I just love it when the underdog wins, don’t you? Except when the Razorbacks are playing. Obviously, I always pull for them. Or when Notre Dame is involved. I always root for them to lose. It’s not a Catholic thing on my part. I’ve just always thought they got more respect than they deserved. Notre Dame can have two or three losses, it seems, and still be in the top ten. Arkansas loses a game at the last second and they drop out of the top 25. It just doesn’t seem fair.
But when I don’t have a dog in the hunt, I’m always for the team that isn’t supposed to win.
Maybe that is why I like so much the woman Jesus tells about in this parable we read from Luke’s gospel. She’s up “agin it,” as some folk might say, definitely facing some pretty tough odds, and is without doubt the underdog. But she’s also relentless. She’s not only an underdog, she’s a bulldog as well… grabs hold of what she wants and won’t let go. As she says to the ruthless judge who has refused to listen to her, “Grant me justice against my opponent.”
Did you notice that she doesn’t say please?
What do you suppose she needs justice for? Well, we can come up with some pretty good guesses, and the fact that she is a widow provides us an excellent clue.
Widows in the first-century world have no rights, and this woman would be no exception. Any inheritance that would have come from her late husband would go to their eldest son. If she had no sons, it would default to her husband’s eldest brother. I know, that hardly seems fair, but it’s just the way it was. As we have noted before, this was not a culture that was kind to women in general and widows in particular… which is one reason why Jesus seems to be so out of synch with his culture. He was always in favor of the underdog, in a world that represented a definite survival-of-the-fittest way of thinking.
So, whatever she is to receive from her late husband’s estate would have to come to her through the generosity of her son or her brother-in-law, and evidently the one who is holding the purse strings is holding out on her. What does that tell you? It’s probably her brother-in-law. After all, what kind of son would treat his mama this way?
Her only recourse is to seek justice through the courts. Unfortunately, she has come up against a judge who, as Jesus puts it, “…neither feared God nor had respect for people.” That is not a way of saying he is neutral, as all judges should be. Jesus is telling us that the judge is without compassion and doesn’t care one whit whether this widow – or any other widow, for that matter – gets what is coming to her. He is interested in one person and one person only. And can you guess who that might be? Himself.
But in this case, he’s up against someone who is stronger than he is. She may be the underdog and she may be a woman, but she is tough as nails. Jesus says she “kept coming to him.” Kept coming, kept coming, kept coming. Since we’ve already been talking about football, think of her as a tough little defensive back who blitzes the quarterback on every play.
The judge is able to hold out for awhile. But finally, realizing that she isn’t going to leave him alone until he settles her case, he begrudgingly grants her justice. “…so that she may not wear me out by continually coming,” he says. That may be what Jesus means with this statement, but that isn’t exactly what he says. At the risk of mixing our sports metaphors, since we’ve been talking about football, I have to tell you that, believe it or not, Jesus uses an image appropriate for the boxing ring.
I am not a fan of the sport of boxing. Never have been, even though I remember, when I was young, my dad religiously watching the Friday night fights on TV, sponsored by Gillette razors. And though he has brought a measure of positive publicity to our state, Jermain Taylor’s recent loss to Kelly Pavlik did not send me into a tailspin or knock me into a state of depression… not like it does when the Razorbacks lose, that is. I am not a boxing fan.
There is no other indication that Jesus is, but if you know what you’re looking for you cannot avoid the reference in this parable to the sport of boxing. When the judge says that he will grant justice to this widow, “so that she may not wear me out by continually coming,” he literally means, “If I don’t do something, this woman is going to give me a black eye!” He’s more concerned about his image than he is in doing what is right.
Who says there is no humor in the Bible? A parable about prayer that uses a boxing metaphor. Think about it. That’s funny! But the subject matter is very serious, and so is the point of Jesus’ parable. Apparently, we’re supposed to bother God with our prayers until God finally listens to what we are saying. On the surface of it, if we’re persistent enough with our prayers, God will finally give us what we want if only to shut us up.
But, as you might expect, you get into trouble when you deal with scripture only on the surface. You have to dig deeply, at least sometimes, to find its true meaning. And I think this is one of those times.
To deal with scripture seriously, you also have to consider its context. Jesus has been talking with his disciples about the end of the age. In fact, he’s been saying some pretty scary things. “It will be like that,” Jesus says (meaning it will be like Sodom), “on the day that the Son of Man is revealed. On that day, anyone on the housetop who has belongings in the house must not come down to take them away; and likewise anyone in the field must not turn back. Remember Lot’s wife.”
You do remember Lot’s wife, don’t you? Her name was Pillar J.
Even if you’re not turned to salt, this is the way it’s going to be. “There will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken and the other left.”
