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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

November 12, 2017

 The Parable of the Persistent Widow

Psalm 130; Luke 18:1-8

            I took a course when I was in seminary one summer entitled, Theology and Imagination.  We discovered some great poets and some great novelists through that course.  And I was assigned a paper on the parables.  I pulled it out of my closet two weeks ago, remembering that I had written something back then in seminary on the parables in general, and this parable in particular that meant something to me.  (Have you ever read words that you wrote thirty or forty years ago?  They are never as good you remember them to be – trust me!)  I found a sentence in it written by a novelist who pondered the parables of Jesus.  She said, “In the parables of Jesus, we encounter the nexus between the human and the Divine.”  There is something about these parables that gets us about as close to Jesus as we ever are going to get, which makes them holy ground upon which to trod. 

            The Parable of the Persistent Widow, or The Unjust Judge, in Luke is one of my very favorite that Jesus ever told.  It has all the things that a good story needs.  It is very telling that the “good guy” in the parable is not a guy at all, but a woman, and a widow.  Not surprising, is it, that Jesus would tell a parable that centers around someone who symbolized what it means to be powerless, voiceless, helpless and marginalized, by most people in the world?  Read the Bible and you cannot help but to realize that God has a heart for those very people.  It is amazing how often caring for the widow and the orphan is a part of what it means to follow God, those about whom God cares for most deeply.  

            Secondly, the story, like all good stories, has a “bad guy” in it as well, “a judge who neither fears God nor has respect for people.”  What an apt description of a despicable figure!

              We could say all kinds of things about this parable.  I have decided to offer three words on why I love this parable.  (Stuart and I have been apart all week, but they all start with a “P,” just like his wonderful children’s sermon!)  The first is that it is a story about persistence.  I read a book last year that I think every father ought to read, and then give to his son.  I would say “every parent,” but I know women sometimes like different books from men, and this is not a “chick book.”  Jay Bilas is probably the smartest guy who talks about college basketball on television.  He played basketball at Duke, went to law school afterwards, and the book has a one-word title: Toughness.  Toughness is a cousin of persistence, which is a cousin of perseverance, which is a cousin of overcoming adversity, which is related, of course, to resilience.  And without this family of character traits, you are in big trouble in this world, where you are sure to encounter adversity. 

            Dylan Thomas said, “There’s only one thing worse than having an unhappy childhood, and that’s having a too-happy childhood.”  We have to learn sometime along the way how to contend with adversity, with things that do not go our way.  I read this past week an article about a psychologist at the University of Buffalo named Mark Seery, who conducted what academics like to call “a longitudinal study” of two thousand people between the ages of eighteen and one hundred one, measuring their childhood experiences and how they remember them, versus their adult experience in the present.  Here is what they concluded: Knowing some adversity makes you higher functioning and more satisfied with your life compared to those who experienced little or no adversity.  At the end of the study they conclude, “In moderation, whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

            In an article written by a psychology professor at University of Virginia named Meg Jay, she says, “We all need to find and nurture the fighter within us.”  We need to learn to resist defeat and despair as final words spoken over our lives.  We need to learn to engage in what she calls “active coping.”  Often the greatest people become great through great struggle.

            Our greatest President, arguably, is Abraham Lincoln, who lost his mother at the age of nine, and struggled his entire life with what they called melancholy then, what we know today as clinical depression.  Lincoln’s greatness grew out of his own great struggles.  One of the great preachers of the nineteenth century in England was a Baptist named Charles Haddon Spurgeon.  His sermons still read like poetry, and in reading about him you learn that all of his life he struggled mightily with depression.  I love what he said about perseverance: “By perseverance the snail reached the ark.”  We are all snails, aren’t we?  We are all trying to get where we believe we are meant to go.  This story about this widow is powerful because it lifts up for us something of the incredible importance and power of persistence, of perseverance, of resilience, of toughness, of the capacity not to give up or to give in, but somehow, with God’s help, to overcome adversity.

