Luke begins this parable by telling us he knows what we need. Then, he writes, Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.
Character #1: “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.” From the earliest days, my friend Meg writes, Moses sat as judge for God’s people. Jethro, priest and his father in law, said Moses should “look for men who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain; set such men over them as officers” (Ex. 18:21). There were no juries, so the weaker members of the community depended upon them.1 But this judge NEITHER feared God nor had respect for people. Bad. Very bad.
Character #2: There was a widow who KEPT coming to him saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” In Israelite tradition, widows could not inherit their husband’s property. They were left without finances or family, status or security. As the widow was so often exploited, disputes were common. The widow was frequently pushed to call upon a judge to force a third party to give her money or property that she was owed.2 The collision course is set.
For a while this judge refuses her plea. But later he says to himself – this way of telling gives us a window into his spirit – “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…” I am a bad judge, he says. I do not fear God. I don’t like people. YET this widow keeps showing up. I will grant her justice so she goes away. The Greek for “So that she may not wear me out” is literally “so she will not strike me under the eye.” It is language used in the boxing arena.3 There’s a sermon title for you: “Do justice not because you love God or people, but so you don’t get punched in the face”’ And preachers sigh, and slowly place their head in their hands….
LISTEN, Jesus says, to the judge. Will not God grant justice to God’s own who cry to God day and night? Will God delay? No. God will quickly grant them justice. The logic, Fred Craddock writes, is from lesser to greater. Luke’s Jesus has made arguments like this before, as in, “if a cruel judge will give way to the unrelenting pressure of the widow, how much more will God listen to the prayers of the saints?”4 Here is where Luke’s guidance helps us know what we are looking for. There is something about the persistence of the widow that calls to us, and that is also to show us something of the persistent faithfulness of God. It is God who, throughout history, has stuck with God’s own people, renewing the covenant over and over again. It is God who stuck with us then, and who stuck with us by sending Jesus, flesh and blood, hand in hand.
Because in response we are… here we are pointed back to that first verse, about those who pray always and do not lose heart… to be persistent. Courageous. Unflinching. Then the final question, which strikes at our heart: And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth? Luke knows that sometimes we may not want to pray and WILL lose heart. The doctor’s office calls back. Budgets get tight at work and everyone knows someone is going to lose their job. That’s enough, as we age, as our parents age, as we care for people around us. And then… Hurricane Matthew. Despair and sadness, this election season that seems to bring out the worst of us. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth? Jesus asks.
There are sometimes, I think Luke is saying, when it matters how we feel about things. I’d love for your involvement here to come from deep in your heart, for you to be filled with joy coming to worship. Saying YES every time we ask you to do something. Going out of your way to be kind to every person, even folks who are rude to you. Pledging, giving sacrificially, tithing, because you understand what Jesus says about our need to give being at least as important as the church’s need to receive. Organizing teams, helping with youth, serving the shelter meal, working for justice. I WOULD LOVE for that to happen because you are deeply moved in your heart at all times to serve Jesus.
But other times, and I suspect this is where Luke is moving us, that it doesn’t matter we feel. A certain amount of persistence is required, so we will NOT lose heart. We raise our kids, not for what we feel, but because the world needs children raised with compassion and wisdom. We pick mom up for the doctor, we sleep in those horrible hospital chairs, because it must be done. Engaging in any kind of service for what we are to get out of it. The poor are sometimes grateful and pleasant, and sometimes they are simply as kind or rude as the rest of us. We care for the earth. We give. Even when we give grudgingly or out of anxiety or sense of obligation. Because we are called to give. I’d imagine that at least some of the team going to Haiti are overwhelmed with love for Jesus. But I also imagine there’s a bit of anxiety about what they will see, how their gifts will be used, especially post-Matthew. But I’d also guess they, to a person, know God is calling them to go. Because we have been drawn into relationship with brothers and sisters there. So we go. I’d love for everyone’s motivations to be pristine at all times. But sometimes, and I say this in love, and as someone trying to follow Jesus himself who wrestles with his own motivations at times, I don’t know if it matters how we feel about doing some of these things sometimes. God calls us to do them. And that should be enough.
On the wall of Mother Teresa’s home for the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta, were written these words, printed on the inside of the bulletin:
People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway.
What you spent years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.
Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.
In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.5
At the beginning of his book, “Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love” Will Willimon – former Dean of the Chapel at Duke, who will be here this Wednesday night to speak on said book – it will be great, you should come! Willimon writes of the end of a busy Thursday afternoon:
I was chagrinned to be encountered on my way from the church office by a shuffling, forlorn older man. Of course he was down on his luck. Homeless. “Could you help me get some food?” he asked.
Food my foot [Willimon confesses] I’m sure you’ll use the twenty dollars that I’ll give you (just to get rid of you) to buy booze. I gave him the twenty dollar bill.
“I guess you expect me to thank you,” he said on his way down the sidewalk with my money. I told him a thank you would be nice. “Well I ain’t,” he muttered. “Jesus made you help me. You’d have never done it on your own”
How did that man know so much about you?, I asked Jesus.
To which Jesus replied, How does he know so much about you? 6
Luke leaves us with a question: “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Will he?
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. This background comes from the Rev. Meg Peery McLaughlin’s paper on this text at The Well, Davidson, 2010.
2. Also from Meg’s paper.
3. Culpepper, Alan. The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary. Volume IX (Nashville: Abington Press, 1995), p 338. I was pointed to this reference by Meg’s paper.
4. Interpretation: Luke, by Fred Craddock, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), p 209.
5. Mother Teresa: “Do It Anyway” These words are often attributed to Mother Teresa, but seem to be an adaptation of a poem written by a man named Kent Keith in 1968.
6. Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love, by William H. Willimon, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016), pp15-16.