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									Stanford Memorial Church
October 17, 2010

                           THE WIDOW AND THE JUDGE
                            C. George Fitzgerald, S.T.D.,

Psalter:       Psalm 119.97-104
Gospel:        Luke 18.1-8

        Jesus was obviously a masterful and charismatic teacher. How else can we
account for the throngs of people that flocked to hear him, almost from the outset of his
ministry? Among the many teaching resources he utilized, one of the most common—
and effective—was the use of parables and stories. When the religious authorities tried to
trip him up with trick questions—“shall we pay taxes to Caesar or not,” “or which
neighbor should I provide care for?”—he would invariably pull out a story, which not
only addressed the question, but reframed and answered it with a startling new insight.

        In all probability he was influenced by a good many examples found in the
Hebrew Scriptures. One of the most riveting occurs during the reign of David, Israel’s
greatest king, as a result of his adulterous behavior with Bathsheba, His abuse of power,
by having her husband killed in battle, is denounced by the prophet Nathan (2 Samuel
12ff), who came to David and told him this story, “’There were two men in a certain city,
the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the
poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up,
and it grew up with him and with his children . . . and it was like a daughter to him. Now
there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or
herd to prepare for the wayfarer. . but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared it for
the guest who had come to him.’ Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the
man. He said to Nathan, ‘As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die;
he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.’
Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man’” Talk about the arrow hitting the bull’s eye—
and the power of parables!

        Centuries after Jesus, President Abraham Lincoln demonstrated this same ability
to draw upon a story, seemingly on the spot, which addressed the question at hand, while
answering it with a new insight or perspective. If you have read Team of Rivals, the
marvelous book by Doris Kerns Goodwin, then you know how frequently Lincoln was
criticized and under attack, often by his own cabinet members. It might involve
Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, or Secretary of State, William Seward, with one or the
other criticizing Lincoln or their having an acrimonious dispute between themselves.
Time after time, in these explosive situations, Lincoln had a gift of Introducing a story,
often from childhood farming experiences, which had a way of calming them down and
suggesting a way out of their dilemma. This common usage of stories and parables
between Jesus and Abraham Lincoln is not so surprising when we learn that Lincoln’s
self-education essentially consisted of reading the Bible, a few classics, and
Shakespeare—probably the richest vein in our literary heritage.



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         When we read the Gospel of Luke, we find it abounds with parables and stories.
Two of the parables have become classics and have served as inspirations for countless
artists over the centuries. The first parable occurs in the tenth chapter of Luke and is
universally known as The Good Samaritan. This model of an unexpected extension of
care to a stranger in need has attained almost mythic status. One of the greatest
compliments that an individual can receive is to be described as “A Good Samaritan.”
And there are probably thousands of hospitals and medical centers around the world, in
addition to programs that provide social and financial support, that have the name
“Samaritan” in their title.

         The second, and perhaps even more universally proclaimed parable, is found in
the fifteenth chapter of Luke and is universally known and treasured as “The Prodigal
Son.” It has become a classic model of a self-indulgent young man being transformed by
repentance and forgiveness. Almost anyone who has ever lived can identify with the
universal dynamics: we make a mess of things in relation to a significant person in our
life; we experience a deep sense of guilt and regret; we make an effort to turn things
around and get our life back on the right track; we repent; and, if we are fortunate, we
experience forgiveness and a sense of renewal. For centuries countless artists have
attempted to capture that moment of transforming forgiveness, my particular favorite
being the Return of the Prodigal by Rembrandt, proudly displayed in the Hermitage in St.
Petersburg. A good many writers have also been engaged by the theme, such as John
Steinbeck in his novel East of Eden which became a compelling film, starring the tragic
young actor James Dean. A good many biblical scholars like to point out the real name
for this parable should not be The Prodigal Son but rather The Prodigal Father whose
love and forgiveness surpasses anything the son, or elder brother, could have imagined.

        The brief parable given by Jesus, in today’s Gospel lesson, pales by comparison
to the grand sweep of either the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son. It is a bit like
comparing a short story to a fully developed novel. It entails just two characters; it is
rather brief; and the action consists of a widow persistently imploring a judge to make a
decision in her favor. I suspect that very few artists have been inspired to render the
interchange as a significant piece of art. On the other hand, the very brevity of the
parable offers us an opportunity exercise a little imagination about the dynamics of the
interaction.

         Let’s begin with the widow. In all likelihood she would be a member of the dregs
of her society. In the Hebrew scriptures, the prophets were forever reminding the Jews
that faith in God must include care for widows, the poor and orphans—the perennial
icons of poverty in that culture. If there was a social ladder, she was still working on the
first rung. Nor was there much likelihood for improvement. Yet there was something
within her that simply refused to accept the status quo. She somehow felt she had a just
cause, and she was not going to remain silent in the face of any abuse or exploitation. In
spite of her abject poverty, she was not about to be beaten down any further. What was
it that made the difference for her?




