Sermon on the Persistent Widow in Luke 18:1-5
Rev. Mansfield preached this sermon in conjunction with Restaurant Opportunity Center of New York on the sidewalk in front of the Redeye Grill, where the restaurant workers there were holding a vigil, demanding their rights. He talks about the parable of the widow and the unjust judge, a story Jesus tells, to show that the Bible says that they should demand their rights until they wear the owner of the restaurant down and they are shown justice. While a student at Union Theological Seminary, he worked with the Poverty Initiative, and now continues that relationship by participating in the Poverty Scholars program.
Luke 18: 1-5 (Scholars Version)
He told them a parable about the need to pray at all times and never to lose heart. This is what he said:
Once there was a judge in this town who neither feared God nor cared about people.
In that same town was a widow who kept coming to him and demanding: “Give me a ruling against the person I’m suing.”
For a while he refused; but eventually he said to himself, “I’m not afraid of God and I don’t care about people, but this widow keeps pestering me. So I’m going to give her a favorable ruling, or else she’ll keep coming back until she wears me down.”
This widow, she kept coming back and she kept coming back until she wore that judge down! She kept coming back until she wore corruption down! She kept coming back until she got what she was owed! She came back until she left with justice! We’ve taken that advice, haven’t we? Haven’t we? We keep coming back and we keep coming back! And we will keep on coming back until we wear Mr. Fireman down! Won’t we?! Right now we’re locked in a hard struggle but we are the ones who are going to break free – we will wear them down! We will get what is owed to the workers of the Redeye Grill! We will wear them down!
Right now, they’re trying to break us, trying to shut us down: Mr. Fireman, the management, even the police! They call the authorities on us, they send threatening letters, they file false reports, they photograph and videotape us, they lose our sound permit. They accuse us of slander and defamation and lying!
Well, I say that there are a lot of things that can jump out at you from the emptiness of night – and there is deep emptiness at this place – and out of the abyss come lots of boogey-man attacks: sneaking, creeping, slithering up and trying to scare us away! And all we’ve got to guard against all the things that go bump in the night is just one candle. But it’s the only candle we need, because it’s the candle of truth! You’re holding onto it, you’ve got it in your hands, so hold it up high and let it shine! It’s the candle of truth! And we come here, burning our bright candle, to say that the lies have not overcome it! The threats will not overcome us! Because the emptiness of night cannot overcome our light of truth! Our candle of truth will light up the Redeye Grill and show this whole community the corruption and the injustice that is lurking deep inside. We will shine our bright light into that red eye, and they will be the first to blink! We will not be frightened away! We will wear them down! We will not be scared! We will not lose heart!
They may lose our sound permit, but we will not lose heart! We’ll come back week after week with the single light of truth, praying ceaselessly. This here – this vigil, these candles – this is our prayer. Just like the prayer of the widow in the story. She carried the candle of truth to the corrupt judge and the light of truth glared at him until he gave her what she deserved, until he gave her what she was owed, until he gave her justice! We are that widow! The workers of the Redeye Grill are that widow! The widow never lost heart in her prayer, and neither will we! We will keep coming back, ceaselessly, one hour every week until this whole community sees the corruption and injustice lying inside the Redeye Grill! We will not lose heart!
Jesus told the disciples it was important not to lose heart, he told them to pray ceaselessly and then he told them this story about the widow who annoyed a corrupt judge to get the justice she deserved. She annoyed him and annoyed him, week after week. I can only hope, by the grace of God, that we can be every bit as annoying as that widow! This annoying, ceaseless prayer of the widow is a funny kind of prayer though, isn’t it? She’s not praying in a synagogue or a church, she’s not praying in her house, she’s not praying before bed or before she eats, she’s not holding prayer beads or wearing a prayer shawl, she doesn’t have her eyes closed, her head bowed, her hands folded, she’s not kneeling down. Instead, she prays by ceaselessly marching into that judge’s chambers and demanding that she be given justice, carrying that lone candle of truth!
Now, there’s nothing wrong with saying your prayers… but just like the widow, God calls us to practice our prayers too! There’s nothing wrong with asking God for justice… but just like the widow, God calls us to demand justice from this world too –ceaselessly! When Jesus taught his disciples how to pray, when he taught them the words for prayer, in a prayer Christians still pray today, the Lord’s Prayer, he taught them to pray saying, “Let your Kingdom [your rule of love and justice], let your Kingdom come to earth just like in heaven. “On earth as it is in heaven!” We don’t want to wait for justice! We want justice now! Right here! On Earth! At the Redeye Grill! And that’s why we’re here with our candles – because the words of prayer, “On earth as it is in heaven,” demand the practice of prayer! We are asking for God’s justice by demanding God’s justice from this world, for all the earth. This sidewalk is our church and this vigil is our prayer and it is our demand! These candles represent truth and we’re going to shine the exposing light of truth on the Redeye Grill until we find justice inside for all the workers!
