Pastor Lisa Horst Clark
January 26, 2020
Luke 18: 1 – 8
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?”
I can picture her, this persistent widow. All the art I could find this week didn’t do her justice: they depicted her instead as the wilting beauty, of whatever time period, gently requesting and kneeling before a buffoon-like looking judge. But that’s not how I see her. I see her in a power born of loss: she is a widow; her life has been marked by grief. In the structure and society of that time, that would mean she had no power at all: she could not own property, there would be very few ways open to her to earn money or care for herself. There is a reason the Bible makes a strong call to protect orphans and widows: it is because they are vulnerable. And yet, in this story it is not her vulnerability that makes her notable, but her strength. With whatever pain she has known in this life, with losses and deep insecurities, when justice is denied her she does not give up. She shows up over and over again, she speaks the truth over and over again, she calls to account over and over again and even though the unjust judge does not fear God, even though the unjust judge has no time, said “yes”, has no respect for people and has said “no” time and time again, he finally relents, gives up, gives her the justice she seeks because she has worn him down. The text says, “so that she may not wear me out by continually coming,” and in the Greek “wear me out” literally means “hits me under the eye.” The judge gives up out of fear of a black eye, out of fear of embarrassment from a poor widow whose power is only in her gritty hope to show up time and time again. So if you are picturing her, do not picture a fainting maiden; picture instead the mothers that are crying out “Black lives matter.” Picture instead the women crying out for their children at immigration courts; picture instead activists and poets and teachers and migrants who wake up every day with a gritty determination to pursue justice, to follow love and often with only a voice to carry them to shake the foundations of empires. For if you were picturing the face of one that will wake us up from our complacency, you are picturing the face of the one who will lead us forward, the Holy Spirit who is ready and persistent and won’t leave with a boxer’s resilience until we are ready to add our voice to her cause.
Jesus was a storyteller, known for his parables, and so we are today in the midst of this story, listening for its voice. When Jesus told parables it often went something like this: He would begin by teaching about something else. So in this story it begins in the Scripture immediately beforehand talking about the end of the world. I’m not going to fib; it’s pretty grim, including raining fire from heaven and ending on the ominous line: “Where the corpse is the vultures will gather.” I like to remind people, when they say “What would Jesus do?” that cryptically apocalyptic warnings are one of the options. And he goes straight from this into this story: “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart,” and tells the story of the unjust judge and the widow who would not let it go.
The gift of parables is that Jesus is teaching, but he’s not teaching it straight. He tells a story and lets you see a new meaning and there are times he tells a parable to let a meaning be known without saying it directly, skirting the authorities by instead telling a story. Sometimes a story is told that some can hear and understand and some can’t. The Gospels like to insist that Jesus explains the whole thing to the disciples after the fact in private, but it always reads to me like someone who’s trying a bit too hard to be on the inside of a joke. Sometimes the parables are wrapped up with a bow, with a frame of Jesus explaining it before and after to say, “This is what it means,” and at times that is left out and it’s left ambiguous. The history of the interpretation of parables has at times tried to iron these things out in order to make it really clear to the faithful that this is what Jesus meant, this is the almost hidden meaning. For early Christians like origin, they interpreted the parables as allegories: they came up with a one-to-one secret code between what the parables would mean imagining, for example in the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan, that the Good Samaritan is really Jesus Christ, that the person travelling along the road is Adam, that Jericho is secretly the world, that Jerusalem is paradise, that the man beaten by robbers is the world and even going so far as to say the donkey is really Christ’s body and the inn is the church. And so, this one-to-one allegory is a bit complex and yet this is how most of the parables were taught, were interpreted until the Reformation. We get a sense, in this story in particular, that perhaps there is a more flexible way for the Holy Spirit to move in this story: either to delve back into Jesus’ original intent or perhaps just in the same way that when you are reading a novel at a different point in your life it may be an entirely different experience because if you are hearing a story in a different time and place and community, it may reveal the truth of God in a whole new way.
So, we come at this moment today to read the story of persistence. Persistence is a strategy, showing up over and again, regardless of the number of failures. It is a strategy that can be used for many purposes. Anyone who has spent time with a small child can tell you that asking over and over again is a strategy that can bring you to your breaking point. Persistence, asking over and over and over again, refusing to take “no” for an answer, these are strategies that can be used for good or ill: from asking one more time why you can’t have another cookie to relentlessly following up on phone calls to try to inch bureaucracy forward to adding names on a wait list and continuing to pester those around you. I was reflecting this week how much I use my own persistence for the benefit of my own privilege, as if I’m trying to sort out a problem with customer service I know that part of why I succeed is because I play the part of the nice white lady. Persistence can at times be used by those with power to bulldoze their way through, but it’s most moving in the hands of those who do not hold influence. If you have no power, no influence, you don’t have recourse, then showing up again and again and again can amplify, can make you visible, can reveal your motives in a way that can change something. Showing up over and again can have the power to change something where it felt only powerless before.
