The word “gospel” also means “good news.” I can’t tell you how good the news in this portion of the gospel of Luke sounds to me after the events of the last two weeks. Reading this gospel is like taking a long, cold drink of water.
Jesus is teaching the people, instructing them to pray always and not to lose heart. Then, he tells a parable: In a certain city there is a judge who does not fear God or respect anyone. A widow comes to the judge, again and again, saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” The judge refuses each time. But eventually, he tells himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she will leave me alone.” Jesus explains that even an unjust judge eventually yields to justice. Our God, on the other hand, grants justice quickly.
Whenever things get heated in our public life or hard in our private lives, it helps to take a step back and look at what’s happening through the lens of scripture. This short passage has several powerful reminders that can change our perspective.
First, Jesus tells us, remember to pray and not to lose heart. We can look around us and see plenty of reasons to despair. The people of Haiti are in crisis. Our political dialogue is sinking to unthinkable lows. We are experiencing painful losses in our small community; there are those among us who are full of grief or many other kinds of trouble. Still, Jesus says: remember to pray and not to lose heart.
There’s nothing more infuriating than being told to pray when things are really bad. If we’re in despair, it may feel impossible, even laughable, that God could give us comfort. If we’re angry, it can feel like an insult, an injustice, to be asked to transform that anger, offering it up to God.
And yet. There is nothing more powerful than God’s companionship, nothing more sustaining than God’s hope. The heart of our God is strong enough to bear with us whatever tragedies we face. The truth and wisdom of our good news is profound enough to confront and change the most challenging situations.
So it’s good to be reminded: whatever is happening in our world, whatever is happening in our lives: remember to pray, and do not lose heart.
The message is less clear when we turn to the parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge. How should we find meaning in this story?
We may look out into the world today and see some folks with a striking resemblance to the unjust judge – people of great power who neither fear God nor have respect for anyone. I love in this passage that this particular judge has no illusions about himself. He repeats what the narrator has told us: “I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone.”
We see leaders like the unjust judge, and watching them operate is both painful and frightening. They do evil things without remorse. Witnessing this, we could give in to cynicism and accept that evil as inevitable. We could succumb to fear when our lives, and the lives of others, are under threat. But there is another option. If we look around us, there are so many people who are like the widow in the story. This woman has no standing in her society, and yet she finds the strength to raise her voice for justice. Not only that – she keeps on doing it, again and again, until justice is served.
Think of all the people who are lifting up their voices for justice today, despite the odds, and making a difference. The Black Lives Matter movement is changing our national conversation about racism and was recently endorsed by the United Nations. This past week, both women and men stepped up to tell their own stories of assault and to proclaim that boasting about sexual assault and excusing it are not acceptable in our society.
God invites us to join with these prophetic voices: to become like the widow, and speak and act up. We’re beginning to explore how to do that not only individually, but as a faith community, with the leadership of our new Justice and Advocacy Team.
We can learn from this parable by striving to follow the example of the widow, on our own, and together. And there’s another possibility, too. Some argue that in this parable, we do best to see God herself in the person of the widow. Looking at the story this way, all of us, as imperfect members of a flawed society, represent the unjust judge. But God will not let us rest. She comes to us, again and again, saying: Grant me justice. She comes to us, again and again, until we cannot help but surrender to her call.
There is some Good News in our holy scriptures. Good news for us, but not only for us. Good news for the widow, good news for the poor, good news for black lives, good news for women. I have to admit that although I had no reason to be surprised I was still shaken to hear a presidential candidate speak in the way we heard one speak last week. I am white, I have financial and educational privilege, and I have never been assaulted. But I spent years being cat-called daily in major American cities. I know what it is to fear for my own safety on the street. I have far too often had the experience of being disrespected as a person and a professional because of my gender. The language in our news makes me nauseous. It makes me grieve for the women and men who have experienced sexual assault and are now being forced to relive it; odds are, several are among us today. It makes me afraid for both of my children, and how their minds and hearts and bodies will be twisted by our culture.
How can we make sure that we are doing all that we can in our own lives to respect and honor women as children of God, made in the image of God? How can we put into action the radical idea that women are people? If God comes to us as the widow demanding justice for women, how do we need to change?
Just like racism, sexism is interwoven into our society. All of us are in a process of unlearning it. All of us are in a process of recovery, women included. Most of us, thank the Living God, do not need help understanding that sexual assault is immoral as well as illegal. However, we need to keep working on so many other things. We need to keep working on not interrupting women, and not explaining things to women; on listening to women and giving women credit for their own ideas. We need to keep working on not judging women for their choices about clothing, sexuality, and motherhood, or holding women to impossible and even contradictory standards. We need to keep working on paying women more fairly, and promoting them more often, especially women of color. We need to keep working on making it safe to report sexual discrimination and assault and holding those who commit these crimes accountable.
If you are a man, please continue to increase your awareness of benevolent sexism: complements or jokes or touches that are meant well and yet are unwelcome and demeaning. I cannot tell you how many times I have paused in a professional setting, trying to come up with a response that is light-hearted enough to be heard and yet clear enough to communicate the inappropriateness of what has just occurred.
All of us can watch how we interact with children, helping them to do better than we have done. We can allow them to decide when they want to be hugged or tickled. We can to teach them to respect each others bodies, that “no” means “no,” that everyone gets to decide if and how they want to be touched. We can start conversations with girls and young women with something other than a comment on their appearance. We can support boys and young men in expressing a full range of emotions. We can demand respectful language from our children and engage in conversation whenever we see things around us which are not as they should be.
Today’s gospel is good news. No matter what happens, Jesus reminds us, pray always and do not lose heart. Hate and evil do not have the final word, because our God is a God of love. Our God is a God who loves justice. Our God is a God who calls and empowers us to be prophets, speaking up again and again until the unjust judges of the world finally yield. Our God is a God who will not let any of us alone until justice invades our own hearts and minds, and we become good news for all of our neighbors. Thanks be to God.
Here are a few wise words from others:
A chapel reflection from Stephanie Paulson, a Professor at Harvard Divinity School, on why the way we talk matters.
Advice from the Girl Scouts about how to talk with kids about sexist speech and behavior.
A viral article from the Huffington Post: “How to Talk to Little Girls.”
This video is a great (and humorous!) way to describe sexual consent with youth and adults.