Yes, let me say it again! The worker’s of the redeye grill are the widow of Jesus’ story! What is it that makes these workers like that widow? Well, within the Jewish scriptures, which Jesus would have known and taught from, there is a special concern for specific types of people. Let me read to you from Deuteronomy: “You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this” (24:17-18, NRSV).
In the Jewish scriptures the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant are the people who have the least access to the benefits and the support of human society. At that time in that society they had no voice because they were without a husband, without a father, or because they were strangers. The widow, the orphan, and the immigrant represent to us today all the people whose voices are being ignored in our society: poor people, oppressed people, people who have fewer means to defend themselves, people who are taken advantage of by the powerful, people who have been disempowered, disenfranchised, and pushed out to the boundaries. In the Jewish scriptures they describe these struggling people as the widows, the orphans, and the immigrants.
So, Jesus has a reason for making the star of his story a widow, he wanted to make sure that everyone knew it was one of the most vulnerable, one of the most troubled, one of the most oppressed, who was able to get the justice that she deserved! That widow is anyone who is being denied the justice they deserve by a corrupt system! She is every woman who has worked at the Redeye Grill and who has been discriminated against or sexually harassed! The widow is every minority worker at the Redeye Grill who has been passed over for promotion because of the color of their skin or prejudice against their culture! And, clearly, the widow is every immigrant worker at the Redeye Grill whose labor has been taken advantage of!
Lately, there have been many immigrant workers here at the Redeye Grill who have been praying ceaselessly for their rights! They are standing up for their rights; they are demanding that they be treated fairly! And they are being fired for it! The Fireman Hospitality Group thinks that they can abuse immigrant workers! And when those workers complain, the Fireman Hospitality Group thinks they can fire them to keep them quiet, to scare immigrant workers into accepting their unfair policies! But we will not be scared because we have the truth on our side! And we will not stop complaining! We will not stop annoying – until all the workers, immigrant workers as well, are treated with dignity and respect and given the rights and wages that they deserve!
God said to the Jewish people in Deuteronomy: Do not deny an immigrant justice! Do not deny an immigrant justice! Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this. Our situation in the United States is very much the same as it was for the ancient Israelites. Remember that all of us here, unless we are Native Americans, are immigrants to this land. All of our families came here as immigrant families! Mr. Fireman and everyone at the Fireman Hospitality Group and every manager at the Redeye Grill comes from an immigrant family. God reminds us that this is all the more reason that we should we should give our immigrant workers, struggling workers with families, the justice and the rights which they deserve! Instead, when our immigrants speak up about being mistreated, Mr. Fireman retaliates against them by firing them and justice is denied! No immigrant person should ever be retaliated against for speaking up for their rights!
This is why none of us can let ourselves be intimidated or scared away! They are going to keep calling the police, keep lying to the authorities, keep filing false reports. They are going to keep on photographing you and me. They want to intimidate us. They are standing behind me now, scowling at you. They want you to think that you are wrong, that you are greedy, that they were generous to give you anything, and what little you got was all you deserved! They want to turn people against you and lie about you and make you feel bad about yourself. They want to make you think that you are weak and you are powerless and that they are big and strong and that you’ll never beat them! But you are doing God’s work on this sidewalk and God will not be threatened, God will not be scared off, God will not be ashamed!
So, hold on to your candles of truth! Take refuge in the warm glow of the knowledge that you have God and justice on your side! No matter how much they huff, no matter how much they puff, they cannot blow out the flame of truth which you hold! Hold your candle up high and hold your head up high! Do not be ashamed of your prayers or your demand for justice! And do not be afraid of what lies in the night, because the night is empty and the lies are empty but you are shining – full of the truth and full of dignity and full of beauty!
When we act for justice, we have made justice! Do you believe it? When we practice our prayers here, when we demand justice from this corrupted restaurant, we have, in fact, made justice for this community! We are here because we love the light of truth! We are here making justice by demanding that the Redeye Grill act according to the justice which we have brought here and which shines out of our candles! No matter the result – being threatened, being lied about, or being denied – we will keep making justice and we will not be frightened away, we will not lose heart!
Many Christians have just celebrated Easter, many others will celebrate Easter this Sunday. Jesus taught his followers to practice their prayers, to demand justice, and to resist evil systems of oppression. And because he taught that, the Roman Empire crucified him. But after that awful execution, when everything looked the worst, when there seemed to be no hope left for justice, there came the promise of Easter and Jesus’ resurrection. That resurrection is a promise, that no matter how bad things may get, even in the face of the most unjust death, that life and justice will not be defeated! So, we are here doing as Jesus taught, praying ceaseless by demanding justice, praying ceaselessly for those who persecute us. We will not be moved! We will not lose heart! We will not stop making the justice that God has taught us to make!