Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church
July 2, 2017
Text: Luke 18: 2-8
In its annual rating of corrupt practices, Transparency International, with its headquarters in Berlin, ranks nations by their so-called corruption index.They look for more than merely corrupt judges; they look at the structure and actions of a country and its government and ranks countries accordingly. Nordic countries such as Finland, Sweden and Denmark have long been considered the least corrupt countries in both government and society.The United States slipped from its position as number 16 in 2015 to 18 in 2016, listing its reasons not just as Trump’s “gold-plated son-in-law,” as the website calls Jared Kushner, but also shady real estate dealings and companies going after whistle-blowers.
It is not a far cry from the persistent widow who takes on the corrupt judge in our morning reading.The Torah, both in its Exodus statement and the restatement in Deuteronomy, calls for justice to society’s most vulnerable: the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. “You shall not abuse any widow or orphan,” says the Lord in Exodus, promising God’s wrath to burn against those who do.And in Deuteronomy it is stated that God takes no bribe and executed justice for the widow and orphan and who loves the strangers, “providing them with food and clothing,” as the text commands.
This fundamental command in the Torah is repeated by the prophets who use the injustice against the most vulnerable as a symbol of Israel’s corruption. The plight of the widow is found even in the Psalms. As one scholar comments, the very number of such passages indicates that the plight of widows and orphans posed an acute problem for Israel.
In the passage this morning, the widow asks for vindication; the Greek verb in the text actually means “to do right” to the wronged party. Totally apart from her battle to gain access to the courts, widows in ancient Jewish society occupied a place outside the social order, which was based on patrilineal kinship.If a widow returned to her father’s house, she would forfeit any right to the property she brought into the marriage or her rights to inheritance, which would have then gone to others such as male family members of the deceased–or to the judge.
She is persistent and really aggravating. She doesn’t want more than what she is entitled to have under the law. But the judge refuses to hear her claim until he is worn down by her constant badgering.
Corruption among those in a position of authority was endemic then, and it seems that not that much has changed. Judges, whether appointed by governors or presidents or elected as they are in some states reflect the desires of those in power. The old saying that a judge is lawyer who has a governor for a friend is not too far from the truth.
In the parable we read this morning, which is found only in Luke, the corrupt judge–and he is more than unjust, he is corrupt–refuses to hear the woman’s plea for justice in the courts. Scholars comment that this parable in Luke reflected the common practice of judges who took bribes from male family members who would have been left out had the widow received her due.
Corruption, however, is more than merely taking bribes; it usually stems from an abuse of power. How fitting it was that David Samson, who had made sure that there was a flight from Newark to Columbia, South Carolina, and back, conveniently scheduled for the weekend to get him back to New Jersey on Monday mornings, that U.S.District Court Judge Jose Linares sentenced him to house arrest at his South Carolina estate, community service, and a fine.
Sounds like a soft landing, as one columnist put it, but in addition to his relatively mild punishment, he was also disbarred from practice before the federal courts, which, in effect, disbars him from being in any court. Honestly, I can’t even imagine what such an action would mean. Such a violation of justice and all the oaths he took to become a lawyer, an advocate for the widow and the orphan, whose cause he should have been supporting.
“Power corrupts and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely,” wrote Lord Acton, and, unfortunately, we see the results of people exercising their power on a daily basis from getting special airline schedules to shutting down state services on a holiday weekend.The fight in the state legislature is just one more example of how those in power use their power to get what they want.
Look at the fight this weekend.The governor wants to “restructure” the state’s largest medical insurer, as he calls it; it’s little more than a blatant raid on reserves to pay for the high costs of medical care. The man who refuses to tax the very wealthy all of a sudden complains about high salaries for insurance company executives. The hypocrisy is palpable.
The abuse of power is not always as obvious as the political activities this weekend but can be far more subtle. For example, on April 29, this year, the day of the climate march, we should add, the EPA removed the climate change page from its website. Instead, readers are directed to a page showing Trump signing a revocation of the clean power rule.
