This past Sunday, I preached on the Parable of the Persistent Widow in Luke 18:1-8. I’ve often heard others preach, and have myself taught the message of this parable that we should “always pray and not give up” (v. 1). I’ve thought in terms of things like seeing people come to faith, praying for the sick, praying about needs related to our work and our lives. I don’t think that is wrong, but as I studied this parable I was struck by the fact that the widow was seeking justice from the unjust judge (v. 3). Furthermore, in Jesus’s own application of the parable verse 7 says, “will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night?” Verse 8 reinforces this theme: “I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.”
One of the basic things I learned about Bible study years ago was to pay attention to repeated words. They are a clue to what the writer or speaker considers important. Clearly in this passage, one of the things Jesus considers important is justice, and praying for it.
In recent months and weeks, we’ve been inundated with news stories about the death of a young black man in Ferguson, a black youth in Cleveland, and an older black man in New York City. In two of these cases, local grand juries refused to charge police with any wrongful death and there has been a great outcry in the press and in social media either decrying the injustice of these decisions and the deaths that occurred at the hands of police, or in defending the police officers, who often put themselves at risk in protecting public safety and have to make split second decisions that, if wrong, may cost them their lives or the lives of others.
While I personally have decided that it is fruitless to raise my voice on one “side” of this discussion or the other in social media, I will say a couple things. One is there is something wrong with this pattern with so many dying in the streets, some at the hands of police. It is clear to me that we still are a racially divided society. If nothing, the vehemence in the outcries on both sides of the discussion reveal we are a long way from what Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned as “the beloved community.”
It seems to me that in the predominantly white church community (the one I know best) we either resort to attempts at personal justification (“I’m not racist” or “I’m personally colorblind”). Or we attempt to join and justify one side of the outcry, and, from what I can see, simply perpetuate and deepen the divisions in our society.
None of this is to say that the bereaved and their communities shouldn’t pursue justice nor that police shouldn’t be supported in their hard work. In fact, in a society where the rule of law is upheld, our legal system should be the place where these things are adjudicated, and it is right for those who believe that justice is denied to continue to pursue it via legal means. It’s not a perfect system, but the best we humans can devise in a fallen world.
But the parable (remember the parable!) also exhorts us to prayer to God for justice as well. For those of us who are Christ-followers, obedience to Jesus means that we keep praying for justice. Our first work in these matters is to seek the Lord. But the parable also says it is to be our persisting work. And this is where I fall down. I see advances in civil rights. I see a president of African-American descent in the White House. I mistake progress toward King’s “dream” with fulfillment. And I stop praying.
What the succession of events in Ferguson, Cleveland, and New York do is challenge me to renew my efforts in prayer and become aware that this is an area where persistence is vital. As I look for God’s answers, such praying can also change me. Praying helps me listen both for God’s invitations to join him in pursuit of the “beloved community” and opens my ears and my heart to listen to other voices than simply the ones that most resonate with me, voices that need to be heard if real reconciliation and not simply self-justification are to occur.
I’ve concluded that I need to persist in crying out to the Lord to bring justice (all that that means) into the racial divides in our country. I pray the Lord’s prayer each morning and night. As I pray, “Thy kingdom come” I will include in my prayers the coming of Jesus’s just rule into our racially divided land. It occurs to me that I could be praying that the rest of my life. I hope not, but Martin Luther King, Jr. was fond of saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” What sustains our persistence over that “long arc” is the promise of a God who will grant justice, who will bring a kingdom of shalom.
Going Deeper question: For what do you believe God wants you to persist in prayer? How is a concern for justice a part of that?