NRSV 2 TIMOTHY 3:14-4:5
14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, 15 and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
4 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: 2 proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. 3 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, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. 5 As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.
NRSV LUKE 18:1-8
18 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ ” 6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
What are you persistent about? What is it that grabs your attention and won’t let go? Your family? Your friendships? Your work? A favorite sports team? Some celebrity? How about an organization at which you volunteer, or are on the board?
We all have those people, those things, those programs which keep calling us back, which have our complete and undivided attention. They make life matter to us. They give us a sense that this is why we were born, why we are here. We are persistent about them because they are important, they teach us something, and we cannot possibly imagine doing anything else.
And then, of course, there is our spiritual life; the part of our existence where we seek to slow down the frantic pace so many of us live in order to listen to God, to sense God’s presence. Not so that we can get what we want; but so that we might be blessed with a sense of thanksgiving for being given what we need. Perhaps chief among them is that we do not have to ask for God’s presence. God is already here. The only issue is our awareness.
We do that mostly, but not exclusively, through prayer. Prayer is more than lifting up our laundry list of needs and wants to God. Prayer is entering into a relationship, a conversation with God, one that seeks to give as well as receive. Several years ago we had the opportunity to attend a mass led by Father Richard Rohr, and as expected he said something very profound: “It is much better for me to pray with you than to pray for you.” We pray with one another to become more aware of the presence of God.
This particular lesson out of Luke teaches us about persistence and about God’s presence. Jesus tells this parable to his disciples because he has just told them that the end times, when all of history is wrapped up, will not come as quickly as they may be expecting. They will have to wait for it, they will have to be persistent, they will have to hang in there, because a lot of things will happen that will compete for their attention.
Whenever Jesus has a particular point to make, he uses a story. More appropriately, he tells a parable, a different kind of story. As C.H. Dodd reminds us, a parable is more than just a ‘once-upon-a-time’ tale; it is a description of a particular situation that teases the mind into active thought, the kind of teasing that leaves you in question as to whether you have it right or not. And the answer to that is probably not, because in one respect the answer is a moving target. But there are certain universals which are always with us.
One of those is in the description of these people. My guess is that just about every one of us has someone particular in mind when we think about that persistent widow who kept badgering the judge every day. I think of a very good friend who is not a widow but a woman with a very strict sense of right and wrong. A registered nurse who is now working in another field, she is always ready to take up for folks, especially those in tough situations. She has a very loving and large heart, but she is not someone to mess with. A mutual friend said of her, “If I was having a heart attack I would want her to be driving that crash cart. But if it was some other situation where she was aiming for me, I’d want to be under the table.”
We all have friends like that, I think – people who may be strung a little tight but those who will not let people or relationships be twisted or abused. They are tough people, fiercely compassionate folks who will fight for you without flinching. People who can be really hard to live with; and yet, people who are persistent because they have a very strong focus of what is (and what is not) just.
We may also have friends who are a bit like the unjust judge. Many years ago while a student at Columbia Seminary we sat in chapel while one of the Biblical professors, Dr. Will Ormond, spun a tale in which he described this judge in such great detail and humor that we could see this guy as if he were sitting in the front pew. He also is not a guy to mess with. He doesn’t fear God, Jesus says – a really bold statement to make in those days, entrenched as they were in the thought that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom…”; fear not so much as paralyzing dread as in heightened respect. But he doesn’t respect God; he doesn’t care whether God is interested or not in how he goes about his business. Neither does he respect others. You get the picture that, because of his disregard of the Holy and his callousness toward his fellow human beings he really didn’t care about anyone other than himself. If he ran over someone’s feelings, that was okay with him and tough for the other person.
In a certain way he sounds like some of the politicians who parade across our TV screens, especially as we enter a Presidential election campaign next year. This is not just a slam against politicians. Our whole society is structured like this. Do we really respect God? Or have we domesticated the Lord so much that we have made God into our own creation, something that we can pull out at a moment’s notice to show off to people how pious we are? But any sense of fear of God? Maybe here in this place, but in the larger society folks can conduct their lives as if God weren’t around, not fully convinced that God is going to strike us dead if we say or do something out of line, or even that God cares at all.
There is also a certain lacking of respect for others. The words from the second letter to Timothy sound like they were intended for our time, about people with itchy ears who just want to hear what they want to hear. No matter what your political or social positon is, you can hear it confirmed without being challenged. People on all sides accuse the other of only listening to one point of view without seeing their own blindness. Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address, written and spoken in the closing days of the Civil War, noted that both sides appealed to the same God, and both sides assumed that God was on their side. Itchy ears, looking for teachers who will parrot our own opinions, and accusing the other side of following after myths is not just a first century issue.
Maybe what we need is someone like my friend, or that widow, to remind us of what is most important. For all of his crustiness and lack of empathy for anyone outside of his own private circle, this judge had a responsibility; in that culture he had to take care of those who were on the margins, especially widows and orphans. He was the one who was to make sure they received justice, to see to it that they were not taken advantage of.
We don’t know exactly what her situation was – if she had been defrauded of something, or someone was bothering her about payments above and beyond what was required. But it was the judge’s task to take care of her, and he wasn’t doing his job. So she hounded him, day after day, probably going out to the city gates, where most of the judges in those days did their business, and kept asking, “Why haven’t you taken up for me against so and so?”
Finally he gives in. He says, “…because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” But there is an interesting footnote here: It could also have been translated, “so that she may come and give me a black eye.” This lady was making him look bad in more ways than one, and it was because of that – and not because he finally had some kind of spiritual awakening – that moved him into action.
But let’s push this a little bit: where is God in these two characters? The popular line has been to see God as the judge; and to hear Jesus giving us permission to be a pain in the neck to God, to keep asking, to keep demanding God to give us justice for our situations. That is the usual way of looking at this text. I guess it’s that way because the judge is a man, a man with power and authority.
But several years ago some writers on the internet got me to thinking: What if God is not connected with the unjust judge but with the widow? That persistent, pain in the neck widow, the one who kept demanding, “Give me justice against my opponent?”
Can we hear God in the widow? Can we hear God in those whom that woman represents, all of those vulnerable, marginalized people, the ones society tosses off to the side? The kind of people that Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount called “blessed.” The people whom Jesus told his disciples to feed, give a cup of water to, to clothe, to visit, to minister to, for in taking care of these humble ones we are serving Christ himself.
Maybe God is in the widow’s calls for justice. Maybe God is the one who is being persistent about chasing after the one who can give justice. The one who has been told to do justice. Maybe God is persistently going after us; the people who have been called by God to do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with God.
There is still that haunting question out there: “…when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” When the Son of Man – when Jesus – comes again, will he find us practicing our faith by listening to the cries of those on the margins? Or will Jesus come and find us playing it safe, cozying up to the rich and powerful, giving in to the itchy ears temptation to listen only to what we want?
When Jesus comes, in all of the ways he comes, will he find faith among us? Will he find people who have hung in there, who have been persistent – in faith? Or will he find people who were just lifting up a bunch of words to get their own needs met, people who were saying one thing and doing something else, people who were in some way depriving others of the justice they deserve?
Whether God is found in the judge we are encouraged to badger, or the suffering widow who badgers us, the importance of faithful persistence is still there. The writer of second Timothy knew that, too: with their call to persistently preach the gospel of Jesus Christ – not just to speak it, but live it – whether the times are favorable or unfavorable. Whether it makes us look good or not. Whether it makes us comfortable or not. We don’t get to choose what kind of times we live in. We only get to choose what kind of an attitude we will take into the times we live. We can cop out to itchy ears, or we can persistently follow a God who calls on us to take the tougher road to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. Amen.