Luke 18:1-8 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’
For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’”
And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to the chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will God delay long in helping them? I tell you, God will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
For many reasons I have never liked this particular piece of scripture. I find it confusing. The main characters are a persistent widow and an unjust judge. Often we find that in Jesus’ parables one of the characters reflects God and in this case how can that be the unjust judge? This judge can’t represent God because we know that God is good.
What about the widow? Is it only because we wear God down that we get what we want? “We’ve somehow read this passage from Luke more as an instruction to ‘nag’ God with our repeated prayer requests, so God, like a weary and worn-down parent, will eventually give in and give us what we want.” (Judy Kincaid: asermonforeverysunday.com)
We’ve all witnessed that in stores or in our own homes where our children’s incessant pleading is stopped only when we give in to their tireless begging. It’s exhausting to witness and exhausting to be put in that position as a parent, too.
I have spent lots of time this past week looking at commentaries to give me insight into what it is that Jesus is telling us. I’ve looked at the historical context of the timeframe when this story was used and maybe a little bit of historical background will help this morning.
“By the time Luke was writing this Gospel a generation or so after Jesus died, people were starting to feel discouraged. They were tired of waiting for Jesus to return and finally bring all things to fulfillment, the deepest hope of their hearts. They were tired of being persecuted as a tiny little minority in a great big, powerful empire. They were anxious and suffering.
Within that cultural context Jesus once again uses a figure from the very edges of society to teach his followers a lesson. The ‘word for widow in Hebrew means silent one or one unable to speak. [John Pilch] In the patriarchal Mediterranean world males alone play a public role. Women do not speak on their own behalf.’
So this silent one is acting outside the normal bounds when she finds her voice and speaks up for herself and is so persistent and that may be because she knows that there’s a special place for her in the heart of God, as the Bible often says.” (Kathryn Matthews, sermonseeds.com)
Also of significance is the fact that in this time in history in the culture: “the judge’s lack of action is especially appalling [to those hearing this story.] Widows are counted among the most destitute of society, alongside other vulnerable groups such as the poor, orphans, and resident aliens [immigrants]. Because of the precarious social and economic position of such groups, biblical texts also make provision for them, helping to ensure that they do no fall victim to exploitation. (Brittany E. Wilson, workingpreacher.org)
Of the various commentators I visited over the week, one in particular stuck with me. She notes that Jesus is using humor to bring a point home. We don’t often think of Jesus telling jokes or using humor, but why not? Humor is sacred too. Kimberly Bracken Long (Feasting on the Word; Pastoral Perspective) shares the following insights.
“Just when you think you have Jesus figured out as a teacher, a healer, and a [person] of prayer, [and faith] he goes and tells a story like this. Who knew Jesus was a comedian too? It is not hard to imagine his listeners throwing their heads back and slapping their knees as they laugh at this ridiculous tale. A woman pounds and pounds on the door of a rotten politician who could not care less about her plight, until finally he sticks his head out the window and shouts, ‘All right, already! Knock it off! I will give you whatever you want if you will just shut up!’ The listeners laugh because they know this woman. She always gets a raw deal, because she has nothing – no husband, no inheritance, no social standing they know this judge too, the one who is only out for himself. No public servant, this one, so they guffaw at the idea of one of their own, this powerless woman, annoying the smarmy guy everyone loves to hate until, finally, he does something good in spite of himself. (Bracken Long)
Another commentator noted that “The humor in this scene is not one of comic relief. The humor in this scene instead pokes fun at the powers-that-be, ‘lampooning and upending the unjust system stacked against widows, orphans, immigrants, and the like.’ (F. Scott Spencer) Like our political cartoons today, Jesus’ parable encourages us to laugh at those who wield their power unethically. We laugh, though, in order to challenge such figures, and ultimately, to offer a different way.”
(Brittany E. Wilson, workingpreacher.org)
Bracken Long continues: “Good story! They laugh, and they sigh, and they remember that Jesus told them that this is what prayer is like. By now Jesus may even have our attention too. How many of us hammer away at God’s door, but to no apparent avail? The mother of young children is struck down by cancer, and so we pray and pray and pray, but death comes anyway. We are worn out from praying for comfort and relief in the wake of yet another natural, or political, disaster. The radio brings news of more war casualties, even though we continually pray for peace. Is this really the way it is supposed to be?” “What hope is Jesus offering? Jesus insists that God is nothing like this unjust judge. If he is pledging even speedier relief to our persistent prayer-ers than the widow got from the unjust judge, [we] are not feeling relieved. If it is a speedy return of Jesus to earth so that justice is fulfilled, the credibility gap in a twenty-first-century church widens.” (Kimberly Bracken Long, Feasting on the Word)
So Jesus wonders aloud over this dilemma whether, when he comes again, will anyone still have faith? Or, will everyone walk away from faith because of discouragement? These are good questions for those of us today who are weary of praying and realizing that God does not fix things for all who ask persistently. By asking these question Jesus reminds us that “the life of faith is not only about telling God what is on our wish list but constantly lifting up every joy and concern, every fear and doubt, every lament and plea to the One who hears and answers. As the commentator noted: “It is hard to take the long view when we are praying our hearts out, bruising our hands with our continual pounding on heaven’s door.
