October 20, 2013 – Pentecost 22

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?”

Pentecost 22  Oct 20, 2013 Luke 18:1-8    Listen to the unjust judge

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Jesus tells a parable about our need to pray always and never lose heart, telling us,

‘In a certain city there was a judge who didn’t fear God or have respect for anyone – and in that city there was also a widow, who kept coming and saying to the judge, “grant me justice against my opponent.” ‘

This judge refused to help the widow, as long as he could. But she never stopped nagging and nagging and nagging him, and being in his face — till finally the judge relents, saying to himself, “even though I don’t fear God or respect anyone – yet, because this woman keeps nagging and bothering me and never stops – I will have to grant her justice, or else she’ll really make a mess of me.”

Another possible translation of this verse says “or else she might give me a black eye” – probably not meaning a literal black eye (this is a parable), but a black eye of a reputation. This judge is getting pretty nervous about being embarrassed and emotionally beaten up by this fired-up widow.

The parable is based on real-life situations. William Barclay’s commentary says there were many unjust judges like this in the Roman empire’s judicial system — hands out for bribes, justice for sale at a price, and no justice if you don’t pay the judge.

And Jesus says, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And won’t God grant justice to his people who cry to him day and night? Yes, justice, quickly. But when the Son of Man comes – will he find faith like this widow is showing, here on earth?”

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Jesus doesn’t always tell us when he’s telling a parable, and he very seldom tells us in advance what the message of a parable’s about — and since he’s doing both of these things today, we should notice both what he says about ‘pray always and never lose heart’ — and also notice this is a parable about widows and justice… and persistence.

And I’ve been remembering this week back to my first job out of college with a church lobby group, going to see a Senate staffer, and him telling me, “I really strongly disagree with you guys on this issue. But I’ve got to listen to you, because my boss gets thousands of letters and postcards from home on this issue from your people. So yes, my boss will probably vote with you again, even though I keep telling him not to.” He was being unusually frank — but he was really just admitting what everybody knows on Capitol Hill. Elected officials virtually always respond to pressure, especially from those who contribute to their campaigns…. but also from voters… if they’re persistent enough.

Which reminds me of another time, years later, in Vermont, when the farmers’ organization I was working with was trying to change the minds of our two Senators on an issue of huge importance to dairy farmers who were being hammered by milk prices stuck at bankruptcy levels. We knew we had to generate lots of calls and letters to both Senators quickly to have a hope of them voting our way. Both Senators were publicly undecided at the time, though we were pretty sure at least one of them was planning to vote against us unless we could crank-up the pressure. We’d already done all the most obvious types of petitioning — asking politely, directly, asking our members to write and call. But both were still undecided, and the vote was coming soon.

Then one of our members, a self-described desperate dairy farmer, came up with an idea. She rented a gorilla costume, and with her leading, we paraded up and down Main Street, Montpelier, in front of a Senator’s office, with her in the gorilla suit, wearing a sign around her neck about The Big-Hairy-Gorilla-of-an-Issue that was (her sign said) Eating Family Farms. We leafleted with our message to everyone passing by on the sidewalks, asking everyone to call Senators, and quite a few promised they would. (And we later got confirmation that many indeed made calls as promised.)

And it was fascinating to see just how many people are willing to take the word of a Big Hairy Gorilla on the street — over that of the executive branch and small armies of corporate lobbyists. And to their credit both Senators ended up voting as we asked. (Kind of like Jesus predicted).

Passionate persistence works — at least if our faith is strong and persistent, like the widow in the story Jesus tells.

We do need to notice, of course — Jesus isn’t saying be passionately persistent about just anything. Most of us don’t want our kids lobbying us for ice cream for breakfast as if the future of the world depends on it. Most of us don’t want a passionate few shutting down everything government does (the good along with the bad and ugly)…      We need to pay attention not just to the widow’s persuasion methods — but also the content of her petition, and who she, the widow in the story represents.

Widows in the bible symbolize those left out, disrespected and ignored in the halls of power and privilege. Widows, orphans, and the poor are the bible’s symbols for all who suffer injustice. It’s no accident this widow’s prayer is for justice.

