Sermon preached for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
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 his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Is anybody here tired today?
I’m seeing some nodding. Nothing particular has happened in my life this week, but it’s been the kind of week where I’ve found myself reading the same page of a book over and over again without really getting it. Everywhere I look, the energy seems a little low.
The news cycle is exhausting right now. Unless you’re someone who gets a kick out of conflict and vitriol, this election season can drag you right down. The pictures of devastation from Hurricane Matthew in places like Haiti and North Carolina are hard to look at. And even just the time of year—while the weather is beautiful and the trees are starting to turn, the days are getting shorter, and many of us feel a bit of a dip when it’s dark so early. You might list other reasons to be tired in your own life—the demands of work and home, health, concerns over friends and family, all the things that take up our energy each day. Maybe it was a great week, but just full up—overbooked, overscheduled, overtaxing. Plenty of reasons for a little mid-month fatigue.
Jesus’ first disciples knew all about being tired. Their reasons might have differed from ours—although perhaps not as much as we would think. And so the gospels are peppered with words of encouragement from Jesus, encouragement to keep going, that the journey is worth it in the end. Perhaps most famously, the gospel of Matthew records Jesus as saying “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” It’s a promise Christians have clung to through the years, when life seems too much to handle, when we need someone stronger to take the load.
Our gospel story this morning runs in a similar vein. Luke reports a parable from Jesus about a widow seeking justice from an unjust judge: it’s a parable about our need to pray and not lose heart, he says. A parable meant to encourage us to keep at it when we think we’ve run up against a wall. A parable to remind us that prayer works.
But how? That’s the question I keep coming back to, in my own life, in my own faith. How does prayer work?
The story itself is bare-bones, as many parables are. Just two characters: an arrogant, unjust judge who doesn’t respect God or people, who, we assume, enjoys the power and privilege of getting to make life-changing decisions but doesn’t care whether they’re fair or not, and a widow seeking justice from him. Jesus never says what the legal issue is, but he does say that the widow displays a remarkable persistence, coming to the judge over and over and over again to ask him for help. Our NRSV translation is actually a little too polite here: the widow’s behavior is described with an idiom from the world of boxing. The judge fears that if he doesn’t give in, she’s going to give him a black eye! In this legal battle, the widow has come out swinging on her own behalf.
The judge does relent finally, although in doing so he repeats what Jesus has already said about him—that he is giving justice despite the fact that he doesn’t respect God or people, but only because he is getting tired of her. There’s no change of heart, only a change of mind about what will benefit the judge most. The judge is eventually railroaded into doing the right thing, but he doesn’t exactly come out of the story smelling like roses.
And then Luke says a very odd thing: “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And won’t God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.”
I have to say, it’s puzzling. At first glance, Luke seems to be framing this parable in such a way as to say that our job is to be the widow, wearing out God with our prayers, who becomes… an unjust judge? That the point of prayer is to pester God into doing what we want? That doesn’t seem right. Scripture points over and over and over again to the fact that God is just, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. I know parables are metaphors, and metaphors can be a little sloppy, but to compare God to an unjust God—especially an unjust judge who makes a point of his lack of belief in God—just seems extraordinarily strange.
Of course, it’s possible that Luke is drawing a contrast between the two. If the widow could get justice out of an unjust judge by her persistence, how much more can we get justice from a just God by our own? That makes a little more sense, although it’s still kind of a roundabout way of getting at the point. And it still leaves us—or at least me—with a nagging question about how prayer works. Because by this interpretation God ought to have granted our prayers for justice for about a million different things eons ago—and a quick scan of the newspaper will prove that isn’t the case.
So how else can we read this story? Is there another possibility for understanding the parable?
I think there might be. Let’s put aside Luke’s framework for a minute and focus on the story itself. In particular, I’ve been thinking this week about the widow—why a widow? Does it matter who the person seeking justice was—isn’t their persistence the point? Partly, but I think there’s more to it. The character of the “widow” carries a whole conveyor belt of baggage with it. Throughout Hebrew scriptures, widows are lifted up as a special category of people—as people under God’s special care. Widows and orphans is the usual pair—God admonishes God’s people again and again to care for the widow and the orphan. When the prophets rail against Israel, one of the critiques they level is that they have not cared for the widow and the orphan.
