliloquy speaks volumes: “Because this widow is pummeling me, I will give her justice lest, in the end, she wear me out by [repeatedly] coming” (v. 5).

John T. Carroll

To suggest that the unjust judge represents the perspective of God is an affront to the character of God. The judge, if anything, personifies injustice itself. He does not care about anything outside of his own interests–-divine or human–and seems quite proud of that fact. It’s not just Jesus’ characterization; the judge defines himself in that manner. Injustice boldly and unapologetically disdains compassion and sympathy. It will not be bothered by the cares or concerns of the Creator or of creation. The judge is not only a barrier to justice; as one given authority and responsibility to render it, his refusal to even consider her case means the judge embodies injustice. How can one ever expect to receive justice from injustice?

Jesus draws cartoon-character sketches that defy expectation: a judge who cares not a whit for justice; a vulnerable widow who acts aggressively with persistent courage, such an imposing force that the judge feels he is undergoing pummeling by a boxer. These character sketches are humorous, of course, but it is the sort of serious humor that knows, and names, the stark reality—within Rome-occupied Palestine in the first century, but in other times and places as well—of oppression and injustice suffered by persons to whom the judicial, economic, and political systems continually turn a cold, silent shoulder.

John T. Carroll

The antidote is to be even more relentless in pursuit of justice than injustice is in pursuit of its own selfish ends.

The widow does not pray to the judge; she demands what she knows is her due. She does not approach the judge with humility but with confidence. She does not appeal to his sense of reason or compassion; she apparently knows that is a fruitless endeavor. Rather, she knows her power is her persistence, her relentless pursuit, and her passionate conviction that she is due what she has demanded.

How many times in human history have people suffering under oppressive, unjust systems been told to wait. If only they are patient, the argument goes, their oppressors will tire of the benefits they receive from subjugating that group of people? How often has the realization of the kindom of God been diverted by those who seek to keep a tenuous and false peace through compromise, incrementalism, and procrastination?

It’s important to recall that this portion of the Lukan narrative demonstrates Jesus’ work of preparing the disciples for the coming kindom and their participation in it. This is no idle story; it’s a lesson with kindom-consequences. The disciples’ ministry after Jesus’ physical departure will depend upon their ability to adopt and live in this model Jesus presents to them.

It is equally important to note that the exemplar Jesus presents is displayed through a widow. Yet again, Luke portrays Jesus taking someone from the margins of the margins and places them in the center as the model of the behavior he exhorts his closest followers to emulate. Like a Samaritan leper, a widow who has to advocate on her own behalf has little to offer in the society she lives. Isn’t it interesting how those who have nothing to lose can teach us how to faithfully live?

There is no mention of sons, brothers, or any other male relative who has taken responsibility for her well-being. Her very survival seem precarious from their absence from her story. Of course, in a parable, we should not pay too much attention to what is missing from the story. It’s not intended to be a complete narrative. At the same time, we can infer a level of independence, autonomy, and empowerment for the widow that would have been astounding. In the tale, she rails against an unnamed opponent but her bigger adversary seems to be the judge who refuses to act on her behalf. She targets the one with authority to change her situation and does not waste time on the lesser “opponent.”

She prevails. This woman who normally would not have been seen or heard, not only gains the judge’s attention whenever she wants it, she wears him down. She does not change him. He still does not care for anyone or anything other than himself. Yet, her persistence pays off. She wins the case because she does not give up or settle for less than what is right and good. And, while we should not approach prayer as an adversarial action pitting us against God, the lesson of persistence in prayer remains embedded in the story.

Luke’s introduction to the parable (18:1) builds on prior instruction about prayer, presented both through Jesus’ modeling of prayer (see the comment on 3:21–22) and through explicit teaching about the topic (11:1–13). If the model prayer commended by Jesus has directed disciples to petition for the coming of God’s reign (11:2), the parable of the persistent widow presents Exhibit A that the unfolding of history will not promptly and unambiguously deliver on that request. Just as the widow Anna continually prayed and fasted in the temple, “night and day” (2:37), out of her deep longing for God’s deliverance of the people, and just as this parabolic widow relentlessly seeks justice when the system is stacked against her, so history will demand that God’s “chosen ones”120 persist in their oppression-resisting, justice-seeking cries to God “day and night” (18:7).

