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I Love to Tell the Story: The Widow and the Unjust Judge

14 Sep

Praying-Hands-over-Bible(a sermon for September 14, 2014, the 14th Sunday after Pentecost; fifth in a series, based on Luke 18:1-8)

In a classic, 1960’s era “Peanuts” comic strip, Charlie Brown’s sister Sally is standing on a hillside at the twilight of a closing day, scanning the skies for the evening’s first star.  And upon finding it, she closes her eyes and with a smile that bespeaks great reverence, Sally recites that time-honored little rhyme to which all children have turned at one time or another:  “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight; I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight.”  And then, after the proper pause, Sally breathes deeply and says aloud, “I wish I had a pony.”

The proper ritual having been observed and the wish pronounced, Sally then opens her eyes; slowly, hopefully and with great anticipation.  She looks to the left, and then to the right… but alas, there’s no pony to be found!   And to this, Sally immediately turns her gaze heavenward, shakes her fist in the air; and now, in a complete reversal of faith and with a look of utter disgust on her face, she simply shouts, “YOU STUPID STAR!”

I’ve always remembered that particular strip – it was in this dog-eared “Peanuts” paperback I had as a kid – because as a kid it always managed to make me laugh every time I saw it; but these days as an adult, I also have to say that I kind of “get it!”  It is, after all, one of the harsher lessons of growing up that “wishing upon a star” ain’t what it used to be when we were kids; and I suspect that most of us know what it is to have our wishes go unfulfilled. The job you’re counting on getting that doesn’t come through; the long-awaited opportunity that just never seems to happen; that set of circumstances in your life that won’t go away, that relationship you have with that family member or “significant other” that you wish with all your heart could be different… but isn’t: truly, one of the “hard knocks” of life is the realization that wishes don’t always come true, and quite honestly, shouting at the stars does sometimes seem like the suitable response!

What’s even harder, though, is to discover that even our faith and prayer does not leave us immune to this kind of disappointment.   So many of us here know of times that we prayed hard and well for something that simply didn’t come to pass as we had hoped.  Sometimes we pray for the healing of disease, and still sickness takes its toll; and all too often, despite our best and most sincere intercessions, natural disasters still wreak havoc, freak accidents still occur, and “bad things” continue to happen; and we are left to wonder why.  The fact is, in the face of unfulfilled wishes and seemingly unanswered prayer, it’s actually rather easy to become discouraged and “to lose heart.”

And that, friends, is what our parable for this morning – this little story of a rather unscrupulous judge and a very persistent widow – is all about.

What’s interesting here is that while most of Jesus’ parables have to do with the nature of the Kingdom of God and being watchful and preparing for its coming, this one is about those who were actually waiting for it; but understand, that for the people of Jesus’ time, this coming kingdom not only represented a spiritual awakening, but also a very real and concrete change to their lives and to the world around them.  For them, you see, the Messiah’s coming meant that justice would finally be done; a release from oppression and an end to the suffering that their people had known for generations.  For them, the promise of the Kingdom of God was that of vindication and the advent of true prosperity and peace; however, their reality was that this kingdom was slow in coming, and even as Jesus was proclaiming its imminent arrival, the people had become impatient, discouraged and wondering if the kingdom was really coming, and worse, if ultimately their prayers had all been for naught.

And so, that they would “not lose heart,” Jesus tells them this story of a judge who, though he was as dishonest as they come and “neither feared God nor had respect for people,” finally gives in to the pleadings of a widow and dispenses a measure of justice on her behalf.  But here’s the twist: as Jesus tells the story, the judge quite literally does so only to get the widow off his back!   It’s an interesting translation, actually: most English versions of the Bible speak of the judge giving in because the woman will most certainly “exhaust him,” or “wear him out” with her persistence; but if you look at the original Greek, you find that what the judge was really afraid of was getting slapped across the face!  And I love how the The Message translates this: there, the judge says, “I’d better do something and see that she gets justice – otherwise I’m going to end up beaten black and blue by her pounding.” Suffice to say that the judge does give in to the persistent cries of the widow, but most decidedly not for good and noble reasons!

And to this, Jesus simply says, “Now if that judge, as unjust as he was, finally acted justly on the widow’s behalf, won’t God – who loves you with a love so extravagant it can barely be measured – “‘grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?’”

