One afternoon this week I began my sermon writing ritual. Spread out on my desk were a Bible open to today’s scripture passage, several commentaries, and a notepad. I was just getting absorbed in the work when Dunstan suddenly appeared.
For those of you who are new to this congregation Dunstan is not the ghost of our patron saint, but our church cat, who thinks of my office as his own. Or maybe that should be the other way around.
Within seconds he had jumped up on my desk and laid down – not on the side of the desk to watch me work, but right smack in the middle, spreading himself over both my notepad and the article I was reading.
I picked him up and put him on the floor.
He came around the front of the desk, jumped back up, and laid down again. I pushed him off, not quite as gently this time.
We repeated this little routine about four times before I finally said, “Okay, you win,” picked him up, and sat down with him on the couch, petting him until he fell asleep.
It wasn’t until I returned to my desk that it struck me. Dunstan and I had just enacted today’s gospel reading, starring Dunstan the cat in the role of the righteous widow, and me the priest as the unjust judge.
It’s a simple parable, with only two characters – the judge and the widow.
We don’t know much about the widow, no details about what she wanted. But we do know that in scripture widows are usually poor and vulnerable., and when they appear in scripture they are almost always the good guys.
Scripture tells us time and again that God has special concern and compassion for widows, orphans, and immigrants – groups of people that still are among the most vulnerable in the world. People of faith, then and now, are obligated to seek justice for them.
But the judge is not a person of faith. Jesus tells us that the judge “neither feared God nor had respect for people.”
The judge, who is supposed to dispense justice, is the antithesis of God’s justice and compassion.
He is callous, possibly corrupt. He recognizes no authority, divine or human, superior to his own. His primary task is to see to the protection of the most vulnerable in society, but he has no conscience and is impervious to shame.
When the widow approaches him, he simply refuses to hear her. He probably thinks that is the end of it.
The widow has no clout in the community, no one to pull strings for her, no one to plead her case to the judge. She is nobody in the eyes of society and in the eyes of the judge.
Nevertheless, she persisted.
And eventually, she prevails.
The judge does not have a change of heart. He says to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice so that she may not wear me out.”
The judge cares nothing about justice; he just wants to be left alone – like me saying to Dunstan, “OK, you win.”
The widow doesn’t care about why the judge acts, she only knows that through her persistence she receives justice.
Jesus says this is a parable about the need to pray always and not to lose heart.
At first glance it doesn’t seem like prayer is a part of the story. Nowhere does it say that the widow prays.
But her actions, her persistence, are forms of prayer. Prayer is not just words. We pray with our actions, too. Or as Rabbi Abraham Heschel said at one of the many marches for justice in which he participated, “I’m praying with my feet.”
The Rev. Joseph Lowery, an Atlanta icon of the Civil Rights Movement, tells the story of participating in sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters in Nashville in 1960.
Every day for weeks, Lowery left his office at noon, walked to a nearby hamburger joint, sat at the counter, and ordered a hamburger. Every day, the same waitress, a white woman, told him that she would not serve him.
The same thing was happening at other lunch counters in the city. Eventually the protesters’ persistence paid off. An agreement was reached and lunch counters and restaurants were open to all of God’s children.
The persistence of the protesters was a form of prayer, and their prayers were heard.
The next day Lowery walked to the restaurant and sat down at the counter.
The same waitress came up to him. “What will you have?” she said.
“A hamburger and a Coke,” he answered.
Then, he says, “she said something strange to me.”
“May I pay for your hamburger?” she asked.
Through tears, she added, “You don’t know how it hurt me to have to tell you I couldn’t serve you. I’m a Christian woman and God taught me to love everybody.
“But I couldn’t serve you. I’m a widow and I have three little children. I have to have this job. The boss told me I couldn’t serve you, so I couldn’t do it.
“Every night I prayed and asked God to forgive me. I thank God that today I can serve you.”
As Lowery points out, the chains of injustice can bind the oppressor as well as the oppressed.
It is easy for us to identify with the widow in this story. She, after all, is the one on the right side. But as my silly story about Dunstan illustrates, sometimes we’re the impervious judge.
This simple parable calls us to continually reexamine our faith. Have we turned a deaf ear to those who cry out in need? Or have we given up hope that God hears our call for help and justice?
God does assure us that cries for justice are heard by the divine, and that ultimately God’s justice and compassion will prevail over even the most unjust and callous earthly powers.
But sometimes the injustice is so entrenched, the oppressors so powerful that it is easy to become discouraged, perhaps even to give up.
That is why Jesus tells us not to lose heart, to be persistent as the widow.
I have two verses pinned to the wall over my desk to help me remember that. You’ve heard them from me before, but they are worth repeating.
The first is from Paul’s letter to the Galatians:
“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
The second is from the Talmud:
“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.
Do justly, now.
Love mercy, now.
Walk humbly, now.
You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”