By praying continually, and not giving up hope, we live in the surety that God has not abandoned this world. Living in hope, we work, in whatever ways we can for the justice and peace that is coming. Jesus makes it clear that faith is actively hoping, eagerly anticipating the coming reign of God, never ceasing in our prayers for others, for the world, even for ourselves.” Hope – what happens when we lose hope? Hope for ourselves, hope for family and friends, hope for victims and the voiceless, hope for this hurting world, hope for the hopeless? Prayer helps. Praying always – never ceasing. To pray in hope so that “when tragedies befall us, there is already in place a strong confidence in the unfailing providence of God.” (Bracken Long)
Prayer is hard work that we pick up every day. It is the daily practice that allows us to face the difficulties and tragedies that befall each of us in life. We begin a weightlifting routine to strengthen our physical muscles. We do no walk into a gym expecting to be able to lift hundred pound weights without persistently working at it.
The same is true about our spiritual muscles. “Believers keep praying, hoping against all odds, persistent, determined, and relentless. [We do so] not because we are “good Christians” or because we possess such a great and strong faith, not even because it is ‘the chief part of the gratitude which God requires of us’, but because the Spirit has given us the courage to do so, to pray without ceasing in a broken and fearful world.
It is here as one theologian notes: “that the persistence of the faithful enters the picture. Because we have experienced God’s persistent love in Christ, we try every day anew to persist in praying. Praying is and always has been hard work in the interim – between God’s promise and its fulfillment, in the life of Israel and in the life of the church living between the first and second coming of Christ – as is keeping hope in our hopeless world. Praying means hopeful trusting in God, not in ourselves.”
God’s love is not only persistent, but also just. God’s powerful resistance that has already changed our world, even though it might be hard for us to detect at times. As God’s children, the believers are called to join God’s resistance, equipped with the special gift of the Holy Spirit: resisting and persisting prayer, of which the stubborn and enduringly hopeful widow is an inspiring example.” (Margit Ernst-Habib; Feasting on the Word.)
In fact, I found myself wondering if we could see God’s character in the widow’s persistence. No commentary has suggested this connection, but doesn’t it make sense? Think of God’s persistence in loving us even when we are unfaithful – God persists by knocking on the door of our hearts to be let in – especially in times of despair and struggle. In fact, scripture is always pointing us toward doing what’s right in the face of injustice. That’s God’s call to us.
As we focus on persistence – not ours, though, but God’s persistence. We can speak about God’s persistent, unshakable, everlasting love for us, for all of God’s creation. God is so persistently in love with us – God’s creation. God’s love is so sovereign and unshakable, that we can trust in this God to bring about justice. We can be sure that God hears our prayers, our crying day and night, even though we may not see any results yet. God has not forgotten us; God will not delay long in helping.” (Feasting on the Word)
I close with some stories about hope that comes to us from unexpected places. Maybe you’ve heard of Ryan Kyote. Ryan is a 10 year old boy who donated $74.80 of his allowance savings to pay off the school-lunch debt of his classmates. Inspired by his act of kindness, California lawmakers just guaranteed that all students will get meals. This action ends school lunch-shaming because an alternative meal was served for those whose parents couldn’t afford to pay for their lunch. Because of this success, Ryan is planning on opening this conversation within every single state. We hold Ryan in prayer.
Dylan Ence, a determined high school student bought an old school bus, so he could use it to help even more children get a better education. Back when was just a freshman student at Dixie High School, Dylan and his family visited the Mexican village of Patamban Michoacan so they provide the local schools with supplies and sports equipment.
Though Dylan is now a senior at the school in St. George, Utah, he’s never forgotten about the poverty he witnessed during that fateful trip four years ago—and he is now planning a return trip to the village to do more.
During his stay at the village, the compassionate teen learned that many of the local children would sleep at their local school so they didn’t have to make the miles-long trek to and from classes every day. Dylan decided to buy a school bus at a local Minnesota auction with the intention of driving it all the way down to the village and donating it to the school. Not only that, he has spent the last four years collecting donated backpacks, socks, gas money, and school supplies for the Mexican village. Dylan hopes to fill the bus with as many donations as possible before he and his family journey south from Utah on December 20 to the village 1,700 miles away. He is currently in the process of getting insurance and travel papers from the Mexican government to get his bus and supplies safely across the border. We hold Dylan in prayer.
We already know about Greta Thunberg and her work motivating everyone to do our best to care for God’s beautiful creation. We hold Greta in prayer. And we know about Emma Gonzalez’s work on gun control. We hold Emma in prayer. Such needed voices and actions in our world cannot help but fill us with hope.
And what about this historic first all-women spacewalk this week and the women at NASA running mission control? Wow! Just WOW! This certainly is giving hope for the young girls who see more possibilities than I ever could growing up in the 50s and 60s. Critics say this mission has been a long time coming – and it has – but however long it took, that hope is now fulfilled.
We hold all these individuals and institutions – named and unnamed in prayer. And maybe we can laugh at these varied and unexpected ways God has been answering our prayers all along and say, Amen!
Copyright DMC 2019