October 16, 2022 – Proper 24
Luke 18:1-8 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? 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?”
In the Gospel from Luke today Jesus if offering a parable in which an unjust judge says of a poor woman, “because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'”
This parable is often called “the importune widow.”
To importune is to “harass (someone) persistently to do something.” It is related to “impertinent,” which means, “not showing proper respect; rude.”
Most of us are polite enough that we are not impertinent. When, if ever, do we importune someone?
- when we are so trusting of our relationship with the one we are pestering that we continue, knowing that ultimately it will be OK.
- When we are desperate.
- When we are compelled to tell our own truth, when we simply must be heard.
- These are not unrelated.
Nevertheless, she persisted. This sentence went viral in 2017. It’s meaning refers broadly to women’s persistence in breaking barriers, despite being silenced or ignored.
It stems from Senator Elizabeth Warren criticizing Senator Jeff Sessions on the Senate floor in the hearings about him becoming Attorney General of our United States. The congressional record states:
Senator MCCONNELL: Here is what transpired. Senator WARREN was giving a lengthy speech. She had appeared to violate the (senate) rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted. I yield the floor.”
There is a long history of women in a combination of desperation, needing to be heard, and in ultimate confidence of their just cause persisting, even in the face of being rebuffed.
I have managed to preach for fifty years without talking about this parable. It is a difficult passage. It is unseemly to compare God with an evil judge. And to try to “wear God down.”
But here we go. The parable is about:
- women and
What might this say about prayer, in the best possible light?
There was a 1963 pop song called “Tell me a story,” by Frankie Lane and Jimmy Boyd. The lyrics go, in an irritating tone:
Tell me a story tell me a story
Tell me a story remember what you said
You promised me you said you would
You gotta give in so I’ll be good
Tell me a story then I’ll go to bed
Ultimately the child gets paddled to get him to shut up. And then the song ends, “Aw, come on daddy, tell me a story.”
The fact that one can worry God, as a small child would harass his daddy, speaks to the utter confidence of a small child toward his parent. A very serious New Testament scholar, Jacob Jeremias, asserts that the first word of the Lord’s Prayer, was “Abba,” the Aramaic equivalent of the word “Daddy,” or “Poppa,” or “Mommy.” These words are all baby talk of sorts. There is a notion that at first a baby does not really understand that he or she is in fact a separate creature from the parent, so that if the baby wants something then simply to will it or to cry out will produce the desired outcome from the parent. That one can indeed compel the parent to fulfill a need or desire. And, in fact, for the first couple of years that does indeed work. Hungry? Cry. Uncomfortable? Cry. Frightened? Cry. It is only over time that the baby child recognizes that there is a separation. You know it is beginning when the child says “no.” That is when they recognize that their will can be different from that of the parent.
So this could be the most radical expression of the teaching of Jesus, “the kingdom of God is at hand.” There is, in fact, no separation of us from God.
The more traditional, the more mature, solution to this recognition of the difference of our will from God’s will, is captured in the hymn, “Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord to thee.”
Take my will and make it Thine,
It shall be no longer mine.
Take my heart, it is Thine own,
It shall be Thy royal throne.
But the parable speaks of a more primitive consciousness, a more childlike faith.
Consider the child/parent dynamic of,
Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? … If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
So the parable reflects child like faith, and child like impertinence. And the response of God the parent is to simply to love, to understand and to give something good. And many of us know what it is like to be pestered by children about food or a certain food.
What does this say about the status of women? Was it even possible for a woman to bring a case to court in Jesus’ time? Maybe a widow could do so in the name of her deceased husband if she did not have a male relative to plead her case on her behalf for her. Talk about being down two strikes! I think it is fair to say that Jesus recognized the unjust situation of women in his society and culture. Again and again Jesus addresses the needs of women for recognition, for healing, and for justice, prominently, in his teaching. And we have a distance yet to go; it is appropriate to lift up the situation and needs of women for dignity, respect and agency in our society today.
What does this say about achieving a just resolution to a problem? Sometimes we get caught in a trap of thinking that we should not identify a problem if we cannot simultaneously suggest a good solution to that same problem. We get angry when we cannot find immediate solutions to problems; identifying problems creates tension. Part of the notion of a democracy is that we have a right to identify a problem, an injustice, a sticking point, a need, a difficulty, a situation even if we cannot immediately identify a solution to the same. And then we live with the tension for a while. This is like the idea of “a seat at the table.” It is a human tendency to try to disqualify some from lifting up their problems or needs; we sometimes ban their right to speak. We de-legitimize those who lift up problems because they may make us feel bad. We don’t want to hear it. We refuse certain folks a seat at the table – so their issues do not get addressed. In Jesus’ world some of those who were refused a “seat at the table” of relationship with God were foreigners, Romans, Samaritans, tax collectors, disreputable people, folks from Galilee, Syro-Phoenicians – you get the idea. We each have the right to tell our own truth; this is a little like the idea “I got a right to sing the blues.” We must grant to all the right to sing their blues and state their case if we are to achieve justice. Even if it makes us uneasy, even if it makes us uncomfortable, even if it makes us feel guilty about our privilege. Justice is not ever easy.
If even a corrupt judge knows how to grant justice to a persistent woman, a widow even; how much more can we expect of God? We do not need to worry about alienating God by singing our blues or being a pest. We can trust in God’s unfailing love even as we trust in our parent’s dependable love. If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
Amen and amen.