Written by Pastor Ed
Persistence – For what?
October 16, 2016
Gen. 32: 22-31
Luke 18: 1-8
A little over a week ago, in the course of conversation, Bernie shared with me a story about his aunt and I said, that would just fit with my sermon for this Sunday. And so, I’d like to invite the children to come forward for the Children’s Feature, and Bernie is going to share his story.
The parable we read today from Luke 18 of the widow and the unjust judge, can be interpreted in a variety of ways. However, there is one way that it shouldn’t be interpreted. The parable does not say, or teach, that if you just pray long enough and hard enough, nag God like a spoiled child, you can get anything you want. Unfortunately, that is the way this parable is often seen. And, unfortunately, that is often used in a negative way to tell people that if they don’t get what they want, well then they just haven’t been praying enough. That’s clearly not what this parable says.
Now it’s rather unusual for the author, Luke, to start out by giving an interpretation of a parable before he repeats it. But in this case, Luke does that. “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.” (18:1) Luke has just finished a long section of Jesus’ talking about the coming kingdom. Jesus has described the days that are coming when the Son of Man will be revealed. It will be like in the days of Noah or Sodom, when everything seemed to be going good, and then the flood came, or suddenly the volcano erupted and the town was wiped out.
It’s a passage that speaks of the end of things, and served as a warning of what was to come. I recall hearing of a child who refused to share a bed with his little brother because this passage says that two will be in bed together, one will be taken and the other left. His reasoning was that if you were in a bed by yourself, you were fairly safe, seems logical.
So in that context, Luke says, Jesus told this parable about not losing heart, and praying always. We’ve heard the parable and perhaps know it from before. A judge, who is described not just once but twice as “neither fearing God nor respecting people” and as unjust, is petitioned by a widow to be granted justice. Now we don’t know what the cause was, and really that’s not important.
The fact that it’s a widow who comes does seem important. Widows were extremely vulnerable in society, had few rights, and are generally listed with the orphans and aliens as needing special protection. So this was an act of some courage on the part of the widow to come and continue to plead for justice. Most widows would have given up and not persisted as this one did.
Things haven’t changed that much, really. When I was involved with overseeing an insurance plan for pastors in the states, it was clear that the major company we were involved with routinely denied claims, presuming that most people would simply accept their decision and not argue, saving them lots of money. But this widow persisted and kept coming, asking for justice.
And finally, the judge relented saying, “because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice so that she may not wear me out be continually coming.” (18:5 NRSV) Or a more literal translation would be, so she doesn’t give me a black eye, or slap me in the face. More figuratively, give me a bad reputation because I won’t listen to her.
So Jesus says, if a judge like that, one of the most unjust judges there is, will finally relent to the widow’s plea for justice, how much more will God, who is not unjust, provide justice for God’s people who cry out. We might think back to the foundational story of the Children of Israel who when they were slaves in Egypt cried out to God for justice, and God heard them and delivered them.
There is encouragement here to continue to pray for justice, for healing, for the good of all people. But sometimes it feels like we are more like Jacob than the widow of the parable. Sometimes it feels like we are in a struggle with God, and perhaps even that God is more like the unjust judge than we’d care to think. Unlike Bernie’s aunt, our prayers for justice seem to go unanswered. How can it be just for healing not to come for some? How can it be just for people to experience war and famine, as the people of Syria continue to endure? How can it be just for the people of Haiti to again be hit with a hurricane and destruction?
Or even in our own lives we may struggle to understand how things can be the way they are, despite our praying. The story of Jacob wrestling with God, whether we take it literally or metaphorically, is an interesting one. It is in the context of his returning home after all the shenanigans he had pulled against his brother and now getting ready to meet him again after a long separation. I’m sure Jacob struggled with all kinds of things that night, and he came away with a limp, a bruise that he carried with him all his life as a reminder. But he also came away with a new name and a blessing. The struggle was worth it.
Just so, like the widow and the judge, we may feel that we are in a struggle with God and that God really isn’t listening. But, as Luke says, we are called to continue to pray and not lose heart, believing that God’s justice will prevail in the end. While we may come out of the struggle with a wound, we will also emerge blessed, and maybe even with a new identity. It may be us who will be changed, rather than the external circumstances that we thought needed fixing.
The parable ends with a question that refers back to the passage just prior to this parable. “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (18:8b) The question, it seems to me, has to do with whether we, as followers of Jesus, will be persistent in our call for justice. Will we continue to pray for justice for all, not just in a selfish way for our betterment, but that “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This isn’t about getting everything we want, but rather about having a just society that looks like what the kingdom of God is like.
And that means not only continuing to pray for it, but also living out that justice in our lives and in the life of the church. It means speaking up when we see injustice happening, and working to right the wrong. And yes, it means continuing to pray and call on God for God’s righteousness and justice to prevail. We should never give up on God, but continue to cry out for justice in this world, confident that God’s will and way will prevail. Death has been swallowed up in victory, thanks be to God.