Persistence – sermon on Luke 18:1-8

October 16, 2016
Watch this sermon here.

In today’s passage, Luke explains a parable of Jesus before sharing the
parable itself. He only does this two other times. We will look at one of
these next week, when we read about the Pharisee and the tax collector,
and the other is the story of the Ten Talents. But the explanation Luke
gives here helps to focus our attention on the importance of staying
persistently connected to God.  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?” -Luke 18:1-8

Let’s start at the end of this passage, and work our way backward. The
question Jesus asks at the conclusion of the story helps us understand it in
a way we might not see if we are in a hurry to read on to the next
passage. So let’s look backward first, to reflect on the parable of the
persistent widow and the unjust judge from the framework this question
gives us: When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?

Jesus started this particular teaching back in Chapter 17 (verse 20) when
the Pharisees asked him when the Kingdom of God was coming. He tells
them,
“The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor
will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of
God is among you.” (Luke 17:20-21)

The parable of the unjust judge and the persistent
widow closes this longer lecture about the coming of God’s Kingdom on
earth.  The Pharisees had asked “when?” but Jesus answers that how we wait is
much more important than knowing the exact moment. So he throws this
question back at the Pharisees: When the Son of Man comes, will he find
faith on the earth? In other words, will we be faithful to the end? This is
the crux of the matter – will Christ find faithfulness, trustworthiness
among his people when he comes again, whenever that may be?

Let’s go back a step further. Before Jesus asks if we will be faithful, he
assures us that God can always be trusted. God is faithful. Jesus 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.” (Luke 18:7-8a)

Luke reminds us of the tension first century Christians were feeling
between the expected suddenness of Christ’s second coming, and their
perceived delay of that event. Peter had also written, “Do not ignore this
one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise,
as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to
perish, but all to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:8-9, quoting Psalm 90:4)
God will not put off helping his people, but God does not operate on our
timeline – we exist on his. And rest assured that God will give justice. God
will make right the things that are wrong. God will surely heal what is
broken. But God’s patience should not be seen as procrastination. God is
showing mercy, giving us time to turn to him and seek forgiveness, to ask
him to make us whole.
“And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Recent headlines might make you wonder if it’s possible. There is plenty
that is wrong and broken in our world, today as much as it was over 2000
years ago. Justice sometimes seems like a dream more than a possible
reality. We see disappointment and pain every day, as people are
murdered, others go without food or adequate shelter, leaders turn out to
be corrupt, governments stop functioning, and self-serving greed has a
higher social value than generosity toward others. Hatred seems to be on
the rise, and mercy is hard to find.

The unjust judge of this parable would fit right into today’s culture: he
doesn’t fear God, and he has no respect for people. He models the exact
opposite of the Great Commandment to love God and love neighbor. The
judge only gives justice to get rid of the widow’s annoyance, not because
he cares about right and wrong. “Yet because this widow keeps bothering
me, I will grant her justice,” he says, “so that she may not wear me out by
continually coming.’”

Quite literally, this phrase means, “so she won’t slap me in the face,” or “
so she won’t give me a black eye.” I don’t think the judge is too worried
about a poor widow assaulting him. The judge wants to avoid being
embarrassed – or shamed – by the widow’s constant badgering. And it is
that very badgering, the continual showing up on his doorstep to ask for
justice, that finally allows the widow to win over the unethical judge.

Let’s take a look at that widow. Jesus says, “In that city there was a widow
who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my
opponent.’” We don’t know who the opponent is, or what problem the
widow has with the opponent. We only know that she is seeking justice.
And she has her speech down to six words. Persistently, day after day, this
woman kept coming to the judge, saying, “Grant me justice against my
opponent.” What else could she do? This judge is her only hope.

You see, most women were very young, barely teenagers, when they
married, so the possibility of outliving their husbands was a very strong
one. There were many widows, but they weren’t necessarily old women.
The problem was that they often had no means of support when their
husbands died, especially if they had no sons to take responsibility for
them and care for them. They did not inherit their husband’s estate – it
went to another male member of the family. If a widow stayed with her
husband’s family, she became little more than a servant in the household.
If she went back to her own family, the bride price had to be paid back to
the husband’s family. Many times, widows were sold as slaves to pay off
their husband’s debts.

With all this in mind, it’s a wonder this widow even tried to seek justice.
Yet here she is, day after day, relentlessly asking an unjust judge to give
her justice against her opponent. “How much more will God give justice to
those who ask him?” Jesus seems to be saying. If a crooked judge can be
convinced to do what is right, even if it’s for the wrong reasons, how much
more will God show mercy to those he loves?

