Sermon ~ Sunday, October 16, 2016 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson
Don’t Be a Pest!
Jesus told them a parable . . . In a certain city there was a judge. Now this judge neither feared God nor had respect for people. And in that same city was a widow . . .
Starts out like any number of teaching stories Jesus used but then it turns a bit awkward. Actually this is one of the more difficult parables in all of the Gospels. Interestingly Luke is the only one who records it, maybe because it is so odd or perhaps he found it fascinating and wanted to try to incorporate the unusual and challenging into his portrait of the teaching Jesus.
On the surface of the story the widow is being a pest. And this is where the story becomes a bit problematic for me. The widow is portrayed as continually harassing the judge for her right to be heard. I grew up in a culture where it was considered poor form and impolite to bother or pester someone. You might ask 2 or 3 times and then you would wait. Now this may not have always been the case when I was a child! Thus I was reprimanded many times, “Don’t be such a pest!” Am I alone here?
On the other hand she is going up against a crooked (unjust) judge. At least this is how Jesus describes him. Jesus imagines in his story a woman with a legal case to pursue and by implication her case has legitimacy. Jesus describes the judge as neither, fearing God or respecting of people. In other words he could not care less. There was no one in a position to pressure, cajole or manipulate him. He wasn’t elected and didn’t feel any accountability to God or human. Yet the widow will not leave him alone. She pesters him endlessly until he finally adjudicates her case in her favor. And he does this not because it was the right thing to do, but simply because she is being such a nuisance.
At first glance like in many parables of Jesus, we might assume a character like the judge to be analogous to God. But here this certainly does not set well with us. How could God ever be like this judge?
It helps to understand the classic rabbinic rhetoric at the time. Jesus was using the reasoning that if something small and mundane were true how much more the parallel point would be true on a higher level with issues which were greater, say, even heavenly. If an irritating widow can coax justice out of a crooked and uncaring judge, how much more will a compassionate God hear and respond to our cries?
And the moral of the story? Pray constantly – just like the widow.
At least on one level that is the “moral of the story”!
But it is also a parable about the powerful and powerless; the power of a male judge against the power of a woman, a widow, in a society that stacked the cards in favor of men over women. The fact that she is a woman and a widow matters. In the world of Jesus, women were very vulnerable; widows were extremely vulnerable. The premise of the parable would have on first take been rather ridiculous and difficult to accept in ways that we might find difficult to understand from our 21st century western perspective.
But the reality of it was that no woman in the in the ancient world would have been likely to intercede on her own behalf in the way that Jesus portrays this widow. His listeners would have been either shocked by her brazen actions or laughing at her foolishness as she breaks every social convention. She had no right to approach the judge whether in private or public. Women did not do such a thing, and women had no access to legal recourse or recognition in a court before a judge.
The rules of Jewish society in Jesus’ time were harsh and discriminatory against women. Unmarried women were not supposed to leave the home of their father unaccompanied. Married women were not allowed to exit the home of their husband unaccompanied. Women could not testify in court because their word was considered unreliable. Remember how the women who went to the tomb in the Easter story were disbelieved as recounting “an idle tale.”
Women could not appear in public venues, they were discouraged, if not banned from talking to strangers, which is why the account of Jesus and the woman at the Samaritan well so scandalized the disciples.
This parable of Jesus was and is difficult to understand because it breaks so many of the moral and traditional rules of the time, which in some ways may actually be the point! According to societal norms, this widow should have just accepted her fate; but by refusing to do so, she acts so out of character that the judge is astonished. In this way, she becomes the model of faithfulness on earth that Jesus is looking for in verse 8.
The teaching point or “moral” here: To be faithful sometimes may require acting a bit out of character! Being faithful may sometime look like pestering for justice. Being faithful may put you outside the norm of the culture!
There is however, another level to the story, which is tough to swallow: this issue of persistence. And I’m thinking back to the “don’t be a pest” that I was my indoctrination as a youngster.
The parable is about persistence, about showing up consistently to press the case, the injustice. An unrelenting widow makes a pest of herself to an unjust judge who does not care for or have the time for her, even though she presses him to give her a favorable judgement. The Judge is called “unjust” – meaning perhaps that he takes bribes and milks the system and gets what he can to his personal benefit, and is only willing to listen to those who will or can pay for justice.
As I mentioned earlier, the literary rhetorical technique used by Jesus seems to be the ‘lesser to greater’. Jesus concludes that if the unjust judge can grant justice in response to badgering, how much more will a righteous God grant justice to those who cry out day and night. It is important also to note that Jesus avoids the notion that God must be worn down before granting justice. Luke presents Jesus categorically saying “God will quickly grant justice.”
This is where it gets hard to accept at least for me. In our experience, it is not often the case that justice comes quickly, and the by appearance of things, prayer is not always answered in the way we pray and want. Much as we might like it to be the case, persistence in reality is not an automatic formula which equates earnestness with the desired outcome.
When our prayers begin and end with what we want, as opposed to what God wants, we have a very narrow field of spiritual vision. Prosperity, as attractive as it is, is not what God promises, and unlike some popular TV preachers, anyone who promotes the idea of prosperity as an outcome of faithful living needs to take a fresh look at the cross and the cost of faithful discipleship as exemplified in the life of Jesus Christ!
It is an odd parable with an odd set of characters, and odd dynamics. If the parable is strange and disturbing, the last line is the oddest of all because it seems to come out of nowhere. Having made the point that God is more than an unjust judge, and more readily responsive than any jurist who can be cajoled by a woman who pleads her cause incessantly, we are left with a question that does not seem to fit what has gone before. Luke places this question on the lips of Jesus, “When the son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
It is a particularly haunting question. It transforms the story from one that is simple and easy to apply, into one that is much more expansive and important. Why on earth did Jesus tell that parable and then ask this question?
In verse 1 Luke writes that the parable is meant to encourage us to pray always and not lose heart, to live expectantly and in anticipation of God’s work in and among us.
The question Jesus leaves us with is: “Will we?”
We will be as bold and brash as the widow in seeking justice not just for ourselves but all?
Will we dare to step outside the cultural norm because of our faith? Risk even seeming foolish in the eyes of those who have bought into the way things are.
In sort when the day comes, will Jesus find faith in us?