The Courageous Widow and the Unjust Judge
There are a lot of widows in the Bible, in both Hebrew and Christian scriptures. I learned this week that there are 80 references to widows in our Bible. Hebrew stories that come quickly to mind are Judith or the widow of Zarapath, or the story of Naomi and Ruth. The most well know Christian story might be the widow who gave her last two coins, or Anna who appears in the story of Jesus being presented to Simeon.
Being a widow in the ancient world could put a woman in a very vulnerable position if the brother of her deceased husband, or a son did not take her in. In those cases, she would be left to her own devices with no income or home.
Some widows however were likely rather well off. They clearly owned property, as some offered lodging and gave of their wealth in support of Jesus and his disciples.
Either way, widows (and orphans) were supposed to be a protected class. The judge actually should have been attending to the widow’s complaints. “Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword and your wives will become widows and your children fatherless.” It says in Exodus 22. In Luke 20 those who devour the widows’s houses are condemned.
Psalm 68 describes God as a father to the fatherless, a defender of the widows. Certainly Jesus cared for them. Consider the concern for his mother as he was on the cross, putting her into the care of John. And widows are repeatedly subject to miracles – apparently there are 11 of them in scripture. The story of Jesus healing the son of the widow of Nain is one example.
The one thing that I think that all those Biblical widows have in common is that they were faithfully courageous. They faced huge odds and overcame them. They responded to the God of their understanding and acted, sometimes even in subversive ways and with incredible chutzpah i.e. “guts bordering on the heroic!”
My image of the quintessential widow is my Hungarian grandmother – Nanoka. (Hungarian word for grandmother, she is the one with the baby in her lap). Her life was one of many losses. She was the daughter of a Hungarian reformed Bishop, in a line of famous clergy in that church. The man who romanced her was a beloved pastor of a Hungarian Reformed Church in Toledo, OH who went home to find his bride. They courted, quickly married and he took her back to OH. (He is in the photo, far right, standing)
Just 4 or 5 years later, not long after this photo was taken, after the birth of a third child (all girls), the youngest of which was my mother, an infant, he died on Easter Sunday, of a ruptured appendix. He had refused to go to the hospital until the holy days were over.
Nanoka took her three girls back to Hungary where she built a house with the money from Apu’s (grandfathers) life insurance and raised her daughters as a single mom, with her mother and aunt (by then also both widows) living with them. It was a household of women and girls! Their Bishop uncle Emeric (Imrebacsi), the patriarch by then, looked out for them.
World War II came. They barely survived it by living in a basement during the siege of Budapest when the German and Russian armies converged on the city, with several others, for months at a time. My aunt’s journal, parts of which she translated, talks about reading cookbooks to feed themselves when they were hungry and without food.
Soon after the war, the Soviets took over. Because there was a severe lack of housing post-war, and in communist fashion, the new regime took over private residences and moved other people into them. Nanoka and her household of women were allotted only three rooms in their home. Strangers were placed in the rest of the rooms. The kitchen and bathroom were shared.
In 1949, Imrebacsi sent my mother and one sister back to the US – how that happened and why the other sister was left behind, is long story for another time – but after the Hungarian revolution in 1956, the two in this country worked to bring their mother here. She arrived by boat in 1960. One of my earliest memories is of going to pick Nanoka up at a port – I think it was NY.
Nanoka was a small woman who, by the time I knew her, suffered from severe scoliosis, arthritis, osteoporosis resulting in a very humped over back. She was a remarkable copy artist – I still have some of her paintings. She made the most wonderful pastries (a few of which I thankfully learned to make) including on our birthdays a dobos torte – a cake with very thin layers (as many layers as we were old) with a mocha icing between the layers and a hard burnt sugar top.
My memory of Nanoka as a person is that she never seemed happy. Every year on the anniversary of her husband’s death, she spent the day crying. Her grief seemed as fresh as the day he died.
But I also remember that she prayed to God a lot. She never gave up her faith and constantly knocked on God’s door. I wonder now, what were those prayers about? She also read her Bible every day, or more than daily. The Bible was worn by decades of use with a string around it to hold the pages together. How could she, given the many losses, turmoil and fear, still believe? It had to have something to do with courage, and a confidence that God walked with her through it all. Her relationship with God carried her in her fear, in her grief and kept her going.
In today’s Gospel, we have such a widow. This one is hounding a judge, a judge who doesn’t give a hoot about her. She wants justice. Her rights were being violated and she is begging for protection. He pays her no mind, but she persists and badgers him until he begins to think he is about to get a black eye (translation from the Greek) i.e. he fears that his reputation will be blemished. Finally, he gives in and provides what she needs.
