I haven’t thought about Hilary Swank’s Oscar winning performance as a boxer in Million Dollar Baby, for some time. But her determination and persistence in that role is unforgettable. She not only was willing to take a beating for what she believed in, but she had to continually keep coming back to the crotchety old man Frankie – played by Clint Eastwood – to keep asking, pleading with him, to be her trainer. “And for awhile he refused, but later he” finally relented. What made it all the more remarkable, of course, was Hilary’s gender-bending role as a woman boxer. She was knocking at a very imposing and un-friendly door, “continually coming” despite the odds against her.
The widow in Jesus parable who comes to the unjust judge is persistent too. She keeps returning, pleading her just cause. The judge only gives in when, as he says, he is afraid she will “wear him out,” the way she keeps coming at him, which, curiously enough, is a boxing term, meaning literally, “to hit under the eye.” I guess the unjust judge is feeling a little beat up by her persistence! Not to mention that this metaphorical black eye is not good for his reputation, and this figurative shiner begins to make it obvious to the whole community that she really does have a case, that this prize fighter’s knock out blow has revealing publicly, the corrupt official he really is!
It’s in the judges’ internal dialog with himself, that we hear this surprising news, and that he will grant her justice, which is the first reversal of expectation in the parable. We might not have thought it possible for such a callous bureaucrat to grant mercy. And he doesn’t do it out the goodness of his heart, but only to save face. Yet suddenly we can rejoice for the little guy, the underdog has prevailed. And Jesus tells us that, if the unjust judge can do the right thing, well then, how much more will “God grant justice to God’s chosen ones who cry out to God day and night? Will God delay long in helping them? I tell you, God will quickly grant justice to them.”
So on the one hand, it looks as if the unjust judge takes the role of God in the parable, and we are the widow. This is not uncommon for Jesus’ parables. The judge, the owner of the vineyard, the father who throws a lavish banquet, they’re all metaphors for God who grants mercy, who gives us the riches of the kingdom, who invites us to the feast in the realm of God! But on the other hand the metaphor of the unjust judge has also begun to strain the mercy of God and introduce a rather warped relationship between us and our God, a compromised grace. For, if we think it appropriate to see God as someone who we have to try and wake up, we know not when exactly, or how long and hard we have to work at it, before finally, like a giant slot machine, God will pay off, and we will win the jackpot we have bet on. Then our faith and prayer life has been corrupted by this capricious and remote God.
But on the other hand, what if the judge is not playing the role of God? What if we let go of our stereotype of God as judge, and loose our gender expectations of, ‘provider male’ and ‘helper female’? I am indebted to New Testament professor Audrey West who opened my eyes! She says, if we remember the core characteristics of Luke’s gospel, it fits. Luke is the gospel with the Christmas story we know so well, of a vulnerable little baby born in a manger, to save us. And, at the end, it’s the good news of Easter, the world changing gift of an upside-down power, on the cross, that transforms us. So maybe in the parable, it’s the other way around too, and the widow is the God-like character, while the unjust judge is us, and the corruption we deal with, “day and night.”
The judge, “who neither feared God nor had respect for anyone,” is a complete failure by the very laws and promises in 2 Chronicles, who wrote to the Judges to: “let the fear of the LORD be upon you; take care of what you do, for there is no perversion of justice with the LORD our God, or partiality, or taking of bribes.” So the hearers of this parable would have recognized this judge as totally corrupt, the very opposite of God “the impartial judge, who takes no bribe,” according to Deuteronomy 10, “[but] who executes justice for the orphan and the widow.”
And widows, we know, were among the most vulnerable in society. In the case of death or divorce, the dowry, and all property, went back to the husbands’ family. And, a woman’s sphere of influence was mainly the home and not the public square. But this widow takes her case public for all to see. She knocks at the very imposing door of the status quo and does not accept injustice, but demands equal rights.
The widow brings about a change, not by force, but through her persistence, her “continually coming,” and standing strong, being a witness to injustice, not backing down from the power that is all too happy to dominate and repress. Who then is this widow like, if not Jesus, the incarnate God, the almighty, who is born into our world in the vulnerability of swaddling clothes, crying to the tune of the lowing cattle and bleating sheep? Is she not like the one of whom Mary magnificently sang, this one will “bring down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the lowly?” Is not the widow exactly like the Christ who does not ever force us to act, but continually comes to knock at the door of our hearts, and lift up the banner of peace, humility and love, this one who was declared righteous, and all powerful, on the cross?
In our live for the moment, instant gratification society, is there a more long term goal that we can lift up from our belief system, our core values, that might be of use to the world? Is there something in the way Jesus set his face to Jerusalem, his persistence and determination, not to die because he hated the world, but to die with a purpose, a love for the world, that we can share with others?
How wonderful is this second reversal, this new way of seeing Jesus’ parable, which makes more sense, I think, than before. It is the persistence of the widow that most reflects God’s grace to us. And her vulnerability to the world, reveals her strength and determination to live a cleansed and new life. Her willingness to inflict a metaphorical black eye, without violence or force, and to put herself out there, so that the example of Jesus can shine through, and hearts can be moved to change.
“Jesus told us this parable about our need to pray always, and not to lose heart.” No matter how hard it seems, no matter how far from the goal, God is working ceaselessly through the vulnerable and the little ones, you and me, through our prayers and our determination that the realm of God, and the justice of God, will prevail.