Here’s where my faith broke down as a kid. Not this exact passage, but this exact promise. “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.” When I was a kid there was a famine ravaging Ethiopia, and a crime problem in my own city, AIDS was sweeping the country, I knew refugees from Cambodia, as well as veterans from the war that had made them into refugees, and the Cold War kept us keenly aware that nuclear armageddon was a bargaining chip. Martin Luther King had promised that the arc of history bent toward justice, but in my Virginia childhood, Martin Luther King shared a holiday with Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Lee Jackson King Day. You didn’t need to be very old to see that for what it was.
Once I learned to read the newspaper I learned to notice that God was not quickly granting justice. Not on the scale the Bible seems to promise. You could make an argument for modern progress, which had indeed brought major, if still incomplete, victories to oppressed groups and had also extended our life expectancy, but it had given us the ability to eradicate human life as well, and even without the ever-looming nuclear war, people were dying cruel, senseless, preventable deaths. They still are. God’s justice, one presumed, was still coming.
Today’s parable is pretty on-the-nose. It says right at the top that he told the disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He is preparing them for the in-between time, the time between Jesus’ death and his return. Probably none of them were thinking it would be at least two thousand years, but here we are. In the in-between time. The promise has been issued and the words hang in the air, still waiting for fulfillment.
The parable comes in from an unexpected angle, though. “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.” Remember how Jesus summarized the law. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your soul. And love your neighbor as yourself. A judge who does not fear God or respect people is not living by the law. It is, in fact, all we know about him. He is unlawful. An unjust judge.
The thorn in the judge’s side is a widow. Widows are especially protected and provided for by the law, because their position is especially precarious and vulnerable in a heavily patriarchal society. So, if you don’t think the judge was a jerk yet, he is now ignoring a widow’s plea for justice. We don’t know who her opponent is, but it appears the widow is in the right, and she is very persistent.
Our judge happily plays into character, saying “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone,” which, let’s just pause for a second and acknowledge how funny that line is. “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.” He sounds whiny and admits that he is withholding justice, but our translation is actually doing him a favor. The Greek word translated here as “wear me out” actually translates more literally as “give me a black eye.” Nothing suggests that violence was on the table, but he sure was scared of her. I want to meet this lady. She sounds awesome.
Justice is finally delivered to the widow, but not because the world is just. Justice is delivered because she fought like hell for it until injustice was just no longer worth all the trouble. And this, it seems, is kind of how it’s going to be in the in-between time. And that sucks. Martin Luther King said that the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice, and it seems to bend very slowly.
So what gives with Jesus promising that God delivers justice swiftly? Does God really stand as the opposite of the unjust judge, as Jesus suggests, or does it turn out that God also withholds justice somewhat capriciously? If you feel guilty or shameful for having these questions—and I’m just presuming that this isn’t the first time they’ve occurred to you—then realize that Jesus is preparing his disciples for just this sort of uncertainty. The in-between time is all promise, and no certainty.
How, then, do we get our bearings in the in-between time? First, remember that Jesus is not the only way in which God is present. The Holy Spirit was present at the very beginning, hovering over the primordial waters like a mother calling the new creation into birth, and has been present at every moment since. The Holy Spirit works by calling, by inspiring—breathing life into—the world. We might prefer a more inteventionalist, less resistable mode of creation at times. But the evidence isn’t there for it. The Holy Spirit acts as a call to join God’s household, to participate in the dream of God for the world. Jesus refers to our Spirit as our comforter. We may not witness the grand, sweeping transformation we desire, but we are not without the movement of God. We can see it on the granular level, in our day-to-day, in the moments of grace, kindness, and beauty that can work their way into the bleakest of places.
We are called, then, to live in this tension of realizing God’s grace around us and yet being keenly aware that the world is rife with injustice and violence. We can be grateful and yet also mourn, can cry for help and also rejoice at the goodness we experience. The world is vast and complex, and our experience of it should be allowed to match. In fact, if we don’t take notice of what is good, I have a hard time finding hope that the struggle for justice might be worthwhile. The complexity is worth acknowledging.
The last line of today’s Gospel gives us a compact way to orient ourselves. “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” That is, if Jesus were to return today, would he find people willing to recognize and join in his work?
In the in-between time, we are the hands and feet of Jesus, making God’s work known in the world. The Spirit beckons and calls, but we are the ones in the position of giving God’s word a physical voice and presence in the world. We are called to be like the widow in today’s Gospel. Vulnerable, loud, and persistent as hell. Voices calling for justice, irritating for justice, and accepting nothing less than justice, giving thanks all the while for the gift of faith.