HANGING IN THERE
Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church, Middletown
October 20, 2019
Texts: Deuteronomy 24:17-22; Luke 18:1-11
We’ve all seen that great poster of the kitten hanging from the branch with that quote, “Hang in there!” Well, those of us who have cats, especially young kittens, know how that little one got into the mess it’s in. Partly from its own curio-sity, partly from its natural activity, but mostly from being just a kitten. I am now re-learning what it means to have kittens now that I have taken two of Elaine’s surprise arrivals. Making a house kitten proof is almost as bad as trying to make it child proof.
The widow also got into her mess by the very fact of her status as a widow. The widow, along with the orphan and the stranger or foreigner, was seen as a person without protec-tion in ancient Israeli society, as indeed she was. The Law, the Torah, gave no inheritance rights to widows; they were at the mercy of their male relatives.
The male relative who inherited the dead husband’s estate, was supposed to care for the widow, but often did not. The childless widow was in even greater need of pro-tection because she was literally part of the property. The closest male relative had a right, indeed, a duty, to use her to beget sons to carry on the line. The widow had no say in the matter.
The biblical injunction is also found in the Qur’an where the closest male relative is supposed to take on the hapless woman as part of his inheritance. Only if the closest male relative eschewed his right and duty, could the widow then marry someone of her choosing. Remember the story of Boaz and Ruth? Boaz, hot for the woman who comes to him at his feet, manages to coax the next-of-kin into passing on to Boaz the property of Naomi’s late husband Elimelech and her sons.
Widows were so low on the totem pole that the priestly class was enjoined from marrying one. They were considered sullied by their previous sexual knowledge of their husbands. They, along with orphans and foreigners, were the most vulnerable members of their societies. And the situation had not changed much by the first century when Jesus was teaching. Pharisees usually handled the estates of childless widows and they took their cut, much like some lawyers do today. Probate then as now was feared as decimating the estate.
Then there was this widow. This parable is usually told as one regarding the power of prayer. Just keep on praying and God will come through, preachers tell us. But this parable is more than the power of prayer. It is about the power of someone pushing and pushing until justice gets done.
It’s a common saying that a judge is a lawyer who knew a politician. Unfortunately, it’s true. I have to wonder how some people get appointed to their judgeships. Just look at some of the examples we have in our court system. We have everything from really thoughtful judges to people like Clarence Thomas who is still so full of anger that you wonder how he can apply even his version of the Constitution evenhandedly.
The widow in our parable this morning relied on her keen sense of justice to get the justice that was due her. In the same way, throughout history, people have relied on their sense of justice to have justice done. John Rawls, a leading theoretician of the idea of justice today, once said that it’s not our sense of justice that moves us but our sense of injustice. How often have you thought, “That’s not fair!” “That’s not right.” That’s what really moves us—the sense that we or others are being treated unfairly.
In spite of the specific laws of Torah that make you wonder what kind of society the early Jews actually had, the overwhelming and underlying message is one of doing justice. Those who do not do justice, love mercy, or walk kindly will face judgment. And judgment comes in many forms. Just look around us. In some sense, our incredibly high incarceration rate is a judgment—of our neglect of issues of poverty and alienation in our society and of our unwilling-ness to take responsibility seriously, whether ours or the criminal’s. We’ve set the example: corrupt lawyers, judges, and politicians who have gotten away with murder—the murder of our national soul. We’ve been so busy making money that we’ve just ignored the toll our greed has taken on our society.
Just look around. Puerto Rico is still a shambles. In spite of the ACA we have no real health-care policy in this country. The poor are shunted aside. The State moves kids from foster home to foster home like so much baggage. We eat off the sweat of farm laborers who work like mules in the fields with-out so much as thought of who they are except in terms of the low price of lettuce.
The only immigration policy is “Get rid of them!” U.S. born children are either taken away from their immigrant parents about to be deported or deported with them without passports to lives of grinding poverty beyond our wildest imaginations.
Just this past week a policeman in Dallas, called be-cause the front door of a house was open, simply shot into a house and killed the occupant Atatiana Jefferson who was sitting on her floor playing video games with her 8-year old nephew. The “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality here was just unbelievable. Like Thomas Jefferson, I tremble for my country when I consider that God is just.
God knows, I get tired. I get tired pushing and pushing for just policies in this area or that, for simple justice. There are days that I look up into the heavens and want to scream, just scream: Where are you, God? Why can’t I get my point across, convince this person of that or win this case? Where is justice? Like the Psalmist, I cry, how long, O God, how long?
Then, like the kitten hanging from the branch, I pause and figure, if I just swing my leg up, I’ll regain my balance and get back to some area of security where I can just garner my internal and spiritual resources and continue the fight.
Scripture gives us many examples like the widow in Jesus’ parable, other widows, those who were first considered help-less but who used their cunning and persistence to get what they needed or wanted or even, like Judith, to save a nation when the men of her time were afraid.
Above all, what this parable teaches us is that we should not give up, we cannot give up when we see injustice. We have the duty and the responsibility to speak out, to take action, to change the world so that it more accurately reflects God’s justice that extends to all regardless of race, clan, gender, religion, immigration status, wealth, or any of the other miserable distinctions we make between people. To do less is to face judgment, God’s judgment.
Let us pray: Eternal source of justice and righteousness, fount of mercy, give us strength and courage to build a world that reflects the call of Jesus, a world of justice, mercy and peace. In the name of him who came to show us a path to justice and righteousness, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.