So when Jesus says that there is a widow seeking justice, his disciples would have understood immediately: God is on this widow’s side.
And so what does that do to the parable? What happens when we assume that our two-character parable is actually a three-character parable? Now, instead of the widow v. the judge—we have the widow and God v. the judge. The widow and God are co-workers, fighting against the injustice of the judge.
I love the widow’s feistiness in this parable. I love that she is willing to go to bat for herself, that she is willing to do what it takes to see justice done. But I’ve never really wondered where she got that bold spirit from. I guess I’d always assumed she was just a naturally scrappy person, and that could be part of it, but I was thinking this week about all the cultural messages first-century Jewish women received. Feistiness was not among the desired traits for a woman. Women were expected to be meek, invisible, polite—decent and in order, even.
And yet this woman has the courage to defy every convention and come out swinging. More than anything else, that is what suggests for me the presence of God in her life, the power of God on her side. She has rejected the idea that not rocking the boat is the most important thing for her. Instead, she has rooted herself in God, in remembering that she is God’s daughter, worthy of respect and fair treatment.
The widow’s story reminded me this week of a woman I discovered in seminary, a woman who knew all about the need for feisty faith. Her name was Anna Howard Shaw. She was one of the first women ordained in the Methodist church, and she fought to get there every step of the way.
Shaw’s autobiography is incredible—she has a knack for storytelling, a sharp sense of humor, vibrant passion, and a rock-solid faith. (It’s also free on Kindle, if anybody here enjoys early twentieth-century autobiographies the way I do.)
Shaw knew from the time she was very young that she wanted to preach—when she was a child in the Michigan woods, she used to preach to the trees. She pinched and scraped and saved and fought and argued her way into college and then seminary, relying on the preaching opportunities she could get to pay her way. In 1874, she got a pulpit supply gig at a logging camp. The stage coach left her twenty miles from the camp, and she realized the only way to get there by morning was to take the ride offered to her by a man she did not like the look of. Her fears were well founded; halfway through the ride, he went to attack her. Anna Howard Shaw, however, had a revolver in her purse; and the driver was convinced to take her the rest of the way in peace. The next morning, Shaw’s church service was packed with lumbermen who came to see the lady preacher who carried a revolver! One of them was asked what they thought of her service. “I dunno what she preached,” the man said. “But make no mistake about one thing: the little preacher sure has got grit!”
Shaw’s “grit” served her well in several pastorates, during medical school, and eventually as a national advocate for women’s suffrage. She never backed down from a fight, if she believed God had called her to it. And in doing so she opened the doors for thousands and thousands of women to follow their calling into the church. Her grit—her feistiness—did not always make her popular. But Shaw was not interested in popularity. She was interested in justice.
I do not remember whether or not Shaw ever talked about Luke’s widow, but I think she must have found her a kindred spirit. Both were women who sought to correct injustice with passion, working alongside a God whose passion is justice, too. Shaw and the widow did not tackle every injustice in the world; they could not have. But they found one that was important to them, one injustice they were passionate about, and went to work on that.
Where is your passion? What are you called to tackle? With God as your co-worker, working in you, working through you, what justice would you want to see done in the world? As a church, we have made a commitment to tackling the injustice of hunger, that in a country with this much wealth families and children in our own community go without the food they need to thrive. There are a million other things we could be doing, and may still yet do, but we have committed our energies here, and pray God’s blessings on our work.
Luke says that God will not delay in helping those who cry to him day and night. If God is the unjust judge, than that means our job is to wear God out—which honestly, sounds like it could wear us out in the process. But if God is on our side, against injustice, against whatever it is that is breaking our hearts, than our job is not to pray in order to wear God out but in order to communicate with our partner, in order to strategize, in order to receive strength and encouragement, in order to learn where it is our help comes from—the Lord who made heaven and earth, and who will move heaven and earth for his loved ones.
It’s almost a cliché by now, but it’s a saying I buy into: the power of prayer is not about us changing God. It’s about God changing us.
We don’t need to wear God out with our prayers. We need to pray so that we and God can wear out the powers of injustice together. Because eventually, they’re going to fold. Eventually, they’re going to get tired of us. Eventually, they’re going to relent. That is God’s promise.
We just have to pray always, not lose heart, and remember: God is on our side.
For feisty faith that won’t back down, I give God thanks and praise. Amen.