Fellow saint and sinner Saskia de Vries is a neuroscientist in Seattle, Washington and has posted before at this intersection between God and life. She, like so many of us, is grappling with the tragedies of Eric Garner and Michael Brown and the larger systemic problem they seem to reveal—namely, a pattern of police brutality against African Americans in this country.
And, on the heels of this week’s release of the U.S. Senate report documenting our country’s use of torture, I suggest that Saskia’s reflections have even broader prophetic resonance for the American church. How we treat people—no matter what they look like or the color of their skin—is a “litmus test” of our faith, according to Jesus.
Here is Saskia with some timely and profound reflections on the story Jesus tells of the persistent widow:
A couple years ago, I preached a sermon on the Faith of Christ. Looking at some of the healing stories in the Gospels, I talked about how the faith of Christ is not about believing things, it’s not accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior, it’s not about trusting that Jesus was the Messiah. The faith of Christ is knowing that all people are valued and actively caring for them. It’s knowing that a bleeding woman, a slave, or a Samaritan leper, are just as worthy as a prominent Rabbi. It’s valuing people, even people that aren’t valued by society.
One of the passages that helped me see this was the Parable of Persistent Widow (Luke 18:1-8):
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ ” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:1-8)
Luke tells us from the start that this is a parable about the need to pray always and be persistent. It is strikingly similar to the parable of the friend at midnight (Luke 11), knocking on the door at midnight asking for bread. Jesus taught, “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door shall be opened for you.” (Luke 11:9). It sounds like this parable is more of the same. It is the gospel of the squeaky wheel: complain, and you will receive; whine, and it shall be given unto you. Yet, many have cautioned against this interpretation. After all, how many of us have found our most ardent prayers unanswered, despite our persistence. No, this is not a parable about persistent prayer.
This parable comes right after Jesus had been teaching his disciples about the “days of the Son of Man.” The days will be sudden and unannounced. “I tell you,” Jesus said, “on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left.” (Luke 17: 34) It will be obvious when it comes, Jesus tells them, but there will be no signs that it is coming. So you’d better be ready. Immediately he tells them about the widow and the judge, concluding “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” The important question, Jesus tells us, is not when will the Son of Man come, but when he does come, will he find faith? This parable is not about prayer so much as it is about faith.
But where is the faith in this parable? There’s nothing in the parable about beliefs, no trust, and not even any mention of Jesus. Instead what we find is a widow who refuses to shut up. We all know a widow is a woman whose husband has died. However, the Hebrew word used in the Bible for widow, almanah, actually conveys something a bit different. It wasn’t just that an almanah was a woman who had lost her husband, but in the process she was left without financial support. There are women in the Bible whose husbands died who are never referred to by this word: Ruth, Naomi, Orpah, Abigail. While these women had lost their husbands, they had maintained a means of support. But the widows, the almanot, in the Bible, they had no support. They were poor, destitute really, and more than that, they lacked any social standing. Indeed, the word almanah derives from the root alam, which meant to be concealed, to be put to silence. Widows were women who had been silenced, who had no voice, had no standing in society. As such, women had not standing to appeal to a judge on their own behalf. So the fact that the judge refused her is not necessarily an indictment against him, not completely. I would even argue that the fact that he finally grants her justice is an act of faith on his part. It may be delayed, and it might not even be for the right reasons, but in the end he grants her justice. This judge, who neither fears God nor respects people, was finally faithful… and yet, will the Son of Man find faith on earth?
The Bible, from the Torah through the prophets and into the new testament gospels and letters, instructs us to care for widows (eg. Deuteronomy 24:17, Isaiah 1:17, Jeremiah 7:6, Zechariah 7:10). It’s not about bringing old women casseroles after their husbands pass away, or about making sure someone cleans out their gutters in the fall. It’s about not letting the almanot be concealed and left without a voice. It is mentioned so often that the welfare of the widow becomes a litmus test of the moral character of Israel. So from its outset, this parable in and of itself is an indictment for all of God’s people. A widow being denied justice is the very definition of unrighteousness, of faithlessness – not just for the judge, but for everyone. Whatever the situation is that she is begging for justice, it should never have reached this point. Someone should have intervened on her behalf long ago. Some one with standing should be pleading the judge on her behalf, and a just judge, someone who does fear God and have respect for people, should have quickly granted her justice. But instead, the widow is left to plead her own case, while everyone around her wishes she’d just be quiet.
In the past few months and weeks I’ve been stunned by the deaths of black men killed at the hands of police officers. I’ve been confused by the justice system returning grand jury decisions that I don’t understand. I’ll be the first to say that I don’t know exactly what to do about the situation. I honestly haven’t read that much about the different incidents, only enough to know that Michael Brown and Eric Garner should not be dead. I’ve read enough to know that it’s about more than those two men, that the justice system works differently for black people in our country than for white. And I’ve read more than enough to know that something has to change. When I hear “I can’t breathe” or “hands up don’t shoot”, I hear the voice of the widow begging the unjust judge. “I can’t breathe” is quite literally the cry of one who has been silenced, an almanah. Justice is being denied. We are failing at faith.
We need to fix this. I have no panacea to offer. But I know that I must add my voice to those who cry with the almanot. Because black lives matter. I know we cannot wish that people would just be quiet, that the protests would fade away so we can get back to our lives. Because black lives matter. And I know we need to acknowledge and correct the racism that continues to pervade our justice system and our country. Because black lives matter.
We’ve been called to grant justice to the widow. Over and over again, we’ve been called to grant justice to those who are oppressed and those who have been silenced. This is our litmus test. Let’s get this right. So that when the Son of Man comes, he will find faith on earth.