This was my Sunday sermon for August 30, 2020. It’s based off Luke 18:1-8.
It’s been a hard week.
Not only are there videos of yet another black man being killed by police all over the place (this time in full view of his three children), the response has been predictable. There have been protests, the police rolled out military equipment in escalation, white folk point out that the guy who got shot was not a good person (as if that justifies everything), and folks with more rage than wisdom (and in places like Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and DC it was white people who started up the rioting) decided that destroying property was the only catharsis open to them. The stories go out, anti-racists try to explain what’s going on, racists send out dog whistles about awful black people coming to destroy our “quiet neighborhoods.” In the end, a wake of fear and anger and hatred spreads out and infects people’s minds and hearts. Those who have been systematically denied justice get angrier, and those who fear that anger get more afraid–the gulf between these two sides widens.
And then things got worse.
Why? Because that gulf is where the cynical and wicked live. And the wider it grows the more room they have to maneuver. And in Wisconsin these people decided they’d be a self-styled “militia” that would put “them” in their place and save the property. And so they showed up, and videos from those groups show police being just fine having them there. One of these folks was as 17 year old white kid from the next state over, 30 miles away, carrying his “sporting rifle 1. He ended up killing two people and seriously wounding another. I watched a video which included one of his two shooting incidents. He’d already killed on person and was making his way back to the military police equipment when he fell and protestors came upon him, and then he started shooting again. He made his way back to the police with his hands up, while people were shouting, “This is the guy who shot them!” And the police drove their armored vehicles right by him. And, yah, the 17 year old was afraid when he started shooting. But, what was he even doing there in the first place?
The next day the police chief got in front of cameras and said, “If people weren’t out after curfew then no one would have been shot.”
And still our culture is not listening.
I want to be very clear here because the lie of the autonomous individual, which convinces us we aren’t impacted by any systems and act fully from our own cognition, tends to make people respond to stuff like this with the phrase, “But I’m not racist.” I am not pointing out the flaws in individuals, I’m looking in a mirror and saying our culture is not listening. Too often the collective “we” takes on the persona of the unrighteous judge in Jesus’ parable. People have come to us with a just case, and as a culture we’re not responding in a way which opens up a path toward healing. Here’s a bit of the case that’s been presented.
Africans were brought to this continent and were called property.
Africans were enslaved as the colonies fought for their liberty, and when we created our current constitution we said they only counted as 3/5 a person 2.
We fought a war over slavery, in which between 640,000 and 700,000 people died–and toward the end of the war we passed an amendment which said slavery was illegal, but we didn’t go so far as to make a cultural shift which recognized formerly enslaved people as equal.
Black people struggled under Jim Crow in the South and unwritten racism in the North. When they achieved status, as they did in the “Black Wall Street” of Tulsa, white folks felt justified in literally bombing 3 that successful black neighborhood.
The civil rights movement’s most noted leader was assassinated for daring to call for equality.
The country dared to elect a black president, and a sizable group of people couldn’t even believe he was born in the country.
We can add MLB having a color barrier which someone needed to break, and how the Phillies 4 threw at Jackie Robinson for daring to do it. We can add Rodney King being beaten to an inch of his life on video, and the police getting off. And to that story we can add all the names of people killed just this year in heinous ways, by both police and non-law enforcement folk. Why? Because they are black and our culture has an implicit racism problem most of us are not cognizant of enough to short-circuit.
All that, and I haven’t even mentioned the terrorist threat of lynching up to his point.
Can you understand why people are so angry about their cries for justice not being listened to?
But, theologically speaking, what is Justice?
One of the ways you can define the word Luke 18 uses for “justice” explains why White folk can be so afraid of rising Black anger. It can mean vengeance–describing the response by wronged people to set things to balance by force. And when you hear politicians talking about “the radical left” coming to “end the suburbs,” this is what they’re talking about.
But it’s not what Jesus is talking about, because there’s other ways to interpret the word. The woman in the story is a widow, a person of neither social standing nor power. As is often the case in Scripture, this widow is a placeholder for the most vulnerable of humanity. She has been wronged in some way, and the judge has power to grant her request and set things right–to establish righteousness. Jesus’ parable is an image of the weakest in society seeking a right judgement to be made on their behalf and the elevated in society not caring at all. The judge is twice described as having neither fear of God nor respect for people. The image Jesus paints would have been familiar to his audience. The powerful abused their power and kept the disenfranchised under their boots. It was commonplace and, sadly, sounds familiar.
But this widow didn’t know her “place.“ She kept coming back and demanding the unrighteous judge do his job. And after a while the judge had enough and gave the widow what she wanted. But why he decides to do this is interesting. In our English translations–and I checked NIV, NRSV, ESV, NET, and NLT–the impression is that she was just wearing him down. You might come away thinking the widow nagged him into submission, but this does disservice to the widow. She’s not relentlessly wearing this guy down, an image which can bring up some negative stereo types in our culture, she’s righteous. What she is asking for is what she was owed, and any righteous judge would have given her what she wanted the first time she asked for it. The judge isn’t just being worn down, he’s being shamed. The range of meaning implied in Luke’s word choice would be woodenly defined as “to give a black eye.” This isn’t to say the widow was punching him in the face, as fun as that might be, it’s to say she was making him look bad. She had a righteous case, which he ignored. From the context of the story you understand the widow’s case wasn’t a one time thing, this was this judge’s standard operating procedure. What was different was the widow, she refused to go away and that caused people to look at the judge with raised eyebrows. In the end, the judge gave her was rightfully hers.
Our culture has not treated people of Color, and Black Americans in particular, righteously. And because of this we’re being given a figurative black eye. Will we finally listen?
Here’s the thing, though. While all I’ve said is true, it’s not the point of Jesus’ parable, or why Luke includes it in his Gospel. The point Jesus makes is if an unrighteous judge will give justice because he was personally humiliated, what do you think the God of all creation will do when people 5 cry out to their Creator? Jesus says, “God will do justice for them, and quickly.” And, as Luke points out, this is why Christians should never tire of praying 6. God hears. God sees. God moves 7.
The cynical and wicked spiritual forces which exist in the gulf between people want us afraid, filled with rage, or both. Why? Because then we are easy to control. Christians need to aspire to something better. We must never surrender our trust that our Savior is, ultimately, the ruler of Heaven and Earth and that the Creator of all things leans toward justice which establishes righteousness. Let’s lay aside the fear which convinces us to build mental fortresses, if we are privileged to live quietly let’s dare to listen to those who are not. And let’s trust that if we look at this infection in our culture with Jesus’ eyes we might actually be an example of folks for healing. Let’s take up the cross, and embrace a ministry of genuine reconciliation. Let’s be bridge-builders. Amen.
- It’s an assault rifle, sorry. He also wasn’t legally carrying the weapon, according to Wisconsin law. ↩
- No woman counted at all at that point, which is a whole other conversation. ↩
- Not an exaggeration, either. Bombed from the sky. ↩
- In my sermon I went from memory and said the Phillies were the last team to integrate. This was incorrect, they were two spots from the bottom of that list of shame. ↩
- In Luke’s text Jesus uses the word “elect.” It ties into the purpose Luke has for including the parable. The “elect” where those who followed Jesus and therefor suffered the weight of worldly power crashing down on them. ↩
- This is why Luke includes the parable. Disciples were faced with the enormity of Rome’s power, which didn’t take kindly to the message, “Jesus is Lord.” When suffering came, this was good encouragement to keep crying out to God. ↩
- This sermon broadens the parable to include all human suffering, which is in line with the prophetic reminders that God is the one who looks out for the vulnerable. ↩