And I’m guessing that you in your life can picture this widow from the great figures, the great civil rights leaders who showed up over and again, even when it was clearly unpopular: Rosa Parks and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to those that I am guessing you have known in your life. Here in Seattle I am amazed at my colleague, the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown of Plymouth Church, who shows up over and over again to speak for justice, by the Muslim Association of Puget Sound’s Aneelah Afzali who has joined us here, and trust me is at everything standing up for justice and using her voice to combat Islamaphobia, all the way to a woman I knew at my last church who was a widow who had lost her way. If you saw her coming you had to be ready to batten down the hatches. She didn’t say many words, but the ones she did say were often, “So what are you gonna do about that?” or “What progress have you made in the last month?” And the net result was that if you saw her coming she was going to tenaciously remind you of your deepest commitments until something happened. And I think of the women in my family who have showed up again and again and again in love and come what may, to whom I am grateful for their legacy of resilience with a kick of humor. Because we know that evil is persistent: cruelty and callousness, we know there is hunger in a world of plenty, the push and pull environments, the fears that this week stalks our streets and the heartlessness that many find in houses not worth the title of “home.” We know the news that can wear you down, day after day, week after week. We know that the doomsday clock can click ever closer to midnight over and again and you can feel that grinding that leads to despair because evil is persistent, it keeps showing up and it can wear us down. And I think of the widow in this story and how many times she had justice denied. She should have only had to come once, to name her case before the judge, to have him see the justice of her claim. And yet, beyond that original injustice she needed to keep showing up over and over again, keep calling out, keep standing up, keep pestering until finally that judge who had no fear of God or man relented out of sheer exhaustion.
And we have also named today that the parables can be flexible. I would like to take a moment and imagine this parable in a new way. For the frame in this story, as Jesus tells it, is that this is about the persistence of prayer: to pray always not lose heart. And in it it compares us to the widow and God to the unjust judge using a style of logic that is common in Scripture saying, “If even this unjust judge relents to the persistent widow, how much more so will God grant justice to those who cry out? If the unjust crumble, then how much better is God and how much more will God respond?” But if you take away the frame and just look at the story, what you have is a poor woman with a relentless pursuit of justice, without power but who never lets go and a heartless judge who is unfeeling, unjust, self-centered and hard hearted. Which of these two sounds more like God?
And so, following the style of interpretation, I want to imagine this parable, because I was left picturing God as the poor widow and humanity in general as the unjust judge. God, the widow who shows up over and again; God who relentlessly calls out over and again, calling us out to remind the judge on the other side of their humanity, to remind that they were made for justice, that they were created to use their power for the cause of good and compassion, picturing God as not the one with the robes but the one with the poor, who is the poor, crying out again and again for a new world. God’s omnipotence would then be God’s power I cannot fathom or comprehend. It’s God’s courage and persistence, God who keeps showing up again and again to bang on our door, to bang on our hearts, to risk showing up time and again, all evidence to the contrary, that this time might be the time we turn and follow justice, we who had trouble listening to the covenants and the prophets and to Christ and still God comes again and again, calling for justice.
And I cannot believe that through all of this God’s heart would not break, would not give up, would not grow discouraged, as I admit at times wouldn’t become callous or give in to despair. For instead, God keeps showing up in love and with courage, keeps acting in hope over and again, calling us back to who we were made to be. And so, if this parable is to be about prayer, perhaps it is not us pestering God into response; instead it is if we pray it is God who is showing up to us over and again, God who perhaps this time can move us, can transform our hearts in ways we can imagine and in ways we cannot. For maybe the widow’s insistently knocking, insistently calling, persistence beyond all imagining, maybe then when the Son of Man comes, God will find faith on this earth. For we give God thanks for the widows and the mothers who cry out for justice, who call out to the world to seek as best we are able, to put ourselves there as well, to mix our voices with the voice of the Divine who is crying out for a new world.
May God, poor widow pleading, may She finally wake us up, wear us down, call us out as She speaks the words of justice once more. Amen.
© Copyright. Lisa Horst Clark. 2020. All rights reserved.