“And will not God grant justice to God’s chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will God delay long in helping them?” Luke 18:7
You’ve heard it said many times. Hindsight is 20/20. And of course that’s true. It’s often when we’re on the other side of an experience that we can see it with clarity and insight. But when we’re in the middle of a challenge, when we’re pursuing a good outcome, we don’t have the benefit of knowing how it will turn out. A diagnosis. A legal tangle. A conflict. When we are standing in the proverbial rising floodwaters, we can’t tell whether the waters will recede in time to save us or whether they will keep rising and pull us under. And that can be terrifying.
So consider the widow in today’s gospel. She keeps coming back, again and again, to seek justice against her opponent. Who is that opponent? We don’t know. What kind of justice is she seeking? We don’t know that either. What we do know is that she is persistent. She does not give up, even when faced with a judge who does not seem to care much about anyone’s best interests but his own.
Remember that as a widow, this woman is especially vulnerable in a culture that expected women to be attached to men in order to have financial security and social status. There’s a reason that the Torah names widows as a special category of people for whom the law required provision, along with orphans and foreigners and the poor.[i]
If the judge was familiar with the mandate to care for widows, he seems perfectly willing to ignore it. About the only thing he gets points for is self-awareness: “I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone,” he admits. His actions suggest that this is true.
And still the widow persists. She is so unrelenting that the judge is forced to admit defeat. He says, “Because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” He actually uses a kind of boxing metaphor here. In the Greek he says, “Because this widow causes trouble for me, I will give her justice, so that she may not, in the end, give me a black eye by her coming.”[ii] It’s unfortunate that the judge relents only because he is annoyed by the widow’s persistence and not because he is actually committed to justice, but the widow gets her justice all the same.
What I find most compelling is that the widow persists even though she has no way of knowing how her quest will turn out. The odds were very much against her, so it could not have been easy for her to keep the faith. Still, she does not give up.
We often don’t know how our own quests for justice will turn out. Whether it’s getting the care that a loved one needs or working hard for a particular cause that we believe in, or trying to find a peaceful resolution to a conflict, we find ourselves entirely unsure of what the end result will be. These are the things that stay on our minds during the daylight hours and keep us awake when we should be sleeping. It’s hard to remain faithful in the midst of that uncertainty. It’s hard to hold on to hope.
Then there are the excuses. I can come up with a million excuses for not pursuing justice. I’ll do it when things are less busy. There are just too many issues right now. I need to do more research. I need to wait until conditions are more favorable.
All of those excuses might be valid. But then I think about that widow, denied justice again and again. She doesn’t make excuses. She just keeps showing up, clear about what she wants and undaunted by a system that does not want to yield to her demands.
In recent months I have gotten intrigued by the story of Derek Black.[iii] I first encountered Derek’s story in Eli Saslow’s excellent book Rising Out of Hatred. Derek Black grew up in a prominent white nationalist family. KKK leader David Duke was his godfather. Derek and his father co-hosted a daily radio show that broadcast white nationalist and white supremacist ideologies. They organized conferences for their fellow white nationalists. They helped run a website devoted to white nationalist propaganda. Derek had even been responsible for designing the part of the website that targeted kids. Everyone assumed that Derek would take over as a leader of the movement.
Eventually Derek renounced those white nationalist beliefs publicly – in op-eds that ran in prominent newspapers and in interviews like the one I heard recently on the On Being podcast.
What most fascinates me is what happened to transform Derek from the heir apparent of a white nationalist empire to someone who admits that those hateful beliefs are damaging and wrong.
Derek’s change takes place while he is a student at New College in Florida. For a while he lives a divided life, continuing his white nationalist activities off campus but living under the radar as a smart and dedicated student on campus. When his identity as a white nationalist is revealed on campus, the backlash is intense. Many students want him expelled. Derek faces rejection, ridicule, and sometimes violence– which, you may be thinking, only seems fair given the pain and violence toward people of color that could be traced back to the movement he had helped to lead.
Enter Matthew Stephenson, an Orthodox Jewish student who knew Derek only in passing. After Derek’s exposure as a white nationalist, Matthew does something unexpected. He invites Derek to his Friday night Shabbat dinner. And Derek – somewhat hesitantly – accepts the invitation. Several other students who attend this weekly dinner are reluctant; a few of them stop coming to the dinner. Some of them later return to join the conversation.
Derek participates in those Shabbat dinners with a group of Jewish students, even though Jewish people had been among the targets of his white nationalism. The thing is – at these dinners they don’t talk about white nationalism. They talk about many other things, including religion. The conversations are long, sometimes serious and sometimes lighter. They continue over the next couple of years, week in and week out.
A friendship emerges. The relationship deepens. Things begin to shift.
There are others too, including a young woman named Allison, who also develops a deep friendship with Derek, even as she abhors his commitment to white nationalism. Together they explore the beautiful beaches and other sights near the college. They spend a lot of time talking – not just about his beliefs or her disagreement with them, but about music and literature and all those things that college students discuss late into the night.
But Allison does challenge his beliefs. She finds research studies to show him that his beliefs are wrong – and to make him see the harm that racism does to people, both individually and systemically. Allison is the one who eventually convinces him that it isn’t enough to change his mind. If he was willing to spread the hatred publicly, he needs to be willing to renounce it publicly.
I’ve thought a lot about Matthew and about Allison and the role they played in Derek’s repentance. The story has what we might call a happy ending, but they couldn’t know that it would turn out that way. When they were in the middle of building this relationship with Derek, when their friends and family members were telling them that they were crazy for doing so, they somehow had to trust that it was worth it. They kept showing up. They stayed in conversation with their friend, and they changed his life as a result.
