Entering into the parables of Jesus, those short stories which contain the power to radically change our perspective on life, often reminds me of looking through a kaleidoscope. Remember, those wonderful toys we had as children, which would delight us with each turn of the lens, when a brand-new configuration of the glass mosaic pieces would appear, as though through magic, and delight us each new vista we could see.
When I read today’s parable, called the Persistent Widow or the Unjust Judge, and in which Jesus tells us to pray often and never lose heart, I think about the first time you pick up a kaleidoscope – when the tiles have settled into a simple pattern. Like the kaleidoscope, this parable seems straightforward and to support Jesus’ purpose statement. The widow nags the judge enough that, ultimately, she gets what she wants. We can read this parable and close the book with our assumptions intact. This widow is, like all widows, poor and oppressed and deserves our sympathy and compassion. The widow’s plea for justice is true and she couldn’t possibly be asking for vengeance or favor that isn’t deserved. The judge, not being a God-fearing man, couldn’t possibly care about justice, which is unique to us believers. We can come away from the parable hearing the instruction to pester away at God, ask for whatever we want, whether just or not, and ultimately, God will provide.
But what happens if we turn the lens just one small notch, so that the original design remains, but a few other mosaic tiles have come into view, and it doesn’t seem quite so simple. In this array of glass tiles, perhaps we question a few of those assumptions. Perhaps our attention is first drawn to the tile which invites us to articulate what we believe about God’s faithfulness. After all, don’t we believe that God is always out in front of us? always wanting to bless us? always wanting us to give us life abundant? That hardly sounds like a God who needs to be worn down to grant our deepest prayers. We may recall that scripture tells us “Ask, and you shall be given” – so what then do we do with this idea that we must pester God in order for God to give us what our hearts desire? Maybe we just need to notice the disconnect.
Or maybe enough tiles have shifted so that we question the assumption that this widow, and all widows, live into the Hebrew word widow, which is better translated as “one without a voice”. We do know that the ancient Israelites were commanded by God, and we as Christians were commanded by Jesus to care for the widows, but in your experience, do you find widows generally shy and without their own voices? Scripture even tells us that is not true. Recall with me for a moment a few of the famous widows in our sacred stories – Anna, the prophetess who fasted and prayed each day in the temple until Jesus was presented there by his parents. There was strength in her soul – she lived the conviction that she would see the Messiah and she stayed on course until that prophecy came to fruition. I don’t imagine her as poor and oppressed and without a voice, do you? Let’s think about Ruth and Naomi, both widows, both called to return to Naomi’s homeland, both called to set a plan in place where Ruth would conceive a son, essential in the lineage of Jesus, calling forth the importance of bringing foreigners into God’s salvation story. The strength of Ruth’s words, “Wherever you go, I will go” speak to of conviction and a sense of direction and purpose. If we continue on with the assumption that all widows are poor, oppressed and without voice, we give permission or even project an expectation, that widows can remain victims all of their lives and feel inadequate without a man’s voice to speak for them.
I turn the kaleidoscope one more turn and this is when it gets really messy. The array of colored tiles creates dissonance and I want to hurry to the next turn of the lens. But we stay for a moment to question the assumption placed in this parable at first glance which s that God always will bring justice to those who are abused or used. Is that our reality? Don’t homeless people still die in the streets, cast out from a homeless shelter, alone and hungry? I love the idea that God overturns injustice in each of our lives, that God’s power alone can work miracles in our lives and ultimately all will be well for all people in this lifetime, but I bet we all know people for whom that is not yet true. Have they not prayed enough, or with the right words? Possibly they have, and justice has not yet rained down upon them.
I am feeling the need to shake the kaleidoscope and move onto a whole new arrangement of mosaic tiles. This image is wonderful: it’s full of red, orange and yellow tiles—it is almost as though it is alive, like fire. This is for those of you whose spiritual type is fire – the ones whose hearts burn for justice for all of God’s people in God’s world and you are committed to making a difference, to challenge our assumptions, to change the system. You are the ones who realize God does desire justice for every single person and that it is up to us to make that happen. God’s justice happens by putting justice in the hearts of the ones who hear the cries of those in need. You are the ones who see the woman’s persistence as a form of resistance to an unjust system. You are the ones who are armed with the love and righteousness of God and who know the injustice of our world will be overcome only by you being open to and living out, with strength, conviction, and voice, God’s boundless source of passion for justice within each one of our lives. You are the ones who line up with what Desmond Tutu said about the fight against apartheid in South Africa: “With God on our side, how can we lose?”
