The parable we just read about prayer that Jesus tells can come down to a single phrase: Nevertheless, she persisted. Jesus sets it up by telling us there was a judge who really didn’t care what anyone thought of him, including God. He adjudicated as he saw fit, recognizing he was the powerful one and he could do as he pleased. And he did this in some complaint by a widow, deciding against her.
A sermon based on Luke 18:1-8.
He just didn’t expect that poor widow to be as tenacious as she was. Her desire for justice immovable, she kept coming before the judge asking for a ruling against the opponent who had wronged her, the one who had oppressed her. The judge just kept putting her off. Nevertheless, she persisted.
Finally, because of all that persistence, he decided to give her the justice she longed for. He did so not because it was the right thing to do, mind you, but because he got tired of seeing this woman seek him out so many times. “She’s not going to stop until I give her what she wants,” he mutters to himself, so he relents. She wouldn’t stop until things were made right. She persisted, and persisted, and persisted. “And will God not grant justice to his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night?” Jesus asks. “Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.”
So if I keep asking God for that new car, eventually I can wear God down, and get what I want, right? Or maybe I should aim bigger and pray to make enough money so I fall just below the income line on Elizabeth Warren’s proposed tax hike on the uber-wealthy? If this is a parable about the need to pray always, certainly I can be persistent about those sorts of things with God.
That could be the reading you get from this passage if you skim it quickly and go looking for what you want to hear, but then you’d likely miss the operative word of the parable: justice. This persistent widow wasn’t looking for more money, she wanted a wrong to be righted. Something had happened to her by this opponent of hers who had wronged her. Perhaps charging her more than was legal, or not following through on a promise for work. Maybe the opponent thought he could pull a quick one on her and reneged on a sale of property, or in providing something for one of her children. We don’t know the details save this: the act was unjust. And the opponent didn’t think it would matter because this woman had very little standing as a widow. She was poor enough with seemingly no male relatives to stand up for her that this adversary saw her an easy target.
Notice her persistent request isn’t “I want more wealth, so please give it to me.” Rather it’s, “I want justice because I’ve been wronged.” That’s a huge difference and should color how we see prayer.
I found one of the most powerful scenes on the right way to pray in Disney’s animated film, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” It is sung by Esmeralda, a Romani woman whose people had been oppressed in Europe for centuries. She was being pursued by a corrupt noble and has found sanctuary in that great cathedral of Paris. While there she inevitably begins to think about prayer. She sings that she doesn’t know if God could hear her, or if God is even there. More importantly she wonders if her class and race would disqualify her petitions. She looks at a statue of Jesus and sings, Yes, I know I’m just an outcast, I shouldn’t speak to you, Still I see your face and wonder, Were you once an outcast too?”
She then utters the most beautiful prayer as she walks around that sacred space, “God help the outcasts, Hungry from birth. Show them the mercyThey don’t find on Earth.God help my peopleWe look to you still.God help the outcasts, Or nobody will.” It’s at that moment that we see Parisian townspeople walking in procession toward the high altar making their intercessions. “I ask for wealth,” one of them prays. “I ask for fame,” says another. “I ask for glory to shine on my name.” A woman laments “I ask for love, I can possess,” and then they all say, “I ask for God and his angels to bless me.”
At that point Esmeralda takes back over and sings, “I ask for nothing. I can get by. But I know so many, less lucky than I. Please help my people, the poor and down-trod. I thought we all were the children of God. God help the outcasts, the children of God.”
“Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?”
Far too often we treat God as a sort of cosmic vending machine dispensing goods and services to us because we feel like God owes it to us for being disciples of Jesus. Since we have chosen to be followers of God, we might as well get something out of it, right? Membership should have at least a few privileges—some good grades, or a bigger raise, a better life or something—or else why would we bother?
I wonder though if Luke does us a bit of a disservice in setting up this parable. He writes, “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” So we go in imagining we’re the widow in the story and God is the judge. God’s a bit strange though since the judge only caves in due to the persistence of the widow and not because God wants to do the right thing. It’s a bit of a head-scratcher as we’re pondering it all, and we tuck away the belief that God somehow only relents if we keep harassing God with requests. It’s as if God looks at us over the top of the evening newspaper as we come into God’s study once more, and God finally says, “Fine, fine, you can have it, just stop bothering me and go away.”
What I wonder is if we miss the idea of persistence as it relates to God and God’s love. I wonder if we might overlook that God is often that widow looking for justice to be done for the poor and down-trod. God refuses to let go of the possible and positive changes that would bring release to captives, and would lift up the lowly. I’m curious if God keeps bringing up the lack of equality for the poor in scripture again and again, going at it like a dog gnawing on a favorite bone, so that we as God’s followers would see that that’s really the point. That God wants us to pray about overturning injustice, and then for us to go out and do something about it. That God wants us to finally give in to the constant pestering by God to seek restitution for the poor and say, “Fine, fine, I’ll do it. Just stop bothering me.”
Because God loves the outcasts. The children of God.
So then what should we do? How do we respond to God’s persistence?
This past week our Outreach core team visited the vestry to give us an update. In it they described the deep yearning within our congregation to do something more, but how that yearning was often thwarted by the realities of schedules and the busyness of life. They noted that when we have open plate offerings concerned with issues of poverty and support that we give more. And so this core team has decided to relook at things—especially in our hands-on approach to serving others—and invite people from inside our congregation to join them to continue the conversation and to make a plan to take action.
As your priest, I want to say that what we are hearing is God’s persistent call to care for those who have been impacted by poverty and injustice. That God does not relent from asking us to serve more. It is no accident that our church’s mission is to “Welcome, Inspire, and Serve God’s People.” God’s people—God’s children—includes everyone who walks on this planet since we all bear the image of God in their hearts. God desires justice for the ones too often taken advantage of, and we can share in God’s love for them and do something to help.
We do not fully know what God is asking for us specifically to do, so I ask you to do two things. First, pray. Pray that God’s desire for our congregation to make a significant difference in the world would become more and more clear to us. Jesus teaches us to pray always and to not lose heart, and we can certainly do that with this request. Second, if you feel a tug to help us navigate the way forward, let me or Michael know and we can connect you with the team dedicated to help us serve God’s people. There is much injustice and oppression in our world today than we really ever see, but God sees it and it truly God’s heart. Finally let us give in to God’s persistent call and to work against principalities and powers and all those who seek to corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. Let us take our place alongside God seeking justice and mercy and inviting all people to live into the lives that God has crafted for them, lives of worth, joy, peace, and justice. May we do so earnestly, always trusting in God’s persistent help.