In one of Jesus’ parables, he begins by telling us about a judge “who neither feared God nor had respect for people.” It is not a very hopeful beginning and, sure enough, it doesn’t take long for us to learn that, in the same city, there was a widow who sought the protection of the Law. (J.B. Philips translated her cry as: “Please protect me from the man who is trying to ruin me.”) As we would expect, the judge refuses. That much all feels predictable. What else could happen? The decision is already made. And there isn’t much room for hope, because we already know what the judge is like. In the set up, this is sad, but unsurprising. So we listen a little longer:
“In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my accuser.’ 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.’” (Luke 18, NRSVUE)
It’s the kind of story that can both amuse and haunt you. I can imagine the hearers chuckling at the image of the self-important judge being followed and harassed by the persistent widow, until he finally gives in to her demands. But after a little reflection, the story lingers, touching our own memories and unfulfilled hopes. We realize that this is a story of desperation, driving a woman to defy social conventions and expectations. What would cause a person to take such a risk? It’s likely that she was trying to secure her financial future after the death of her husband. Especially if there was not a written agreement, other family members could have made a claim on what was owed to her. Losing that claim would mean certain poverty, and probably starvation and death.
The Torah provides protections for just such situations. Rav Binyamin Zimmerman explained that the Torah singles out people who are particularly vulnerable, such as orphans and widows, explicitly because “their unfortunate circumstances” often leave them “unable to demand or defend their rights” -
“The Torah prohibits afflicting them while simultaneously requiring that they receive preferential kindness. The Torah doesn’t stop with a prohibition; it goes on to express the utter disdain that God has for those who violate it and the harshness which will be displayed against perpetrators of this conduct. This message is clear: not only is it forbidden, but it will not be tolerated in any manner.”
This is not an understatement. In Exodus 22, for example, we read:
“You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.” (NRSVUE)
So, we have a tradition that explicitly sets out to protect vulnerable people. Moreover, it promises that, if they are not protected, their cries against injustice will be heard and divine wrath will find the abusers. The threat is stark: if you abuse the orphan and the widow, then you’re inviting your own death. Your own children and wives will become orphans and widows. To abandon and abuse the vulnerable was to abandon and abuse the covenant, and to make the community itself vulnerable to the violence of powerful enemies and empires, killed with the sword.
Jesus’ story holds all these familiar elements, except that the judge is unjust. The judge can’t be motivated or persuaded by a fear of God (not even the threat of that burning wrath) or by a concern for humans (not even a vulnerable one). He’s a bad man, to be sure, but we know a situation like this requires more than just a single, greedy judge. The law was supposed to prevent just this kind of thing. It’s not easy to get people to go along with blatantly rejecting something central to their culture. A more subtle touch is required. In this case, you needed to rely on the hard work of scribal retainers who could help massage those troublesome laws into a more exploitable shape. As William Herzog describes it:
“The task of scribal retainers was to recodify laws in such a way that they seemed to support justice while actually protecting and expanding the prerogatives of the ruling elites. In other words, law codes were part of the cover story, the pursuit of justice, that masked the real story, the extension of power and control.”
The setting of Jesus’ story, then, didn’t happen by accident. The kind of injustice the widow experienced was by design. That a judge could come to power who didn’t care about justice or compassion was by design. That someone was ready and willing to expose a human being to poverty, in order to expand their wealth or extend their power was by design. And that was the heart of the injustice: someone was willing to use the widow’s vulnerable position as an opportunity for their own gain, and the judge was inclined to let them get away with it. There is some probability that this was also how the judge made his own living, taking a cut when those with more power used the court to rob the vulnerable. The ideals of justice are turned on their head; instead of protecting the marginalized, the system is used to further exploit them.
The widow faces an impossible dilemma. The judge has such a reputation that a quiet appeal to either the Torah or their common humanity is likely to fail. But to give up on her claim is likely the same as giving up on life, cast aside into a desperate economic situation. So, she decided to go public. She wouldn’t leave the judge alone. Herzog points out that her persistence is also in her focus. She doesn’t denounce him, and she doesn’t try to appeal to either his honor or compassion. Instead, she is unrelenting in her demand for justice. Turning the tables on a system that wore down the vulnerable, she wears out the unjust judge: “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 … .'"
It’s a situation we can recognize, from the protestor marching in the streets to the whistleblower handing over evidence. Unjust systems don’t usually celebrate their injustice. No, they like to keep the oppression hidden and often even publicly champion the ideals that they privately undermine. As Walter Wink expressed it:
“When anyone steps out of the system and tells the truth, lives the truth, that enables everyone else to peer behind the curtain, too. . . . Anyone who steps out of line therefore denies it in principle and threatens it in its entirety. . . . If the main pillar of the system is living a lie, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living the truth.”
