Give God a black eye?

16 October 2016
Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 23C (RCL)

Jeremiah 31:27-34
Psalm 119:97-104
2 Timothy 3:14 – 4:5
Luke 18:1-8

To begin reading this parable, we must first correct a mistranslation. The NRSV has the unjust judge say to himself, “because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” The Greek has, “lest she give me a black eye by continually coming.” The word literally means to strike the face below the eye. It comes to mean “brow beat,” but it also carries connotation of shame, just as our expression does. The judge will grant her justice lest he be shamed in the community.

Judges, of course, didn’t sit in courtrooms then the way they do now. Often, in the Bible, we hear of a judge sitting in the gate, or under a tree. The community of elders would have been gathered around awaiting the decision of the judge, restoring the plaintiff to justice, right relation in the community. Luke scolds Pharisees for loving to make a show of their prayers, all the while devouring widows’ houses. Widows were very easy to push off their patrimony, once the husband was off the scene, and without a son, a widow would have no recourse, except the honor and shame of the community.

So, Jesus tells this parable about the disciples’ need always to pray. Does that mean that we are to give God a black eye by the persistence of our prayer? We don’t like the image, but it is biblical. Abraham and Moses, among others, reminded God of God’s promises and God’s nature in the process of cajoling God into relenting of some planned evil. “Should not the judge of the world act with justice?” says Abraham when bargaining with God over Sodom. Surely sweeping away the innocent with the guilty would give God a black eye.

But I think the parable is reframed by the question at the end: When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth? For the judge to get a black eye from the persistence of the widow, there has to be a community around the judge which will find his behavior shameful. Sometimes, we are in the position of the widow. Israel was certainly in the position of the widow in Jesus’ time, and Luke’s church probably had that position when his Gospel was written. But, sometimes, we are in the position of the elders in the gate. Black Lives Matter has brought to our attention people who have been done injustice, and they hold it before our eyes, until we have a black eye, and agree that things must change. Donald Trump’s language about women has shamed us and our allowing such an attitude toward women to stand. The explosion in social media of women telling their stories of the kind of abuse Trump described is the equivalent of the persistent widow. This parable isn’t just about any prayer being answered, but about persistence for justice.

Jeremiah describes a new covenant. No longer will neighbor have to teach neighbor “Know the Lord,” but will know God. There’s nothing more annoying that being told what God wants for you when it doesn’t line up with what makes your life better. When white clergy told black protesters during the Civil Rights movement that the time wasn’t right, Jeremiah would have understood that the new covenant hadn’t yet come. If we are living in a covenant of rules that need enforcement, we are telling each other to know the Lord.

Jeremiah imagines a covenant written on our hearts. The needs of the widow for justice will be written on our hearts, rather than enforced by judges in the gate. The author of 2 Timothy exhorts him to proclaim the word with persistence whether the time is right or not. We need the widow’s persistence for justice.

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