Readings: Amos 2:6, 15-16, Luke 18:1-8, Marriage Love #365:5 (see below)
As is very common with biblical parables, we might find ourselves a little confused upon reading this one, asking “What is the point of this parable?” Understandably. There are not one, but several points to this parable. Among them, the utility of persistent prayer, the responsibility of society toward the vulnerable, the responsiveness of God towards our need, and reflection on the quality of faith. It can be a little hard to figure out where to place our attention.
We are first introduced to the unjust judge. Certainly to us even now, he reads as callous and potentially corrupt. Additionally, to the Jewish hearers of this parable, he would also have immediately appeared religiously bankrupt as well. The Jewish scriptures repeatedly advocate for the care of widows and orphans and foreigners, people who are easily forgotten, who have no obvious recourse for survival amid patriarchal structures. In this context, The judge did not revere God and God’s commands, and so of course, did not feel any responsibility towards the vulnerable.
Then we are introduced to the figure of the widow. Now, when I read this parable, my internal image of the widow is someone who is meek. Persistent yes, but diminutive. This is totally my own baggage but I imagine her in the the way that I might advocate for my own self in real life. (knock knock) “Um, excuse me, I’m so sorry to be bothering you, but I have this problem, can you help me? (knock knock) I know that you are terribly busy but if you wouldn’t mind taking a look at my case? (knock knock) Yes, I know, its me again, but I really could use your help…” etc etc.
This picture of the widow is not supported by the text, though it is hard for us to tell this by the English. What is often translated as “yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will vindicate her, or in the end she will wear me out by her continual coming,” in the original greek, is actually a boxing metaphor. Its literal usage means to beat someone black and blue. I’m not saying the language was meant to imply that the judge thought the widow was really going to get violent, but rather, that the use of such a metaphor creates a very different picture to the deferential one I instinctively created in my mind. The widow was being a nuisance in such a way that caused the judge to use language that evoked being under attack.
And we see that, even so, this widow is lifted up as a faithful example. So while the parable is framed as being about prayer, I think we could also draw some lessons about persistence in relation to injustice in general, and about how we might approach eradicating injustice.
From the widow’s example then, clearly, we are to be people who notice injustice. And, we are to be people who are troubled and concerned about injustice. And, we are to be people who are persistent about correcting injustice, who are not content with allowing corrupt institutions or people (ie the judge) to go about business-as-usual. If our situation is unjust, we are empowered to resist it, not just once, but over and over again, until justice is restored.
What is more, we are empowered to resist with passion. The widow was clearly passionate enough in her entreaties to the judge that he employed a fighting metaphor to characterize her. In a real situation, we cannot know how much the judge’s own paranoia, or guilty conscience, might be projecting on to her. But, I do think a reflection upon the utility of righteous anger is appropriate here.
We heard in our reading today about what Swedenborg called zeal, that is, the condition under which we are moved to act passionately out of love. He points out that zeal often looks very much like anger, in that it can appear strident, or bristly. However, what is key is not so much what the zeal looks like to an observer, but what is motivating it internally. He writes:
The zeal of a good love harbors in its inner aspects friendship and love, but the zeal of an evil love harbors in its inner aspects hatred and vengeance. We said that zeal appears in outward respects like anger and rage, both in those who are prompted by a good love and in those who are prompted by an evil love. But because the internal elements are different, so also their expressions of anger and rage are different…
The point being that what matters is the internal motivation. Righteous zeal or anger is trying to protect something good and just. It can certainly be working for something that is good and just for the self —the widow was advocating for herself and her own situation; it is not that zeal is must always completely self-less or purely altruistic in order to be motivated by something good. But ultimately, righteous anger is advocating for a just principle that serves more than the self. An example is the Civil rights movement: each person of color involved in this movement was certainly advocating for themselves and their own inherent right to be treated justly, but also in a larger sense, they were fighting for the principle that all people have a right to be treated justly, as much of MLKs soaring rhetoric demonstrated.
Whereas, zeal or anger that comes from a wellspring of hatred and vengeance might take upon it any number of external justifications, even might look like it is working for the greater good, but its ultimate root is the perverse satisfaction of seeing others suffer under its zeal. Again from our reading, Swedenborg writes:
...[its] internal element is hostile, savage, harsh, seething with hatred and vengeance, and it feeds on the delights of those emotions…. And even if it is appeased, still those emotions lie concealed within, like fires smoldering in the wood beneath the ash.
We are cautioned here against anger for the sake of anger, anger makes us feel powerful and potent and superior, as opposed to anger roused for the sake of justice itself, for the sake of how justice might be realized for all. Due to its emotional potency, anger can be seductive, even if we start out with good motivations, we can become addicted to how it makes us feel. Even more so if our anger has always burned for selfish reasons, smoldering in wait for a reason to lash out.