“I assure you, he will,” Jesus says.  “He will not drag his feet.” But – and here’s the tricky part – “how much of that kind of persistent faith will the Son of Man find on the earth when he returns?” (The Message)

It’s a loaded question, because Jesus knew all too well that our usual human response is to be far too quick to lose heart!  After all, we’re the people who wish upon a star and then curse the star when the wishes don’t immediately come true!  But Jesus also knew that the better gift… the greater answer… the fuller purpose awaits those who pray continually and who keep the faith.

You see, what’s so often very hard for us to grasp is that when we pray, sometimes God says, “No.”  Sometimes God answers us by saying, “Not yet.”  And sometimes God responds by saying, “Just wait for it… wait and see.”  But you and I, we’re so busy trying to look at the whole thing logically, seeking to find some theological rationale for what has or hasn’t happened, or else so busy blaming ourselves, others or God for things not working out how we want that we’ve fail to hear what God’s been saying to us all along!

In the Old Testament book of the prophet Habakkuk, there’s a wonderful word that in fact comes in response to the prophet’s own complaint that God doesn’t seem to be listening, that nothing is happening as it ought to be and why should they even bother?  To this, God answers, “Write the vision; make it plain… for there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie.  If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay… the righteous live by their faith.”  In other words, trust.  Trust in God… wait… watch… live “as though…” for God’s love is as sure as God’s promises; so there is never any need for us to lose heart.

Or, if you want a New Testament reference for that, consider the piece of the prayer we say just about every time we gather as God’s faithful people, words that have been aptly called the most perfect prayer of all: “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” 

Hundreds of years ago there was a stone wall built across the width of England that was known as “The Roman Wall,” or “Hadrian’s Wall,” built by the Romans in the 2nd century to keep the Scots and the Irish out of England.  And it worked, too; for hundreds of years it worked, until finally the Roman army left and there was no one to defend the wall.  So eventually the wall was dismantled; but in one village along the wall it was decided to build a church, using rocks from the wall itself.  The story goes that the parish leaders of this church went out and hired a famous architect who had designed some of the great cathedrals of Europe to come up with a plan for this new church; but when the design was completed and presented to the leadership, they discovered that the design called for a ceiling not supported by any columns.

Well; the parish leaders looked at the design and said that it could not possibly work; that the ceiling would most certainly collapse and such a design was foolhardy.  But the architect replied, “Look at all that I have designed.  I know what I’m doing; I know it will work.”  But despite all the architect’s pleadings, the church leadership said it doesn’t matter, it won’t work, we want columns, it’s our money… and, well, the church was built with columns!

Except… that some 800 years later, an archeological team came to what is still known as the Roman Wall Church, and interested in lifting up some of the flag stones to see what artifacts they might find under the floor of that old cathedral, discovered to their amazement that not a single column in that church was actually attached to the floor, nor connected to the church’s foundation!  In fact, every column in that cathedral was actually suspended from the church’s ceiling, hanging freely several inches above the floor!  For 800 years (!), everyone believed that these columns were the strength of the roof; but the truth of it was this was merely an illusion created by the architect to prove to those shortsighted church people that he’d been right all along!

So often what we come to accept as the limits of what God can do in and through our lives turns out to be an illusion.  Perhaps not enough time has passed for all to be fulfilled; it could be we haven’t done our part for things to unfold as they should; or maybe it’s simply not for us to know right now what’s going to happen, or how and when and why.

But here’s the good news: because God is involved, we can be assured that there will come a moment of awareness in the midst of our struggle when we will recognize that even in those moments when we assumed God to be absent, God was there all along: loving us, nurturing us, working his own purpose out around us and within us in surprising and amazing ways.

And so, beloved, the message here for all of us is to… wait for it; to make our wants and wishes known, and then trust in the Lord to respond.  In the meantime, let us pray without ceasing: let us be persistent about it to the point of becoming relentless, and let us work hard for the sake of Jesus Christ and his kingdom as we do; for that is what our calling as his disciples and our life together as the his church is all about.  Let each one of us here stand as a beacon of faith, hope and love to the world, even as we dwell in this world that is all too often skeptical of our persistence, not to mention angry, wounded and deeply hurt over their own struggles in this life; for it will be that persistence that serves as their inspiration.

No matter what, let us not lose heart; let us keep praying, and let us “keep on keeping on” in faith.  And we can… for we have seen what God can do, and we know that God will do so much more.  For the vision will surely come; and when it does, may the Lord indeed find “faith on earth” as he finds faith in us.

Thanks be to God.

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2014  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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