And it’s neither accidental nor incidental that persistence and courage are required for her vindication and justice to be accomplished.

Jesus is telling us, through this parable of a persistent widow, to pray and live the gospel (as the letter to Timothy says) in good times and bad times, in all times and seasons — till his kingdom of justice and love prevails finally, fully, at last, on earth.

Meanwhile — Jesus tells us to pray always and never lose heart.  When his followers ask him, earlier in Luke’s gospel (Luke 11), ‘Lord, teach us to pray,’ Jesus tells a story of a man banging on his neighbor’s door in the middle of the night, asking bread for another neighbor in need. Knock, knock, knocking on the neighbor’s door — till the neighbor wakes, hollering at him to go away.  But even if your neighbor won’t get up and help you because he’s your friend, Jesus says, he will get and give you what you ask because of the brazen persistence of your knocking.

Banging on a door at midnight, and petitioning an unjust judge — both are vintage-Jesus-illustrations of how-to-pray.  Jesus is talking about praying with hearts and minds, arms, legs, and helping hands extended — praying with all we’ve got…creative, persistent, full-spectrum prayer without ceasing.

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This is a parable — and we know God is not an unjust judge. And it’s pretty safe to say Biblical prayer isn’t really about persuading God — who longs to give us every good gift, Jesus says, long before we get around to asking.

Prayer-according-to-Jesus is about persuading us — and those around us — to live and act in the same direction that we’re asking God to lead us in. Remembering — God will always act for justice, mercy, and love.           And this world’s dark powers will inevitably resist God’s commandments to love and do justice and mercy.

So Jesus tells a parable about our need to pray always and never lose heart. A parable that’s also about our need to side with God’s widows and God’s justice as we pray…

As a young man William Wilberforce was having a hard time deciding between serving God as a minister of the gospel and serving in the British parliament, where he’d been elected at an early age. There’s a powerful scene in the movie Amazing Grace, a biography of Wilberforce, where a group of ministers and anti-slavery activists, including a former slave, come to visit Wilberforce. They tell him they’ve heard he’s struggling to discern his vocation — and they say they’ve come to tell him he can serve God and serve in parliament… at the same time. Seeing the iron shackles that slaves were bound with, and hearing the horrendous stories of their treatment, Wilberforce agrees to help. Knowing it will be a long and uphill battle… at best…

The slave trade was big business — important enough to the economy of England that few people thought there was a real chance of it ever being outlawed. But Wilberforce prayed hard and worked hard, and every year introduced again a bill to make the slave trade illegal. And every year the bill would be ignored, bottled up in committee, or defeated.

Only very slowly, as public opinion began to shift, did the margin of defeat in parliament also begin to narrow. One year the vote was looking to be especially close. So the slave-trade lobbyists gave away free tickets to the opera and arranged for the bill to come up while legislators were at the opera. The bill was defeated that year by just four votes.

Wilberforce then became so depressed that he nearly gave up.  He may have had a minor breakdown… But after some rest, instead of giving up, he continued, year after year, for 18 years, till finally public opinion did shift decisively, and his bill to abolish the slave trade became law in 1807. He then filed legislation to outlaw slavery altogether — and prayed and worked and struggled on. For 45 years in all he turned prayer into action for others.

Shortly before his death his abolition-of-slavery bill began to move through parliament. Just after his death it became law.

Justice rarely comes quickly; justice virtually never comes without struggle.

Jesus tells a parable about our need to pray always and never lose heart.  And Jesus reminds us, with smiles and tears — that God is not an unjust judge.

Jesus reminds us often — when we pray together and try to live-out our prayers together — Jesus will always be praying with us — praying through us – praying for us, always.

And Jesus also keeps challenging us, asking  us–

will he find faith like this widow’s faith…  on earth?

Leaving the answer up to us.

Let’s pray — Dear Lord, help us to be your faithful partners in prayer. Help us to pray with you, persistently, passionately, for all, and especially the widow, the orphan, the poor, the left-out and forgotten… Lord, help us to pray with you, for the love and justice you teach us to pray for. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.