Over the last few months I have noticed the power of moral outrage to distract humanity from the larger questions facing society. Footy grand finals hype, Pauline Hanson’s outrageous statements, the Buddgy 9’s outrageous behaviour in Malaysia, the theft of Kim Kardashians ring and the outrageous words of Donald Trump, have all been effective in shifting the focus of humanity, you and I, from the big issues needing to be seriously addressed. We are entranced by the stupidity we hear and fail to focus on what really matters – the big issues.
The problem may be the size of the big issues. They seem intractable, out of the scope of our responsibility, beyond our personal experience. These are questions we know exist – the genocide of the relentless bombing of Alleppo by all sides including Australia, the limitless killing of citizens in the Phillipines, the continuing imbalance in wealth and opportunity that favours certain classes in society and the unnecessary detaining of children and others in refugees camps and detention centres. And that’s not all. Here at home we have the question of how we engage with the sovereign nations who were here before western occupation, marriage equality, unemployment, homelessness and more.
Our reading of the gospel story today often stays firmly in one place. We read it as teaching us about persistence in prayer, how we are to be faithful and continuing to pray for what we need until we are heard by God.
William Loader observes:
“… it is missing the mark if we treat the passage as a general teaching about intercessory prayer. It is primarily about the yearning for change. It was very appropriate that the story told of a poor widow. She represents a behaviour, but she also represents the poverty and vulnerability which is the point of the parable’s message. The story has been shaped in the cruelty of exploitation and the arbitrary abuse of power. It belongs in the world which Jesus is addressing. Jesus is reading the signs in the wounds of the people. The contours of their devastation shape the structures of his thought, because this is where he belongs and these are the people whose cries he hears.”
Reading this as a treatise on prayer ignores the social context in which Jesus sets this story. Here we have a marginalised woman, a widow who has no man to look after her and still needs to find accommodation and sustenance. She knocks on her neighbours door. If she is marginalised she probably has no home and is living rough. It is hardly likely that she has a house and lives next door to a wealthy and titled person such as a judge. In our terms she is a beggar knocking on doors looking for help.
Jesus has the judge first ignore the pleas for help and only out of this persons annoying behaviour does he finally throw a loaf or two her way. There was no compassion, no sense of duty, no understanding of the plight of the widow. It was simply throwing crumbs to the dogs to shut them up.
This passage of scripture shows how we ignore the real issues and deal only with the presenting problem – annoying woman who needs justice. Much of our responses to the pressing needs in society take this form. Charity hand outs, welfare doled out as if we are being used, unfair restrictions on the provision of employment support or accommodation for refugees or assistance for the disabled or the granting of recognition for the first nations people in our constitution instead of negotiating a treaty with the sovereign nations we live amongst.
The judge is confronted by the social ills of society. He is confronted in this story as one who is part of the problem but one who has the capacity to solve the problem. Poverty is not, and still is not, a private issue. It is systemic and finds its source in the ego self who sees entitlement and aloofness as a right. The much vaunted failure of Donald Trump to pay taxes and others assertion that we all should strive to pay as little tax as possible are only possible because we have a system which encourages and allows such actions.
Jesus is challenging those listening to address the plight of the poorest of the poor, to do more than the paltry efforts of the judge. The image of the judge brings to the front of mind one who is responsible for dispensing justice, yet the best he can do isa response out desperation to get her off his back. Perhaps this raises the question: can the system actually reform itself or are those within the system so entangled that they are unable to step back and see what is needed?
Is the widow the only source of hope in this story? The actions of the poor are needed to wake up those in power. The voice of the poor must be heard and to do so one must never give up proclaiming God’s preference for the poor. We have no choice but join with those on the outside to find a way to reform what is broken. It is the mission Jesus took for himself at the beginning of his ministry from Isaiah and it is the foundation of the great commission – “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28)
This is not about personal salvation but about the institution of the Way of Jesus and the way of Jesus is the way of kindness – justice – compassion. We as disciples of the Way are to join hands and voices with the poor and advocate for change. We are to reflect on how complicit we are in this system and what we can do to live more justly the way of Christ in our daily living. We are challenged to avoid the sensational distractions and return again and again to the issues needing resolution. We are to ask why this is so and to avoid the easy answers of those who want to maintain the status quo. We are to join hands with those of different faiths, ideologies and political allegiances who are working to institute kindness – justice – compassion (or the Way of Christ) in the world. The Spirit of Christ is already at work in places and people, philosophies and ideologies , faiths and practices different from ours yet committed to the way of Christ in word and deed.
This is a troublesome parable, no wonder the authorities finally got sick of Jesus and dispensed with him. Drawing people away from the bread and circuses and reorienting them on the real issues is disturbing, to say the least.
The Way of Christ remains a troubling practice but one we have no option but to follow. Amen.