John T. Carroll

It would seem that the relentless pursuit of justice is its own form of persistent prayer. Non-violent protests in the streets form a prayer service. Writing letters and emails to elected officials advocating for the least of these is like writing in a prayer journal. A hunger strike takes the form of the spiritual discipline of fasting. Refusing to accept anything less than the God-given vision of the kindom prompts the faithful to challenge the systems of oppression and their authorities over and over again. As the civil rights leader, Ella Baker said, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”

The widow did not rest until she received her justice. She didn’t let the unjust judge rest either. May that be our prayer–our constant, consistent, relentless prayer.

Give us justice.

Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent:
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.

My story is different from those of most of the approximately 14 million Americans who get arrested every year.3 I had the best defense attorney in the city, because I could afford her. I knew how to appeal to a jury—hell, I’d prosecuted folks in the very courtroom where I was being prosecuted. In addition to carefully preparing my testimony, I made sure that my haircut was conservative and my shoes were shined. I knew how to look like the kind of African American a jury would not want to send to jail.

I was innocent. By the way. During the process, that fact seemed rather beside the point. Our criminal justice system works like a meat grinder. You are supposed to proceed, in orderly fashion, from arrest to guilty plea to sentencing. More than 90 percent of criminal cases are resolved just that way.

During the period between my arrest and trial, I kept feeling pressure to go along with the program. The prosecutor told my lawyer that I was eligible for “diversion”—a program for first-time offenders of minor crimes in which the charges are dismissed if you do community service. “I’m sure he does community service already” was the line repeated to me.

I actually considered it. However, my boss at the Department of Justice, a red-faced Irishman who looked more like a beat cop than a top government official, said, “If you take diversion, everybody will think you are guilty.” That was all I needed to hear. I wanted my day in court.

The system worked for me—to the extent that you can describe a system as “working” when a man is arrested and made to stand trial for a crime he did not commit. At least I was not convicted, which makes me as grateful for my money, my defense attorney, my social standing, my connections, and my legal skills as for my actual innocence.

A few months after my acquittal, I left the Justice Department. People ask if I stopped being a prosecutor because I had been prosecuted myself. I deny it, but let’s get real. What I mean by saying “no” is that I wasn’t forced out. I was in the middle of preparing the biggest case in the office and my boss would have preferred that I stay. Still, I was the junior lawyer on the case, and there was enough time before the senator’s trial for someone else to be brought up to speed.

Also, not long after my trial the senator’s case got transferred to Minnesota, which was his home state. It became, let’s say, less important to have an African American prosecutor on the case there than in DC. As it happened, the case never went to trial at all. The senator ended up pleading guilty. To misdemeanors.

It sounds silly, but what I remember most about my own case is how mean some people were. The police officer who lied on the stand. The guy who threw the lunch bag at me inside my cell. My landlord, who refused to get involved with the case even though he had also had run-ins with Detroit.

There are still some hard-core types in the U.S. attorney’s office who don’t speak to me. I say to hell with them because, truth be told, I am still a little angry also.

So now I describe myself as a recovering prosecutor—“recovering” because one never quite gets over it. I still like to point my finger at the bad guy. I get really angry at people who victimize others. The creep who snatches the old lady’s purse—I would like to kick his ass myself. And the monster who molests little kids—I want him under the jail. I don’t have a problem with the law reflecting those passions. It should.

But I am scared of what can happen when those feelings get out of control. My sense of justice always has been big and bulging. What my own personal prosecution expanded is my sense of injustice.
Paul Butler, Let’s Get Free

For further reflection:
“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” — Benjamin Franklin
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” — Archbishop Desmond Tutu
“Continue to speak out against all forms of injustice to yourselves and others, and you will set a mighty example for your children and for future generations.” — Bernice King

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at https://www.ucc.org/what-we-believe/worship/sermon-seeds/.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (lindsayc@ucc.org), also serves a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below this post on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.