Rev. Matthias Peterson-Brandt
In 1873, a young woman named Myra Bradwell applied to become a lawyer with the Illinois state bar association. The statute at the time was that any citizen of good standing and sufficient training would be admitted to the state bar. She was denied entry because she was a woman, and even upon appealing it to the Supreme Court, they sided with the state of Illinois, noting that the arena of law might not be “suitable” for women.
Jump ahead to 1948, another supreme court case in which the plaintiff was a woman named Valentine Goesaert. She owned a bar in Michigan, but her ability to own that bar was revoked by the state because—you guessed it—she was a woman. As Myra Bradwell had done, she fought the case until it went to the supreme court. And once again, the court ruled that it was in the state’s prerogative to restrict women from being bartenders (unless they had a male relative who owned the establishment). This was, they said, for the protection of the women from the moral and social dangers and associated with bars. In which case, why not just ban bars altogether? But I digress…
These two cases, nearly 80 years apart, and yet the same outcome in restricting women’s access to the full range of careers and opportunities available to men. From our vantage, we can waste no time in saying these were injustices. Astonishingly similar though they took place 80 years apart!
There is a legal axiom: “Justice delayed is justice denied.” The exact origin is not known. Dr. King famously used a version of this phrase in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In essence it means, if justice is not quickly forthcoming when the facts are not in doubt, it is the same as if there were no justice at all.
Yet, in today’s parable of the unjust judge, Jesus tells us that if even this corrupt judge eventually gives in to the demands of the persistent widow, how much more swiftly will God give us justice when we cry out.
This does not always square with our lived experience of waiting, and waiting to see justice accomplished. To see access to rights interpreted in expansive ways that encompass people of color, GLBTQ+ folkx, women. We do not want to wait for most things, but especially for justice.
There is a genre of videos online with the title or tag “instant karma” which scratch this itch. Usually it is something like a person in a sports car zooming cutting people off and driving recklessly only to then be pulled over by an undercover police car. Or a kid is taunting a pet that then bops him with lightning speed. Or a prank goes awry, dousing the person who set it up instead of their target. We cheer and laugh and get to feel like finally: instant justice. Albeit a sort of cheap justice.
We cannot know why often justice seems to tarry. Why God is not more often in the business of snapping her fingers and making justice instant.
But Jesus prefaced this parable by stating that it is about our need to persevere in prayer and not lose heart. We are reminded through this parable that prayer is both supplication, asking for what we need, conversing with God and listening; and prayer is also how we live and the actions we take. Our work for justice, or building up of community, or caring for one another, or taking sabbath rest time. These can all be prayer too.
Prayer shapes us, just as any habit does. Just as exercise makes us stronger, or solving a daily crossword puzzle will improve our skill, just as writers improve by writing and practice and reading other authors, so too for us does prayer shape us when we practice it. It softens our gaze towards our neighbors in pain and hurting; it renews our sense of strength and determination, our commitment to do what is just and what is good, not necessarily what is easy.
We wouldn’t need encouragement if we were always successful at everything on the first try. If every attempt always yielded the desired outcome, then at the first sign of resistance, no matter how slight, we would quit because we would be unaccustomed to having to try. If all the world were instant karma videos, real justice would never come to fruition because the will to persist in faith, to keep trying and struggling on, would be atrophied and weakened.
And if every wrong were instantly repaid, if every injustice were immediately made right, this would preclude the possibility that we, in fact, are sometimes the unjust judge in the parable. If there were pause in time between grievance and redress, crime and punishment, evil being made right, then there would be no time, no room for transformation or change. Every mistake we made would be answered without the possibility of learning from it, recognizing, turning it around. Instant justice leaves no room to build a faith that runs deeper than gratification, or a justice more robust than a coin flip.
This is not to say that we should settle for justice delayed, or wait on justice to happen in its own time because as we know: those with power seldom give it up voluntarily. Rather God hones in us a spirit of endurance for longer term visions. God, viewed from this angle, is the persistent widow, nudging and poking and discomforting us to see that justice is done, to not give up on the possibility of a world where see millennia of wrongs made right, hurts healed, and new paths open.
Such as, in 1972, nearly 100 years after Myra Bradwell had been denied entry to the Illinois State Bar Assn., when a plucky young attorney founded the Women’s Right Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. It was Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Over several years, she strategically took on cases to make the push to end discrimination based on gender. It was hard and grinding work. No one case that broke the whole thing open, but instead case by case she built little precedents. Choosing her language very carefully. Eventually she represented a shopkeep from Oklahoma where state law held that men could by beer at 21, but women could buy beer at 18. This was gender discrimination! Outrageous! How could these young men not buy beer but could be drafted, while women could? In accepting her arguments, she forced an admission that discrimination based on gender was unconstitutional, which opened the door for women’s rights under the law. It was certainly, a long time coming. Nevertheless, she persisted.
So too, Jesus tells us, must we. When our spirits flag, God the widow pokes us along until we continue to live out the prayer of justice, a prayer made real by God at work, persevering with us. Amen.