Sermon notes: parable of the widow and judge

After the service today, a parishioner told me that her hearing aid had broken and she didn’t catch everything I said. Would I give her a copy of my manuscript, please? Well, unfortunately, I didn’t use a manuscript today, but I said I’d offer up my sermon notes, such as they were. That’s what you have here.

But I also wanted to say a couple of other things: First, this sermon was deeply inspired by Dr. Amy-Jill Levine’s chapter on the Judge and the Widow in her excellent book Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi. The whole book takes on the topic of anti-Semitic prejudices spewed from the pulpit (often unwittingly so), the ripping out of context of the various parables in a lectionary setting, and the seeming need to domesticate parables by turning them into analogies or fables or some other form of story with easily identifiable moral examplars. Levine warns preachers against doing that.

Second, with that in mind, I struggled in writing this sermon. With the ideas of justice, vengeance, persistence, prayer and so on so abundant in this parable, I really, really wanted to make this a social justice sermon. It would fit so easily, and this was my first inclination. I know a lot of preachers will have done that this weekend, and I don’t blame them. On the other hand, with Levine fresh in my mind, I really needed to preach a sermon that disturbed and challenged preconceived notions about this parable. In the end, I know there was ambiguity in the message I delivered, but I do think there was also challenge in the sense that our parable doesn’t give us any clear role models to be found in either the judge OR the widow. The only model we have, finally, is Jesus himself, who is THE righteous judge who refuses to judge (Luke 12:14, John 5:21 – 25; 8:15-16 where Jesus illuminates human history by the criterion of the victim who is the judge AS victim, and whose judgment is mercy, ultimately).

So, with those things out of the way, here’s a bit of the notation. Make of it what you will.

We read the entire lectionary passage, Luke 18:1-8, but re-read and focused on just vv 2-5, because this is the parable proper, without any commentary by Luke or Luke’s Jesus. Just the bare bones of the story.

What is a parable?
(Someone said it’s an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.)

Story.
Stories have 5 basic parts. (People named them: Theme, Setting, Characters (Antagonist and Protagonist), Action or Conflict that drives the final element, Plot. We mentioned that there’s sometimes a title in a regular story, but parables are a bit different: In the original manuscripts, there is no title, which is a good thing, because when we impose a title on a parable, we’re revealing something about what we think the story is about, who the protagonist and antagonist are, etc.

This parable is set in “a certain city” (that is, just some nameless city. Could be anywhere) some time in the past (indicated by the past tense verb “was”).

The characters include a judge, a widow, and the widow’s adversary.

The conflict occurs between the widow and her adversary, an between the widow and judge (and vice versa). When prompted, 3 people picked with widow as the likely protagonist. Nobody picked the judge, which leads me to believe that about 39 people abstained from the vote. šŸ™‚

We identified the plot in the following way: There was a judge whom a widow kept pestering to grant her vengeance against an adversary. At first the judge refused, but eventually he relented, because he wanted the widow to stop giving him work to do.

The theme wasn’t terribly clear apart from Luke’s “help.” It was a matter of interpretation, and how we interpret it reveals something about us and about what we believe about the character of God (given that Jesus was telling the parable).

Protagonist and Antagonist?
People weren’t confident choosing.
I asked what a first century audience might have thought about which was which by asking, “What do we know about widows? What do we know about judges?”

Most people said that widows are marginal characters, oppressed, lacking rights, vulnerable.

But we mentioned several passages from the scriptures that indicated how widows (along with orphans and aliens) are a protected class, preferred somehow by God as vulnerable people.

People noted that judges were a bit of a mixed bag: meant to be righteous, but that was the ideal. Many were appointed injudiciously and were corrupt.

Then we challenged both of the preconceived notions we have about widowns and judges: THIS widow of the parable doesn’t appear helpless or voiceless. If anything, it’s the opposite. We don’t know that she’s financially oppressed. She couuld be well off, but the text doesn’t tell us. It just speaks of her persistence against an adversary, whom, frankly, we don’t know is a “bad guy,” either. Maybe her complaint against this adversary against whom she seeks vengeance (not “justice”) is itself unjust.

We know a little about the judge. He neither fears God (which the scriptures tell us we ought to do) nor does he regard human beings. Not fearing God need not be construed negatively: We can have very good Atheist judges, or Muslim or Buddhist or any other kind of judge, who does his or her duties conscientously and justly.

And it’s possible to construe this judge’s disregard of humans in a positive light – he can’t be swayed to injustice by reputation or wealth or anything else. Isn’t that what we desire in a neutral, objective judge?

But this judge finally IS corrupted by the widow’s persistence. Not by the justness of her cause, but simply because she’s a pain in the neck and he wants to get rid of her.

What we end up with between these 2 characters is no clear moral example to follow. Neither widow nor judge is CLEARLY in the right.

And with this kind of ambiguity, we’re left to wrestle with the parable. We’re left to allow it to disturb and challenge our presuppositions. We’re left seeking some kind of way to let this story by Jesus lead us to an ethic that can’t be found among people, but CAN be found in him — in his life, his teachings, his ministry, where the things that comprised HIS ethic were things like love, forgiveness, reconciliation. It’s also what we find in his death (Father forgive them) and his resurrection (Peace I give you, not as the world gives).

Once Luke puts in his two cents — that this is about persistent prayer, that this story can only be understood as an allegory where we are the widow and God is the judge who will do what we ask him if we just pester him enough (Prosperity Gospel, anyone?) — he really ends up killing the joke, domesticating the parable, solving the puzzle for us so that we don’t get to do the work that Jesus intended us to do.

At the end of the sermon, people DID seem baffled, disturbed, and challenged. Mission accomplished. šŸ™‚

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About Robaigh

I'm a recovering museum nerd who holds no authority regarding correct doctrine, biblical interpretation or anything like that, but who - with fear and trembling - is trying to work all that out.
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