Do Not Lose Heart. Do Not Give Up. Do Not Give In.
October 16, 2016
a sermon based upon Luke 18:1-8 (page 911 in the pew Bible)
by Rev. Dr. Paul A. Lance, Minister
First Congregational United Church of Christ 201 South Second Ave., Alpena, Michigan 49707
In today’s parable, Jesus introduces us to a boldly persistent woman – one who won’t take “no” for an answer. One who won’t back down. One who insists on her rights! One who refuses to “quiet down” and, day after day, just won’t go away.
Perhaps you have met people like that – persistent to the point of becoming a pest. (!) Relentless in their efforts to get something from you, or to make you change your mind, or at least to affirm that they are right (and you, perhaps, were wrong after all…). I don’t want a show of hands, but ask yourself: has someone “pushy” like that ever gotten on your case?
What did you do? How did you eventually settle the conflict? Did you give in? (“OK, you win!”) Did you simply give up? (?) Did you shut them out from your life (withdrawal) or shut them down in some other way? (Show them how it felt to be on the receiving end! Pay them back in like manner.)
Did you (perhaps) admit that (yes) the other person had a point, and thanked them for bringing it to your attention? In other words, have you learned anything about yourself in the way you chose to settle that score?
I’ll admit that we don’t generally see ourselves in the role of the judge in Jesus’ parable… the one receiving the badgering, hearing the same complaint day after day. Most of us upon first hearing the story, sympathize with the woman who has been wronged by a judge – a man who holds all the cards, who has authority over her life, who has (apparently) dis-respected her and dis-missed her for some time, and she’s fed up with it! Oh, yeah! That’s somebody we can get behind. Someone who won’t back down when confronting the “powers that be.”
I suppose it’s partly because of the way Jesus describes the judge: “He neither feared God, nor regarded man.” I mean, we’re in church for goodness sake! If there were any group of people who could be considered “God fearers”
– who call God’s name “hallowed” and who have prayed earnestly that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven — if there are any folks who we can point to
and say “They regard God’s opinion as significant”, wouldn’t we be them? We regard God highly. We open worship with songs of praise and prayers of gratitude to God! So, if one characteristic of the judge is his disregard for God, that doesn’t apply to us. (Right?)
And this other thing about “not regarding man” – if the judge lacks concern for people, people other than himself – he is in the wrong business! Judges are called upon to render verdicts for the common good, for the improvement of society in the cause of justice. A judge without a concern for people will have no accurate basis to discern what’s right or wrong.
Surely, no one among us would be so cavalier about the rights of people to fair & equal treatment under the law. Both in his “vertical” relationship to God, and the “horizontal” relationship he has with human beings, this judge is sorely lacking. We’re not like him! No, not at all; not never!
We don’t see ourselves as anything like the judge in the parable, because we do revere God and we do respect other people. And so, when Jesus sums up the parable, saying: “Hear what the unrighteous judge says.” We go “Yeah!” He is unrighteous, isn’t he? I knew it all along!” And so we dismiss the possibility that we (you and I) may ever have given any cause for someone to feel & act toward us what this woman was doing to that man.
No, no; we have never delayed giving an answer to someone who has asked us for a decision. No, no; we have never frustrated someone by our inattention & dismissive attitude. No, No; we always act in ways that would please God and which honor the other person.
The woman, as a citizen of this judge’s town, was one for whose welfare he was partly responsible. And the woman recognized that he was the right one (within the system) to deal with her case and make a decision. “Vindicate me against my adversary!” was her recurring request. Apparently the woman’s case had been presented, and now there has been a delay. She felt it necessary to go to the judge repeatedly to seek a just settlement.
Unfortunately for those of us who like to know all the gory details, we have no idea who her adversary was, nor the nature of her grievance. Perhaps the adversary was some important person known to the judge, who preferred to “look the other way” than to “do the right thing.” The grievance may have been about an inheritance, or a crime, or someone taking advantage of her because she was female in a patriarchal society; or perhaps because her husband had died,
leaving her at the mercy of the men who surrounded her. A little later in Luke’s Gospel (20:47), Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for taking advantage of their position of civic leadership in the community by “devouring widow’s houses.” Maybe this woman’s case was in his mind.
The difference in social position between a widow (on the bottom rung in those days) and a judge (among the highest on the roster) could hardly have been more extreme. He was male; she was female. In Judaism in Jesus’ day, women were not allowed to testify in court; a man had to be appointed to be her voice.
