Justice, or the blatant disregard for it, is the theme of this presidential election. Whether we’re talking about women’s bodies, sexual assault, the rights of immigrants, the dignity of Muslims, the freedom of religious expression, the unbridled power of the gun lobby, the uneven job market, access to quality education, the rights of minorities, the insistence that black lives matter – these are the issues that occupy us. We want a president and a Congress that will actually seek to make real the promises of our democracy: liberty and justice for all, equal protection under the law.
These marvelous ideas to which we aspire have their genesis in Scripture. Justice is the theme that holds the 66 books of the Bible together. Scripture declares again and again, in both testaments, that God is on the side of the poor and the oppressed. Justice trumps everything else.
The promise of justice was the subject of the very first sermon our Lord Jesus ever preached. He unrolled the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah and read these words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." And then Jesus had the audacity to say that these promises would be fulfilled in him.
But here’s the thing: 2000 years after that inaugural sermon, the poor still live with bad news. Prisoners still languish in dirty cells. The blind do not see. The oppressed are still oppressed. So what could Jesus have meant when he proclaimed in that the promise of justice would be fulfilled in him?
What he meant is illustrated in this story that he told. Once upon a time, there was a widow who had been denied basic justice. And as a woman and a widow, she had very little recourse. In Hebrew, the word for widow actually means “silent one” or “one unable to speak.” And that pretty much sums it up. In that society, males alone could play a public role; could have a public voice. And once her husband was dead, there was no one left to speak for her. That left her without any rights, any property, any voice
But there was something different about this particular widow. Society told her to keep her mouth shut, but she refused to believe that. Somehow she had a sense of her own worth and of what was just. And so, against culture and custom she decided to go to the local judge and ask for justice. Perhaps the first time she went, she imagined that he would see the logic of her case. But the judge sent her away, laughing behind her back that a mere woman had the audacity to speak on her own behalf! But the next day, there she was again… and the day after that, and the day after that.
I imagine that she got discouraged along the way. You can only be laughed at and mocked so many times. She probably came to see very clearly that the system was broken and the parts that worked were stacked against her. For lots of folks that would have been enough to drive them to silent despair. But not this woman - this woman refused to go into the corner, curl up and die. This woman refused to be treated unjustly. She kept returning to the judge until, Jesus said, she finally wore him down.
Now that was a remarkable feat, given the fact that Jesus said that this judge “neither feared God nor had respect for people.” But he did have respect for himself and his time. And it was pure selfishness that finally caused him to listen to this woman and act on her behalf. She was a pain in his behind and so to alleviate that pain, he gave her what was rightly hers. Jesus concludes this parable by saying: “If this unjust judge gave the poor widow justice, how much more will God grant justice to those who cry to God day and night?”
The parable of the Persistent Widow is the fifth of six stories that Jesus tells in the Gospel of Luke about the coming Reign of Justice, and, very importantly, about how our participation brings that justice about. Notice that Luke says that Jesus told his disciples this parable so that they would always pray and not loose heart. So this is a story about how prayer and justice walk hand in hand. And we don’t always think of those two things together. But they go together. Prayer without justice leads to self-righteousness. Justice without prayer leads to hubris.
So how does prayer work in regard to the struggle for justice? On the bumper of my grandmother’s turquoise Cadillac Eldorado convertible (with white leather interior) was a bumper sticker that boldly proclaimed: “Prayer changes things!” I think that’s true, but perhaps not in the way that lots of folks imagine it to be true. Lots of folks think of prayer as magic, an incantation that gets the Almighty to do what we want. But maybe prayer changes things, because prayer changes us.
When the widow had to return again and again to ask for justice; when she spoke the words and made her case, each time she spoke, she was shaped and changed by her words. In having to present her case again and again, the widow’s thinking and motivations and convictions were sharpened. The peripheral fell away. And that is exactly what happens to us in the practice of prayer; in the day to day-ness of it, in its repetition. The more we pray, the more we think about the words, the more we are shaped by the words, the sharper our focus, the keener our vision. Prayer changes us.
The widow also connects prayer with public action. Every day she had to leave her house, walk to the court, wait until an audience was granted, if it was granted, make her complaint to the judge and then walk home. And she had to do that again and again and again until she received justice. And her repetitive actions tell us another really important thing about prayer. We are not called to pray passively, with some vague, anemic hope that God will change the world. We are called to pray actively. And we do not pray with our mouths only. We also pray with our bodies. Frederick Douglass once said “I prayed for freedom for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my feet.”
And here’s one more thing that the Persistent Widow teaches us about the connection between prayer and justice: when you knock on Heaven’s door looking for the Reign of God, sometimes you need to pound. Having a spicy conversation with the Almighty is an honored biblical tradition. We are so unfailingly polite when we talk to God that we are rarely honest when we talk to God. So when you pray, for heaven’s sake say what you mean. God can take it. Do you think that a widow who broke that many social conventions held her tongue or never raised her voice when day after day she was denied justice? I expect she was a real corker. There was urgency in her words and the kind of passion that made others nervous. But she didn’t care because justice was being denied. This woman, by her repetitive words and repetitive actions, kicked at the darkness until it bled daylight (Bruce Cockburn).
She kicked and shouted and demanded until the light of justice began to shine. She got what was hers because she didn’t give up. The Reign of God came near to her because she demanded it. Her prayers changed her and then she changed her world. And she is us. And that is what Jesus meant when he said that in him the promise of justice would be fulfilled. It is Christ in us that is the hope of glory, as St. Paul said. The Reign of God is surely coming. It’s coming through us.