Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” 4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” 6And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’
When was that time in life when you reached the bottom? That time when you felt like you had nothing left to give? Nothing left inside you? You could do nothing else on your own. You were desperate. Was this the time to reach down just a little bit further? To count your losses, to forget about everything else and give it your all?
Sports seem to have really captured this idea of finding something somewhere that gives you the strength and power to go a little further: the 15th round; the 9th inning, down by a run and two out;
the fourth quarter, your team has the ball with 2 minutes left and is down by a touchdown.
But, when do we reach these times of trial in real life? When our lively hood is threatened? Our identity assaulted? When a family member or a friend had really disappointed or hurt us? When we are taken advantage of? When we’ve had to face your greatest fear?
When Jesus tells this story we heard this morning, he is making his way toward Jerusalem, where he will be beaten and killed. Maybe Jesus tells this story to disciples who are beginning to wonder if it is even worth it to go forward; to continue the good fight and preach the good news. Maybe Luke tells this story to the early Christians a few generations removed from Jesus, who are really beginning to wonder what this new movement called the way, this new movement seeking an alternative life according to the way Jesus lived. Life is lived not to gain the world or seek after one’s own interest, but to seek after the interests of others. Self giving, self sacrificing life modeled by a man who gave his life on a cross, and by others whose lives also came to tragic endings. These early Christians were probably wondering what it was all about. Why them? Why the persecutions? Why the struggle? For what?
For this woman in our parable, there was nothing else to live for. Someone wanted to do her in and she “needed justice. But, she had nothing…absolutely nothing. No money, No husband, No standing in society, no power, no resources, Nothing. Well, maybe nothing is not quite accurate. She did have something. She had the capacity to be a pest, to annoy. And, when you only have one weapon, you use it.”1 She didn’t care what others would think of her. She didn’t care about any potential negative consequences her actions may have. She didn’t care about the judge’s terrible reputation. So she goes to the judge who is not a typical “Your Honor.” This judge didn’t respect anyone. He didn’t fear God, so what would motivate him to hear out this pitiful woman’s desperate plea. No Karma/Darma factor, no golden rule, no empathy. He heard cases and said, “that’s your problem, not mine!” He simply didn’t care. But this widow in Jesus’ story doesn’t care either. She doesn’t care that the judge has a careless attitude. She pesters this judge constantly. Day and night she would bang on this judges office door,
she would cry out from the chambers of the courtroom, send him annoying emails and text messages. “I want justice! I need Justice. Give me justice!”
We’ve all met people who annoy like this woman. The youngest of three and only boy, I was kind of an annoying kid to my parents, especially to my mom. I loved to play the why game, usually in the car when there was nowhere for my mother to escape to. Any time she said anything I would ask “Why.” How was your day at school? “Why” And when I was hungry—I was terrible—I would stand in the kitchen, “I’m hungry, When are we going to eat?” I would sing terribly annoying songs: “I’m hungry I’m hungry. I’m hungry, Give me food.” And just like that food appeared. I gave my mom grey hair; this judge was probably bald after this woman drove him crazy: “I want justice! I need Justice. Give me justice!”
So, he gives in. And just like that there was justice.
This is the story Jesus told so that we might pray always and not lose heart.
So what do you make of it? What do two characters: A judge and a widow, teach us disciples as we listen intently? A judge who couldn’t care about anything, who finally gives in. “Maybe what Jesus is teaching us is that, even though the headlines in the newspaper often show a world of corruption and evil,” even though we face any number of difficulties and disappointments in our lives;
“this is, after all, our Father’s world; a world ruled by a loving and just God;”
Can we trust that at the end of the day, there will be justice? “Is that what Jesus wants us to see?”2
To be sure that is part of it. I find it always helpful to be reminded of how much God loves and cares for me; to hear of the sovereignty of God—that’s so Presbyterian. But if this were all to this parable its moral would have been:
“God will take care of all your worries.” “Let go and let God.”
But, Jesus told this parable of the unjust judge and the persistent widow, “In order that we might pray always and not lose heart.”
Ah yes, of course, there’s the old annoying widow who is also part of this story.
The model of faith, and the model of what it means to pray. I came across many examples of this kind of pesky persistence; and interestingly, most all of them were persistent women.
Trasie and I watched the film Out of Africa last week. There was a scene of Karen Blixen, a dutchess from Denmark, getting down on her knees before the new governor at his welcoming party, begging him not to remove the Kikuyu from their land. This was a very improper thing to do, but Karen didn’t care about anyone’s indignant stare. She demanded justice for the Kikuyu people.
At age 90, Mrs. Doris Haddock—the kids refer to her as “Granny D"— walked for 14-months, 3200-miles across the United States to protest the corrupting effect of big money in our electoral process.
Cindy Sheehan—the woman who upon the death of her son in Iraq, camped out at President George Bush’s Ranch demanding to speak with President Bush face to face.
And what about that persistent woman, Mother Teresa. I pity any “judge” that had her knocking at the door. Seeking to raise money for an AIDS hospice, Mother Teresa called out to Edward Bennett Williams, a legendary Washington lawyer who was loaded, who at one time owned the Washington Redskins and the Baltimore Orioles, who was the lawyer for Frank Sinatra and Richard Nixon, among others. Surely he would give to her plea for justice. But, Williams and his law partner, Paul Dietrich, had decided not to make a contribution. Still they wanted to meet this Catholic saint, so they would be polite, hear her out, but then say no.