It’s possible that the judge gave into the widow in a calculated move. The case could have become too risky, and the financial loss of siding with the widow cost less than what could have become a public outcry. Besides, giving in to her demands could then be used to prop up the court’s reputation for justice, providing the unjust judge better cover for future injustices. The story doesn’t include any heartfelt, happy anecdotes about how the judge, or the widow’s adversary, had a change of heart. There is no indication that the system has been changed. Doubtless, a similar situation would happen again soon enough. Doubtless, different strategies would need to be used in the future. But in at least this moment, the widow was heard, her needs were met, and there was a little more justice in the world.
That’s a glimmer of hope for everyone who, like the widow, is pushing back against injustice. We know something of what it feels like to exist in a world where oppression is so commonplace that it is just normal. We know something of what it feels like to accommodate injustice by all the little necessities of everyday life, with a guilty wave of the hand – “I don’t like it, but this is just the way things are.” There are just so many things to protest, so many issues that are important and urgent, so many ways to become overwhelmed.
This, too, is part of the point. Luke prefaces the parable with his own explanation for the tale: Jesus shared this story in order to remind us “to pray always and not to lose heart.” Today, we might talk about activist burnout, compassion fatigue, climate anxiety, and racial equity fatigue. Across centuries and cultures, we can recognize one another. We know what it means to look honestly at all the urgent issues of the day and feel ourselves quiver under the weight. We know what it means to lose heart.
I thought a long time about all the connections this story has with both humanity’s long history of injustice and our current headlines. In the end, I decided to just let the parable stand as it is. It’s likely your heart has already made those connections. We can recognize a world where those in need are ignored by those in power, where those in power are unjust, and where the marginalized and oppressed must wear themselves out just to be heard. There is a feeling of justice being delayed; more than this, justice is delayed so long that justice-seekers lose heart and give up.
In Jesus’ story, faith is depicted as persistence in the face of that long delay. Readers and scholars have often concluded that the story was especially included to encourage the early church to persevere during times of persecution. Luke extends the story with a brief commentary, comparing an unjust judge with a just God, who promises that long delayed justice will be real, and very soon. Behind this is a confidence that the unjust judge is an aberration, the thing that doesn’t fit - that, as Martin Luther King, Jr., taught us, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” This is a matter of faith, though not a “believe this or else” kind of mental assent. Instead, it is a kind of confidence that what we are doing is worthwhile, even when the results seem far off.
If Jesus’ parable is meant to encourage us to “not lose heart,” it includes this reminder to recognize and celebrate the small moments. Was the judge or adversary transformed? No. Was the standard of protecting the vulnerable restored in the court? No. Did the public show up in solidarity with a fellow human being in need? No. There was not risk that this victory would be confused with the just, compassionate kingdom that Jesus’ followers were waiting for. But did a widow win her claim and avoid getting crushed under the economic and patriarchal violence of her city? Yes. And did her story help keep alive a vision that things could be different, and that those differences are worth working together to make into something real? Yes.
There are all sorts of way to lose heart, whatever name we give it. In a chapter on “Non-Attachment to Outcome,” Donald Rothberg points out some of the ways that we may “shy away from committed action,” including:
- “Losing sight of our deeper intentions”;
- “Fear of acting authentically”;
- “Despair, burnout, and a sense of powerlessness”; and
- “‘Spiritual’ suspicions about committed action.”
If our compassion and wisdom are dependent on getting the perfect outcome, then they will inevitably fail. What is required is training our heart-minds to know and practice compassion and wisdom, even in the face of limited success, and even in failure. Because the less attached to outcomes we are, the freer we are to honestly understand and respond to our ever-changing circumstances, and we are more able to relax into the compassion and wisdom that we’ve developed. This is also why we emphasize cultivating a reflective or spiritual practice, as individuals and in community, as a key part of working for social change.
With this in mind, it is useful to remember that even small practices can make a big difference. We are aiming for creating habits that strengthen the heart. For example, for decades now, every time I sit down to meditate, I set a simple intention: “In these next moments, may I be present with my experience with openness, kindness, and gratitude, so that wisdom may arise.” That simple aspiration soon worked itself into more and more moments of my life, so that now I catch myself resolving to be present with openness, kindness, and gratitude whenever I start a task or find myself in a difficult or stressful situation.
When we practice in this way, those qualities become a resource to us, even when conditions are not ideal, and even when the conditions would otherwise overwhelm us. To not lose heart, we must train the heart.