The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Transcribed from the audio recording.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our collective hearts be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
The widow in the Gospel story you just heard gives whole new meaning to the adage “persist and prevail.” Every day she went back to the unjust judge and demanded justice. And in her case, I would posit the view that it was not so much tenacity as necessity. While the Scriptures are silent on the particular issue with which she was pleading her case, an educated guess would give us a sense of what that might be because in those days widows were utterly dependent upon someone else for their care and protection. Women, when they married, were dependent on their husband to provide protection and provision. And when a husband died the Jewish law was that that responsibility would then be transferred to a brother of the husband or, if the widow had sons, to her sons. And by virtue of the fact that she is going by herself, alone, to plead for what is justly hers, it would indicate that someone was not stepping up to the plate, that her very survival was dependent on justice being exercised. So, perhaps not so much tenacity as necessity.
And while the Scriptures are silent on her particular situation, the Scriptures are replete in God’s continued commandment that we are to show compassion and justice and partiality to widows, orphans, and strangers. There’s no question about that; that God commands us to be compassionate and to take care of the most vulnerable around us. It was true in biblical times. It remains true today. And as I was reflecting on the widow trying to exercise justice, the Scriptures are even more graphic than what you hear in that translation today. The judge finally capitulates when she’s about to shame him. What you hear in our translation is: to wear him out. The actual Greek translation is: to give him a black eye. She shamed him into doing the right thing.
As I was thinking about the widow and how she had to continue to fight for her rights, I couldn’t help but think about the past few weeks in our country and our government leadership and people trying to lift up voice for what is justly and rightly theirs. And who was most dramatically impacted by the shutdown of our government? The neediest in our country—the people dependent on government support for their very survival. And on top of that, landing on a rather fragile economy, an estimated $24 billion in additional expense would lead me to believe there’s got to be a better way to exercise the responsibilities of the offices to which people have been appointed and elected. To turn a blind eye, and I would say a now blackened eye, to those in our country who are most dependent on our support is morally wrong. Surely we can find a better way to do what our country is called and we are called to do, as we, the people.
Surely there must be better models in biblical times, in contemporary times, on how we exercise justice in this country. In his book The Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning tells the story of an elected official who, I believe, lifted up a different model and I’d like to offer that to you this morning. He talks about former mayor of New York, Mayor LaGuardia, who was mayor of New York during the Great Depression and Second World War—some of the most challenging economic times in that city, in our country. And the story goes that on a bitterly cold January night in 1935, Mayor LaGuardia went to the night court in the poorest ward in the city and he dismissed the judge who was sitting on the bench. He decided that he would hear the cases that night. And an elderly woman, very poorly dressed, was brought before him on charges that she had stolen a loaf of bread and the shopkeeper who brought the charges said, “Your honor, you have to do something. You have to enforce the law. This is a bad neighborhood and you have to set the example for others.” So, Mayor LaGuardia listened to the woman as she proceeded to tell him that her daughter’s husband had left them, her daughter was sick, and her grandchildren were starving. And yes, she stole a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren. The Mayor sighed. He looked at the woman and said, “The law is clear; there are no exceptions. The fine is ten dollars or ten days in jail.” And as he said that, he reached into his pocket; he pulled out his wallet; he pulled out a ten dollar bill and he threw it in his hat. He said, “Your fine is paid and furthermore, I charge everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a city where a woman has to steal a loaf of bread to feed her grandchildren. Bailiff, collect the fines.” To the shock of the grandmother, the bailiff came forward with $47.50.
There are a lot of ways to exercise justice. And do so remembering God’s call to us that we are to extend compassion and care for the neediest among us: widows and orphans, strangers, children. Jesus says, do not lose heart. Pray. Continue to pray. I would add one thing to that. We have voice and vote in this country and there’s a wonderful African proverb that marries prayer and action. It says: when you pray, move your feet. I would add to Jesus’ encouragement to us to continue to pray and do not lose heart, move your feet. Amen.