A sermon for Proper 24:
Jeremiah 31:27-34; Psalm 119:97-104; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8
A friend and I play a sort of ongoing game of long-distance tag. We’re both interested in character formation, and we’re enchanted by one idea that is currently en vogue. Researchers call it grit.
Our obsession with popular discussions of grit has gotten a little out of hand. You can tell because of all the bad jokes. Last time I tagged her with an article, I added the groaner “The grit that keeps on giving.” She still has the best one, though: “I’ve got so much grit, my mama shoulda named me sandpaper.”
At the risk of taking grit researchers’ work totally out of context, I gotta say that the woman in our Gospel passage today is just such a person. Grit is about consistency of interest and perseverance of effort, and I think those ideas are closely related to who she is and what’s going on in this reading.
That’s why another colleague refuses to call this parable by its traditional name, “the parable of the unjust judge.”
If we focus on the judge, then this becomes a parable primarily about who God is. God, like the judge, will respond to the entreaties of those with grit. “And will not God grant justice” to those who cry out day and night?
But parables are an imprecise form, and their statements of what God is like usually need caveats. In this case, we have to hasten to add that surely God is a more proper judge, granting justice not from a desire to silence or otherwise be rid of our cries for help but in order that justice might be done. The why of God’s justice is important, and the parable sort of obscures that.
Thornier still is the issue of when justice comes, if it comes at all. Because there sure seem to be many modern-day justice seekers who, whether persistent or not, have yet to experience the deliverance that our widow does. Focusing on the judge begs hard questions that will sometimes keep us up at night. Why them? Why us? Why me? Doesn’t God care?
Let’s set those questions aside for a minute. Because if we’re instead treating this passage as the parable of the persistent widow—and if we’re focusing our interpretation on her—then this parable stops seeming to focus on how God is both like and unlike the unjust judge. Instead, it’s a parable about grit.
Try to imagine yourself in the widow’s shoes—shunned by society for being a woman without a spouse, mistreated by some unjust opponent, actively ignored by the person with the power to put it right. Each day, you find him in the courts and press your case. Each day he sends you away.
How do you start to feel? Well, my imagination leads me to the conclusion that there would be good days and bad days. On the bad days, it probably feels like going through the motions, like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day reliving the same futile 24 hours over and over, only to end up right back where he started. Some days, the familiar dance steps are the only force pulling you along: another day of justice sought, justice delayed.
But what about on the good days? Here again, I imagine a couple different kinds. Sometimes you probably feel defiant. Dang it, I am going to go knock on that jerk’s door and get in his face and not take no for an answer, at least not a final one. I’m not backing down.
And on the best days, you find the courage to risk real hope. Today is the day we break the cycle. Today is the day I get through to him. I’ve thought that before and been disappointed but I’m willing to believe again, at least for today, at least for right now.
I think the widow’s secret, the secret to grit, is that we need to be OK with all three kinds of days. To stay in the game, to hang in there in the midst of adversity, sometimes means admitting that today may be a wash but that we can and should try again tomorrow.
And I think the spiritual version, grit with God, if you will, is realizing that God is OK with our having all three kinds of days too.
When we’re full of hope, the risen Christ is there nurturing it, reminding us that God wants the best for us and will triumph over over evil. When we’re feeling defiant, the Christ who knocked down tables in the temple, and seemed to delight in defying the powers that be, inspires our witness to what is right. And when we’re feeling abandoned, when we’re tempted to throw in the towel, the Christ whose friends deserted him will wait with us in our dark hours—whether we think to invite him or not and whether or not we can always feel his presence.
It’s that unceasing presence, that willingness to share with us in our pain while we wait for deliverance, that helps me, at least, to make some sense of this passage, to want to proclaim it as good news. That unceasing presence can help us in days like these, when many people in many walks of life are feeling a distinct absence of hope.
Luke frames the parable of the persistent widow with these words: “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” Pray always. Don’t lose heart.
Those feel like empty words unless we know something about their speaker. But when they come from Jesus, who gave his life as a plea for us to believe them, I pray that by grace we can learn to trust those words. When they come from Paul, who has a thing or two to say about them and endured prison and worse for his witness, I pray that by grace we can learn to trust them.
And when they come from this parable’s persistent widow, one of many gritty Biblical women who dared to hope against hope, I pray that by grace we can learn to trust them.
I’ve been thinking a lot about hoping against hope this week. In late 2014, one of my Virginia Seminary colleagues wrote this:
Today marks the 207th day since more than 250 Nigerian schoolgirls were kidnapped by Boko Haram. These Christian and Muslim girls have been described as the intelligent and bright hopes of their communities, which is why the girls were so eager to return to school and complete their exams last Spring, in spite of the threat of terror activity in that area at the time. Since their original capture, some girls have escaped, but most have not. The Nigerian government reports that it is increasingly unlikely that the girls will ever be recovered, as Boko Haram has apparently sold girls into marriages and dispersed them.
Nevertheless, that colleague assigned us individual girls to pray for. I’ve prayed most days since for Awa James, Deborah Ja’afaru (found!), & Ladi Joel. So when I read on Thursday, Day 913, that 21 girls had been released, I Googled around for a list of names. Deborah was on the list. Awa and Ladi were not. 21 families are rejoicing with particular joy. So many more continue to wait and hope.
The God of justice hears their prayers, and the prayers of all who wait for the Lord, not with annoyance but with tender compassion and, I believe, a share of our longing and grief. On the good days and the bad days, may grace inspire us to join the company of the persistent widow and all who dare to hope for deliverance.