The trembling disciples ask Jesus, “Where, Lord?” This is his answer: “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” Somehow, I don’t think that made them feel better. And what does that mean? I’m not absolutely sure; perhaps that they won’t know it is happening until the moment it occurs. But I know that it is right on the heels of that strange remark that Jesus tells them this parable of the persistent widow and unjust judge.
Sometimes I wish Luke wouldn’t give us the meaning of a story before he tells it. Just go ahead and relate the parable and let us draw our own conclusions. But several times in his gospel Luke doesn’t want to risk that we might not be able to figure it out on our own. So, before he gives us the story, he tells us what it means.
He does it this time in this strange little story. “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” Losing heart is a form of fear, is it not? I imagine we can all relate to that. Sometimes fear and prayer go together, don’t they? Somehow, I think we get the idea that the kind of prayer Jesus is talking about doesn’t begin with, “Now I lay me down to sleep…” This is the prayer that begs – persistently – for God’s justice. Justice for our world and not just for ourselves. It is the kind of prayer that often does not receive an obvious answer. Yet, we are to be faithful and constant in lifting up such prayers.
It is the kind of prayer that “can wear our heart right out, if you’re not careful.”1 Why? Because prayers for justice are the most difficult kind of prayer there is. Because they are not about us, not specific enough, we think, to get the attention of the Almighty. After all, what do the atrocities in Darfur have to do with us? Unless it is one of our sons or daughters that die in Iraq, we do not feel the pain of their loss. Afghanistan, Myanmar? They’re just places on the map. What do they have to do with us? And besides, even if we were to persistently and fervently pray about these situations, what good would it do? It doesn’t appear that these are issues answered by prayer. They’re political situations and can only be resolved by diplomacy… or force.
Besides, we pray about all this and the next day in the newspaper we read that, instead of being better, it’s worse. Our prayers have yielded nothing but silence. And let’s admit it. We wear out from prayer that lends itself only to silence. After awhile, we get tired of getting no response. Sometimes, the only thing we get from prayer is wondering if there is really anyone out there listening to us. It gives a whole new meaning to the expression, “losing heart,” doesn’t it?
Well, Jesus doesn’t want that to happen to his disciples. He doesn’t want them to lose heart. At least, that’s the expression Luke uses when he prefaces this story. Jesus does not want his disciples to lose heart, and I would hope he feels the same way about you and me.
A PASTOR SAYS: “I’ve been preaching for 27 years and just decided to try and preach the lectionary for the first time. When I read the Gospel lesson, nothing stirred. But when I read what you’d provided, I started having a conversation with the text, your exegesis, and some of the points you lift up in your sermon. I will preach a sermon that is different, because something different moved me, but it was the engagement with your mind about the text that sparked ideas for me.”
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You can bet that is Luke’s concern. He’s telling this story, and providing his interpretation of it, so his church, his congregation, won’t lose heart. Here they are… they’ve been praying and praying, asking that the kingdom would come, that all of Jesus’ promises would come to full fruition before their very eyes… and what do they have to show for it? Persecution. Hardship. Difficulties. Loss of face, loss of faith. Luke’s church is just about done for.
All these things, added together, can erode faith… not to mention enthusiasm. It can be hard to wait on what we can only assume is a very patient God when – if you don’t mind that we go back to the boxing metaphor – you’re taking a real honest-to-goodness beating. It’s the church of Jesus Christ that’s getting the black eye! Why doesn’t God intervene? That’s what Luke’s church wants to know.
Maybe you’re asking the same question about our church, or about your life, or about the world in which we live. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could catch just a glimpse of God’s activity in it all? Sometimes, it’s hard not to lose heart.
So Luke tells us about Jesus’ story where the point is made that, if a ruthless, insensitive and hardened judge will finally hear the persistent petitions of a widow, how much more can we believe and trust that God, who cares for us and has our best interest at heart, will hear the prayers of those who are willing to “pray always”?
Jesus doesn’t mean – or, at least, I don’t think Jesus means – that, like the persistent widow, we have to pester God into being compassionate toward us. It is through our persistence, our constant prayer, our “bothering” God, that we open ourselves to receive the guidance and compassion God wants to give us in abundance.
So, you can call it bothering God, if you wish. By bothering God, little by little the power of God begins to trickle through and penetrate our hearts so that we don’t lose heart. And little by little we open up our hearts even more to receive him. It is like chipping away at the sealed door of our hearts until God is given full admittance.
And if God will do that for us, maybe God will do it for our church and our world. If it takes bothering God for that to happen, then let me ask you this: can you think of anything more important to do?
Lord, if our praying is the same as bothering you, we hope you don’t mind. But may our bothersome prayers not be safe ones. Help us to stretch our faith through our prayers, then continue to pray even as we wait patiently for you to answer. We pray now, as we do always, in the name and spirit of Jesus. Amen.
1Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1999), p. 198.
Copyright 2007, Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.