You may find yourself looking at this parable through any of these lenses: taking the parable at face value and hearing Jesus’ plea to you to keep on praying and never lose heart; being called to take care of and show compassion for widows who do not have their own voice due to our unjust world, or you maybe you are a widow with a strong voice that takes responsibility for bringing justice into your own world and our community, or maybe you find yourself with your heart on fire with the passion of God to right all the wrongs of our society. These lenses are not mutually exclusive. You may find a bit of yourself in each one.
But now I’m going to really shake up the kaleidoscope and offer a whole new way to view and enter into this parable, perhaps the most challenging of ways.
What if the widow in the parable, the one who shows up every day pleading her case, persistent in her message and in her cries for justice – is actually God? What if God is the one who nags at our hearts, wanting to be let in; what if God is the one constantly yearning for us, longing for justice to be within our hearts, with justice meaning our desire to be just and right in our relationships with others and with God. What if God is the persistent one and we are the ones who close the case file before even giving the case a chance?
This parable speaks to me of God’s great faithfulness as demonstrated through God’s persistent actions in our lives and hearts. When I was on my recent pilgrimage I had a very interesting revelation. Miles before we reached our destination – Santiago – we stopped at the Iron Cross, a huge monument with a cross made from iron attached to an enormous tree trunk. You could see this pilgrimage site long before we reached it. We were told by our guide that this is where we could put the stone we picked up on the first day of our hiking, which represented our sins we were carrying along with us to be released, so we could be open and pure of heart as we walked into Santiago to receive the blessing of Saint James. It was an incredibly windy afternoon. We huddled together eating our lunches on the nearby picnic tables, holding onto every part of our lunch which could possibly blow away. When I finished eating, I made my pilgrimage up the hill, carrying my stone to place beside the cross. As I ascended I saw many offerings, some painted stones, some with words or prayers, but all of them stories. When I approached the tree trunk, I saw something remarkable. People had placed their smaller stones in the bark of the tree, in those small natural grooves of the trunk. Immediately, my soul was transported back to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem where I had been 3 years ago. There I had written my deepest prayers on a small piece of paper and stuck them in the natural crevices in the stone wall. Immediately I saw the connection between offering my sins at the Iron Cross to the offering of my deepest prayers in the Wailing Wall. I pondered, perhaps offering our sins was the same, or at least set within, the offering of our deepest prayers. But what startled my heart the most was I then remembered with clarity the prayers I stuck in the Wall and I realized how God had been faithfully, persistently, and lovingly working on those prayers in my life every day, whether or not, (generally not) whether I was praying them to God each day. There was one prayer for my family life and one for us, the people of St. Andrew’s. I realized my deepest prayers had been answered. God has been faithful, nagging at the corners of my heart and that of our parish, providing us insights and clarity, helping us to find our strong voice of faithfulness together, guiding us toward health and wholeness, which in many ways, is what justice is all about – we need to be healthy and whole in order for us to be just and right in our relationships with each other and God.
I am certain there have been times when I have been like the city judge, and I imagine that’s true for all of us. When our hearts were hardened to the plight of others, or when we didn’t “know the Lord” (or however you would say that in your own language), or when we have cared more about our pleasure or leisure than supporting the mission of God. Or when we’ve held open a small bit of space for God, but wouldn’t allow God’s strong voice to penetrate the far reaches of our lives.
Prayer, persistent and honest prayer, is the openness in our hearts to the flow of God’s love, mercy, and justice into our lives and that of others. It is a give and take, a call and response, an invitation and a following. Whatever lens you are using on this parable, whichever fits or challenges you, let us be grateful that we are in relationship with a God who loves us beyond our imagination, who searches us out wherever we may run and hide, who never gives up on us, who longs to bless us with life abundant, who is more willing to give than we are to ask, and who calls us to never lose heart, for this is our salvation.