What does persistence in matters of justice demand? It means laboring without knowing what the outcome will be. It means believing that people can indeed change, that redemption and repentance are more than fancy church words we dust off on Ash Wednesday. It means trusting that God, unlike the judge in our story, does respect people and does value justice. Not just values it, but longs for it. God desires justice for us and for the whole world. As Jesus reminds us, “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will God delay long in helping them?”
Pursuing justice demands trust. Trust that God is the One who can bring about transformation. Trust that God hears our cries. Trust that the outcome may not be what we expect or unfold according to the timeline we want. Trust that God is with us in the uncertainty.
In the words of our psalm, in the pursuit of justice the Lord neither slumbers nor sleeps. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore. The Lord will keep your life. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[iii] I first learned about Derek’s story from the excellent book by Eli Saslow titled Rising Out of Hatred. I also encountered Krista Tippett’s interview with Derek and his friend Matthew on this recent episode of the On Being podcast: https://onbeing.org/programs/derek-black-and-matthew-stevenson-befriending-radical-disagreement/#transcript
“Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.” Luke 17:15-16
I have a few boxes of items saved from my teaching days, one of which is a collection of thank-you notes from students. They were fun to read on discouraging days to remind myself that I had in fact helped people learn some things along the way. One of my favorites is from a Japanese exchange student with whom I worked during my student teaching at Western Albemarle High School in Charlottesville. When I was leaving at the end of the semester, she gave me a card that included the sentence: “Thank you for had been teaching me English.” It was very sweet – and also made me wonder how well I had actually done with teaching her English.
Experiencing gratitude has some benefits. A newsletter from Harvard reports that when people acknowledge the goodness in their lives, they can see “that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves…whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.”[i] People who express gratitude in tangible ways are generally happier and healthier than those who don’t.
Today’s First Reading gives us a case study in someone who needs help with gratitude. Meet Naaman. A powerful man, a commander of the king’s army in Aram (what is known today as Syria). Naaman is used to ordering people around and having them obey without hesitation. But Naaman also has leprosy, a horrible disease that surely must have made him feel self-conscious – and perhaps even shameful. Leprosy is a painful condition involving skin lesions that can sometimes lead to infections of the respiratory system and other parts of the body. It can mean nerve damage in one’s extremities and the inability to feel pain there, which, as we heard in the vivid account from the children’s Bible, can sometimes lead to losing fingers and toes. It must have been difficult for Naaman to reconcile his pain and his power.
When Naaman is finally convinced to go to the king of Israel for help, notice what he brings with him. He brings a letter from the king of Aram (written on Namaan’s behalf), a truckload of silver and gold, ten sets of clothes, and a bit of an attitude. Namaan shows up with all the trappings of his power, and he expects results.
Namaan thinks he can throw around his money, his connections, his power, his status, and he will get what he wants. But nothing goes as he expects. The king of Israel at first seems to reject his request, but lucky for Naaman, the prophet Elisha is good at eavesdropping. Elisha sends a messenger to tell Naaman to wash in the river Jordan in order to be healed.
And how does Naaman respond? Is he thankful for a possible cure? Is he thrilled that Elisha has intervened on his behalf? Does he rush to follow Elisha’s instructions?
No. He somehow manages to get offended. He’s upset that Elisha didn’t come talk to him in person. He’s dismissive of the Jordan River and insists that the rivers back home are far superior. He rejects the entire premise of the cure that he’s been offered. This wasn’t the help he had wanted to buy. He wanted Elisha to come out and wave his hands around and make the cure more dramatic.
Imagine if you had a painful, debilitating condition, and the nurse practitioner working with your doctor told you that all you needed to do to be healed was to drink some orange juice every day. If you were to respond as Namaan does, you would cross your arms and pout that the doctor had not given you this information directly, and you would refuse to drink the orange juice because you would insist that apple juice is far better.
I love that the people who save Naaman from his own worst impulses are those with the least amount of power. Did you see that? In a world where Naaman expects money and power to buy influence, he needs the voices of a slave girl and the voices of his servants to set him on the path to healing. The slave girl – a girl who has been stolen from her family and forced to work for Naaman’s wife – is the one who recommends that Naaman go see Elisha in the first place. And when Naaman is having his little tantrum and refusing to do what Elisha says, it’s his servants who persuade him to follow what seems like a simple set of instructions. If he had asked you to do something hard, wouldn’t you have done it?
Sometimes our help does not come in the way we expect. We want help and healing on our own terms. We’d like to direct the narrative in the way that we imagine it. But when I think about the times I have been most deeply grateful, it was because someone helped me in a situation that I could not handle on my own or in my own way. I needed other voices to urge me toward wholeness.
We often try to twist gratitude into something endlessly complicated. We, like Namaan, want it our way, and we like to make ourselves central to the outcome of the story. But in the end gratitude can really look like that tenth leper in Jesus’ story – another foreigner who had suffered too long. The tenth leper simply turns back toward Jesus, praises Jesus for what he has done, gets humble and still, and says thank you. He literally flattens himself on the ground and says thank you.
What if we did that more often? Turned to Jesus, praised him, got still, and said thank you. We need what Jesus offers – that fullness of life that he wants each of us to have, even when we feel overwhelmed. What might happen if we acknowledged that need and felt grateful for it?
That verb for thanking Jesus? In Greek it’s eucharisto. That’s where we get one of our names for Holy Communion – the Eucharist. A meal of thanksgiving for the life that Jesus gives freely.
So come forward today. Turn to Jesus. Be still for a moment. Receive his healing presence. Experience gratitude. And then carry your grateful heart out into a world that longs for the healing that only Jesus can give. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