2 Tim 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8
18th Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s 20.10.2019
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Sometimes sport can capture for us some of the complexities of life. Although it can sometimes be a case of one side winning and the other side losing, things can sometimes be a bit more complex than that.
Take the England football team’s 6-0 win over Bulgaria on Monday night. For one player in particular, Tyrone Mings, it must have been an evening of hugely mixed emotions. It was his England debut, which given his home background of living for sometime in a homeless shelter, and having played for the likes of Yate Town and ChippenhamTown, is a truly incredible achievement, and one that he was delighted to be able to share with his family, flying them over for the game. And yet, during the game, he and other black teammates were subjected to the most appalling racial abuse, abuse that almost led to the calling off of the game. Despair, sadness, in the midst of joy.
I’m conscious that the lives of many in our church reflect that complexity too. That there is much we can be thankful for – friendships, homes, family, this church – but there is also much that we struggle with too. Many people I know are struggling with recurring health problems, problems that significantly impact the quality of their lives. Others here are struggling with the challenges of work, whether that is trying to juggle impossible workloads, or over-demanding bosses, or the strains of coping with the uncertainties over Brexit. And I know many of us have been saddened this week by Don’s death – that while we can be thankful to God that he is now with God in a good place – his leaving us leaves a hole. It also brings into focus our own mortality, and our own ageing.
Luke wrote his gospel and Timothy his letter at a time when the early Christians were going through a similarly difficult time. There were incredible joys – the joy of experiencing the presence and power of the risen Christ; the excitement of being part of a church community that was growing and reaching out to the wider world with remarkable acts of compassion and love; the discovery of their new status as children of God – but there were also immense challenges. The church was being maligned and attacked by those in authority; it was dangerous to be a Christian; and the church was still laying its foundations of belief and practice, still working out just who it was.
It is in this context that Luke tells us a parable that Jesus told, of a widow and an unjust judge. It is worth us taking a look at these two characters that Jesus draws.
The judge is unscrupulous, lazy, corrupt. Twice we are told, indeed once he proudly proclaims himself, that he does not fear God or care about people. He is a man without a conscience, not bothered whether his actions will be deemed right or wrong; and he is a man without compassion, not caring about the needs of those around him, no matter how desperate their situation or just their plea.
And then there is the widow. Widows in Jesus’ day were regarded as the most vulnerable, the most lacking in power or clout, of anyone in society. They were often the poorest of the poor. There was no Crown Prosecution Service or Legal Aid in those days – plaintiffs were entirely reliant on their own efforts – and in such circumstances widows virtually had no chance of success. They certainly lacked any influence, any status, any contacts, that would have won them favour with a person as important as a judge. In other words, they were the least likely person to get even a just judge to grant them justice, let alone an unjust one.
And yet the story Jesus tells turns upside down the normal course of events. The widow, in her desperation, will not give up badgering the judge. She keeps coming up to him – maybe in the courts, maybe in the street, maybe she even camps outside his home, pleading with him: “Give me justice”. At first he ignores her, as any self-respecting judge would do. He continues to ignore her, as perhaps any lazy or corrupt judge would do. But she will not give up. She continues to persevere. She continues to seek justice. Though all the circumstances seem against her, she keeps going. And remarkably the judge gives way. Worn down, fed up, exasperated, he realises that the only way to get rid of this woman is to grant her her request. The widow has succeeded!
Unusually for a parable, we are told why Jesus told this story. He told it to show his disciples “that they should always pray and not give up.” Jesus could not have chosen a judge who was less like God. And yet if even a judge like this would respond to the pleas of a widow, how much more will a God who is overflowing with love and compassion, generosity and kindness, justice and mercy, respond to the pleas of his own children.
The first point of the story, Jesus tells us, is this: always pray. This parable is an encouragement to us, that whatever else we do, when we are faced by struggles and challenges, by hardships and losses, we should pray. I am often moved when I talk with members of our congregation, some of whom are housebound, some of whom are going through really challenging times, by the fact that you pray, and in praying, you find strength and hope. If the widow was prepared to speak to the judge, no matter how unpromising such an act seemed to be, how much more can we pray to God, a God who loves us and longs to hear us.
The second point of the parable, Jesus tells us, is this: keep on praying; don’t give up. In some of the situations we face, we may be tempted to despair and stop. But as we saw with so many of the psalms, what God wants from us is honesty, is openness, even if that is the frustrated plea of “how much longer will this go on? I don’t know how much more of this I can take.” The dictionary definition of perseverance is “continuing firmly or obstinately in spite of difficulty”, and often in life we are faced with situations where we just have to persevere in prayer, to recognise that this situation is not what we would wish, it is not of our choosing, but that we will continue to seek God in it.
This is not a case of badgering God into submission, like the widow with the judge. After all, elsewhere, Jesus warns people not to use endless words in their prayers. Nor is it a case of thinking if I ask God enough times for something – like a child asking for a sweet, or a gambler pulling the lever of a one-armed bandit machine – I will get what I want. We have all had the experience of knowing that God doesn’t answer every prayer in the way we would want, and looking back over a period of time, we can often be very glad that that is the case. But persevering in prayer, not giving up, is a case of keeping our channels of communication with God open, of sharing our feelings, our thoughts, of asking him to shape us, strengthen us, guide us, of recognising our ongoing need of him.
Whatever our own personal situation today, whatever our own struggles, may we draw inspiration from this parable. If we haven’t done so already, pray to God. And if we have prayed, keep on praying, keep on persevering, for God will respond. For He is kind and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God of grace, mercy and justice, a God who delights when we turn to him in prayer. So in the words of Jesus, let us pray and not give up.