God’s love is not only persistent, but also just. God’s loving justice, made
evident in Christ’s cross and resurrection, reveals not only God’s persistent
response to individual sin, but also God’s powerful and persistent
resistance against the unjust powers that be. Which makes me wonder if I’
ve been looking at this parable through the wrong lens.
What if God is not represented in this story by the judge, but by the
persistent widow seeking justice? Certainly, comparing God to an unjust
judge can only work from the “how much more?” viewpoint. But what if
Jesus is actually asking us to see God through the eyes of this persistent
widow seeking justice? And what if the unjust judge who will only do the
right thing to avoid further embarrassment is … me?

Methodist pastor and poet Steve Garnaas-Holmes writes:

God is not the judge, but the widow.

Jesus says, “Do not judge,” but still we judge.

We fail to fear God and respect other people.

God comes to us among the powerless,

the orphan, the widow, the Crucified One,

pleading for justice.

So busy with what we want,  

we don’t hear what God wants.

But God keeps coming, keeps pleading for justice.

She does not shout, does not lift up her voice,  

but calmly, confidently, again and again she comes.

She will wear us out with her continual coming,

until we do justice. …”
(Steve Garnaas-Holmes, Unfolding Light, October 13, 2016)  

That brings us back to the beginning of the story, and the reason Luke
gives us for this parable of Jesus: “Then Jesus told them a parable about
their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”

Many times, I think, we focus on the ‘need to pray’ part of this
explanation, and we ignore the need ‘not to lose heart.’ Jesus was
teaching his disciples the same persistence he had learned from the
Father. Jesus knew what each disciple would have to face after he was
gone, and he wanted to be sure they were prepared for what was to
come. Luke uses these words of Jesus to remind his readers, decades
later, that they should also not lose heart as they wait for Christ to come
again. And he wrote them down so that other believers, centuries later,
would also be encouraged.

Certainly Luke spends a lot of ink describing the importance of prayer.
Jesus holds up this persistent widow as a model for effective prayer, but
he isn’t talking about mindlessly repeating the same prayers over and over
again. The persistence in prayer Jesus asks of us is a faithful pursuit of
God’s justice in the world.

Praying is simply pouring out our hearts to God, who will always be faithful
to hear us. It means trusting in God, and not in ourselves. It means
constantly hoping for the time when God will make things right, convinced
that God’s justice will prevail over evil.  Just as the widow kept coming to the judge, determined, relentless,
hoping against all odds; so we are to keep praying, determined, relentless,
hoping against all odds. Not because we are “good Christians” or because
our faith is strong, but because God’s Holy Spirit has given us the courage
to pray without ceasing in a broken and scary world, that God’s Kingdom
will come and God’s will shall be done. If we are to be found faithful when
the Son of Man comes, we must keep praying, and not lose heart.

And what is it that we should pray for? The widow gets it right. Our
prayers must be for justice. Not our petty desires or what we think we
need – for God already knows what we need before we ask, and many
times what God knows we need and what we think we need are not at all the same thing. We are to pray for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will
to be done. We must not lose heart or become weary with waiting for
Christ to come again to deliver us, once and for all, from the pain and
brokenness we see all around us. We must persist in hope, persist in
prayer, and persist in seeking justice until the Lord comes.

Christ’s coming is still in the future, but God’s patience is at work in the
present. The parable assures us that God will save his people. The concern
is not when this will happen, but its certainty, and the necessity for us to
live in readiness and faithfulness.
Will Jesus come again, as he promised? Absolutely. Will God bring justice
to the world? Without a doubt. Will we be faithful until that time, pursuing
justice and working for the Kingdom of God? May it be so!

Let us pray.

“… Persistent God,

help us listen to your cries in the poor,

to your whisperings in our hearts,

to the light in your silence.

We still our minds, cease our judging, and listen.

In our hearts, a river flowing, we listen.

In the unsaid billion prayers, we listen.

We keep praying and do not lose heart. “ (Steve Garnaas-Holmes)

Help us to see injustice around us, and to work for the kind of justice that
only comes from you. We don’t ask for fairness, Lord, because sometimes
fairness isn’t just. We ask for your justice, which always includes mercy.
We ask for your justice, which always means sacrifice. We ask for your
justice, that your Kingdom might come and your will might be done here
on earth, even as it is in heaven. Make us instruments of your peace, and
advocates for those who seek justice in an unjust world. Amen.

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