For most of the Church’s existence, we’ve read Scripture as having both a literal sense, and one or more spiritual senses. Overlook the literal and you lose any grounding in reality. Overlook the spiritual, and you get stuck in questions of inerrancy. If the incarnation of the Word in Jesus Christ tells us anything, it should tell us that God is present in the world, and that the spiritual is happening in the literal. No one can separate the two.
What is literally happening? Luke tells us a widow keeps coming to an unjust judge, demanding justice against her opponent. With a little knowledge of Jesus’ world, we can venture a few guesses about the situation. The likeliest reason the widow would be dealing with an opponent before a judge is that the widow is trying to secure her inheritance. Before marrying, her husband would have promised an inheritance to her in the event of his death. An opponent is claiming that the money is theirs. The court would have to hear the case before three judges. But Luke never mentions court, and mentions direct interaction with one judge. Likely, he is the only one due to a shortage. This makes justice easy to manipulate, and Luke tells us that the judge doesn’t care what people think or what God thinks. While Luke doesn’t use so many words, we can guess that the widow’s opponent and the judge are negotiating the appropriate bribe. Since the widow’s only property is the inheritance withheld by the judge, the widow cannot possibly counter her opponent’s bid.
So the widow keeps coming to the judge. She does not resign herself to defeat. Her opponent engaged the judge directly, so she does, too, only she goes publicly. We can guess that her requests are public because of the judge’s internal monologue: “I will grant her justice so that she will not wear me out.” “Wear me out” is a polite, sanitized translation of a word used in boxing, and refers to blows to the face, trying to give one a black eye. “I will grant her justice, lest she give me a black eye.” He is concerned for appearances. He doesn’t care who he hurts; he does care about the awkward questions which will arise if the widow keeps publicly demanding that he do his job. She cannot denounce him, because people are always denouncing their leaders, so no one cares. She cannot appeal to his decency, because he has none. But she can keep demanding justice and make life difficult. So the judge decides that whatever bribe is under negotiation isn’t worth it. The widow receives her inheritance.
What’s literally happening here is a fight for justice. This should give us an idea of what spiritual sense we can find in the story. Too often, spiritualizing means putting things off until the End. Jesus asks, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” and we’re tempted to think of this is a delay, as though Jesus says, “When I get there, some heads are gonna roll! But, you know, until then, you can do whatever you want.” No! We know Jesus is the Son of Man. He asks, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” The response is, “You tell me, Son of Man.” The Son of Man is already here. Jesus is in that fight for justice. It was God who said to that judge, “Give the widow her money,” and it was God who said to the widow, “Keep on demanding justice.”
If the incarnation tells us anything, it is that God is present now. The spiritual and the Then are happening in the literal and the Now. The Kingdom of God is coming into the world. And the judge of the dead at the End of Time is the judge of the living. Yes, clearly things are not yet what they will be. The world keeps on turning, and sinners keep finding new and exciting ways to hurt God and each other. Nonetheless, we confess with 2 Timothy and with the Apostles Creed that Christ Jesus is to judge the living and the dead, and we confess with Paul and the Gospels that the Kingdom of God is at hand and the Son of Man has already come. Whatever judgment and resurrection await us at the Last Day are breaking in now. What that means is that while this might be called the story of the unjust judge, referring to the man with an official judicial title, it is perhaps better called the parable of the judge of the living and the dead, “judge” referring to the Word of God who is present in the face of the widow demanding that her piece of the Kingdom of God be granted to her.
For the kingdom of God is here. Sin tries to withhold it. Late last month, the United Way released its ALICE Report for Porter County. ALICE is an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. These are households that make less than the basic cost of living, in this case in Porter County. The report revealed that the Household Survival Budget—the barely hanging on expenses—for a family of four in Porter County is $53,400. Fifty-three thousand four hundred. That’s no savings, no eating out, no fun vacations or weekend trips to Chicago, no safety net if something goes wrong. The study found that in 2014, the last year for which data are available, 41% of Valparaiso households lived at or below the survival budget. Let that sink in for a minute. Forty-one percent of Valparaiso households make less than the bare minimum required to live in Valparaiso.
We have Fairground Park, Forest Park, Kirchoff Park, Bicentennial Park, Foundation Meadows Park, ValPlaySo, Heritage Valley Park, and Central Park (with its splash pad). And I’m not complaining. The Leitzkes avail themselves of all of them. And for every five residents of Valparaiso, two of us cannot afford to live here. We have a lovely town center, with a range of businesses. And I’m not complaining. The Leitzkes patronize them when we can. And for every five residents of Valparaiso, two of us cannot afford to live here. We have excellent schools, and the Leitzkes are very happy with the day care we’ve found for Jane. And for every five residents of Valparaiso, two of us cannot really afford it. We have the lovely Pavilion, and new work going into an Arts District. And for every five residents of Valparaiso, two of us cannot afford to live here. The Kingdom of God is here, but Sin, like the unjust judge, is withholding it.
Sin uses us to withhold the kingdom from each other. I’ve heard Sin speak, when our Housing Subcommittee adopted a recommendation that stated that a household on two minimum wage incomes could qualify for a mortgage in Valparaiso. (That’s $30,160, which even with my bad math skills I can tell is less than the $53,400 minimum to live here.) I’ve heard Sin speak when pleas for affordable housing meet the response, “We don’t want to attract that sort of person here.” I’ve heard Sin speak when members of the community have approached the city saying, “We know this is a complicated problem—it’s jobs, it’s costs, it’s housing—and things are going to get a lot more complicated if we don’t do something about it,” only to be met with the insistence that this really isn’t an issue, or is an inappropriate topic for discussion. Make no mistake, that is Sin trying to use people to hold back the Kingdom.
If the Incarnation of the Word in Jesus Christ tells us anything, it is that the one who is to judge the living and the dead is present now. It tells us that Christ, present in the baptismal bath that drowns our sin has already announced the drowning of Sin in general, and staked his claim upon us and our world over against Sin. It tells us that Christ in the Eucharistic bread and wine that feed us is already distributing the Kingdom just as surely as our brothers and sisters in Christ are distributing bread and wine to us. It tells us that Christ present in Confession and Forgiveness hears us when we say, “Oh wow! This is a huge problem! I might even play a role in it! What can I do?”, and says, “I hear you. Trust me, I know. I’m gonna send away any guilt—real or imagined—and put you to work.” It tells us that Christ, who pulls us up from those baptismal waters in which Sin is drowned, raises us to join him and the widow in her repeated demands for justice. It tells us that Christ, in whom we are all knit together in one body, unites us as a whole host of widows, a body of petitioners, a congregation of people working for justice, struggling to be just in our actions, and together demanding that the powers of the world not listen to Sin, but rather let the Kingdom loose now.