            I said there were three ‘P’s in this sermon.  The second is prayer.  Those of you who know me know that I dearly love the Westminster Shorter Catechism.  It asks the question: “What is prayer?”  I love the answer!  “Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God for things agreeable to His will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgement of God’s mercies.

            Prayer is all kinds of things.  It is meditative, it can be silent.  Prayer can be simply the way we view the world, like the poet Mary Oliver views the world, prayerfully and with reverence.  It often involves confession and it includes thanksgiving and adoration, indeed, everything else you feel, but I love how the definition begins.  It says, “Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God.”  If prayer is really prayer, it is a desperate cry of the heart for the things you long for, for the things you fear or dread the most.  Prayer means voicing the things you yearn for so much that it almost makes you weep to think about them.  Who are those people who capture your heart?  What are the prayers that really honestly reflect the deepest desires of your heart?

            I wrote many things in that paper thirty-six years ago that stunk.  I also wrote something that actually I might stand by still to this day, thirty-six years later.  I wrote, “To want something with all your heart so much that it breaks your heart not to have it, and to keep praying for it anyway, this is the heart of prayer.”  I know what it is to pray for things that I long for, that I want with all my heart, and that I cannot make happen myself.  “To have your heart broken by something that breaks the heart of God, this is the very essence of prayer.”

            I love this parable because this woman is asking continually for justice.  This widow is honestly modeling for us what it means “to pray and not to lose heart.”  Prayer is all kinds of things, but among them it is putting everything on the line.  Are you out there God, really?  Are you listening to me?  Do you care about me at all?  Prayer, the kind of prayer this woman models for us, is all about waiting.  “I wait for the Lord,” says the Psalmist, “my soul doth wait, and in His word do I hope.”  Every parent who cares about a child knows what it is to wait upon God, to wait for the things that you pray for most deeply and dearly.  Fred Craddock said, “We are often hurling petitions against long periods of silence….  The human experience is one of delay.”

            So this parable is about persistence, it is about prayer.  But I would argue that, finally, it is about praise, because Jesus’ parables are not principally about us, but rather about God.  God is what all of us most need.  We are all guilty of the same thing – we think way too much about ourselves.  And we spend scant too little time thinking about God.

            It will not come as a surprise to anyone here that I am an extrovert who can wear his feelings on his sleeve, and who can get hurt quite easily.  It is no accident that I married someone who does not live for the praise and blame of other people.  As Connie was getting to know me she realized, “Gosh, you really let other people bother you.”  She said to me one day, “Why do you care so much, Todd, what other people think?!  They aren’t thinking about you at all.  They’re too busy thinking about themselves to be thinking about you.”  And most of the time, we most of us, are doing just that!  It is why we need so desperately the Bible.  It uniquely enables us to escape from the small confining world of our own lives, into the large and wonderful world of God.

            Jesus tells this parable to tell us something about God.  He is arguing here from the lesser to the greater, something Jesus liked to employ as a teaching method, over and over.  It goes like this: “If a lousy, crooked Roman judge who is on the take finally listens to a widow’s plea, how much more will God hear the cries of your heart?”  “If an all-too-human judge cannot ignore the plea of a helpless, powerless widow for justice, don’t you think that God will surely hear your cries?”  And surely answer your prayers?  Jesus here is giving us reason to pray, by reminding us to whom we address our prayers.  He is wanting to grant us a glimpse of how eager God is to receive our prayers.

            Lloyd John Oglivie preached here many years ago when he was still Chaplain to the United States Senate.  Among many other things, Lloyd is something of a poet, and I love this short poetic couplet that he wrote.  It is about God and about prayer.

Thou art coming to a King,

Large petitions with Thee bring;

For His grace and power are such;

You can never ask too much.

            What are the deepest prayers on your heart this day?  Pray them with all your heart, with all your strength, with all your mind, and with all your soul.  God loves to hear the desires of our hearts.


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