So it can be easy to imagine that anger is always a bad thing, and this can be confusing when we contemplate how often God is characterize as angry and wrathful in the bible. In the Old Testament, the prophets portrayed God as extremely angry when the Israelites consistently worshiped idols and ignored the vulnerable among them. From Amos we hear:
This is what the LORD says: “For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not relent. They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals.(2:6) “I abhor the pride of Jacob and detest his fortresses; I will deliver up the city and everything in it.” (6:8)
Swedenborg makes the important point however, that even with God, how it might have appeared to the prophets, how they interpreted their visions in their context, is different from the reality. He writes:
So it is that the Lord's zeal, which in itself is love and compassion, is seen by them as anger…in fact there is no anger whatever in the Divine, nor any evil whatever, only pure forbearance and mercy. (1)
If God’s love and compassion are infinite, certainly God’s zeal, God’s passion, for us is beyond imagining. Love and compassion demand justice for all who are loved, demand that each beloved child of God be able to experience conditions of safety and contentment. Systems, like patriarchy for example, often serve some and not others, and can lead to some people, through no fault of their own, to be forgotten. But where injustice prevails, God sees those who are forgotten and lifts them up. Thus God’s zeal works for justice, for access for all to what they need to survive and thrive.
So how does God work to see that the forgotten, like the widow in the parable, be brought into community, into thriving? One way is through just systems and institutions instead of unjust ones. God gave a system of laws to a community, in the Old Testament this was the Israelites, and this community set up systems of justice so that they might be able to hold each other accountable to a shared mission for the greater good. And thus we see the widow appealing to the judge in the parable.
Such institutions are not infallible of course. People like the unjust judge rise up into power. People motivated by winning, by profit, supremacy, reputation, and glory. This is why we see in this parable a contrasting comparison between God and the judge. Even though this judge was associated with a system of justice, his heart was not in it. But God’s heart is always in it for us. God’s spirit moves along with those seeking for, working for, and creating justice. God’s spirit responds to this work and this desire. Our shared institutions, our shared vision for our communities need not be co-opted by selfishness. God will work with us to create and support a just world.
And so this widow is lifted up, that we might all seek the realization of a world in which she does not need to supplicate, did not need persistence, a world that sees her and values her automatically. For this we might pray, yes, in our minds and hearts, but we also pray with our feet, our letters, our compassionate and open conversation, our service, and our persistent protest.
Of course, when we talk about good zeal and bad zeal, righteous anger and unrighteous anger, we separate something in concept that is much more complicated in reality. We all act from mixed motivations. We all act from fear and self-centeredness sometimes, and altruism and love other times. We are simply human. So, if we are to take on the full import of this parable, to assimilate the necessity of persistent prayer towards a just world, we must recognize that our own hearts are a part of that world. Our persistent prayer cannot be for God’s intercession separate from our own engagement, for we know that God doesn’t work like that, our persistent prayer must be for justice to prevail in each and every heart, ours included.
For, righteous anger is powerful, and it is a very good thing in so far as it motivates us, gives us courage, gives us hope, gives us resilience, gives us the fortitude to do something difficult over and over again. But we cannot allow ourselves to get caught up in that power. Swedenborg writes:
The zeal of a good love immediately dies down and softens when the other desists from the attack; whereas the zeal of an evil love persists and is not extinguished.
Let us watch ourselves then, with both compassion and accountability, watch when our anger dissipates and when it does not, and ask ourselves what we holding on to and why. Zeal for justice is borne out of love, and when justice is achieved, love is what remains. It can be a cautious love, a wise love, a love with boundaries, a love born of clarity, but it holds possibility within it, not vengeance. A possibility that brings us all forward together, if we allow for it.
(1) Secrets of Heaven #8875
Amos 2:6, 14-16
6 This is what the LORD says: “For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not relent. They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. 7 They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed.
14 The swift will not escape, the strong will not muster their strength, and the warrior will not save his life. 15 The archer will not stand his ground, the fleet-footed soldier will not get away, and the horseman will not save his life. 16 Even the bravest warriors will flee naked on that day,” declares the LORD.
1 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, "Grant me justice against my opponent.' 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, "Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.' " 6 And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Marriage Love #365:5
The zeal of a good love harbors in its inner aspects friendship and love, but the zeal of an evil love harbors in its inner aspects hatred and vengeance. We said that zeal appears in outward respects like anger and rage, both in those who are prompted by a good love and in those who are prompted by an evil love. But because the internal elements are different, so also their expressions of anger and rage are different; and the differences are as follows:
1. The zeal of a good love is like a heavenly flame, which never leaps out to attack another, but only defends itself - defending itself against an evil assailant in much the same way as when such a one rushes at fire and is burned; whereas the zeal of an evil love is like a hellish flame, which spontaneously leaps out and rushes upon another and tries to devour him.
2. The zeal of a good love immediately dies down and softens when the other desists from the attack; whereas the zeal of an evil love persists and is not extinguished.
3. The reason for this is that the internal element in one who is prompted by a love of good, is, in itself, gentle, mild, friendly and kind. Consequently, even when, to protect itself, the external element hardens, stiffens, bristles, and so acts harshly, still it is tempered by the goodness which moves its internal element. Not so in evil people. In them the internal element is hostile, savage, harsh, seething with hatred and vengeance, and it feeds on the delights of those emotions. And even if it is appeased, still those emotions lie concealed within, like fires smoldering in the wood beneath the ash; and if these fires do not break out in the world, nevertheless they do after death.