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        Perhaps this past week you heard on NPR the interview with Condoleezza Rice,
pertaining to a book she just completed on her childhood in Birmingham, Alabama.
When questioned about how her family and their friends managed to cope with the
racism so rampant around them, she responded that the family rule was never to respond
to the racial pressures as a victim. “To be a victim was a cardinal sin.” Her family took
seriously the biblical perspective that to be created in the image of God was to be special,
regardless of race or any other condition. Perhaps this is what made such a difference for
the widow in Jesus’ parable. She had a sense of hope, of taking herself seriously
because, in her inner self, she knew she was special to God

         Moreover, she may have found some support from two or three other widows who
were a part of her social group. Study after study has validated the invaluable role a
social support group can play in our lives: whether looking for a job, dealing with an
illness, overcoming alcoholism, going through a divorce, coping with a serious illness,
adjusting to a nursing home, or grieving the death of a loved one. So it may well be that
when the widow put on the best clothes she could find and decided to go to the other side
and town to plead her case before the judge, two or three of her widow friends were
standing in the background—providing what support they could. Today they might be
carrying a sign or saying something like, “You go girl!” But I am not sure how that
translates into the biblical language of the day.

         This brings us to the judge. He is described by Jesus, somewhat enigmatically, as
someone who “neither feared God nor had respect for the people.” Curiously, this sounds
like a description that may be taken in one of two contradictory ways. One the one hand,
this could be understood quite negatively. This guy was jut one more of one of those
despots who considered himself equal to, if not superior to, any god; and he treated his
subjects brutally. This sounds somewhat reminiscent of that old joke about “how do you
tell the difference between a surgeon and God;” the answer being, “God, knows he is not
a surgeon.” So in this instance, “God knew he was not the king.” But, on the other hand,
and much more positively, the judge had no fear of God because he had experienced the
love of God and how it might permeate his reign. Because he had “no fear of the
people,” he could not be bought, and he treated his subjects equally with justice and
mercy.

        Regardless of whether he was a tyrannical despot or a just and responsible
monarch, he now finds himself confronted by a poor widow, with no position or
resources whatsoever, pleasing for him to “Grant me justice against my opponent.” We
are not told who the “opponent” was, possibly a miserly landlord trying to evict her from
the hovel she called home. But what tremendous courage it took for the widow to persist
in her pleading, which may have may have been unrelenting over a period of weeks—
possibly months. Finally, the judge relents. We do not know what made the difference,
but it appears that the widow’s pleading touched an inner sense of compassion.

       But let us imagine for a moment what it would have been like if we were
members of that first century crowd and hearing this story from Jesus for the very first
time. Let’s look around and see who is standing with us. A few were poor fishermen.



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Many others were probably trying to eke out a living as farmers. They would have no
difficulty getting the point of the story. They would have readily identified with the
widow; they knew what it was like to be poor and oppressed. They might have shaken
their heads over how gutsy—for maybe fool-hearty—the widow was in her relentless
pleading. But her request was granted. Of course the deeper spiritual message is that we
should not give up on God because God’s compassion will ultimately be extended to us.

       Now let us do another exercise and turn the clock ahead a couple of thousand
years. We are walking across the Stanford campus and we come across a huge crowd
composed of students and faculty as well as citizens of Palo Alto. We ask, “What’s
going on?” We are told that this man is his early 30s recently appeared on campus and he
seems to be some kind of Jesus figure. We draw close to hear what he is saying and draw
our own conclusions. And he proceeds to tell the very same story abut the widow and the
judge. Now who do we identify with? I suspect very few of us would identify with the
widow, unless we came from a small village in Guatemala where the average income is
$2.00 a day, or if we hailed from the poorer parts of India, or Africa, or Bangladesh or
any one of the numerous other poorer parts of the world; and if, by some miracle, we
happened to be walking across the Stanford campus. No, lets face it; the shoe has been
placed on the other foot. In all probability we would be identifying with the judge.

        So what are we going to do with this widow who on occasion pleads with us in
the form of a homeless person standing on the corner while we are waiting for the light to
change? Or maybe the widow has been terribly abused and is helping to raise funds for a
shelter for battered women. Or maybe the widow is a starving child, barely maintained
by programs such as the Heifer project? But we know these widows are ever about us
and assume so many different forms. May their pleadings not fall on deaf ears. May
God grant us—as individuals and as a society—to respond with justice, care and
compassion. Amen.




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