Without a husband, the widow’s son, brother, or father would speak for her. What if her adversary were one of them? A father, who disowned her as a daughter; or a brother, who wanted to take over the role of the dead husband; or a son who wanted the inheritance, but not the care of his widowed mother; or a lawyer/priest who declared her assets “Corban” (dedicated to God), thereby making her a ward of the Temple. In all these ways, widowed-women could be taken advantage of, leaving them defenseless & poor.
The judge had social respect; she was suspect — a “loose” woman — without a man. The judge presumably had sufficient, perhaps even ample, wealth befitting his position; she was most likely poor. And what little she had would have been confiscated by the courts lawyers. The judge’s refusal to grant the woman’s verdict and settle the affair (whatever it was) cost him nothing. But the woman’s whole life revolved around it. Every day that passed cost her dearly.
“Vindicate me against my adversary!” demanded the widow, as she kept coming to him. For a while, the judge refused. But afterward, he said to himself: “Because this widow bothers me, I will vindicate her; or she will wear me out by her continual coming.”
In other words, he eventually did the right thing (from the widow’s perspective) but for the wrong reasons. Which makes me ask again: when somebody “pushy” like this widow got on your case (for whatever perceived grievance), what did you do? Did you give in? Did you give up? (?) Did you shut them out, or shut them down, or shut them up in some other way? Did you find a way to “pay them back”, or to somehow get “even” in the end?
What does this story from Jesus tell you about how YOU resolve long-term conflicts? What would be some of your ways to settle the score with a person who complains about you??
Personally, I find it most beneficial for all involved to admit that (yes) that other person has a point, and to thank them for bringing it to my attention… for only in that way can we move forward together. And, unlike the unrighteous judge, I would do it sooner, rather than later. If I have to “eat crow”, I do it as quickly as possible, because it tastes better warm.
Looking at ourselves in the uncomfortable (and uncharacteristic) role as the one who has done something wrong — and perhaps delayed fixing it, even though it does someone else harm — let me remind you of the simple trick I shared in a sermon several months ago to help make the words “I’m Sorry” be more effective…
S – Soon. As soon as you realize that you have done wrong, or hurt someone, say so.
O – Offer it. Don’t make ’em “pry” it out of you over your resistance. It won’t ring true.
R – Repent. Let them know you’ve changed your mind; and then change your behavior.
R – Restitution. If there is a way to make up for their loss, do it. Make the sacrifice.
Y – Yourself. Face-to-face, if possible; letter or Facebook or email; by you personally.
Because we do not know the nature of the offense, we don’t know what it will take for the woman to be “vindicated”. The Greek word both she and the judge use for “vindicate” is “ek-dik-eo”, a juridical word that is standard in legal papyri, where it has the connotation of “to set things right”. “Vindication”, however, may also connote “vindictiveness” or the desire to be “avenged.” So it may be a harsh word, not only a positive one that desires to “set things right.”
Does the widow want money from her adversary? Does she demand access to property that she feels is rightfully hers? Does she want her adversary thrown in jail, or to suffer a similar humiliation as happened to her, or to be executed?
Amy-Jill Levine (University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School) points out that the widow’s desire for “ek- dik-eo” is comparable to the vengeance executed upon Egypt’s first-born sons on the night of the Passover (Exodus 7:4), the vengeance executed by Israel against the Midianites (Numbers 31:2-3), and by Sampson against the Philistines (Judges 15:7 & 16:28) as he destroyed them by the thousands.
“Given these [biblical] resonances, the widow is not interested in coming to terms quickly with her opponent, but in punishing him! … The mild suggestion that the widow will “wear out” the judge is a taming of the widow. The Greek uses a boxing term! The judge is concerned that the widow will give him a black eye.”1
Professor Levine’s remarks about the feisty widow make me think of other bold widows in the Bible. They are not all weak and defenseless, as we are prone to assume. The Bible’s first official “widow” is Tamar (Genesis 38:11) and she refused to be taken advantage of by her father-in-law Judah (who was one of the twelve sons of Jacob, the very one from whom the Jews take their name). Tamar is clever & resourceful and, in the end, Judah admits for the record “She is more righteous than I.” (Genesis 38:26). That’s a gutsy woman, a mother of twins, even after having buried two husbands. Tamar was not a widow who was weak!
