Persistence in the Face of Injustice
8:00 ONLY - 20 October 2019
Proper 24 / Year C
Jeremiah 31:27-34; Psalm 119:97-104; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8
I am willing to bet that every last one of us has had an experience like the persistent widow in this morning’s Gospel. If you have ever had to deal with an insurance company or a government agency, like Social Security or the DMV or the dreaded IRS, or even a child’s school or a hospital or the justice system, you can understand and empathize with the poor widow in the parable, for you too will know how it feels to wonder if anyone is even listening to your pleas for help or willing to respond to your needs.
At one time or another, we all experience the exasperation and frustration of trying to cut through bureaucratic red tape, but in those times when our needs are urgent and serious, the experience of feeling unheard in the middle of an emotional or desperate situation can be downright infuriating, or even devastating. In these times, it is often only our persistence, our unwillingness to accept the status quo or just let things slide by, our refusal to lose hope that change will eventually come, that eventually leads to success.
It isn’t always comfortable or easy to repeatedly have to advocate for what we need, and of course, it would be much easier if everyone with the authority or capability to help would willingly and gladly do so, but at the end of the day, our constant reminders, our relentlessness, can make a big difference in getting the job done. Like the persistent widow in the Gospel, if we keep coming back, keep pleading our case over and over and over again, we may eventually get a response — even if only because the people in charge are so annoyed and tired of us that they just want to get us off their backs.
History is full of people whose success can be directly attributed to their persistence. Tradition holds that Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame tried to sell his finger-lickin’ good chicken recipe over 1,000 times before it was eventually picked up. And more heroic figures like Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela sought justice and social change through careful, thoughtful, bold persistence. If any of these figures had gotten tired or burnt out and had given up — which no doubt must have crossed their minds on occasion — the world would be a very different place. The pursuit of justice requires perseverance; and the ability of individuals and communities to persist in seeking justice can truly – though perhaps slowly - change the world.
In Jesus’ parable, the widow eventually gets what she wants even from this judge who, in his own words, had “no fear of God and no respect for anyone”. Now, to be a widow in the ancient Near East was to find yourself among the most vulnerable of society. As a widow, this woman would have had no advocate to speak on her behalf, no social standing upon which to plead her case and demand, or even expect, justice. Located near the bottom of the social ladder, she was truly helpless in the deepest sense of the term. All she had was her will to persevere; to not give up; to continue to demand that someone listen to her. Despite the widow’s marginalized status in society, she exhibited great strength. And sometimes, it is when we are at our most vulnerable — when we have the least to lose — that we are also most likely to be bold and strident and persistent, demanding to be heard and determined not to accept “no” for an answer.
The unrighteous judge eventually does what is right, but only because this nagging woman has made him feel trapped. He does not respond out of empathy or pity or a change of heart. And very often, social change is like this, too. The Emancipation Proclamation did not immediately end slavery, nor did it immediately heal centuries of racial division and violence. The Voting Rights Act promised equity, but it didn’t immediately change the hearts and minds of all American citizens. And the end of colonialism or apartheid was just the first step in finding true independence and equality. Achieving justice is nearly always easier than changing the heart of a society. Hope for change may be kindled when justice is attained, but there’s always more work to do. We don’t know what kind of justice the widow in this parable was seeking, but we can imagine that whatever circumstances led her to be treated unfairly did not immediately disappear with the judge’s ruling.
The Gospel assures us that God is not like the unrighteous judge in the parable. God does not respond to our needs only when we have pestered him to the point that it is easier to just give in. The Gospel promises that God will vindicate us and bring us justice “quickly”. So, just how does God bring justice? How does God respond to our prayers? Let’s be clear - God did not settle a court case for this woman. God did not end slavery in the United States or pass legislation to protect the civil rights of all people; and God did not end colonialism in India or apartheid in South Africa.
As the people of God, that’s our responsibility, our work. It’s our job to persist in the face of injustice, to advocate for ourselves when we feel helpless, and to advocate for others when they are the most vulnerable. God’s justice is much more comprehensive and far-reaching than what can ever be achieved through legislation or the courts. The Gospel promises us that God will respond to our prayers much faster than the unjust systems of society. If even an unrighteous judge can show mercy in favor of a persistent widow, then how much more merciful is God who created us and loves us and knows every inch of our being?
While we profess belief in the promises of God addressed in scripture, evidence of those promises being fulfilled in our lives and in the world is often hard to find. When societal justice comes so slowly and is often so limited, how can we believe that God is at work, providing us with unbounded love, mercy, and speedy vindication? In the midst of the world’s injustices and oppressions, just where do we see evidence that God is at work?
We must remember that God’s vindication is not necessarily reflected in courtroom justice or even societal change, for though God is with us in those struggles, these are human constructs and institutions, therefore fallible and less that perfect. But we believe and trust in a God who came to be with us and suffered alongside us. Jesus himself experienced injustice at the hands of a government that, like the unrighteous judge, neither feared God nor regarded humanity. But we believe in a God who is always at work on our behalf, changing hearts and minds, transforming lives, bringing dead things to life, turning the societal systems and power structures on their head — making the weak strong, and the vulnerable powerful, and giving resounding voice to those who have been ignored for too long.
Amidst the injustices of this world, ‘just where is our God?’ we may ask. God is found in the cries and desperate pleas of the helpless and most vulnerable. Imagine the widow in the parable going to the judge again and again to plead her case. The judge repeatedly ignored her, but God was with her the whole time. “Keep going back,” God says to her. “Keep fighting. You may be weak by the standards of society, but you are strong and full of value to me; indeed, you are like me because I also went unheard and unseen in the world.” To those seeking justice, God says: “I see you. I believe you. I am with you. Your pain is my pain. So, keep going back. Persist. Persevere.”
Ultimately, the hope that we have in God is not the same as the hope we have in society. While God is constant, society will change; while God is always just, human injustice will ease slowly before it eventually ends. And through it all, our hope in God is that God is with us in the midst of it all; that God hears us when we first cry out; that God’s love for us will give us the strength to persist; and that God’s justice will eventually transform not only our lives, but the hearts and minds of everyone in the whole world – for “will not God grant justice to his chosen ones”? So we are promised.
So let us trust, and believe, and persist – in Christ’s name.