Not Giving Up (Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost)

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Covid seems to have changed a lot of things.  But one of the things that DIDN’T change was the amount of spam email I get, or the number of unwanted phone solicitors who call or text my cell number.  No, I take that back – in fact, I think since Covid it’s actually worse!  Most of us now do more work remotely, and we’re on our phones and email even more.  And the spammers know it!

And I am increasingly thankful for things like caller ID and spam filters.  Still, I get a lot of email, even from organizations that aren’t spam.  And I’m constantly having to silence my phone from callers which caller ID tells me is “Potentially SPAM”.  It can be exhausting.  It’s probably like this for many of you as well.

And so even though it may seem odd, I have some sympathy for this judge in today’s parable!  Of course, he seems to be a nasty character who doesn’t care about his duty before God or the people he’s supposed to be serving. 

But he does know about being worn down by the spammers and phone solicitors of his day.  Yet he doesn’t have any SPAM filter.  And there’s no caller ID to help him avoid it all.

Conversely, the widow in the parable is ironically like the spammers.  She just doesn’t give up!  Day in and day out, she’s in the judge’s face, even though, as far as she knows, her persistence may only have a slim chance of working.

And so when I read this parable, I find myself in an ethical conundrum.  I know what it’s like to feel like I’m being badgered all day long, and I don’t like it.  So I feel sympathy for this nasty judge who I’m not supposed to feel sorry for.

And because of that, I so DON’T want to be a person who constantly bugs somebody else.  So on a very visceral level, I don’t want to be like this widow, who’s figured out how to be a constant pain in the butt!

And maybe Jesus set this parable up like this partly so that we’d feel this level of discomfort.  And I wonder that, because even though people didn’t have phone solicitors or email spammers in Jesus’ day, people did know what it was like to be bugged constantly.  They knew what it was like to be tired and worn out.  And most of them probably didn’t want to feel like they were doing that to others – or even to God.

And sometimes, that’s why people give up trying, even when they shouldn’t.

And so Luke tells us that Jesus told this parable to teach us not to give up, especially not on God, even if we think we’re being a pain, and even when we wonder whether God is paying attention.  But not giving up is easier said than done. 

I don’t really know what gives phone solicitors and spammers such perseverance.  But as Jesus describes the widow – and shows us what Christian perseverance is supposed to look like – it’s clear that the widow:

  • Is unafraid to state her case – after all, she isn’t trying to sell the judge something he doesn’t want; she’s asking him to do his job.  And so she rightly demands he do his job, instead of “oh, if it please the court, and if it’s not too much trouble…”
  • Wants justice – not just her way; “Grant me justice”, not just what I want; and so even though it involves her, what she really wants is for the judge to uphold the standards of the community…
  • Is willing to put her whole self into her request – day after day, she keeps walking up to the judge and getting in his face; she doesn’t just write a letter and hope for a response …

So Jesus’ question in the parable is really to ask us if we’re willing to do the same thing in our relationship with God?  If the widow is willing to do this with a bad judge who doesn’t want to help, are we willing to show that same perseverance with a loving and caring God?

And for us, too, that perseverance is supposed to be shown by the way we’re willing to:

  • Speak to God about what’s important to us – not only by being unafraid to tell it to God over and over again, but by the way we ask God for help.  This sounds shocking but almost all the Psalms encourage us to speak to God in the grammatical form of a command:  “God, help me”  “God, save me”  “God, grant me justice” exactly like the widow.  There’s none of this, “oh, that you might grant that we may be helped if it pleases Thee…” kind of stuff!  Nor is there this, “Oh, God, we ‘just’ want to say, and we ‘just’ ask”, as though it were too much for God to deal with if we asked for more.  Are we showing and encouraging perseverance by the way we speak to God, and attitude we have towards prayer…?
  • Seek justice – that is, are we seeking God’s will for someone other than just ourselves?  It’s perfectly fine to say, “I need” as the widow does.  But the widow doesn’t stop there.  She needs justice, and that means she’s looking for God’s plan for more than just herself.  Do we sometimes give up because we’re asking for something too small (just ourselves)? And are we showing perseverance by not giving up on others when things are OK for us…?
  • Actively involve ourselves in our prayers – if you’re going to pray for something, are you willing to work for it?  And are you willing to be God’s instrument to make it happen?  This is what Luther reminds us of in the Catechism when he talks about the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer:  just as you can’t ask for God’s forgiveness without being willing forgive others, you shouldn’t ask for God to provide daily bread without being willing to be an agent of God to give bread to others; or ask for God’s will to be done if you’re not willing to put yourself into it and be an agent of God’s will in the life of the world…

That’s the kind of perseverance the widow displayed, even if it appeared to others that she was just being a pain. It’s the kind of perseverance in faith and prayer that Jesus calls us to as well.  And it’s the kind of perseverance that’s worth the effort, because even when we’re tempted to give up, Jesus assures us that God never gives up on us.