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The Persistence of Hunger -- Luke 17:20-21, 18:1-8 (19th Sunday After Pentecost; World Food Day)

This morning, our Scripture is the parable of the persistent widow and the indifferent judge. It’s a great little story.[1] There’s this judge who couldn’t care less. Jesus says the judge has no regard for God or for people. What a great judge. And there’s this widow, who has a case, a cause, a plea – and she brings it to the judge – she wants justice. The judge ignores her and ignores her and ignores her. The widow persists and persists and persists, until finally the judge says, “OK, all right! Even though I don’t care about God or about people, I’ll grant you justice – because this widow’s persistence is starting to feel like a slap in the face.”

Jesus tells this story, and then says, “Listen to that judge. Won’t God do better than that?” Now, at first, we might think – well, that’s a pretty low bar. This judge who cares not for God, not for people, not for justice. Won’t God do better than that? Well, that is a good thing.

Back in Alabama, I taught a law school class with student interns who were working with federal judges. I was visiting with one of the judges one day – Judge Inge Prytz Johnson – and she shared with me her path to the bench. She was an unusual judge for Alabama. She was Scandinavian – born in Denmark – practiced law in Denmark – immigrated to the US – and then went to law school again in the US – and became a lawyer and a judge.

Before she was appointed by President Clinton to be a federal judge, Judge Inge Prytz Johnson had been elected as a state judge in a rural area of Alabama. That’s somewhat unusual – if she had any accent at all, it wasn’t a Southern accent – which marked her as someone who “wasn’t from around here.” Not letting that hold her back, she ran for circuit judge, and she went door to door with just one campaign promise: “As a judge, I will read every piece of paper you file with the court.” That struck me as a rather unexciting campaign slogan. But it worked. She met people face-to-face, promised that she would read what they filed – she would listen to what they had to say – and then she would judge.

And she was elected, and re-elected – because that mattered to people. It may be such a simple thing: I will listen to your case. Your plea for justice will not fall on closed ears or an indifferent heart. As a judge, I will take you and your case seriously. It was a simple thing, but it was no small thing. She promised them the dignity of being heard and seen, with the opportunity for justice.

The judge in this parable – only through the persistence of the widow – finally listens to her cause. And Jesus says, “Won’t God do even better than that?” Pray, and God will listen. That is no small thing – but this is a parable – so, surely that can’t be all – it feels a little too... easy.

Remember, parables are these stories Jesus tells that turn the world on its head. The stories engage the world of those who hear them. They seem ordinary – a day in the life – but then there’s a twist – something we don’t expect. They are intended to surprise and to challenge – to shake things up. Amy Jill-Levine suggests “we might be better off thinking less about what parables mean and more about what they can do – remind, provoke, refine, confront, disturb...”[2]

With parables, we always want to think about how those who first heard these parables might have heard them in their world. What would they have expected – what would have surprised them? Maybe in their world, the people who first heard this story wouldn’t have expected much better from the indifferent judge. They lived in a world of hierarchical power – of power-over – those in power didn’t have to respond to those who lacked power. You cry for justice, and you cry for justice, and no one ever listens. You scrape by, sometimes your kids go hungry at night, and life grinds on.

But in this parable – someone actually grabs the attention of the powerful – and wrestles justice out of the powerful. This widow. This woman. In this patriarchal world. This woman cries out, and cries out, “I will not be ignored!” And she causes the indifferent judge finally to listen – and to grant her justice.

The world of this parable is actually different from the world the people know. Their tradition – the Law – requires, above all, care for the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant. But more often than not, in their world, those pleas fall on hardened hearts. What happens in this parable – This. Is remarkable: a judge who is persuaded by loud persistence to respond to the cries of the vulnerable, and who eventually grants them justice. And so Jesus says: Listen to this judge. Won’t God listen? Won’t God bring justice to those who cry out day and night? Won’t God act without delay? This is a world different from the world the people know – where the pleas of the vulnerable are heard – and the promises of the law fulfilled.

What Jesus is talking about here is the reign of God – the kingdom of God. Remember, that’s how this teaching started. Jesus is asked when the kingdom of God will come – the reign of God – and he says, “It’s not coming with things you can observe in some far-off future – the reign of God is here – among you now.” The New Creation. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is turning the world rightside up. Jesus has come to proclaim good news to the poor and freedom for the oppressed. Those held low are being lifted up, the mighty brought down from their power.

Jesus says: The reign of God is among you. Let me tell you a story. There was a widow who persisted and got justice from an indifferent judge. Won’t God do more? Won’t God listen to the cries of the vulnerable? Won’t God act without delay? Yes, I tell you, God will quickly grant justice. This is who God is.

And then Jesus asks, “And when the Human One comes – the one who lives out the fullness of God in the fullness of humanity – when the Human One comes – will he find faith?”

Oh. There’s the real twist. Jesus has been telling us something about God – the God who listens and acts without delay – and all of the sudden, he’s saying something about us. The Reign of God – the New Creation is here – right here, right now – among you – in the midst of you – within you. You are a New Creation. Will you live like that is so? When the Human One comes – will he find faith? In this world, full of the cries of the vulnerable – how will you live? In this New Creation, when the vulnerable cry out for help – will you listen?Will you act without delay? Will the Human One find persistent justice... or indifference?

