The Persistent Widow: Faith and Prayer in the Storm
Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. 2 He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. 3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’
4 “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”
6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” — Luke 18:1–18 (NIV)
You know there’s nothing really quite like a Hurricane to put into perspective for us just how much control we don’t really have over our lives. Yes, we can board up our houses, pack up our stuff, get things ready, leave town, and thank God we have the warning nowadays, and the places to go, that allow us to be safe from the storm. But we also know, had the hurricane been more powerful, had it hit at a higher tide, things could have been much worse. And they were worse, for some people, most of all, our brother and sisters, who, last I saw, had a death count nearing the one thousand mark.
And so during the storm, Whitney and I were in North Carolina, and we were praying — or I should say, she was praying, and I was trying to pray — after we already knew how bad things were for Haiti, we were praying and talking about praying for all the people who were in Matthew’s path in the United States — including, of course, Saint Peter’s and the whole city of Charleston. But I struggled with this, you know, because I knew that, just like you do, that, look, Haiti’s going to suffer the most — the poor always do — and people in the U.S., by and large, would be ok (people still died here, which is terrible, and the flooding was very bad in some places, but again, by comparison, much less devastating).
But so what am I praying for? God, please calm the storm now, even though you didn’t for them? Now, I personally have never believed that everything that happens in events of history is God’s will. Some people do, but I think that creates some pretty difficult problems when it comes to God’s goodness.
But regardless of where you are on that, the difficulty of having faith, not giving up, and praying always, which is what this parable is ultimately about, it’s still there. It doesn’t go away! Especially in times when we see the most vulnerable people in the world suffering, or even just when things don’t go our way.
And you know, we live in this information age, which can be a little bit overwhelming to say the least. Good news doesn’t make the headlines as much as bad news, and there’s also a lot of bad information out about the bad news. And yet, there are also some really good things about the information age.
History has a way of forcing the truth to rise to the surface, eventually — for those who are looking for it — not always, and often when it’s too late to matter very much, but we still see this.
It’s like the phenomenon of Wikipedia. User-edited information! And you know what? It’s pretty dang accurate. Someone can go on there and write the wrong thing, but it eventually get corrected when someone who knows better, sees it.
So we live in this time when people are more potentially more informed than before. I’m reminded of this every year on Columbus Day, which our nation still celebrates. If you spend any time on Twitter, on a national holiday like Columbus Day, you might notice some interesting Hashtags. One of the most popular hashtags on Columbus Day is #IndigenousPeoplesDay.” or #NativeAmericanDay instead of #ColumbusDay.
I think this is revealing something important to us about our culture today. People don’t trust the big stories or the dominant narratives that have traditionally given meaning to society today, as much as they once did. Some still do, but many do not. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing in some cases, like the Columbus Day example.
Or just think about how much more people could get away with, before everyone had a smart phone — a personal movie camera in their pocket basically! Whether it’s police shootings or the presidential election, in the age of wikileaks, one thing we’re dealing with is a credibility crisis at the highest level. Historical authority, Government authority, Church authority, and even Divine authority. There’s a credibility crisis when it comes to believing that God is good, just, or even exists!
And yet, it says right from the beginning of this passage that Jesus tells his disciples the parable in order that they might persist in prayer and never give up their faith!
For the longest time, the Hebrews equated God’s justice with what was actually happening to them in history. When they were in slavery or wandering in the desert, they often thought God had forgotten them. When they were prosperous and things were going well, they thought God was blessing or rewarding them.
It wasn’t until several centuries later, that the Israelites, upon hearing the voice of the Prophets, started to really discern that perhaps God’s justice wasn’t completely reflected or accomplished through historical circumstances, and maybe their political future, or their political present, was not the best measure of whether God was hearing their prayers or with them in their suffering.
Which may be something for us to hear today as well, during this presidential election season. And I think for the first time in United States history, white, middle-class Christian Americans, at least, are beginning to feel just a little bit of what it’s like not be on the top anymore. You know? In some ways, you might say, we’re beginning to go through our own kind of miniature Exile. (Now, not to exaggerate this though!)
But this was the situation that the disciples were in — as Jews, primarily. the Jews continued to live in Exile even under Pharisees, Herod and Pilate. And nobody gets to vote… (not that anyone did, or that there was an election for the emperor or a debate to talk about on facebook — I mean what did people do with their time?!)
But the widow in the parable, even more so. We need to remember something about widows in the First Century, and about women in general. Because in the gospel of Luke, Jesus talks about widows and interacts with them. In fact the other gospels don’t have widows as characters in the parables or as major figures who Jesus interacts with. So Luke as the gospel writer is especially concerned about the widow’s plight.
Ok, she is someone who has no rights. Women in general, but widows in particular, were very vulnerable, had no legal protection, power or possessions of their own. No one looking for them if they’re abused or exploited by the government.
And presumably, the widow’s cause is just — her adversary has wronged her. She’s not the guilty party. In Israel’s case, that definitely wasn’t always true. In fact, when the Israel’s were forgetting about the widows in their midst, that’s when they tended to get into trouble with God in the Scriptures.
Take a look at the passage that was read a moment ago from the prophet Jeremiah, chapter 31. This is what God said to the Israelites, when they were in a place of Exile:
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
and with the people of Judah.
32 It will not be like the covenant
I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
though I was a husband to them,”
declares the Lord.
33 “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
34 No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the Lord.
“For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”
First of all, in the Old Covenant, it reminds us that the God of Israel is a liberator of enslaved and here’s the cry of the oppressed. That’s really where it all starts. And so God has a special concern, for widows, and orphans, and the poor. But how does God take care of them, primarily? Through us! the Scriptures say.
