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The Parable of the Unjust System

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Oct 16

Text: 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 [all the more] to the chosen ones who cry to God day and night? Will the Lord delay long in helping them? I tell you, God will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”'

So were you as surprised as I was this week to hear that Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature? Yes, there was the on-point observation about the lack of female Nobel winners, well-captured in one pundit’s tweet: ‘the-times-they-ain’t-a-changin.’ True that, and shameful. Still, I welcomed the opportunity to turn my heart and tune my ears to the genius of Dylan’s lyrics, to be reminded again of his gift for story-telling and passion for justice. Partly because I had our parable from Luke in mind, I was also struck by how the people in Dylan’s lyrics, whether fictional or historic, can sometimes resemble characters from the stories and parables of Jesus, like the one we just read – the Parable of the Persistent Widow, or of the Unjust Judge, as it’s also known. The line that judge says, “I’ll grant her justice so that she may not wear me out” is literally translated “so that she may not punch me in the eye.” This widow is clearly a fighter. She’s got her case! She’s got the truth of her experience! She’s got a fiery faith inside of her that tells her she need not be cowed by the unjust judge. Her faith is in God’s honest truth!

It so happens that Bob Dylan would often include judges in his lyrics, rarely with any affection. From early on in his career, in songs like “The Ballad of Hattie Carroll” or “The Death of Emmett Till,” he belts out scathing critiques of unjust judges and juries, and sings of how the decks are stacked against women and persons of color. In one of his more popular songs, he recounts the story about Rubin “the Hurricane” Carter, an African American prize fighter born in Paterson, NJ, just down the street from where I grew up.

All of Rubin's cards were marked in advance
The trial was a pig-circus, he never had a chance
The judge made Rubin's witnesses drunkards from the slums
To the white folks who watched he was a revolutionary bum
...
The D.A. said he was the one who did the deed
And the all-white jury agreed
Rubin Carter was falsely tried
..
And the newspapers, they all went along for the ride

How can the life of such a man
Be in the palm of some fool's hand
To see him obviously framed
Couldn't help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land
Where justice is a game!

As if that weren’t enough, check out the last verse:

Now all the criminals in their coats and their ties
Are free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise
While Rubin sits like Buddha in a ten-foot cell
An innocent man in a living hell,
That's the story of the Hurricane
But it won't be over till they clear his name

Maybe not the most literary example of Dylan’s writing, but it’s a pretty good punch in the eye, don’t you think? His words and inimitable voice ring out truth and justice. The song was released in 1975. Rubin wasn’t released until 1985 after serving 19 years for a homicide he did not commit.

Dylan’s lyrics paired with recent headlines have convinced me that we need a new reading of today’s parable from Luke. You see, usually, preachers focus on the widow’s persistent faith. Her fighting the good fight despite being knocked down again and again by the unjust judge. Sure, the guy’s a jerk but justice is served, eventually. And how much more will this be the case when God in Christ comes. So just hold on. Hang in. Stay calm. Just wait. Justice and freedom are coming, says God. Some day.

I actually looked up what I said the last time I preached on this text at my former church. My title was “A Precious Persistence.” Sure enough, I lifted up the persistent faith and fight of the widow. My words feel embarrassingly quaint, reading them now. Truth to tell, the context of our nation’s failing criminal justice system didn’t even occur to me then, back in 2001. On the contrary, I opened the sermon with a story about my dad recognizing a personal persistence in me that was forged through the blisters and calluses I gained trying day after day to get all the way across the monkey bars on our backyard swing set. The punch line of the sermon was that God, like my proud and loving dad, would look upon us, would look at our callused hands and hearts and be proud of the blisters we endured as we strove to get to the other side whenever life seemed unfair. I hardly made a mention of the unjust judge and related that part instead to some general statement about life’s unfairness. See what I mean about embarrassing and quaint? Today, those lines don’t begin to cut it. Life is unfair, to a lot of us. But I confess, at the time, I had little to no awareness of the already entrenched pattern of unfairness and injustice that real judges and real laws were manifesting in African American communities across the country. I knew about the ongoing scourge of racism, of course, preached against it, worked on bringing more affordable housing to city and suburb alike, but in the early 2000’s when I first preached that sermon, my life and work left me largely isolated from the fact that the prison-industrial complex was already in full swing. Larger prisons were being built, shareholders were making money, meanwhile African Americans were getting minimum mandatories for carrying dime bags of pot. When Dylan wrote his song about the Hurricane in 1975, there were just over 300,000 people in jail and prison. Today, there are 2.3 million and over seven million people on probation and parole.

Looking back now, how could I have been so clueless to this reality unfolding for urban communities just a few miles away, and to the despair it was breeding for families, and for the impact it would have for generations to come. Today, one out of three black men between the ages of 18 and 30 is in jail, in prison, on probation or parole. In some cities, like LA, Philly, Baltimore, and DC, the rate is 50 to 60 percent among young men of color! Think of what that would do to a family, a church or a community? Seriously look around here and now and imagine what that would do! How did I miss this tsunami just miles away? I had no clue at the time and I’m still only waking up to the racial injustice that is and has always been endemic in our criminal justice system. How could I have preached that sermon 15 years ago about some abstract existential persistence in the face of life’s unfairness when my urban colleagues and the communities they were serving were living it day and night, in courts and rapidly overcrowding prisons? Clearly I was living under a rock, a rock of my own white privilege. And in ways I know I can’t begin to imagine, I still am. I’m working on it, trying and failing and trying again. And I’m for sure looking for a new understanding of our parable of the unjust judge!

