Judges, Crones, and Charlie Brown

Luke 18:1-8  |  Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

Charlie Brown kept trying to kick the football, even though he knew Lucy would pull the ball away every time. He kept trying to fly his kite, even though both Charlie Brown and we knew that the tree was going to eat it.

That kind of persistence is admirable, but on some level watching it makes us a little uncomfortable. We like Charlie Brown, or most of us like him anyway, and we would like to see him succeed at least once—kick the ball or get his kite past that malevolent tree—because it would mean that we might manage to do whatever the thing is that we would most love to do one day. At least once.

The story about the persistent widow, a cranky old crone who keeps coming to a disinterested and unjust judge, wearing him down until he gives her justice, also makes us uncomfortable.

We’re used to the image of God as judge. It is so pervasive that we have difficulty getting around it. Plenty of people are turned off anything having to do with religion or faith precisely because of the way this image of God is pushed on them.

Creation of the Sun, Moon, and Planets by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, c.1511
Creation of the Sun, Moon, and Planets by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, c.1511

Luke isn’t much help. The judge in the story doesn’t even care about people. He only acts on behalf of the widow because she is bothering him with her incessant requests. We draw a parallel between the unjust judge and God and between the widow and ourselves—of course we do. It’s disturbing. While it appears that Luke sees the judge as a contrast to God rather than a comparison, we still worry. After all, many of us have laid requests in front of God over and over and over, only to be met with silence.

A word of caution. Many people seem to think that the teachings of Jesus were meant to reassure us, to make us feel good about ourselves and each other and God and life in general, but those people are not paying attention. Jesus did offer words of comfort and reassurance, but he also worked in plenty of unsettling things. Jesus was not satisfied with the status quo, neither that of society nor that of our mindsets.

This is one of the few parables to come with an explanation. Now he was speaking a parable to them about the necessity always to pray and not to lose heart…

We get that it is an argument from the lesser case to the greater—this unjust human will eventually do the right thing if you bug him long enough, therefore how much more will God?

Still. We may be forgiven for remaining uneasy.

A word of definition. Theodicy. Merriam Webster defines it this way: “defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil”

If we haven’t seen an answer to our prayer, does Jesus mean that we have not persevered long enough in asking? How long is long enough? Worse, how about the folks who seem to get nothing but bad despite their good? How about the whole story of Job, to name an example?

When we watch children drown in the Mediterranean, innocent people bombed in Aleppo, poor girls kidnapped in Africa, simple and decent people having their homes destroyed by hurricanes or floods, it begs the question of why. And of who hasn’t prayed long enough. And of whether God is paying attention.

Parable of the Unjust Judge by John Everett Millais, c. 1863
Parable of the Unjust Judge by John Everett Millais, c. 1863

Plenty of people answer the problem by saying there is no God. It is an effective answer, neatly addressing the apparent lack of supernatural intervention.

The rest of us, and maybe some of the atheists as well, keep struggling with the question.

One answer—and not one that I condone—is that the people meeting such disaster had it coming: the God is judge and those people are guilty approach. It is simple-minded rather than simple, and it makes God into a monster who condemns children and innocent people for the supposed sins of others. The prophets threw out this approach centuries before Jesus told the story of the judge and the widow (try out Jeremiah 31 or Ezekiel 18), and yet it finds advocates today. It seems to be a view most often held by people who have not yet ventured into one of the ‘those people’ groups. Eventually, life and time change their circumstance along with their views. Nothing changes us like experience, and none of us should ever pray for what we deserve.

Another answer, one that works part of the way, is that God is present among us. When we suffer, God suffers. I like this approach much better, and it is more comforting. It also presents God in a much better light. At the same time, we are left with questions of sovereignty. We are usually more interested in God fixing things than in God suffering with us.

There are as many answers as there are theologians, I suppose, and some of the answers are more satisfying than others. None of them feels complete.

charliebrownAnd so we return to Charlie Brown, who not only keeps trying to kick the ball, but who keeps trusting Lucy to hold it for him. There is so much grace in his trust in a proven adversary, and there is so much faith in his persistence. While our eyes are on the ball, Charlie Brown seems to realize something larger is at work, and that the moment at hand, this kick, is both an eternal thing and just a passing moment.

When the tree eats his kite—again—it is only a momentary affliction. It will pass, and Charlie Brown will make another kite, and another, knowing that his doing of these things is more important than the outcome. On some level, if Charlie Brown managed to kick the ball and fly the kite, on that day he would cease to exist. He would become someone else, still Charlie Brown but now the one who kicked the ball and who flew that kite.

Maybe that is Charlie Brown heaven. I don’t know. I do know that the grace of this parable is not in the judge’s answer. The grace of it is in the widow’s persistence.