A sermon for 16 October 2022, Year C Proper 24
In the Geneva Bible Notes, late in the sixteenth century, someone commented upon this parable, “God will have us to continue in prayer, not to weary us, but to exercise us; therefore we must fight against impatience so that a long delay does not cause us to quit our praying.”[i]
Some of the people involved in creating this Bible translation and its annotations had fled their home country for fear of persecution. They were living in exile, refugees among like-minded neighbours in the heart of Europe, while in England Bloody Mary wielded her faith like a flaming sword, putting heretics, as she saw them, to the pyre. They had plenty need of patience, of the endurance of faith, and see how their words of encouragement have endured, and continue to challenge us today.[ii]
Paul, urging persistence in proclaiming the gospel, whether the time be favourable or not, told Timothy not to be stubborn and self-righteous, nor to be discouraged by the discouraging ears of the world (or its heretics), but to be persistent in patience, knowing that God’s compassion endures forever. (2 Timothy 3:14-4:5)
God wrestled with Jacob in the Jabbok, not to wear him down, but to build him up, to ready his conscience and his heart to meet his brother, whom he had wronged long before. God held Jacob in the water long enough to remind him to ask for a blessing, to remember God, to realize that God was with him as he journeyed home by the long road. (Genesis 32:22-31)
But the widow – what if the widow in the parable were not the innocent victim but the instigator of a lawsuit of vengeance? What if the judge knew it, and only acquiesced to shut her up, because his own conscience was not strong enough to resist her? What if he needed to pray persistently to train up his conscience and his courage? (Luke 18:1-8)
Amy-Jill Levine, Jewish New Testament scholar and author of Short Stories by Jesus, suggests that the judge, “may be prompted not by greed or even a preferential option for one class or another, but by irascibility, self-protection, or simply not wanting to be inconvenienced.”[iii] Perhaps he simply could not be bothered to do the work commended by the prophet Micah of doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with God – even though it was literally his job. (Micah 6:8)
God held onto Jacob, Timothy was enfolded in faith, Jesus, the Son of God, walked among us and remains with us, faithful to us; yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth, or will we have put our trust elsewhere: in vengeance, in the punishment of those who think otherwise than us, in the expulsion into exile of those fleeing persecution, in the false administration of justice, in powers and principalities?
What if this parable is about where we put our trust, how we exercise compassion, to whom it is that we pray?
Returning for a moment to Levine’s commentary, she writes, “The parable disturbs again because the only form of closure it creates is that in which widow and judge – and so readers – become complicit in a plan possibly to take vengeance and certainly not to find reconciliation. We may resist that complicity and so opt out of the system that promotes it. We may decide that court cases are not worth our time, that compassion is less time consuming and less corrupting than vengeance.”[iv]
What if our role in the parable is not that of the widow, but of the judge who really needs a change of heart, a conversion experience, to grow a spine and to do the work set before him: do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly alongside God?
What if our role in the parable is not to persist in unjust systems, but to turn instead to God, whose justice is absolute, whose mercy is everlasting, whose compassion endures forever, and for all?
Persistence, in and of itself, is of morally neutral value. The persistence of climate activists in pressing their cause is matched by the persistence of the world insisting it must continue as it always, or most recently has.
Endurance can be for good or for ill. The endurance of racism that persists in our culture; the persistence of violence and vengeance that manifests in gun violence and the death penalty; the suffering that we demand must be endured before asylum is granted, or a safety order handed down, or truth be told; some things endure that should not.
But then, there is the persistence of the passionate who clamour for their freedom, for the freedom of others, for the good of the world. The doggedness of the parent who spent days and nights camped outside of the school district buildings in Uvalde demanding justice, the determination of dandelion roots to hang onto the ground. The sheer stamina of those who work nights and days to care for the sick. Then, there is the endurance of a solid marriage; like fine wine that deepens and broadens its flavours with age, it is a joy to all whom it touches. We find strength, we find hope in some forms of persistence.
The persistence of God, the compassionate endurance that became incarnate in Jesus, that persisted through death and hell and refuses to let us go, refuses to leave us without a mark, without a blessing: that is something worth placing our faith in.
To persist in prayer, at its foundation, is to persist in our relationship with that God. It is not to lose hope that God’s will will be done, not to turn away to other, more immediate but more corruptible resolutions. This call to persistence is the call of the prophets, to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly beside God, deep in conversation, or indeed in a conversational silence, knowing that our faith is not misplaced.
The rhythms of our seasons, our weeks, our days are marked by prayer: the Sunday Eucharist, the Daily Office, the sentence of thanksgiving upon awakening; the moment of reflection before we fall asleep. I invite you as you go about your week to pray persistently: to choose a word or phrase that will remind you, when you most need it, that God is holding on to you, in the midst of rushing waters and strong currents, and beside still waters alike. Write it down and put it in your pocket, or set it to a tune and let it take hold of that place in your head that will not let it go.
Because when all else fails, when we fail, when all else seems false, nevertheless, God persists.
[iii] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: the enigmatic parables of a controversial rabbi (HarperOne, 2014), 241
[iv] Levine, op cit, 242
The featured image is from the Jabbok River in Jordan, taken by the author in 2016