And that’s not the only change we see in websites.The 2012 report on child labor is no longer available on the Department of Labor website.That’s because we don’t have that anymore, of course, not to mention discrimination against the LBGTQ community. That was also removed from the DOL website. Somehow, if the information is not available, there is no problem!
And those removals were just the beginning. Reports on animal welfare and health and safety information from slaughterhouses have also been removed. But, in the meantime, we are treated to twitter comments on facelifts?
Like the widow, we must also be persistent. The real work begins after the marches are over.The real work is in the nitty-gritty of small victories and the hope they bring to us because it is really difficult to proceed without hope. In 1830, Alex de Tocqueville noted that the French Revolution had been strongest in those areas where standards of living had begun to improve and coined the phrase the revolution of rising expectations.
For us as Christians, we must think in those terms.In spite of the problems facing us, we must be persistent and have hope. The word “revolution,” although usually thought of in terms of violence, should be recast.We need to realize, like the widow, that the constancy of our actions will bring results.
There is much to overcome for the real problem is that the poor and the downtrodden have a guilty secret: it’s not equity they want but to be as rich and as powerful and as corrupt as the ones who oppress them.Those who are powerless really want power. This is the greatest challenge and yet still the greatest hope—that the powerless will recognize the corruption of power and that power will corrupt them as well.
So we begin this meditation where it began: A parable. In a faraway country there lived a widow who had been married to a very wealthy man.Her husband was one of seven brothers but because polygamy was now prohibited, and all the brothers were married, each one tried to think how to put away his wife so he could claim the widow, who stood to inherit a great deal of wealth. Each one thought, if I could but woo this widow and have her marry me, I would be the wealthiest man in all the land. The widow, who had loved her late husband very much, knew what they were up to and was appalled.
And she knew the judge would be easily swayed, if properly rewarded, to make sure she remarried–the right one, of course, the one who had bribed the judge sufficiently. So the widow spoke to each of the wives of the brothers who cared more about money than their families, and together they hatched a plot so they would all be protected from the greed of their husbands.
The widow knew that the judge was married and that his wealth came from her and that she was a jealous woman. Like Judith of old, she plied her talents and the judge began to wonder which wife would bring him more money and power: the wife he now had or the widow. Needless to say, she made sure that this wicked judge would dismiss the pleas of all the surviving brothers because they were married but after those claims were dismissed, she turned her back on the judge, reminding him of his obligation towards his wife and their children.
Her work was quiet, superstitious, but effective.She got her due and was able as a widow to control her own destiny. Being in the twenty-first century, the wives had also threatened to post their husbands’ desires on Instagram, and the wife of the judge vowed to him she would go to her own father, a very powerful person as well, to protect her rights. The judge got the message and ceased his attempts to wed the widow.
Now in today’s world, we are not faced with widows, levirate marriage and all that goes with such a system. But we are faced with modern day equivalents of the judge and the brothers ready to exercise their power and influence. Look at Penn East. Denied a permit from the state, even with a Christie stacked board of public utilities, the new parent company, now called Enbridge, will try to get the feds to overrule the state. This means we must be even more vigilant.
Hope. It seems thin now just as it did two thousand years ago when Jesus sat down with his followers to share the meal we have before us.This meal is not one of despair, however, but one of hope, for the Jesus we follow became Christ the Lord as he was raised and offers us the hope that goes beyond despair.
In the Leonard Bernstein piece Mass, there is a song called “The Word of the LORD,” which begins with letters from men who were imprisoned because they refused to serve in Vietnam. “O, you people of power, your hour is now.You may plan to rule forever but you never do somehow.So we wait in silent treason until reason is restored.“ But our “treason,” as it were need not be silent, as it was not in 1970, and we not just wait for the Word of the Lord, but like the One we follow, we realize that the word it is growing–with our help. Those in power cannot imprison the word of the Lord.
Let us pray: Empowering God, may we use the power you have given us and continue to bestow on us so we become persistent in our search for justice as was the widow. In the name of the One we follow, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen