In Luke 18:1-8 we read Jesus’ parable about a judge and a widow. The widow has suffered some injustice, so she goes to the judge to seek redress. The judge is not a God-fearing man and has little respect for others, so refuses her.
But the widow is persistent and returns to him, again and again, asking for justice. Finally, the judge gives in and grants her request, not because he is compassionate, but to stop her from pestering him. Jesus interprets the story, saying if such an unmerciful judge will eventually grant justice, how much more will God grant justice to those who call on him.
Jesus’ parable about the persistent widow is mostly about prayer. But it also has something to teach those of us engaged in the work of public justice and advocacy.
Jesus’ parable teaches that it is good and right to seek justice where injustice has been committed. My own Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition has a rich theology of peace and peacemaking, but it does not have a strong theology of justice. Traditionally our response to an experience of injustice has been to suffer and bear it, rather than confront the injustice in a loving way.
The problem with such an approach is that it may appear to legitimate injustice and allow it to continue. Scripture insists that God is a God of justice. I am grateful to scholars who demonstrate that the biblical understanding of peace – shalom – is a holistic one that embraces justice and right relationships.
The parable demonstrates that seeking justice is ultimately about people. The focus of the parable is not the injustice committed – we do not even know what wrong was done – but on the widow, a particularly vulnerable person in society.
Justice-making is not about an abstract concept or theory, or even the latest burning issue. Yet justice folks are very keen on issues – I know, because I am one of them. Recently, I helped to organize a seminar on global justice with university students from across Canada. We talked at length about many troubling issues. Later, one student reflected that the most significant experience of the seminar was not the presentations and discussions, but sharing lunch with a destitute man that he met on the street.
Jesus’ parable reminds us that advocacy for justice must be rooted in relationships with real people who are hurting.
The parable calls justice-seekers to persistence. When I think of the persistence of the widow, I am reminded of B.B. Janz, who helped negotiate a way for Mennonite refugees to escape the Soviet Union in the 1920s. The Soviets were not eager to have thousands of people leave the country. Yet month after month, year after year, Janz traveled to Moscow to plead the case of yet another group.
No sooner had he received permission for one batch of refugees to leave, than he began to plead for another. The Soviet officials became exasperated with him, but usually gave in to his request. He would go away, at least for a short while. The officials were known to exclaim, “If only we could get rid of Janz!” Eventually, some 20,000 Mennonite refugees, including my grandparents, made it to Canada because of Janz’s pestering persistence.
The parable invites justice-seekers to humility and confession. I suspect that, if we could place ourselves into the story, most of us would like to become advocates for the widow. But perhaps we are more like the uncaring judge.
Perhaps because our lives are so removed from the poor, we have lost true compassion for those who suffer. Perhaps because we think we know what justice looks like, we forget to listen to others. Perhaps because we are complicit in systems that oppress some people while enriching others, we are more of the problem than the solution.
The parable invites us to self-reflection, to humility and to confession.
The parable reminds us to pray always and not lose heart. Seeking justice is a daunting task. The inequities of our world are so staggering and the structures of oppression so entrenched, that true change seems impossible.
In such a context Jesus reminds us to pray. When we pray, we become centred on God, and we are reminded that justice-making is not about us but about God’s own persistent patient way of redemption. As God’s children, we are called to seek justice and to act justly, but we are not called to fix the world. God is the one who will ultimately redeem all creation. When we pray always, we learn to entrust all of life to the One who is truth, compassion, mercy and justice.
When we pray always, we do not lose heart.
The Catalyst, spring 2007, Volume 30 / Number 2