Not many of us know the apocryphal books that sit between the Old and New Testaments in our bibles….but we can be fairly sure that Jesus did. Why do I say this? Well hear these words from the book of Ecclesiasticus chapter 34, and compare them with our gospel reading about the unjust judge today
For the Lord is a judge,
and he is completely impartial.
16 He will not show favoritism to the detriment of the poor,
and he listens to the cries of the oppressed.
17 He does not ignore the supplication of the orphan,
or that of the widow when she pours out her complaint.
18 Do not the tears of the widow stream down her cheeks
19 as she cries out against the one who has been their cause?
20 The one who serves God wholeheartedly will be heard;
his petition will reach the heavens.
21 The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds;
it does not rest until it reaches its goal.
Nor will it desist until the Most High responds,
22 relieves the sufferings of the righteous, and reestablishes equity.
Both Ecclesiasticus and our parable from Luke’s gospel, offer us images of two people: a Judge and a widow pleading her case. And the lessons that they draw from the picture that they paint concern prayer and justice…or to be more precise, vindication (being shown to be in the right)
Both passages tell us that God is like a judge. Ecclesiasticus shows us a good judge who hears the cry of the poor, relieves the suffering of the righteous and puts things to rights (re-establishes equity). The judge in Jesus’ story is shown to be god-less and something of a brute. He has no shame and is completely wrapped up in his own concerns – thankfully, Jesus’ message is that God is not like this!
The widow as a character in scripture is significant. The fact that she is completely alone tells us that she has no male relatives (in a patriarchal culture) to act for her: no son, no brother, no cousin or nephew. The only thing she has going for her in her weakness is her sex. This may seem a strange thing to say, but in the Middle East women are due respect even if men disagree with them – which is why what is happening in Iran is so significant. If a man had approached the unjust judge with such tears and persistence he would have been disgraced, beaten and dismissed. The widow, however, cannot be so easily ignored.
This parable sits in Luke’s gospel within Jesus’ journey up to Jerusalem. He knows that this is make or break for whether people accept him or not. He knows too, that in all likeliness, he will be rejected by the powerful and that his rejection will end in his death. On the surface both he and his followers are like the widow: utterly powerless before the authorities. And yet…? Alongside Jesus’ prediction that he will be rejected and killed he holds to a belief that God will vindicate him: his dependance upon God’s faithfulness and goodness in the face of death will be shown to be well founded – for God will raise him from death on the third day.
Do you see how this message of the goodness of God as Lord and judge (in its positive form in Ecclesiastius and in Jesus’ story where we’re told that God is not unjust) ties into the whole drama of the passion and resurrection. The unlikely people – the fishermen from Galilee, the women who accompanied Jesus, the children, those who had previously been excluded from the community through sin or ritual uncleanness, the tax collectors and sinners– these people cry out for God to put things to rights.
Jesus says to them ‘stay true, stay faithful, don’t give up, keep praying. God hears and answers prayer.
They will be tried – so much more than you or I -they may well doubt: who wouldn’t on Good Friday? Who does not falter when we see the state of the world now? But that one judgment, made on Easter Day, by God the judge puts down a marker (in case law if you like!) that God is faithful and God is good.
So today’s message in a world that seems to have lost its way is take heart, keep praying: ‘the one who serves God wholeheartedly will be heard, their petition will reach the heavens.’
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