Gen 32:22-31; Luke 18:1-8
18th Sunday after Trinity (8am)
St Barbara’s 16.10.2022
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Perseverance. I wonder what actions or stories come to mind when you think of that word. For me, I think of people who grit their teeth and just push on, regardless of how difficult it is, regardless of the personal cost. People who just don’t give up.
I think of people who achieve the most extraordinary physical achievements: running 24 marathons in 24 days; or the eighty year old man who climbed all the Munro’s in Scotland (mountains over 3,000 feet – about 250 of them) in the space of just two years; or the paralympic athletes at the recent Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, who through sheer determination achieve remarkable feats.
But when I think a bit further, other types of perseverance come to mind too. I think of the husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe who did not give up campaigning for his wife to be released from an Iranian prison for years, every day writing letters, holding protests. I think of Nelson Mandela who persevered, refusing to give up during 27 years of imprisonment, always working for justice, even when he was offered release if he would go into quiet retirement.
And perseverance is the quality that comes to mind when I think of the story from the Old Testament that we heard this morning of Jacob wrestling with God, and refusing to let go until he had been blessed.
Perseverance is one of these qualities that we turn to when things are difficult, when we are going through hard times. I’m conscious that for many in our church and for many in our community, life is not always easy.
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 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 an economic downturn – how to heat homes or put enough food on the table. Others are struggling with the loss of loved ones.
Luke wrote his gospel 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. And there were many within the church who were poor, struggling to feed themselves and their families.
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. He is likely the only source of justice in the town – people can turn nowhere else – and yet justice can only be gained through bribery, something out of reach for the poor. Whilst some of the parables leave us wondering whether the main character represents God or not, here we are left in no doubt. This judge is as far removed from the merciful, compassionate, truly just God as one could imagine.
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. And in Jesus’ day, the justice system was exclusively male. It was expected that law suits would be brought to court by male relatives. The fact that the widow was forced to bring her own case shows just how alone in the world she is. The judge has total power; she has none. In other words, this widow was the least likely person to get even a just judge to grant her 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. Her story is one of remarkable tenacity and determination. 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 they pray, and in praying, they 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.
It is also worth noting that Jesus seems to have in mind here a particular focus for prayer – justice. “Will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones?”, he asks. It is right that we pray for health, for loved ones, for the things that worry us, and elsewhere Jesus encourages us to do so, but here it is praying for justice that concerns him. As we look around our world, there are many grave injustices – the plight of those starving in a world of plenty, the suffering of those caught up in wars and conflicts of the rich and powerful, the persecution of those who stand up for freedom of religion and expression, as we see in the Middle East. We are to bring these situations to God in prayer.
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 see in 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?” We are urged not to give up.
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 – 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, or whatever the grave injustices that we see around our world, 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 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.