Did you hear the widow’s cry: “Grant me justice against my opponent!” Setting aside for a moment the fundamental lack of justice on display given our history of mass incarceration of black and brown bodies, what some have called a third wave of racial injustice following upon the terror of slavery and the terror of segregation, that cry “grant me justice against my opponent” is downright haunting in the wake of recent headlines. Today, I hear in these words the cries of Diamond Reynolds, the girlfriend of Philando Castille who was shot by a police officer while he was sitting next to her, with her daughter in the backseat. I hear the cries of Rakeyia Scott, the widow of Keith Scott, who yelled to Charlotte police about her husband’s traumatic brain injury before they shot and killed him in front of her eyes. I hear the cries of Trayvon Martin’s family, or that of Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, or Amadou Diallo. I hear the cries of “No Justice. No peace.” All the while, in cases of white collars, white college kids and white cops, we see acquittal after acquittal and a different kind of mandatory minimum, a mere slap on the wrist! And yes, I also hear in that widow’s cry “Grant me justice against my opponent” the testimony of woman after woman speaking out about the abhorrent prevalence of sexual assault and their experiences of being repeatedly and casually dismissed by unjust judges and other men in power. I could say a lot more here…but instead I wonder…

Where does Jesus leave these widows calling out for justice?

And where does he leave us?

I think Jesus’ parable and Dylan’s lyrics and our headlines and Facebook feeds are inviting us to take a larger and longer view of God’s justice and truth. Ultimately, the parable is not about our individual trials— legal, existential or otherwise. It’s also not about a bad seed cop or judge or candidate that has no respect for others. No. Instead, I think the parable is best read as an indictment of the whole damned system. Forget the parable of the persistent widow or the parable of the unjust judge. It should be called the parable of the unjust system! It’s an indictment of the context in which we live that segments out our human community, that leaves us walled off from a God-given sense of wholeness and beauty in our diversity, that leaves us living under rocks and isolated from the truth that we need and belong to each other across our differences. In Jesus’ time, as now, it’s women, persons of color, and low and no income people who continue to wait for justice while relatively powerful male leaders dismiss their cases until it’s in their interest to listen and act. It’s the whole damned system! It’s a system we are all touched by, and none of us are immune to its crippling effects.

What’s more, against our conscious will, if we are white, we become perpetrators of injustice. That question Jesus asks, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” could be aimed straight at me. For how am I keeping faith with God’s children of color, with Jesus’ chosen people—and Jesus always chooses the dispossessed? (Can we imagine that being a baptismal vow that we all promise when we commit to Tabitha and Ella that we are following Jesus?)

If we are being honest, maybe we are at least beginning to wake up to how badly broken, how profoundly unfair and how deeply dehumanizing a system it is, for each and every one of us.

The thing about a system is that none us can live outside of it. So, ultimately, the parable isn’t about the widow or the judge at all. It’s about the rest of us! It’s about where we are inside the system. That last line of the parable…  “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” That is to say, will he find people sharing in the God’s honest cry of truth, like that widow? Or will we be living in bubbles of like-minded and like-skinned souls? Or, will we be found standing by those widows, those sisters, those brothers and mothers and grandmothers, sharing their cries? Or will we be found under those rocks of our privilege, walled off from the truth that we live in a deeply fractured, deeply divided and unjust society!?

With whom will we be in proximity when he comes? And I’m not talking about any second coming, mind you. I’m asking, where do we find ourselves each Sunday when Jesus meets us in our moments of confession? I am talking about where are we supposed to be, morally and spiritually and even physically, when it comes to our place in this system?  I’m talking about how we each consciously and unconsciously choose to live in, benefit from, challenge, resist, disrupt or dismantle the system! Where will we be in a year, or in five years or ten?  Where will I be the next time this passage comes up? Who will we be standing with, and standing by?

This idea of proximity comes in part from my reading the book that Dave Kidder will soon be leading a Faith and Life Group on. It’s called Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, written by a lawyer named Bryan Stephenson who has made it his life work and calling to free people on death row. Nicholas Kristoff of the New York Times has said that Stevenson “may, indeed, be America’s Mandela.” Stephenson writes:

“Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.

Finally, I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.”

Seen in this light of proximity, this parable may be asking us: How much distance, physically, geographically, spiritually, is there between us and those persistent widows of our day? Seeing videos on Facebook may bring us closer, somewhat, and more power to social media when it’s used as a tool of disruption! But how close are we really? And how deeply are we confronting and disrupting the system, really? How hard are we punching it in the eye? How much are we wearing down those power structures that are holding us all back from the collective life of love and justice that God intends not just for some of us, but for all of us? We need to “get proximate” as Stephenson says!

Perhaps it’s no surprise that in the chapter just before this, Jesus tells his disciples that the kingdom of God is among you! Talk about proximity. The kingdom is near to us, and how much more so when we recognize and bear witness to the truth of the widow’s cry, and the truth of our own anguish over our unjust system and our place in it. One last quote from Stephenson: “We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others.”

Doesn't this sound a lot like what we are all living through right now?

After he was released, Rubin “the Hurricane” Carter spent the rest of his life fighting for reform and exposing the vast inequalities in our criminal justice system. Near the end of his too-short life, he was quoted as saying: “To live in a world where truth matters and justice, however late, really happens, that world would be heaven enough for us all.” Talk about ‘thy kingdom come!’

Thank God for truth tellers and revealers who remind us in word, song and holy work that the truth still matters, that compassion still matters, that decency still matters.

Thank God for those who post heart-wrenching but truth-filled videos on Youtube and Facebook that expose the injustices of our system!

Thank God for those who demand that we watch, for those who instruct us to “get proximate” and “guard our hope,” for those who tell us, repeatedly: “when they go low, we go high!”

For when God draws near, this is where we should all be striving to be. This is where we need to be until justice, however late, really happens! Amen.

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