“Always and Never”
Text: Luke 18:1-8
(Gary W. Charles at Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 10-16-2016)
In the uncharted terrain of God’s reign, Jesus says, “always pray and never lose heart.” Few words of Jesus make me squirm more. I find it hard enough praying daily, much less praying always – and I am in the praying business!
When my son, Josh, was in first grade, he was asked about his parents’ vocations. When asked about mine, Josh responded, “My dad goes to meetings.” How true. If Jesus had said, “Always go to meetings – Session meetings, committee meetings, Presbytery meetings, civic meetings, Seminary board meetings,” well, I’d already have at least one foot well planted within God’s reign. Jesus said none of those things. He said, “Always pray.”
I once spent a silent weekend at a Trappist monastery. The monks spent a good part of the day baking bread for commercial sale. They also read and walked and reflected. And, Lord God, did they pray. They prayed in the early morning, at noon, at midday, at meals, at dusk and at midnight, but even there they did not “pray always.”
Jesus only makes matters worse when he insists that we “never lose heart.” How can you and I live in this world and “never lose heart?” How can we listen to the current election rhetorical race to the gutter and never lose heart? How can we pass mentally wounded veterans walking homeless on our city streets and never lose heart? How can we witness the massive devastation and loss of human life in Haiti and along the U.S. Coast after Hurricane Matthew and never lose heart? How can we watch too many innocent inmates executed by our states and never lose heart? How can see the deadly arrow of cancer strike friends and family and never lose heart? Always pray. Never lose heart. Who are you kidding, Jesus?
To make matters worse, Jesus follows this confounding counsel with a story of a widow and a judge. Unlike a majority of widows in modern times, widows in those days were rarely old, fragile, or frail. With a short life span for males, women were often widowed at a young age, still capable and vigorous, but also vulnerable, frequently ignored and exploited, an easy prey.
Hebrew tradition insists on protection of widows. Deuteronomy says that God executes justice for orphans and widows (10:17-18). Old Testament law includes provisions for the community’s care of widows (Ex. 22:22-24; Deut. 14:28-29; 24:17-22) and the Psalms describe God as One who “upholds the widow” and “maintains the widow’s boundaries” (Psalm 146:9). In reality, though, a widow in those days had little hope for anything more than rugged survival.
Hebrew tradition insists of behavior beyond reproach of judges. King Jehoshaphat gives these instructions to all judges, “Consider what you do, for you judge not for humanity but for the Lord; the Lord is with you in giving judgment. . . . take heed what you do, for there is no perversion of justice with the Lord our God, or partiality, or taking bribes” (2 Chron. 19:5-6).
In practice, though, in Jesus’ day, widows were powerless and judges were too often corrupt. In this parable, Jesus tells of a certain widow who refuses to accept the lay of the land. She demands justice from the judge and keeps coming at him day after day, relentless in her cause. She is the kind of person that you avoid when you walk down the street, someone whose phone call you try to miss, or whose email you never return. She has no power other than the power of persistence, so persist she does.
Jesus then tells us of a certain judge who evidently had never read Jehoshaphat’s instructions. You can hear the crowd chuckle as Jesus gives us a peek inside the judge’s head as he muses, “I care nothing what God thinks, even less what people think. But because this widow won’t quit badgering me, I’d better do something. I’ll give her what she wants and be done with her” (translation by Peterson and Charles).
At this point in the parable, the crowd around Jesus must have roared with laughter, at the very idea of a powerful judge who is beaten to the punch by a powerless, persevering widow. What a comic tale. “Tell us another one, Jesus.”
In this parable, Jesus does not reduce prayer to rare moments when we collect our thoughts, close our eyes, bow our heads, and try to put together some coherent words to say to God before we fall asleep. Prayer according to this parable is the single-minded focus of the widow who persists in demanding justice from the judge, no matter how hopeless her situation. Prayer is a way of life more than a particular daily activity.
Bishop Craig Anderson recalls a conversation with Father Bear’s Heart, chief of the Lakota people. Anderson lamented the deplorable conditions that the Lakota Indians have to endure. The Chief then offered him a different view of their world. “Bishop, every year different church groups from around the country come here to save the Indian people. These groups come for a week or two . . . and work very hard repairing our churches, teaching our children, setting up programs and trying to help. Then they leave frustrated because their needs to succeed have not been met. They want immediate results, change now!
“They seem to have the answers but never ask the questions. It is sad because if they did, they would discover something important about us as Lakota people and even more about themselves. One of the four Lakota virtues is perseverance. Perseverance is the ability to endure, to suffer as a people without ever giving up hope. We Lakota think of it as a Christian virtue and see it in our Kola (brother) Jesus. He suffered, endured, and persevered, even on the cross. He did not desert his people or God, his father. Our people have suffered and persevered. We will not desert our family or “Wakan Tanka” (our God). If they (the visitors) would minister to us, they should minister with us by enduring and persevering rather than treating us as a problem to be solved or a condition to be fixed. Perseverance . . . helps us to cope and to hope. Bishop, we have a deep faith; we persevere” (Craig Anderson, Lectionary Homiletics, Oct. 1998, pp. 21-22).
The widow in this parable keeps one singular cause at the center of her life. Likewise, suggests Jesus, prayer keeps God at the center of our lives no matter what the time or circumstance of our lives. Prayer keeps God at the center of our being when we are cooking breakfast or working on a legal brief, finishing a term paper or writing a novel, when we are picking vegetables or chasing after our children. For Jesus, prayer is a way of living that keeps our lives directed toward God and God’s will and God’s love.
When Huck Finn heard about prayer he put an empty shoebox under his bed. He prayed for God to fill it by morning, and when the box remained empty, he said that was it between him and prayer. Huck loses heart when God does not act like the tooth fairy. How can you and I possibly pray always and never lose heart when daily we see the black hole of injustice expanding, the creation treated as a human dump, and the disparity between rich and poor growing wider than the Mississippi? Because, says Jesus, if a worthless no-count judge will finally listen to the relentless cries of a powerless widow, how much more will our good and just and merciful God listen to our faithful prayers?
Over fifty years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. led a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. It looked as though the boycott would fail. King had to face an evening crowd in church and with something less than conviction he preached, “Tonight we must believe that a way will be made out of no way.” He then reflects, “I could feel the cold breeze of pessimism pass over the audience. The night was darker than a thousand midnights. The light of hope was about to fade and the lamp of faith to flicker. . . . it became obvious that Judge Carter would rule in favor of the city.
“At noon . . . I noticed an unusual commotion in the courtroom. A reporter said . . . `read this release’. In anxiety and hope, I read these words: `The United States Supreme Court today unanimously ruled bus segregation unconstitutional in Montgomery, Alabama’. My heart throbbed with an inexpressible joy. The darkest hour of our struggle had become the first hour of victory. . . .
“The dawn will come. Disappointment, sorrow, and despair are born at midnight, but morning follows.` Weeping may endure for a night’, says the Psalmist, `but joy cometh in the morning’. This faith adjourns the assemblies of hopelessness and brings new light into the dark chambers of pessimism.”
Not many years later, Martin Luther King, Jr. would bend over a Memphis balcony robbed of his life far too early. Long before Memphis he would endure death threats, bombs on his home, wiretaps of his conversations, and racial slurs by the thousands, but he persevered. How? Because of a God-given faith that stirred him to pray always and finally never to lose heart.
Always pray. Never lose heart. Always pray. Never lose heart. Always pray. Never lose heart. An impossible conundrum leaving us lost and confused or a divine recipe for the only life that is finally worth living?