Shamelessly persistent: a widow and a judge, the Christians and the system
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Luke 18:1-8 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge
18 Then Jesus[a] told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’”[b] 6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
He was the seventh child—seven of ten. That had to be lucky. And all bearing biblical names: Joseph, Sarah, Daniel, Benjamin, Rebekah, Elizabeth, Nathan, Hannah, Mary, and Joshua. Biblical names, reflecting the strong religious convictions of their non-conformist parents, Joshua and Mary.
Young Nathan was born surrounded by promise and hope. What would his life turn out to be? His parents hoped, and prayed.
As a young adult, Nathan Taylor was joined in marriage to Betty Clegg. He had known her all his life. They lived in adjoining houses, in their West Yorkshire village of Almondbury, a few miles to the south-east of Huddersfield. Perhaps Nathan had married up in the world; non-conformist as he was, his marriage was conducted by the vicar, on 15 September 1839, in the Almondbury Parish Church. It seems that the Clegg family were members of the established Church of England.
A son, William, was born that same year, in 1839. (Perhaps he was the reason that Nathan and Elizabeth married?) Then, two years later, a daughter, Mary, was born. The Census for 1841 lists a family comprising Nathan Taylor, 25, Clothier, his wife Elizabeth, 20, and their two children, living in Schofield Lane in the township of Huddersfield. Sadly, William later would die by drowning at the age of 18; and no other trace of Mary can be found beyond this 1841 Census.
A second son, John, was born to Nathan and Betty in Huddersfield in January 1845. He was given the maiden name of his mother, Clegg, for his middle name, and appears in official records as John Clegg Taylor.
However, within two years, the family, was torn apart. On 6 March 1847, at the age of 33, Nathan Taylor was tried at the York Assizes, on the charge of “Warehouse breaking”. He was sentenced to ten years imprisonment. All the promise of a fine son, that his parents had invested in him, was broken.
Also tried with him that day were John Johnson, 33, and Thomas Waddington, 37, both of whom received the same sentence for their crime of “Robbery in company with violence”. These three men were amongst 302 convicted men who subsequently were transported to the colony of New South Wales on board the ship Adelaide. This was the last of the ships bearing convicts to come to the colony of NSW. Later convicts were sent to Moreton Bay (now Brisbane), and then later to the Swan River (now Perth). But none followed the Adelaide to New South Wales.
Indeed, further investigations reveal that Nathan Taylor had already served time, for an incident of aggravated assault, a couple of years earlier. He was not, by any means, a fine, upstanding, law abiding citizen, it would seem.
So Nathan came to NSW. So, too, did Betty, with sons William and John. They were reunited, and went on to have further five children, three daughters and two sons, who were all born in the Richmond River region in northern New South Wales.
Nathan himself appears to have lived a full life in the Richmond River Region, where he was employed initially as a Labourer. In 1858 he bought land in East Ballina, and in 1862 additional land in Casino. He was appointed as a Foot Constable in the Northern Police District, on 22 November 1858. Police records describe him as 5’8” tall, with light brown hair, brown/grey eyes, and a sallow complexion. He worked as a Constable for six years (Number 782) before resigning on 31 October 1864.
Nathan had come good. From being a criminal, breaking the law, serving time in prison, and being transported to the colonies, he had ended up as an enforcer of that law, a solid, upstanding citizen.
After leaving the police force, Nathan conducted a store and then was licensed as the publican of the “Horse Shoe Inn” in Lismore in the 1870s. He later bought the warehouse and hotel of Henry Brown, which he kept until his death in 1874. He was a valued citizen of Lismore in his later years.
Nathan Taylor, my great great grandfather, intrigues me. He intrigues me because he was a convict: the sixth one of my ancestors to have been sent to the colonies as convict, as far as I have been able to ascertain thus far—three on my mother’s side, three on my father’s side, although there are still another three ancestors that I haven’t been able to nail down precisely, about whom I suspect they may well have been convicts.
Nathan Taylor intrigues me, also, because he was a Chartist. Nathan Taylor, as well as John Johnson and Thomas Waddington, along with many others on board the ship Adelaide, were Chartists. A whole group of a Chartists had been sentenced to ten years imprisonment, and then sent to the Colony, under special arrangements.
Now, Chartism was a movement in Britain during the period of 1838 to 1857 which was initiated by the promotion of a Peoples Charter in 1838. The Chartists held mass protest meetings and collected petitions which were presented to Parliament. There were protest activities by Chartists in many English cities. It was especially strong in the northern regions of England—precisely where Nathan Taylor was living as a young adult in the 1840s.
The Chartists were seeking a series of reforms to the political system (reforms which were eventually adopted, and which are taken for granted in modern democracies)—the vote for all adult males, the use of a secret ballot, the removal of a requirement for property ownership by Members of Parliament, payment of Members of Parliament, electorates with equal numbers of electors, and annual Parliamentary elections.
The arrangement concerning convicted Chartists was that such men would be sentenced to ten years and then sent to the colonies, and if they exhibited “exemplary” behaviour on the voyage to the south, they would be pardoned on arrival. This appears to have been what was done in relation to Nathan Taylor, for he was promptly pardoned and then his wife and two sons were brought to the colony, under the arrangements made by the Poor Law of the United Kingdom.
