Hungering for Justice: Luke 18: 1-8
22nd Sunday After Pentecost: Oct 16, 2016
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?”
Many of you know that my first vocation was what I sometimes refer to as a “non-traditional” ministry. Immediately after finishing my Master of Divinity and Master of Social Work studies I started working at Legal Services of New Jersey’s Poverty Research Institute, where my work included both research and policy advocacy – all related to poverty in New Jersey.
I bring up this bit of autobiography for two reasons:
First, because today is World Hunger Day, and congregations across the ELCA (our national denomination) are encouraged to reflect together on how the realities of hunger call for a response from our faith. And, because of my first vocation, I bring a lot of information and stories to that reflection.
I have seen hunger face-to-face.
In the course of several studies, my team and I interviewed scores and scores of people across New Jersey about the daily struggle to pay the rent, keep the heat on, find safe, reliable child care, pay for gas or the bus fare to get to work, refill essential prescriptions, AND somehow find enough left over to be able to eat every day.
Often, this last item on the list was the one to go. If you are short on the rent or the electric bill, you might get evicted or have the power shut-off. Whereas, if you skimp on food you’re “just” hungry.
I remember the story of one disabled widow who was barely hanging on. She would buy canned soup when it was on sale, and then ration herself, one can a day. She told us she would eat it at night, right before she went to bed, because she couldn’t sleep on an empty stomach.
That is what hunger looks like to me. That and far too many other unique, personal stories about strategies and sacrifices that none of God’s children should ever have to make. When I hear the word HUNGER, it’s not abstract. It’s the faces of people who have been brave enough to tell me their truth.
The second reason I share this part of my story is because of the tag line of the organization I worked for. It was very simple, only 2 words: “Just Justice”
Actually, it sounds simple but there is a lot of meaning crammed into those two words.
On the one hand it means – “all we want is justice – that’s our total focus”.
At the same time, it also means – “we want justice that really IS justice. Justice that is JUST”
I think that BOTH of those meanings are present in the persistent petition of the widow Jesus describes in today’s gospel parable.
Jesus does not tell us very much about this character in the parable, and he tells us even less about her complaint.
We know that she is a widow, who lives in a city;
We know that she is persistent in presenting her case;
And we know that she is seeking “justice” against an “opponent;”
That doesn’t seem like much detail, but actually the very first identifier – widow – would have raised an entire context of social responsibility in the minds of Jesus’s audience. Widows in Jesus’ time were “a special class in need of protection.” The patriarchal nature of the society meant that women were reliant on the men in their families for economic support, and also for legal protection. According to this system the widow would have no standing on her own, and would have needed a male family member to represent her case to the judge.
But apparently this system had broken down. We don’t know if she had no one who could represent her, or if part of the injustice she was experiencing had to do with this responsibility being dropped. Those details are not what Jesus focuses on.
What Jesus focuses on is her appeal for justice. Her persistent returning in search of “just justice.”
All I want is justice
Give me justice that is really justice.
This appeal is poignant in its persistence because that was ALL she had.
Her community had failed her.
The judge who could grant her justice was immune to appeals of conscience or religious obligation.
She was powerless to do anything other than to keep coming back and keep saying that word - JUSTICE – even though nothing in her circumstances suggested that justice was what she should expect.
This parable is a powerful story through which to reflect on the church’s obligation to respond to World Hunger for at least two reasons.
First, it is encouraging. Which is important, because without some encouragement, hunger can be incredibly overwhelming. After service today we will be looking at some of the resources from ELCA World Hunger and a partner organization Bread for the World to become a little more educated on the problem of hunger. Some of that information may be shocking. The sheer numbers of people who face hunger, the long-term, far-reaching effects in individuals’ lives, and the complex, convoluted webs of infrastructure, and power, and economics that all perpetuate systems in which the bounty of our world cannot reach all who need it….all of that can feel so big, and so immovable. What can one little congregation in Northern New Jersey do about World Hunger, after all?!
But in response to that question, this parable says “not to lose heart.”
Any rational, realistic assessment would say that the widow’s situation was completely hopeless. Even if the judge in the case had been righteous, by law and custom the widow still did not actually have the standing to talk to the judge at all, much less to pester him about her case. And then we consider that he is actually a caricature of injustice, having no respect for anyone but himself, and no shame even about this total self-centeredness and disregard for justice. Jesus goes out of his way to paint a picture of utter hopelessness.
And yet, the widow gets her justice. And Luke tells us that the whole point of Jesus telling this parable is for his followers to not lose heart in praying for what is right. Much as it flies in the face of pragmatism and American efficiency – an impossible challenge is no reason to give up.
The second way this parable speaks powerfully to the church – especially to the relatively advantaged, American church gathering on World Hunger Day – is by offering the challenge to recognize destitution as a matter of injustice.
We know almost nothing about the widow’s situation, but we don’t really need to, because we know she was a widow. We know that her vulnerability to injustice was built into a social system that devalued and disempowered her just because she was a woman who had lost the man who was supposed to protect her. Her very identity reflected a deep reality of injustice.
Widows are not necessarily as vulnerable today as they were 2,000 years ago, but poverty and hunger still all too frequently result from systemic, societal imbalances in the way that power and resources are accessed. And while every experience of hunger is deeply, painfully personal, that does not mean that the causes of widespread hunger can be addressed as entirely individual tragedies.
In a world that produces enough food for every single inhabitant to get more than enough calories each day, but where almost 800 million people (10% of the world’s population) do not get enough food each day to lead healthy lives, we cannot deny the reality that there is injustice in the access to food.
And if we accept the hope of this parable, the encouragement to not lose heart in the face of impossible problems, we cannot then simply shrug our shoulders at this injustice and say it is not of our making, or beyond our ability to do anything about it.
Almost 800 million of God’s children are suffering hunger.
In our country, nearly 16 million children face food insecurity.
Hunger is a systemic problem, and we are compelled to respond. After all, if even the unjust judge, who even describes himself as lacking any fear of God or respect for other people – if even he responds to the plea for justice, how can we do less?
We can’t, because we know that God does not, and as God’s redeemed people we are to be about the work of God’s kingdom.
That last bit is REALLY important, so I am going to repeat it.
As God’s redeemed people, we are to be about the work of God’s kingdom. The order of those phrases is very intentional.
The beginning points is that we are God’s redeemed people. That means that God did the work of our redemption. There can be a fear in the church that talking about justice from the pulpit undercuts our trust in the gift of grace through faith – but that is not what I am saying.
Justice is not the work of Justification. We do not need to earn God’s love or forgiveness through anything we do – it fact we cannot. We could devote our lives to acts of mercy and justice and that would make absolutely NO DIFFERENCE to God’s loving welcome that we receive through the gift of faith in Christ.
But that doesn’t mean that work for justice is meaningless.
If even the unjust judge ends up using the power he has to grant justice, we must also use whatever power we have to end the crisis of hunger.
If Jesus declares that God will grant justice to his chosen ones who cry out, should we not cry out day and night?
The solutions may not be clear or easy, and the task may seem impossibly large, but we serve a God of Justice. And the God of Justice has called us to be a people of justice. If, unlike the unjust judge, we fear God and respect our fellow-humans, then far more than he, let us be a people who cry out, who even hunger, for justice.
 Hear Then the Parable: A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus, Bernard Brandon Scott, p. 175.
 Data from ELCA World Hunger resources: http://www.elca.org/Our-Work/Relief-and-Development/ELCA-World-Hunger; http://www.elca.org/Our-Work/Relief-and-Development/ELCA-World-Hunger/Hunger-Education