The day came for the meeting. Mother Teresa “was a little sparrow sitting on the other side of the lawyer's big mahogany desk. She made her appeal for the hospice, and Williams said, “We're touched by your appeal, but no.” “Well,” Mother Teresa said as she looked at the men, “Let us pray.” Williams looked at his partner; they bowed their heads. After the prayer Mother Teresa made the same pitch, word for word, for the hospice. Again Williams politely said no.
“I see,” Mother Teresa said, “Let us pray.” Williams, exasperated, looked up at the ceiling, “All right, all right, get me my checkbook!”3
Is this what Jesus trying to tell us to do: annoy like Granny D, pester like Cindy Sheehan, use prayer like Mother Teresa, cry out like the widow: “bang on the doors of heaven with insistence.”
To be sure, Jesus wants disciples to act likewise—to be persistent in prayer. Maybe even get a little feisty with God. “We want justice.” But maybe that's not all. “If that were the whole meaning of Jesus' story, then the moral of the story would be “Be feisty. Pray always.” But the moral of this story is, “Pray always and don't lose heart.”4
This moral of the story leads to two problems for me:
Pray always. This is a problem for me; and I don’t think prayer is a problem just for me, but probably for most of us. What am I supposed to say? Am I really talking to God or am I only speaking to myself? I’ve already confessed to you that I’m uncertain about prayer. And really, when we pray, we are putting out faith on the line. Is there a God or not? Is there a God who cares for us, who hears and responds? These are frightening questions.
Maybe that’s why so many don’t even bother to pray. “If God really cares for us and knows what we need, why do we need to pray?” some may say. “It’s kind of old-fashioned,” Others quip. “It’s a little self-righteous,” suggest others.
But really prayer is a great risk of faith!5
2nd problem: don’t lose heart.
“The problem beneath all of our problems with prayer is exactly what Jesus addresses here: We simply lose heart.
If we really believed in the power of prayer; if we really believed that prayer can effect world peace; if we were truly convinced that prayer changes things;
heals broken lives and restores severed relationships,”6
then I guarantee, that this sanctuary would be pact on Thursday mornings at 7:30 am, and probably every other morning. We would wear knee pads; pray constantly. Nothing—No work schedule or busy life—could keep us from praying.
But, instead, we don’t do it. We find we are too busy to pray. And we find we are constantly confronted by the appalling injustices around us:
Why do children continue to starve?
Why is there increasing economic disparity?
Why are families divided due to deportations?
Families torn apart by domestic violence?
Why do wars continue to wreak havoc across the globe?
Why? Why? Why?
I simply lose heart.
Jesus told them this parable so that they would pray without stopping, and never give up hope!. From this story Jesus told, we learn something about God;
that God is so much more willing to hear our cries for justice than a crooked mean old judge. But sometimes our cry for justice seems to go unheard.
We learn something from this widow—how we need to act—pray day and night when we are faced with trials beyond anything we can bare. When an opponent would do us in. But it is hard to pray, risky to pray, and sometimes it seems irrelevant to pray.
Well, maybe “Jesus' story is not finally about the bad judge and it's not finally about the insistent widow. Maybe it's finally a story about God and about you and me.” A story about relationship between a God who is in fact loving; a God we can trust; a God who we can turn to in confidence to hear our cries and desires justice; and us, God’s beloved children.
The reality is that we have to endure many hardships in this life. Do we remember? Christ ended up dying on the cross. And he told this parable to disciple so that they would pray always, and not lose heart.
What is it that keeps us going from day-to-day? What do we do when we are faced with insurmountable odds? What do we do when we reach the bottom? When we feet like there was nothing left to do? Nothing left inside you but despair? Can we reach down just a little bit further? Can we pray? Maybe not necessarily so that things will turn out exactly as we hope for, but instead so that we can grow in relationship with the one to whom we pray.
And we remember: The cross was not the last word. Resurrection came and it was the relationship that carried it through. In the face of seemingly nsurmountable odds, can we arise in the morning and pray for justice?
Can we approach mid-day banging down the doors of heaven demanding justice?
And as the sun goes down, can we lie in bed and rest assured that resurrection—life, hope, loving relationship—is the final word?
Jesus concluded the parable by saying: When the son of man comes, will he find faith on earth? Maybe because of the relationship with God, prayer gives us faith.
And Jesus challenges us to pray always, and never give up.
“In a large gathering of persons concerned about certain unfair and oppressive conditions in our society, an elderly black minister read this parable
and gave a once-sentence interpretation: ‘Until you have stood for years knocking at a locked door, your knuckles bleeding, you do not really know what prayer is.’”7
I know that I do not know what prayer is; I know I do not understand how prayer works. But, strangely when I do pray, I feel that somehow things are different. That somehow things have changed. Most likely, when I pray, I have changed, because I have grown closer to God. Most likely, when I pray, I have encountered the living God in some mysterious way.
1 Thomas Long’s sermon "Praying Without Losing Heart," Luke 18:1-8. Program #5101 on 30GoodMinutes.org.
2 Thomas Long’s sermon "Praying Without Losing Heart," Luke 18:1-8. Program #5101 on 30GoodMinutes.org.
3 Adapted from the story as told by Thomas Long, in his sermon "Praying Without Losing Heart," Luke 18:1-8. Program #5101 on 30GoodMinutes.org.
4 Thomas Long’s sermon "Praying Without Losing Heart," Luke 18:1-8. Program #5101 on 30GoodMinutes.org.
5 William Willimon, 10/18/1998 - On Not Losing Heart: http://www.chapel.duke.edu/worship/sunday/viewsermon.aspx?id=94
6 William Willimon, 10/18/1998 - On Not Losing Heart: http://www.chapel.duke.edu/worship/sunday/viewsermon.aspx?id=94
7 Craddock, Texts for Preaching: Year C.