So there is no contradiction between what Christ commands us to do and what was part of the First Covenant, in loving our neighbors, and especially the vulnerable. Jesus instructs us to do the very same thing. But as it says in Jeremiah, we are pretty bad at this. So don’t keep the covenant very well. In fact, we break it all the time. And so did Israel.
So what is God going to do about that, according to Jeremiah? It’s not that God’s mercy was limited. It was that God was just! There are consequences for our self-serving and unfaithful ways.
Apparently it’s not enough to just be told what to do. Parents, do y’all ever experience that? I mean, we all know it, and yet we act surprised every time it doesn’t work. The next time I’m up here, I will be a dad, so I’ll be able to tell you how well that works soon enough…
So yeah, even with the 10 Commandments, though they have the written law, it wasn’t enough to transform their minds or write that law on their hearts — that is, to have it so close to who we are, so much a part of us, that our wills and God’s wills are one in the same. So there needed to a New Covenant if the relationship between God and humanity was going to be restored.
- 34: “For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”
This is what God promises, and this what as Christians we believe God does. It’s the most scandalous thing we believe as Christians. It’s an audacious claim to make, and it’s at the core of everything we hope for and put our trust in.
Ok, but how does God do this?
So, one of the things about the parable of the persistent widow, is that it takes place at the beginning of a chapter in the gospel. And you always have to be careful about chapters in the Bible, because they weren’t originally in there. And so what happens sometimes is that we assume there is a new idea, at the beginning of a new chapter. But actually, what New Testament scholars will tell you, is that this parable is likely meant by the gospel writer to be an illustration of a point that Jesus makes in the previous chapter. Luke chapter 17.
Jesus says: (v. 21) “the kingdom of God is in your midst.” God’s justice, in other words, is available. In a limited way, perhaps, but still, it’s near, it’s approaching, it’s at hand, Jesus says.
Jesus goes on to say, though, (v. 25) But first [the Son of Man] must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.” And finally, in v. 33, in the same line of thought and after making an Old Testament reference, Jesus says, “Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.”
So the first thing Jesus is basically saying, is that one the hand, the kingdom of God is already here! Don’t you see? You can live in it now! (v. 25) BUT FIRST. [the Son of Man] must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.” And v. 33, “Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.”
So God is good, and cares deeply about justice — and God’s kingdom is being made available to us. By then why must the Son of Man suffer many things and be rejected in order for this kingdom to be fully available? I mean, this is what it all hangs on for us as Christians. And we live in age of incredulity toward this story, of doubt and skepticism about the big narratives, the tradition religious or political claims of culture, so what’s trustworthy about this one?
Well, that’s a big question, and part of what we’ve been doing in the Alpha course this fall, just like every year, is try to answer that question. But very briefly, I think one of the best ways to understand the reasoning behind this gospel story is to connect it with our experience.
In the Alpha video this past week, there was this one testimony of young man recalling a time, when he had stolen money from his parents, and they caught him, and he had never gotten caught betraying their trust like this before — so he was terribly ashamed. So he hid himself in his room and locked the door, but his dad came up. But his dad came up and was talking to him through the door and asking him to please open it so that he could come in and show him mercy.
Because when you life love someone like you love a child, which is the dominant metaphor that Jesus uses to describe our relationship to God the Father, like a good dad, when you love someone like that, and they’re hurting, you just want to take their pain away. You want to share in their pain. Let them know they’re not alone in their pain, and if possible, remove their pain.
And if they’ve done something wrong, you’re mad, you’re confused, you’re angry, but you still don’t want them to be separated from you because of it. So if they have to pay a price, a penalty, go to jail or something, if you love them like a parent loves a child, you don’t want them to have to go through that — you want to go in their place.
Ok, that’s what Jeremiah’s saying about God, and that’s what Jesus is saying about the Son of Man having to suffer — in order for the Kingdom of God to be fully available to us.
But so what then are we asking for, when we pray for justice like the widow, ask for God’s will to be done, seeking the kingdom? Remember in Luke 18, it says Jesus told his disciples this parable to show them “that they should always pray and not give up.” And then it ends with a question, from Jesus: “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
A common assumption among people in church tends to be that we think we have to have complete faith without any doubt before we can really pray or grow in our relationship with God. But that’s not true! As I shared with y’all at the beginning, when I was trying to pray for people in the way of the hurricane, I was doubting the whole time! What was I supposed to pray.
But I did pray. And I don’t know if it saved anyone’s life or house, but here’s what it did do, and here’s what it does:
Ever-so-slightly, over time, praying centers me in eternal perspective, makes the worries of the world fade a little bit, and frees me to see what what is really mine to do. Not so that I start saying, oh my gosh, I have to do all the work. No, rather I say, oh my gosh, I get to do some of the work. Some of the advancing of God’s kingdom. Prayer increases my faith.
See, if we don’t hear the widows plea in light of Jesus’s teaching about the kingdom of God, then we are liable to interpret in terms of our own kingdom — our republican kingdoms, our democrat kingdoms, our third party kingdoms or maybe just our personal success story or perfect family kingdoms.
And really, again, the only thing we can ultimately do in response to suffering, is to move toward it, and to enter into it, to carry the weight of it, with others, because that’s what God does. That’s the gospel, in fact, that Jesus bears our sin and suffering, so that we don’t have to.
Jeremiah 31:34b: “For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”
Originally published at William A. Walker III.