Shuck and Jive

Sunday, February 27, 2011

You Can't Keep A Good Woman Down--A Sermon

You Can’t Keep A Good Woman Down
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

February 27th, 2011
Celebrate the Gifts of Women

Gospel of Jesus 12:27-31

He told them a parable:

Once there was a judge in this town who neither feared God nor cared about people.

In that same town was a widow who kept coming to him and demanding,
“Give me a ruling against the person I am suing.”

For a while he refused; but eventually he said to himself,
“I’m not afraid of God and I don’t care about people, but this widow keeps pestering me.
So I’m going to give her a favorable ruling,
or else she’ll keep coming back until she wears me down.”

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 59, 61. Luke 18:2-5.

When a gospel writer tells you the meaning of the parable before telling the parable, you want to raise your eyebrow in suspicion. Luke not only tells you up front what he thinks the parable means but then puts words on the lips of Jesus at the end to reinforce not the parable but the explanation.

It is like a reporter who rather than report on the actual event, instead uses the event as a starting off point to tell his or her own story.

Yesterday about 200 people held a rally in Johnson City on behalf of teachers and union workers. There was a small counter protest of about a dozen, twenty at most. The reporter wrote that hundreds of people lined both sides of the street and said:

“They were voicing their opinions on both sides of a growing debate in Tennessee to change public education.”
According to the report, one would think there were equal numbers on both sides. It wasn’t the case. Except for a few brief words from the rally's organizer, the reporter didn’t actually talk to the demonstrators but to a woman who happened to stumble on the scene and offer her views about education and teachers, which were not favorable. Then the reporter spoke to a member of the handful of opposing voices. The reporter had a story to tell but it had little to do with the events that had actually occurred. We call that spin. A far more accurate report, however, is in today’s Johnson City Press. WJHL on did a pretty fair job as well.

The gospel writers used spin when they told the story of Jesus and when they repeated the stories he told. They took the parables of Jesus and used them to spin their own narrative. That is why the quest to get underneath the stories is so important. We are looking for what the guy said rather than what was said about him. It doesn’t mean that work is easy or is definite by any means. It is an attempt, however, to be honest to Jesus.

Luke has a theme.

The readers should pray always and not lose heart because the Son of Man is coming, the one who will deliver justice.

It is perhaps not a bad message. It just doesn’t have anything to do with the parable. You don’t even need the parable to deliver the message. Here is the message, both prologue and epilogue without the parable:

He told them a parable about the need to pray at all times and never to lose heart. This is what he said:
And then he tells the parable about a corrupt judge and a widow. Then Luke creates this epilogue:
And the Lord said, “Don’t you hear what the corrupt judge says? Do you really think God won’t hand out justice to his chosen ones—those who call on him day and night? Do you really think he’ll put them off? I’m telling you, he’ll give them justice and to give it quickly. Still, when the son of Adam comes, will he find trust on the earth?”
If that is the message, Luke picked the wrong parable to tell it. The judge in the parable is certainly not a good symbol for God. He is a better symbol for Dr. Evil. No amount of praying to this guy is going to change anything. No appeal to justice, no appeal to common decency, will ever change him. It is rather bizarre that Luke would use this example to make the point that God will grant justice and grant it quickly.

In the parables of Jesus, whenever we have characters in positions of authority such as judges, kings, or wealthy landowners, the tendency has been to interpret that character as a god-figure. The gospel writers themselves will often do that. To do so misses the scandal of the parable. Be very suspicious of any character in authority in the parables of Jesus.

We have two characters in this parable, a judge and a widow.

A widow is not simply a woman whose husband has died. That person would be called a matron. A widow is a person whose husband has died and who is destitute. Widows were singled out along with orphans and immigrants as people who needed special care. This occurs throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.

In Deuteronomy the people are to pay a tithe of their produce and give it to
…the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns… 26:12
And again in Deuteronomy:
When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. 24:21
Special care is to be given to those most vulnerable. That is what it means to be decent. A compassionate and just society cares for the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow. A compassionate and just society treats the poor with respect.

Psalm 68:5 describes God in this way:
Father of orphans and protector of widows
is God in his holy habitation.
The prophet Isaiah writes against lawmakers in his time in chapter 10:
Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees,
who write oppressive statutes,
2 to turn aside the needy from justice
and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be your spoil,
and that you may make the orphans your prey!
Sometimes I feel like going to Nashville or Washington and reading to them from the Bible. They are all into the Bible aren’t they? All these Christian men. They love the Bible.

A widow symbolizes the vulnerable. When there is a story about a widow seeking justice, that story is a judgment story on society. We don’t even need to know (nor are we told) the specifics of her complaint. It could be relatives of her deceased husband who are holding out on giving her a share of his property. We don’t know. It doesn’t matter. She is a widow and she is seeking justice. The convention of storytelling lets us know that she is in the right.

The judge we know by the narration and by the character’s own admission is bad to the bone. There are a couple of hints we might miss that emphasize the corrupt nature of this enterprise. William Herzog points this out in his book Parables as Subversive Speech. Normally, you would have more than one judge decide a case. That would prevent corruption. What we have here is one judge likely getting bribed by her opponent.

Also, a woman normally wouldn’t seek a judgment by herself. A woman in this society would be represented by a man. Why has no man anywhere taken up her cause? That also shows the level of corruption. The fact that she is appealing to him by herself is a sign of the shame of this corrupt situation. She doesn’t even have representation.

No appeal to justice will matter. The judge himself is portrayed as a cartoonish villain.
“I’m not afraid of God and I don’t care about people.”
He sounds like Snidely Whiplash.

He will not have a change of heart.
He will not see the truth.
He will not do his duty.
What do you do when the justice system is unjust?
A losing battle is it not?