Then in the Book of Ruth, we have Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah – all three are widows. There are the wise woman of Tekoa (II Samuel 14:5) and the widow of Zarephath (I Kings 17) who helped the prophet Elijah survive during the drought when King Ahab was seeking him. All these widowed-women in the Bible defy the stereotype that widows are poor and dependent on others.
In this parable of the persistent widow, I think Jesus intended to give us another feisty woman, who stands on her own two feet and badgers a judge to do his job, regardless of the cost to her. She is the very picture of purposeful action. The widow knows her need; she knows its urgency; and she knows exactly where to go, and whom to ask, in order to get her need met. Debie Thomas (a writer in California, in her commentary on today’s text in the Christian Century) writes:
“If anything, the daily business of getting up, getting dressed, heading over to the judge’s house or workplace, banging on his door, and talking his ear off until he listens, clarifies her own sense of who she is and what she’s about.
“As with many of the widows in the Bible (… Anna, the prophetess who awaits the infant Messiah; the radically generous widow [in the Temple] whose “mite” Jesus commends), there is nothing vague or washed out about this bold, plucky woman. She lives in Technicolor, here, now, today: ‘Give me justice! I will not shut up until you do!’ …
“The widow’s predicament is not straightforward; she has to make a costly choice every single day. Will I keep asking? Dare I risk humiliation one more time? … Can I be patient? Am I still capable of trusting in the possibility of justice?”2
1 Levine, Amy-Jill, Short Stories by Jesus, NY:HarperCollins, 2014, page 224-225
2 Christian Century, Sept. 28, 2016, Vol. 133, No. 20, page 21
The worried speculation that Debie Thomas projects into the widow’s daily petition leads me to think about the final words Jesus says about this parable: “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?”
Will we, who take a stand for justice; who cry out day and night to God; who are willing to risk our status in society if it means doing the right thing in God’s eyes… will we keep at it? Will we keep asking? Even when those influential people around us – those unjust judges and unrighteous politicians, embezzling bankers and Wall Street manipulators, and all manner of scalawags in the news – steadfastly refuse to budge on matters affecting the common good… locally & globally … will we be patient enough to take the slow and steady steps toward a better world. Or will we “throw in the towel” before the fight is won?
Dare we risk, as this bold widow did, relentlessly, to make our case to the powers that can make a difference? Are we able to trust in the possibility of justice, of peace, of forgiveness and reconciliation?
We live in a cynical time, where trust does not come easily. But the meaning of faith is to trust God — God’s desire for our world to flourish, and God’s trust that we can succeed! — through Jesus Christ’s life and teachings, and His Holy Spirit empowering us from within.
Perhaps the parable is teaching us a couple of things… First, as Luke says when he introduces the parable: “to the effect that they ought always to pray, and not lose heart.” This bold, persistent, passionate widow serves as an example of not losing heart, even when the deck is stacked against you by an unrighteous judge who holds all the aces.
However, his disregard for God, and his disrespect for people, will fail him in the end. Those values make for weak people, such that even a woman on the very lowest-level of social status can succeed. Do not lose heart, even though the wicked prosper. God’s time-line is not short-sighted, like ours are.
Second, the kind of faith that God is looking for – the kind of faith the Son of Man longs to find on earth – is a steadfast trust that our labor is not in vain. When we become cynical enough to give up, to drop out, to settle for less than we know we can be, that’s losing heart. It also marks a loss of faith in God.
Jesus is concerned that relentless trust, steadfast faithfulness, daily prayer and petitioning such as this widow exemplifies, will wane. We get tired… we quit.
Weariness is a physical marker that we are over-extended. It’s fixable!
We can take a nap and get something to eat. We can take a Sabbath rest, go on a short retreat, or an R&R recreation break. That’s OK, so long as (while you take that break) you trust it’s all in God’s hands.
It is faith that undergirds our hopes and directs our actions in pursuit of those hopes. Faith that God exists… and that God knows us, and loves us, and is with us. Faith that our deeds done in God are never without value, even if it seems they are being blocked by others; for this parable tells me that their weakness (masquerading as power) will reveal itself in the end. Don’t give up; don’t give in.
May God bless us with clarity of our needs (as this woman had), and clarity about the people and places to which we must go, in order to have our needs met. And with that clarity, may we have confidence that we shall succeed, for God’s sake, in Jesus’ name.