The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 24, Year C - October 16, 2016

Preacher: 
The Rev. Amelie Wilmer Minor
Sermon Text: 

The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 24, Year C

October 16, 2016

The Reverend Amelie Wilmer Minor

 

Jesus told his disciples 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?" (Luke 18:1-8)

 

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My colleague Herbert Jones reminded me the other day of a cartoon that appeared a few years ago during church stewardship season. It showed a preacher giving his sermon, spaced over three frames, saying “As we launch our annual giving campaign, I have good news and I have bad news…The good news is: We have all the money we need for next year’s budget. The bad news is: The money is still in your wallets.”

We all know that a little humor helps the medicine go down!

In our gospel reading for today we have the parable of the Unjust Judge, or the parable of the Persistent Widow, depending on how you look at it. The writer of Luke introduces this parable with Jesus talking about the need to pray always and not to lose heart. Then Jesus tells of the Judge who “has no fear of God and no respect for anyone” being hounded by a widow who is relentless in her demand for justice. The judge finally caves in, saying: “because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”

One commentator has said that those who first heard Jesus tell this story would have found it uproariously funny.  Jesus certainly uses hyperbole as well as humor. Our translation reads that the judge relents so that the woman won’t “wear him out”. But the original Greek is translated literally as “So that in the end she may not come and strike me under the eye.” The image of this powerless woman harassing a mighty and unjust judge to the point of smacking him in the face would have been striking and pretty funny to those hearing this for the first time.[1] 

Now, given that this is stewardship Sunday, you might be wondering if we designed it to correspond with this story.  But I can assure you, our stewardship chair may be persistent, but she has no intentions of coming after any of you with a clenched fist! 

So what do we make of today’s gospel, given the humor, the hyperbole and Luke’s opening about prayer? More importantly, what does it mean for us to be relentless in prayer; to “pray always and not lose heart”?

Over the years I’ve been with all of you, we’ve spent a fair amount of time talking about prayer.  We know there are all kinds of prayer.  Look in the catechism of the BCP and it says “prayer is our response to God,” then it categorizes the most familiar forms  – prayers of adoration, praise, thanksgiving, penitence, oblation, and finally intercession (praying for the needs of others), and petition, (asking for our own need).[2]  It is those last two that seem to be addressed in today’s gospel, and as we all know, those are the tricky ones.  What things are ok to ask for and which ones are not? 

I suppose we’ve all learned that it’s not quite right to pray for a Maserati or a gold watch – the Santa Claus prayers – but what about the restoration of our health?  The mending of a broken relationship?  The happiness of a depressed child? 

Persistent prayer of this sort can sometimes wear you out, if you’re not careful.  Especially when there is no sign that God has heard, much less answered your prayer.  You can only knock so long at a closed door before your hands hurt too much to keep knocking.  You can only listen to yourself speak into the silence so long before you start to wonder if anyone was ever there. 

When that happens - when the pain and doubt gang up on you to the point that you start feeling empty inside – then it is time to get help because you are “losing heart.”  That is the phrase the Jesus uses…and he doesn’t want it happening to anyone he loves.  Which is why he tells this parable about the need to pray and not lose heart.

Evidently, things were not going too well for Jesus’ disciples in the prayer department.  They wanted God to make clear to everyone that Jesus was who they thought he was, but instead there were warrants out for his arrest.  By the time Luke wrote it all down several decades later, things had gotten even worse.  Rome was standing over Jerusalem like a vulture, and there was no sign of a better kingdom anytime soon.  Jesus had said he’d be right back, but he wasn’t back.  People were losing heart, so Luke offered this story that Jesus told, about the wronged widow who wouldn’t stop pleading her cause.

Luke doesn’t tell us what her complaint is about, but since she was a widow it probably concerned her husband’s estate.  Under Jewish law, she couldn’t inherit it directly – it would go to her sons or brothers-in-law, but she would be allowed to live off of it, unless someone was trying to cheat her out of it.  The fact that she’s standing alone in front of the judge is a good indication that no one was on her side.   

And yet, as that unjust judge soon finds out, she’s perfectly capable of taking care of herself.

Which of course, raises some questions for us. Are we expected to pester God in prayer the way the widow pesters the judge? Are we supposed to “wear God out”, give him a black eye, until God relents and does our bidding? Does God really answer our prayers just to get us to shut up?

The most common answer to these questions is that the parable works negatively. That is, it demonstrates God’s character by way of contrast: the point is that God is not like the unjust judge but is instead a just and loving God who does not delay when his children cry out.

But what I want to focus on is the widow, instead.  About how, when she found herself alone without anyone to help her, she did not lose heart.  She knew what she wanted and she know who could give it to her.  Whether he gave it or not was beyond her control but that did not matter to her.  She was willing to say what she wanted – out loud, day and night, over and over – whether she got it or not, because saying it was how she remembered who she was. 

Which has got me thinking about what it means for us to really be honest and persistent in our prayers, just say it like it is – without trying to phrase things the right way or use the correct form, or going through the proper channels and just accepting whatever scraps life drops on our plate.  Imagine the relief that widow felt when she finally threw her shame, her caution, her self-control to the wind and when straight to the source to say exactly what she needed?

“Give me justice!”  She yelled at the judge.  “Do your job!” Answer me, and if you don’t I’ll keep coming back until you deal with me!”

So, he dealt with her.  But I’m not sure that’s really the point.  I think this widow’s story is a precautionary tale as much as a reminder to have persistent faith. Yes, it reminds us not to stop crying out to God day and night, never to stop coming back and coming back to the courtroom of grace. And yet it also cautions us: Don’t lose heart.

As one writer put it: “Look behind you. Can you see some of your own good heart scattered along the way? Every suffering valley we pass through, each mournful mountain we climb, wears us down some. Some portion of our courage, our patience, our humor, our willingness to take the risk of being vulnerable again, our faith in the goodness of God litter the path, remnants of what might have been.

And yet here is our advocate, the widow, who seems to say, “You’re not as worn out as you thought. Get to it! Justice awaits!” One of the most vulnerable people in her community, most deserving of self-pity, she chooses a different story. She doesn’t give up on herself, or what matters to her, or what she cares about…..that is the story she chooses.  And so can we.  Instead of choosing to see our lives as an accumulation of losses, we can celebrate with the widow that we still do have a part to play. We still have enough of the most important part— our good heart.[3]”

I don’t know that I’ll ever figure out exactly how prayer works.  But here is what I’m getting from today’s parable.  Trust the process, regardless of what comes of it, because the process itself gives life.  It keeps you engaged with what matters most to you, so that you do not lose heart.   As Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote, prayer “keeps our hearts chasing after God’s heart.  It’s how we bother God, and it’s how God bothers us back.  There’s nothing that works any better than that.”[4]

Amen

 

 

[1] Thanks go to the Rev. Herbert Jones for this excellent synopsis of this passage.

[2] Book of Common Prayer, pp. 856-857

[3] Adapted from Kayla McClurg’s reflection for Inward/Outward October 20, 2103

[4] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Bothering God” in Home by Another Way (Lanham:  Cowley Publications, 1999), 204.

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