Maybe not. Luke’s answer is pray always. Some day the son of man will return. Well, OK. Prayer may be a good thing to do. Prayer is good. Prayer is nice. But what saves the widow is action.

What she is forced to do is make a spectacle of herself. She has to go and publicly shame this guy. Again and again and again. The judge says that she keeps “pestering” him. He decides to give in before she "wears him down". The word in Greek is a boxing term which means give one a black eye. Here is this widow, the most vulnerable, taking on the powerful and the corrupt. Every day she goes and gives him a black eye, figuratively speaking.

You can’t keep a good woman down.

That is the title that Brandon Scott provides for this parable in his book Hear Then the Parable.

The spectacle of pestering works because it is still in the judge’s interest to maintain the pretense of justice. If every day she is giving him a black eye, at some point, it won’t be worth it for him no matter what the bribe to keep taking this punishment. Why does he relent? It could be a matter of exhaustion, but even more than that, he could finally relent because he is afraid that enough people could be watching and public opinion could decide in her favor.

He relents not because he has compassion.
He relents not because it is the right thing to do.
He relents because of convenience.
She is more trouble than she is worth.

Our parable paints a cynical view of society to be sure. But those who have seen and who have experienced life from the widow’s perspective are well acquainted with this view of so-called justice. It is not much more cynical than what we experience today.

And yet…

The judge is not afraid of God.
The judge is not afraid of people.
The judge is afraid of this “powerless”, vulnerable widow.

Those who have ears let them hear.

A political cartoon in today’s Johnson City Press had a drawing of two figures. One is a teacher and the other is a Wall Street CEO. The text says:
Judy Peaches: Third grade teacher. Tasked with nurturing the intellects and talents of our best shot at keeping America great. Pay: $34,742. Bonus: Hugs

Joseph P. Sherk: Wall Street CEO. Very nearly drove the economy off a cliff decimating public pension plans in the process. Pay $5,950,000. Bonus: $24,700,000.

Guess who gets to make “shared sacrifices”?
But there were 200 Judy Peaches and friends of Judy Peaches on the streets in Johnson City yesterday.

They were “pestering”.

Yes, like the widow they were making a public spectacle of themselves on behalf of workers and basic human decency. It is shameful to society that this has to be done.

These bills that are being enacted across the country and in Tennessee are not just about teachers or government workers. They are about what it means to be a public society and what it means to have a public consciousness. Public education is called “public” for a reason. It is about education for all people. Sure some of us can send our children to private schools. So what happens to the vast majority of people who cannot do that? What happens to them? A decent society cares.

Well, we know that our legislators will not be convinced or have a change of heart. We have some of the best legislators money can buy. However, from our story we recall:

The judge is not afraid of God.
The judge is not afraid of people.
The judge is afraid of this “powerless”, vulnerable widow who makes a spectacle again and again.

Those who have ears, let them hear.

I know it may appear to be unseemly for a preacher to talk about so-called political matters from the pulpit. I don’t think they are political as much as they are moral. Nevertheless, I promise not to talk about social justice, poverty, corruption, and compassion any more than Jesus did.

It was justice day yesterday, I suppose.

Last night about 80 attended a concert here that was the idea of one of our folks, Jennie Young. She had a couple of singer/songwriter friends Dana and Susan Robinson who sang some songs and who raised awareness about mountain top removal strip mining.

Talk about an uphill battle. Taking on coal companies and every weak-kneed, paid for politician in the state can be a tad daunting. But Patricia Hudson does it.

You can’t keep a good woman down.

Pat Hudson is from an organization called L.E.A.F. the Lindquist Environmental Appalachian Fellowship. It is a group of women from Knoxville who think that caring for Earth is a matter of faith. They are on a mission to educate and inspire on behalf of our mountains, streams, and the people of Tennessee and Appalachia. They want faith communities to care.

Mountain Top Removal Mining in which up to 500 feet are blown off the top and dumped in the valleys below in order to get the coal is about the most destructive thing we can imagine to Earth and to Earthlings. It is coming to Tennessee.

Patricia Hudson and her friends at L.E.A.F. are blowing the whistle. They are creating spectacle. They are informing an uninformed public that this is happening under our noses and behind our backs.

I don’t know if the situation is as cynical as the situation with the judge and the widow in Jesus’ parable. I may have been a bit harsh on our politicians. Yet what I take from this parable is that the power for change comes from unexpected places and unexpected people.

People who in the words of Winston Churchill "never, never, never give up."

The judge is not afraid of God.
The judge is no respecter of humanity.
The judge is afraid of this “powerless”, vulnerable widow who makes a spectacle again and again.

Those who have ears let them hear.


  1. This is first sermon I have ever witnessed and enjoyed. This is the first time I have ever enjoyed being in a church. This is quite possibly the first time I have have felt good about what religion can do in the world. It is refreshing and inspiring to see a congregation of people coming together to include, create, and become. Thank you for your inspiration!

  2. Thanks David!

    And Poet! Wow. Thank you. You definitely made my day!! : )

  3. I'm with David R.

    Whenever I start thinking that no one south of the Mason-Dixon line cares a rat's ass for anything but themselves, I read your blog and your Sunday sermons.

    Fortunately for Tennessee, your state is not part of the "Marcellus Shale" "fracting" controversy. To my mind, blasting shale under the mountain to release the gas will inevitably lead to a vast underground fire that stretches from Virginia to Ohio. . . .

    But, I'm getting apocalyptic!

  4. @Sea I was hoping Gasland would win the Academy Award. I am glad it was nominated though to bring attention to Hydraulic Fracturing)"Fracking"

  5. John, what a great graphic on fracking -- makes it really clear -- unfortunately it looks like my apocalypticism may be right-on!