It feels a bit like when you give a dog a morsel from your table after it sits and begs through your whole meal, even though you know you shouldn’t. You just want the dog to stop whining or scratching or staring at you. “Even the dogs eat the scraps from the master’s table” said the Cannanite woman who begged Jesus to heal her demon-possessed daughter.
What are we to make of this? The preface to the parable says its purpose is to show why and how we must pray constantly. The postscript hammers the point by noting that if the unjust judge does this, would not God stick up for us and work for justice even more? Then it wonders if the Son of Man will find such faith on earth when he returns?
I don’t know about you, but this classic interpretation of the parable troubles me. It equates the judge with God and the widow with us, which implies that God will answer those who badger the most. If that is how God works, that those who diligently pray are the ones who get attention and justice, it is not a God for me.
I am sure my grandmother hounded God with prayers. Maybe they were answered, (she and her three girls miraculously survived the war), but many prayers clearly were not.
“You know, if you prayed hard enough” a Christian once said to me “your dad would be healed of his Parkinsons’ disease.” NO!
You can soften that interpretation a bit by saying (as one commentator I read did) that “the asking, knocking, seeking are for us, not God” or (from another) that “prayer is not intended to change the will of God, but to discover it,” but even that isn’t the God of my experience. The God of my experiences, as lived by Jesus, is a God of love and compassion, a God who cares about every person, but most especially the most vulnerable ones. And the God of my understanding is a God who insists on justice.
In my training as a Biblical storyteller, I have learned that parables are intended to be multi-dimensional. Their meaning “depends on the listener whose mind is teased into active thought.” Our job is to extract meaning again and again in varying contexts so we can hear them anew. It is important not to allow the interpretation to “get trapped in a simple equation: the unjust judge = God… For this parable to continue to speak with power, [we] need to find in our culture, analogous characters” explains Fred Craddock in his commentary on Luke. “Simple portrayals [like those tacked onto this story], belong in cheap novels.” He says. “When that happens, there is no surprise of grace and the parable is robbed… Without such labels or prejudice, the parable is still a shock, still carrying the power both to offend and to bless.” (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching – Luke.)
So, let’s for a moment drop the parable’s preface and postscript – they were likely added later anyway and are not the words of Jesus – and let’s play with the parable. Let’s think about it and wrestle with God in a new way (New Proclamation: Easter – Pentecost Year C, 2004). Let’s consider the story the way Jung looks at dreams, where everyone in the story says something about us. Let’s for example, flip the analogy and consider the widow as a stand-in for God, with the judge representing us. What then?
When you do that, the story not only says something about how important it is for us to pray without ceasing, but it also teaches about what we should be praying for – justice. God becomes the being that insists on justice and never stops asking us for it – the same way Jesus kept hounding Peter and the others, trying to get them to understand who he was. God keeps poking us until we finally pay attention, get it, and do something. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock….” (Revelation 3:20) like my little dog Sophie who pokes with her nose when she needs attention.
And that’s where courage comes in… When against all odds, we finally come to hear God and know God’s will, and through that lens begin to act on injustice. We begin to hang out with the least of these, like Jesus did. It changes us from the inside out, sometimes slowly, sometimes in an instant. We stop being afraid of confronting the powers that disenfranchise and marginalize people, because we know a higher power is with us in the journey.
NOW the parable becomes a story not just about prayer, but is “a parable about the Kingdom, a glimpse into a divine reality in which God’s will is done.” The widow, like God demands to be vindicated. She courageously takes on the system and wins! And low and behold, God’s justice is established! (Sue Armentrout).
I will conclude with some questions…
Which God do you relate to the most? One that dispenses justice to only the squeakiest wheels? Or a God who walks with us and nags us to listen/see and act on God’s behalf (even though it may sometimes feel like you’ll get punched unless you do)?
And who would you rather be like? The judge who doesn’t give a damn about God or the needs of others, who doesn’t much care for people and only responds to them when his reputation is at stake? Or do you see yourself more as the one who longs to respond to God’s call to work for justice, no matter the cost? A God who asks at each renewal of Baptism:
- “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”
- “Will you work for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being?”
Think about where you find yourself on that spectrum between the two extremes. Are you content where you are? If not, you might wonder about where God is calling you.
Finally, consider the words of Sue Armentrout at the end of her poem “Not So, Not So” from The Awful Rowing Toward God.
Look to your heart
That flutters in and out like a moth.
God is not indifferent to your need.
You have a thousand prayers
But God has one.
In this parable of the courageous women, God’s one prayer is a prayer for justice and our parish mission statement is to be a doorway to compassion and courage.
SO, I invite you also this week to consider how we can summon the courage of the widow to persist as a community of faith in seeking justice for all? And how might we be God’s hands and feet, to continue to live out that courage, together – right here in this country, this city, this neighborhood, right now?”