We come to this Scripture on World Food Day. World Food Day was established by the United Nations as a day of learning, awareness, and action – its goal: “to free humanity from hunger and malnutrition, and to better manage the global food system.”[3] According to the UN’s latest data, 828 million people in the world suffer from hunger, even though the world produces enough food to feed everyone on the planet.[4] 60% of them are women; 70% live in rural areas. 45% of infant deaths globally are related to malnutrition.

Global efforts to end hunger had been making progress, with hunger on the decline until about 2014, when the hunger rates started to rise again. More and more people are food insecure, perilously close to hunger, with more threatened, as the main root causes of hunger include things we know all too well: conflict (as in Ukraine), climate extremes (hurricanes, flood drought, floods) – part of our trajectory toward climate collapse, and economic slowdowns (like those related to COVID-19).

The world is full of the pleas and cries of the hundreds of millions who hunger. World Food Day asks us to listen and to act.

Hunger is a global problem. The harm is individual – hunger harms real people and real families. And the problem is structural and global – global systems that ineffectively distribute the world’s food supply. This church acts locally to alleviate hunger – in Marin County and across the presbytery. And, this church – and others across the country – have joined the global effort to end hunger. particularly through the work of Bread for the World, an organization that advocates for national and global changes in policy.

One of the most important advances in this effort has been the Global Food Security Act – which has passed through Congress twice now with bipartisan support. The Global Food Security Act commits the federal government to participate in an international strategy to ensure global food security. Among other things, “the legislation authorizes Feed the Future, the flagship U.S. food security initiative, which broadly focuses on inclusive and sustainable agriculture-led economic growth, strengthened resilience among people and systems, and improving nutrition ...particularly among women and children.”[5] The Global Food Security act is up for re-authorization this year – and Bread for the World is leading grassroots advocacy to make sure that this important, effective initiative remains in place. After worship, you have the opportunity to be a part of that.

We come to this morning’s Scripture on World Food Day – and find an indifferent judge who is ultimately moved to justice by the widow’s persistence. In the parable and in Jesus, we experience a God who hears the cries of the vulnerable – the hungry, the poor, the oppressed – and responds without delay. Jesus says the reign of God is among you – you are the New Creation – will you live into that? Will you listen? Will you act?

This morning, we have specific ways that we can act – that you can act – right here, right now. As Barbara will explain in just a moment, this morning, we are participating in Bread for the World’s Offering of Letters campaign. Bread for the World is coordinating this letter-writing campaign – like the persistent widow – letter after letter after letter – to policy makers to amplify the cry of the hungry – to argue their case – and to work to change the systems that maldistribute the world’s resources.

During Children’s Time, the children led us in gathering food for the food bank – you can bring in your cans and food again next week.

Next week is the Centsability offering Sunday – our presbytery-wide collaborative hunger-action effort – you can bring your Centsability offering here – or you can go online right now, or during the offering, and give to Centsability efforts to alleviate hunger.

Our own Nick Morris is the Executive Director of the Marin Street Chaplaincy – you can give or volunteer.

And, of course, you can pray. That is, after all, how this parable is introduced: “And then Jesus told them a parable about how they should pray and never give up.”

Pray? But I thought we were talking about action.

This week, I ran across a piece in The Atlantic, written by a Muslim writer, Abdullah Shihipar.[6] He was writing not long after the Uvalde killings, reflecting on that phrase “thoughts and prayers” – in an article titled, “The Kind of Prayer that Could Make a Difference.” He noted that the phrase “thoughts and prayers” spoken in response to deep suffering has too often become synonymous with doing nothing. Drawing from his tradition though, Shihipar wrote this: “Prayer is so much more than just a figure of speech; in its best form, prayer combines reflection [listening] with an intention to act... If prayer isn’t coupled with an intent to act, then we are really just asking God to take care of something we won’t.” In response to human suffering, “Every prayer,” he writes, “every prayer is a reminder of what we need to do.”

Rabbi Abraham Heschel once said that when he marched with Dr. King at Selma, he “felt like his legs were praying.”

A life of prayer, engaged in the deep need of the world –

in their traditions and in ours.

This parable of the indifferent judge and the persistent widow doesn’t just give us a new and clearer vision of God – God, who listens to the cries of the vulnerable, and acts without delay. It gives us a new vision of us – and of our relationship to each other and to God – all of us part of the New Creation we experience in Resurrection and in the life we live in Christ.

At the Last Supper, Jesus stands in the midst of his disciples and says, “I am among you as one who serves.” In this parable, Jesus tells a story about that. This parable invites us

· to join in and to persist in the cries of the widow, the vulnerable, and the hungry;

· to listen, with God, to the deep need of the world;

· to live together into the new life, the new humanity we have in Christ;

· to act without delay;

· to pray and never give up.

© 2022 Scott Clark

[1] For general background on this Scripture, see R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. ix (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), pp. 335-40; Justo L. González, Luke (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010); Francisco J. García, Commentary on Working Preacher, at [2] Amy-Jill Levine, Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (HarperOne, San Francisco: 2014), p.4. I note that Levine offers a reading of this particular parable even more provocative than the one offered here. [3] See [4] See Resources of the UN Food & Agriculture Organization, ; including its annual report, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2022, [5] [6] Abdullah Shihipar, “The Kind of Prayer that Could Make a Difference,” The Atlantic, July 1, 2022,

Photo Credit: Joel Muniz, used with permission via Unsplash

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