A sermon for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, October 16, 2016
St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California
“Jesus told the disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”
Jesus is a story teller. In most of these stories the characters and places are not specific, rather they illustrate things we know to be true. They are seldom allegories, most of them tell about human interaction. You often hear this parable referred to as “the Parable of the Unjust Judge,” because the first character who appears is a judge, who in principle, is not just.
First—this is not an allegory about God. Nothing in the story refers to God. Second—the story is not about the judge at all. This is the story of the Persistent Woman. The Judge represents sort of a worst-case scenario. The woman’s persistence could have the same result with a number of people and in a number of circumstances—but let’s just suppose that the judge was as corrupt, arbitrary and self-interested as one could imagine. Susceptible to bribes or cronyism, disinclined to go to the trouble to make or enforce judgements in favor of the poor, the widowed, or anyone else who didn’t matter. How frequent, or where, or who such judges might be, is not the issue, it is the context where Jesus puts the widow in this story.
The woman is a widow. Widows were the most vulnerable of all people in that society. They had lost their means of income and often most of their assets when their husbands died. And without power, they were vulnerable to further injustice and exploitation. It could be discouraging. Exhausting to resist. So Jesus tells of a woman who kept coming for justice. She wouldn’t lose heart, she kept coming though the judge was the most hopeless source of vindication you could imagine. And she kept coming.
Why? Why didn’t she give up? It was certainly hopeless.
The woman persisted because she believed in justice. I don’t see evidence of desperation or panic in her story. An unjust judge who has no respect for anyone would notice desperation and conclude that a little more harshness and callousness would break the supplicant and make her accept his decision. To have justice was the widow’s deepest value. She knew that she deserved justice, and she was not going to give up on that. She was not going to give up on the truth, or on justice and her case was just, no matter how the judge tried to avoid giving it to her. She persisted, even when tempted to give up heart, to walk away.
It wasn’t until someone pointed out to me recently how this is a story about a person and her deepest values that I was able to understand how it fits with the introductory sentence: “Jesus told the disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” It certainly has nothing to do with haranguing God incessantly about the pony you want, or whatever outcome you desire. Jesus is telling a story about what is deepest, what is the most valuable—and never giving up on what is at the center of your heart. In truth, prayer is finding the center of your heart in God and trusting God and remaining there, no matter what happens.
For this widow, that manifested itself in the value of justice. Each of us is a bit different, the deepest and most essential values come from different perspectives and express themselves in different ways. Take a moment, and consider, listen to your heart and visualize what it is that you, yourself would be so persistent to hold onto—that you value so deeply –like this persistent woman before the unfriendly judge.
I won’t ask you to tell anyone—the answer and the value is yours, there is not some right or Christian answer to that.
However, as a community we also have values—the deepest ones are the ones that bring us here and keep us here, they are values that we share and hold together. Some, of course, are shared by all Christians: the love of God and our fellow human beings in Christ. Yet each congregation, each community is in its own situation with its own passions and deeply-held values, as distinct and individual as your own personal most deeply-held values. Those values become clear in conversation and sharing. At this time of transition for St. James, you have answered a survey which is the beginning of a conversation about what is most important to you in this particular church at this time. The survey itself is not the conversation, but a way of focusing the questions about who we are together. Life as a community requires the kind of persistence that we see in the widow in today’s Gospel. Canon Andrea McMillan will be leading a discussion with us about the results of the survey in Martin Hall after this service. There is much food for thought, and her presentation will start a conversation which I expect will continue here long after her visit is over. The conversation is about how we live as Christians and pray always and never lose heart. The lesson for today ends, “Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Persist in what is true, what is good—those values that God has planted within you and there will be faith in this place, long after all of us are gone.