There is an annotation in the records of the ship that Betty Taylor and her two sons, William and John, travelled on, that reports “£5.0.0 paid by self and £10.0.0 paid by the Relieving Officers of Huddersfield”. Relieving Officers were appointed under the Poor Law Act of 1834, to oversee the administration of relief to the poor. It appears that the system was such that Elizabeth was able to petition to be reunited with her husband in the Colony.
And so she was. Had she not, I would not be here!
The story of Nathan Taylor, Chartist, convict, and copper, and his wife and family, came to my mind as I thought about the Gospel reading we have heard today. In a sense, the Chartists were very much like the widow in the story which Jesus told. Like her, they were seeking justice. Like her, they were met by indifference, or resistance. Like her, the Chartists pressed, arguing their case, disrupting the society of their day, and even, it is clear, resorting to violence in order to fly their flag and gain wider attention.
And, like the judge in the Gospel parable, eventually the British system relented, and began to adopt a number of the reforms that the Chartists had argued for over the years: the vote for all adult males, the use of a secret ballot, the removal of a requirement for property ownership by Members of Parliament, payment of Members of Parliament, electorates with equal numbers of electors, and annual Parliamentary elections.
If that list sounds familiar, it should—for we, today, have inherited these reforms (and more) in our own Australian parliamentary and legal system—inherited directly from British society. We owe our current democratic system to the agitation, the persistence, of those Chartists.
The parable which Jesus tells, is regularly understood to be a parable about persistence. Don’t give up! Keep on pressing the point! Knock on the door of that judge, and keep knocking, until he rises from his sleep and opens the door to you. Don’t let the authorities ignore you or marginalise you. Make a noise! Rouse the sleepers! Agitate! Work to see your demands brought to fruition!
Now, a standard way of interpreting parables is to allegorise them. That means, drawing clear lines of connection between the characters in the story, and people in real life. Classically, the judge who was being disturbed by the persistent widow, knocking on his door, perhaps crying out in the dead of night, this judge is usually equated with God. The persistent widow, by contrast, is equated with faithful people, praying to God.
If that is done, then we are provided a most disturbing picture of God. Do we really see God as unjust, oblivious to the cries of need around him, asleep in bed as the needs of the world grow larger and more pressing? It is not, I would suggest, how people of faith really conceive of God.
What about turning this interpretation on its head? Even though the text suggests that we interpret the judge as a symbol for God, that isn’t the end of the matter. If the text is about prayer, then it is about the two-way interaction that happens when we pray. Prayer is as much about what we say to God, as it is about what God says to us, what we hear when we pray, what is pressed upon us from our close and intimate engagement with our Creator.
So, if we flip things in the parable—what about if we see the judge as a symbol of systems in our human society? Like our systems often become, the judge was inflexible, aloof, resistant to interference, opposed to alteration. And why not see the woman as a picture of God? Persistent, incessant, calling out the injustices of our society, raising a ruckus when things are unfair or inequitable.
Read like this, the parable is about the way that God continues to press on us, challenging us, confronting us, pushing us to grow in our discipleship and deepen in our faith.
Now, there is one more aspect of this parable that I want to raise before we finish. If we explore the word used to describe the widow in the original Greek of this Gospel, the word that is usually translated as “persistent”, we will find that the original Greek is more accurately rendered as “shameless”. How about that picture of God—the one who is utterly shameless—shamelessly persistent in making demands of us?
In this way of reading the parable, the widow acts in precisely the way that Lady Wisdom is portrayed in Proverbs 8:1-4. She, a female, is on the public arena of ancient Israel: On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out. These locations were where men were expected to be active, and the gates to the town were the places where men gathered to discuss Torah and determine cases brought to them as judges.
For a woman to be there, and to be vocally active in such a public way, was a breach of the honour-shame code. Women speaking out in public were acting in a way that challenged the honour of the men who alone “rightly” belonged there. They did not adhere to the posture and action of shame that they were required to demonstrate, as the flip side of honour. They were acting in a way that demonstrated they were shameless.
The widow, pressing the point with the judge, is not only persistent, but—like Lady Wisdom, like God as we listen to and engage with God—utterly shameless.
So for each one of us, the question stands: how does God call us to account, in the covenant by which we have committed ourselves to God? What knocking do we hear on our doors in the middle of the night? What voice cries out to us, persistently and shamelessly, at all hours of the day?
Where is God challenging us to deeper discipleship in active ways? How is God beckoning us to gracious openness, to offer lavish hospitality, to provide friendship and fellowship to those from outside our indeed circle?
In the Wesleyan tradition, which entered the Uniting Church through the Methodist Church, there is a Covenant Service, which was first used by Charles Wesley in 1755, drawing on a liturgy that is believed to have been created by the 17th century English Puritan, Richard Alleine.
Wesley’s Covenant Prayer includes words which I take as the start of our Prayers of the People for today.
Let me be exalted for you,
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.