The Feisty Widow and the Lazy Judge

Rev Sue preached this sermon on Sunday 17 October. You can read it again here.

When Jesus told parables they were usually subversive. They are designed to shake up the world view and question the conventional. They weren’t like Aesop’s fables – tales to show us that the well behaved are rewarded and the selfish people come off badly. They were stories with a fresh view, an unexpected twist.

First of all, take the widow. Now we think that widows are the poor and dependent ones, unsupported by a husband, with no one to speak for them. But not this one! She was demanding her rights! She threatened the judge – where our translation says he was afraid she would “wear him out” the Greek literally says “give him a black eye”. This widow has raised her voice and is shaking her fist. She is asking for justice, but we only know her side of the story – perhaps her opponent is actually the one in the right! We just don’t know. She might have been destitute, oppressed and desperate, or wealthy, powerful and vengeful. Or somewhere in between.

As for judges, they are supposed to be the upholders of the law, who are above corruption or intimidation. This one can’t even stand up to a woman nagging him and threatening him. Through a mixture of laziness and cowardice he gives in. Not much of an upholder of the law.

Jesus’ hearers expected a polite, wronged widow, and a just and thoughtful judge. They got a formidable, unreasonable woman and an official who couldn’t be bothered. We have two characters who are neither good role models, nor even likeable. There is no simple division into goody and baddy, and the effect is unsettling.

But stories we listen to are often predictable. Take the murder investigation. The lead detective has a teenage daughter. Ah! We think. She will be kidnaped in episode 3. Or Vera arrests the villain. We check our watches. 30 minutes to go. The suspect will be a red herring, and the real killer identified, chased and arrested, conveniently confessing to the crime during the standoff in which once more Vera’s life is in danger.

There are times when the predictable is what we need. I have a friend, a voracious reader, who told me once, when she was going through a very difficult patch, that she could only read books that she had read before. She needed the comfort of the familiar. She couldn’t face surprises. And that’s OK when we are having a bad time. But at other times in our lives we need to be stretched, to move out of our comfort zone and be challenged. In the words of the hymn:

Not for ever in green pastures

Would we ask our way to be

But the steep and rugged pathway

May we tread rejoicingly

Not for ever by still waters

would we idly rest and stay

but would smite the living fountain

from the rocks along our way.

I want to talk now about asylum seekers and immigration. Before I continue, just pause a moment. How did you react? Do you think you know what I am going to say? Has your internal dialogue already started? It’s a complex and emotive issue and most people have a knee jerk reaction. I certainly do. It could be one of sympathy, knowing the terrible journey that asylum seekers have endured, and suspecting a racist streak in those who concerned about the number of asylum seekers who come to this. Or it could be that we think about the pressures on the health service and education and feel that to allow more people to come is irresponsible and unfair on an overstretched country – other nations should be more welcoming. Because we are people who care, we react. But we must be aware of those reactions and not prejudge what someone else is about to say. Either way the thought of asylum seekers is disruptive. They remind us of a world where there is war, discrimination and injustice. They challenge our complacency.

On the wider subject of immigration, many kind and generous people nevertheless feel sad when the place where they grew up has changed beyond recognition. Shops selling vegetables they cannot name have sprung up. Unfamiliar cooking smells waft out of windows. Languages they cannot understand are heard on the street. They feel a minority in their place of birth. The immigrants are often enterprising, energetic people – after all, they are the people who had determination and courage to come to a new country. They often run small businesses, value their children’s education and contribute in all sorts of ways to the life of our country. But the feelings that people sometimes have of being invaded are real, although the fears about living with the newcomers are often unfounded. Change and disruption are always difficult to live with. Difficult for those who have travelled, often in terrifying circumstances, to come to this country, and difficult for those most impacted by their presence. To express disquiet is not racist, but to lack empathy and compassion, to prey upon those anxieties and to spread hate and fear, is.

In the last few years, we have over and over again heard the word unprecedented. A rapidly spreading virus leading to extreme measures and severe restrictions, the invasion of a European country, and eyewatering increases in fuel bills. Things that we didn’t see coming and which caught us off guard. They have been harrowing times. Yet a harrow is a device which breaks up the soil ready for the seeds to be sown. It destroys the ruts. There is always a choice between on the one hand being negative and defeated and on the other of letting God break down our resistance and give us creative and imaginative ways to respond to the unprecedented.

In our church life there are new ways of doing things. We have mission communities which are working closely together – the other clergy in Prestwich and Kersal are all helping us out when I can’t be here to preside on a Sunday. I, who am here part time, and don’t live in the parish, have been asked to train a full-time curate who will. It’s thinking outside the box.

Jesus shakes up our stereotypes with stories that make us think in fresh ways. Not all widows need others to speak for them, not all judges are just. Events beyond our control have shaken us in the last few years and political situations on the other side of the world have displaced people and landed them on our doorstep. Congregation numbers in most churches have dwindled, and there is less money to pay clergy. Changes we did not choose have happened. But this is where we are, so we must prayerfully explore the new territory and work together in new ways. Luke tells us that in spite of all the chaos we see around us, God is still with us, and ultimately there will be God’s justice. The future is in God’s hands. Our part is to hold fast to our values of love and generosity, truth and courage, and to pray that we will always remain faithful to the one who is our ultimate unchanging home.

For more interpretations of the parable see Stories Jesus Told by Amy-Jill Levine

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