We have jumped over the second half of Luke 17 for this week’s gospel reading, and it is helpful to note that the passage leading into this parable is full of warnings about difficult days ahead. With this in mind, we can see why Jesus wants to teach the disciples about their need to “pray always and not to lose heart.” Jesus has just compared the days ahead to the day that Noah entered the ark and the flood came and destroyed everyone. He has just compared the days ahead to the day that Lot left Sodom and sulfur and fire rained down and destroyed all of the people there. The future looks pretty rough, so disciples of Jesus might have reason to lose heart.
In the parable, we have a widow who keeps coming to a judge, asking that he grant her justice against her opponent. Most of us are probably already familiar with the realities of being widowed in first century Israel. Among the most vulnerable people in society, widows had to struggle to survive in a society that assumed a male provider and protector, often with kids in tow. They were often very poor, and it would be difficult for them to do things like hire an advocate to represent them in court. Women were not supposed to speak in court, so without a paid advocate, they might have no representation whatsoever and little hope of winning against opponents who were usually in places of relative power and privilege. Like vulnerable people today, they were often victims of systemic exploitation.
Ideally, judges exist to help protect people like widows against others who would take advantage of them. This is why there are so many stipulations in the Jewish legal code against judges taking bribes and being influenced by people with power and status. Like many other judges, this judge doesn’t care about any of that. This judge has no fear of God and no respect for anyone. This judge is basically accountable to nobody and nothing, so he is ripe for taking bribes and acting primarily out of self-interest.
This widow is stuck. She has no leverage on the judge. There is no reason that he should listen to her or take her side in this case. If she conforms to social expectations, there is almost nothing that she can do to help her own cause. But instead of losing heart, instead of giving up, she speaks up. She comes back again and again. She acts completely inappropriately. She isn’t even supposed to speak in court, and yet she does, over and over again. In doing so she embarrasses herself, but she also embarrasses everyone else, including the judge. The judge says, “I will grant her justice so that she may not wear me out by continually coming (NRSV).” More literally, he says that he’ll grant her justice so that she won’t “assault me” or “give me a black eye.” The judge who doesn’t even fear God has become worried about being victimized by this seemingly powerless widow.
So this woman with no bargaining power, no way to appeal to a higher authority, no advocate, and no reason to hope in her case is willing to step into the extremely uncomfortable place of hopeless and socially inappropriate protest to this judge over and over again, and it’s her willingness to embarrass herself and persevere that eventually convinces the judge to grant her justice.
I can’t help but be reminded of Job. Job, too, finds himself powerless as terrible injustice befalls him. Job, too, sees the one who should be responsible for justice standing by, refusing to intercede on his behalf. Job, too, persistently speaks out in protest. The way that Job frames his argument puts God on trial with God as the judge. He brings his case against God, to God, and demands that God answer him. Job’s friends try to talk sense into him. They set out to defend God. They try to get Job to quit his inappropriate protest. But Job persists. He refuses to be silent. And eventually, God answers.
God’s answer to Job is blistering. Job gets flattened by the God who demands to know where Job was when God created the world. God puts Job in his place. But ultimately, God does answer Job. God even tells Job’s friends that Job has spoken rightly. It is the friends, who tried to defend God against Job, who need Job to pray for them. Job, even in his inappropriate protest, has spoken well and shown his faithfulness.
Job did not force an answer from God any more than the widow forced a resolution from the judge. Both God in Job and the judge in the parable have their own agency and respond on their own terms. But these are the examples that scripture gives us about how to pray to God in difficult times. When we face injustice or hardship, when we don’t understand how God could allow this or that to happen, when we are dumbfounded at the darkness of the world and the horror of it all, when we are desperate for our pain and suffering to end, we are supposed to look to this persistent widow as our example. We look to Job as our example.
And neither of them acted appropriately. Both of them embarrassed themselves in protest. Both of them refused to be silenced. Both of them refused dismissals. They cried out to the one who could give them justice until they received an answer.
Too often we in the church spend our time and energy trying to defend God against the people who are crying out in desperation. Too often we want to solve the theodicy question. We want to explain why God allows bad things to happen. Too often we try to smooth things over, worried that people will abandon the faith in their hardship. But does God need us to defend God? Does God need us to give unsatisfactory answers to people who are suffering grave injustice so that they don’t hurt God’s feelings or God’s reputation with their words?
God hasn’t called us to silence those who cry out to God in protest. Instead, God has called us to speak prophetically, and prophetic speech works in two directions. Prophets are intermediaries between God and humanity. They speak the truth to people on behalf of God, and they also speak the truth to God on behalf of the people.
What if next time we heard somebody complaining about God, angry with God, even cursing God, we joined them in their protest. What if, instead of trying to correct them or push down their feelings, we said, “Let me cry out to God with you.” Better yet, what if we could invite people to gather with the church to cry out to God together? When somebody said, “I don’t know how I can believe in God with the amount of suffering I see in the world,” we might respond, “Yeah, we’re pretty upset about that, too. Want to come and yell at God with us?” Sometimes I think we’re afraid that if we cry out to God, and God doesn’t respond, then we’ll lose faith. But, if we refuse to cry out, haven’t we lost faith already?
God has given us permission, even instruction, to badger God with our cries of injustice. Will we devote our energy, our hearts to crying out to the Lord? Or will we lose heart? Will we join even Christ as he joins those who suffer in crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken [us]?” Or will we give up on God and look elsewhere for our help?
Jesus, here, is inviting us to make a scene. Jesus invites us to demand an answer, to break protocol and cry out against the injustice that we face in this world, demanding that the God who has made covenant with us respond. Jesus invites us to join those who suffer deeply in protest. We might get flattened. But when the Son of Man comes, he will find faith in those who have cried out in protest. They will be the ones who have spoken well. They’ll be the ones who have demonstrated faith that God has committed Godself to us, and that God won’t abandon us to the darkness and suffering of this world. They are the ones with faith that even the horrors of this world can be redeemed. They are those with faith that the righteous judge will not let injustice stand. I hope that our faith, too, compels us to pray always and not lose heart.