Saturday, October 19, 2013

Don't Give Up!

I am deeply indebted to the scholarship and thoughts of Kathryn Matthews Huey, D. Mark Davis, Meda Stamper, and David Kalas.

Nothing pithy or humorous to say. Just encouragement: Don't give up...

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?"

This is the Word of the Lord.

There are some beautiful representations of prayer in classic art. No doubt when I say the words “Praying Hands,” either a painting or sculpture of hands pressed together in an attitude of prayer comes to mind – we've all seen it, haven't we? Or the familiar painting of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, kneeling at a rock, face turned toward heaven. Or an elderly gentleman at a table, clasping his hands, a loaf of bread in front of him.

There's nothing at all wrong with these kinds of representations, any more than there is anything wrong with these kinds of quiet, dignified prayers. Our Gospel reading today has nothing to do with these kinds of prayer, though.

We begin with a picture of a judge who isn't much of a judge. When you and I hear the word “judge,” we picture a man or a woman in a black robe, gavel in hand. As I understand it, for people in Judea the time of Jesus, the leader of the synagogue was called upon to mediate disputes among people in their village. The priests of the Temple in Jerusalem were judges as well, many meeting together in the Great Sanhedrin to hear and decide matters of religious and civil importance.

And yes, injustices abounded with these different judges – the High Priest owed his job to the Romans – in fact, Pilate kept the priestly garments under lock and key, and if the Roman Prefect didn't like what the Chief Priest was doing, he simply replaced him. Even so, scholars and historians note that the priestly class in Jerusalem lived sumptuously off the proceeds from the Temple tax, and was thus quite dedicated to keeping the status quo.

By stark contrast, the widow had, quite literally, nothing. John Pilch writes that the “word for 'widow' in Hebrew means 'silent one' or 'one unable to speak.' In the patriarchal Mediterranean world males alone play a public role. Women do not speak on their own behalf.” Women could not own property or work to earn a living. Without a husband or a male child to support her, the widow was dependent upon the kindness of the synagogue or Temple for her basic daily needs.

Now, of course, we don't know who this woman's opponent was, or what the person had done against the widow, all we are certain of is that (a) this judge doesn't care, and (b) the widow doesn't care that this judge doesn't care. She has a need, the judge can address that need, so she is by cracky gonna get her need addressed!

\You can just see this widow waiting at the judge's door every morning, first in line. Maybe she interrupts him again at lunch, and maybe every time she is turned away she gets back in line again, so by the end of the day she has been turned away by the judge several times. Maybe she knocks on his door during supper. Maybe she makes a point to sit in the front row at they synagogue and stare at him the whole time...

After awhile, the judge gets heartburn every morning because he knows who is gonna be there when he opens his door. He hears her voice in his dreams, he is beginning to lose sleep – the Greek for where the judge says “ that she may not wear me out...” has, as its primary meanings, “to beat black and blue, to smite so as to cause bruises and livid spots.” He is feeling verbally beaten up by this widow's constant haranguing! So for the sake of his own health, he gives in and answers the widow's request.

Perhaps the first time this widow stood before the judge, she did so properly, following decorum. Once he turned her away, though, she was faced with a hard choice: give up, and let her opponent keep whatever she had taken from the widow, or keep fighting for her rights.

One of the principles I taught in sales is that, most times, people will take the easiest option given to them. That's why the best salespeople give only the illusion of choice: So would you like the red one or the green one? And when faced with opposition, either real or imagined, the easiest option for humans is to give up, find a better way, or settle for no way at all.

But if Moses had given up after that initial, disheartening encounter with Pharaoh, the Hebrews would not have been freed. If the children of Israel had given up marching around Jericho after five days, the walls would not have fallen. If the Syrophonecian woman had given up when she received no response — or a negative one — from Jesus, her daughter would not have been healed. If, following the coming of the Holy Spirit, the apostles in Jerusalem had given up at the first sign of opposition, the church there would have floundered while they cowered. If Paul had given up his missionary efforts as soon as he encountered difficulty, untold numbers of individuals and communities would not have heard the good news.

So yes, maybe surrender is easy, but giving up is the easiest, quickest way to lose. And not giving up is a basic key to victory in any sense of the word.

At the point in time Luke was writing his Gospel, people were probably starting to feel discouraged. Everyone expected Jesus to be coming any day now, but time wore on and no Jesus. They were tired of waiting for the deepest hope of their hearts, and it just wasn't happening. They were tired of being persecuted as a tiny little minority in a great big, powerful empire. They were anxious and suffering.

So this parable is most decidedly not about how to nag God with our repeated requests so, eventually, we'll wear the Almighty out and God will give in and give us what we want. Rather, today's passage is about waiting and not being discouraged, not losing heart.

Society may have told the widow that she was a nobody without a voice, but she knew otherwise, and her persistence helped her hold on to that knowledge: Barbara Brown Taylor says, “She [was] willing to say what [she] wanted – out loud, day and night, over and over – whether she got it or not, because saying it was how she remembered who she was.”

One of the doctrines of Calvinism, which serves as the basis for our Reformed theology in the Presbyterian Church USA, is “Perseverance of the Saints.” This doctrine has been taken to mean a lot of things, like “Once Saved, Always Saved,” or evidence that people who may fall away from the faith were never “really saved” in the first place. But I rather see the idea of “Perseverance of the Saints” as an encouragement, reassurance that, for the Christian, staying the course is worth it.

Our New Testament Lectionary reading, from Second Timothy, follows on this theme of persistence, not giving in or giving up. Paul writes to Timothy, “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.”

Do you hear how those words stand out? Proclaim, be persistent, with the utmost patience, endure, carry out...

Don't give up. In the face of prayers that continue to go unanswered, and we don't know why, don't give up. When justice is slow, when good things happen to bad people and when good people just keep getting bad things, don't give up.

Jesus ends the parable with a question: “...when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Faith is not about our doctrines, faith is not about what we believe. Marcus Borg puts it best: “you can believe all the right things and still be in bondage. You can believe all the right things and still be miserable. You can believe all the right things and still be relatively unchanged. Believing a set of claims to be true has very little transforming power.”

Rather, faith has to do with relationship. With giving your heart and your trust, your radical trust, to God. Soren Kierkegaard says that “faith as trust is like floating on a deep ocean. Faith is like floating in seventy thousand fathoms of water. If you struggle, if you tense up and thrash about, you will eventually sink. But if you relax and trust, you will float.”

Faith as trust is trusting in the buoyancy of God. Faith is trusting in the sea of being in which we live and move and have our being.

In this sense, then, persistence in prayer has very little to do with what we pray for. Sure, the content of our prayers is important, but part of what we learn as we grow in relationship with God as we pray, and pray, and pray, is how to pray. Prayer is one of the ways we remind ourselves of who we are, and prayer shapes our hearts in a way that reflects the heart of God.

It bears repeating, then: don't give up. God, who is not at all like the unjust judge, doesn't move in our time frame, no, and sometimes the answers to our prayers don't come, or they seem to come in ways that make no sense.

Don't give up. We are promised the Holy Spirit, we are promised justice, and we are promised the now-and-coming Kingdom of God. We are precious to God, and these are the best gifts that God can give to us.

Don't give up.

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