A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va., on October 20, 2013.
The year was 1968. A young man had just graduated from college. Earlier in the year, he had applied to law schools. He received letters of acceptance from several schools, but the program he really wanted to attend put him on the wait list. Still, the young man did not lose heart. He was so determined to go to this particular school that he began making daily visits to the admissions office, meeting the staff, expressing his interest, and asking for updates. All summer long, he visited, and all summer long, the answer remained, “No.” The summer progressed and there was only one week remained before the young man was supposed to begin classes at his Plan B school. One day that week, when he visited the dean of admissions, he heard, “All right, Lowry, we’ve had a cancellation. You can have the spot IF you promise never to come back to my office again.” That’s right. The law school was right here at U.Va., and the young man was our very own Ed Lowry. For nearly a year, Ed kept his promise to leave the dean alone, but in the spring, he stopped by to let the dean know that he had received the honor of an invitation to join U.Va’s Law Review. “You’re a genius!” Ed told the dean. “Aren’t you glad you let me in?” The dean replied, “Lowry, didn’t I tell you not to come back to my office?!”
Persistence can pay off. It paid off for Ed, for it got him into U.Va law school. And it paid off for U.Va, for this distinguished alumni was named the 2013 Charlottesville Commercial Litigation Lawyer of the Year, by U.S. News–Best Lawyers. Persistence also paid off for the widow in Jesus’ parable. Jesus told a story about a widow who was so persistent that she finally got her way with an unjust judge who neither feared God nor cared about people. In biblical times, a woman’s value primarily came through her husband or father. A widow’s status, then, was particularly precarious – she had married out of her father’s protection, and her husband had died, leaving her vulnerable. Consequently, widows had no rights and no power. Often, widows fell through the cracks of society, relegated to a life of poverty and despair.
This particular widow also had nothing . . . except pesky persistence. Can’t you just see her? This widow camping out on the steps of the courthouse, waiting for the judge to come up the steps before crying out “Grant me justice!” This widow slipping into the judge’s courtroom between cases and crying out, “Grant me justice!” This widow leaving messages on the judge’s answering machine and crying out “Grant me justice!” This widow showing up in a fancy restaurant where the judge is having lunch, this widow popping out of the bushes as the judge is about tee off at the golf course, this widow hanging around in front of the men’s restroom . . . waiting for the right time to cry out “Grant me justice!”
We can admire the widow’s persistence and her gumption – especially if she’s as genial and charming as Ed Lowry! We don’t even know the details of her situation, but we want her to receive justice from the judge.
The most traditional reading of this parable is that we, like the widow, should persist. We, too, should not lose heart. We, too, should feel emboldened to pray relentlessly, to make our case repeatedly before God. After all, Jesus reminds us, the real question is not whether God will act, but whether God will find us faithful – whether we will remain committed in our prayer lives, whether we will keep hope in God’s provision, whether we will have confidence in God’s sure care even when we do not see the outcomes we desire or hear the answers we wish.
This is the truth that Doc Litchfield spoke to us so powerfully and beautifully and heartbreakingly last week as he shared how his family lost his ten-year-old granddaughter after a fight with bone cancer. As he reminded us, he and his family prayed persistently, as did our church and others, yet they and we did not receive the hoped-for result. Yet even in the midst of this unanswered prayer, Doc testified that, while it was so tempting to lose heart, he had to have faith in Christ. Doc had to believe that by His incarnation, Christ understands our experience, that through His crucifixion, Christ suffers for and with us, and that in His resurrection, Christ redeems us and our situation. In other words, Doc has given us a modern-day picture of what it looks like to be the persistent widow. Doc persisted both in prayer and in faith. May he and we be persistent in a new prayer for healing and grace and wholeness for all who knew and loved Alyssa. May we all be persistent in asking for God’s work in our lives, and persistent in nurturing a mature faith that can equip us to walk alongside God in the struggles we face. When we find ourselves in the position of the widow, Jesus invites us to pray without ceasing and not to lose heart. Persistent prayer becomes an act of faith in Christ, trusting that Christ understands our situation, suffers our pain, and desires our redemption.
As I say, this is the most traditional interpretation of this parable, and it’s a good one. Yet the very nature of a parable invites us to look at the story from other angles and perspectives. It’s true that sometimes we’re the widow, asking God for justice, for provision, for wisdom. Yet if we think about the nature of widows that I mentioned earlier – that they often had no power, no voice, and no resources – I wonder if we at UBC are sometimes less like the widow and more like the judge. While none of us in this congregation is an actual judge, many of us do have enough power, connections and resources to make a difference on behalf of those needing justice. Certainly, most of us know “the system” well enough that we don’t have to ambush a judge to obtain justice. If we have a problem, we can find a way to get justice, or at least to get our day in court.
If we are in some ways like the judge in this story with the power to influence others, then maybe we are also like the judge who has learned to tune out the injustices of the world. We call it “compassion fatigue” – too many sad stories on the news, too many people who have lost a home to natural disasters, too many lives lost in war, too many jobs lost in the recession. I can certainly identify with the judge who is just tired of hearing about it all. I change the channel if I see it on TV. I skip the article in the newspaper. I wish the preacher wouldn’t preach about it. I wish people wouldn’t bring it up, because I’m tired of being reminded of it. I’ve got enough problems as it is without worrying about all those “justice” issues. Just leave me alone to do my thing. Like the unjust judge, many times, I’m tempted to harden my heart to the “widows” and the poor and powerless of our society because I don’t want to be bothered, or I have enough problems of my own without worrying about theirs. To the degree that we are like the judge, perhaps we should offer persistent prayers that we would be a congregation that DOES fear God, a congregation that DOES care for people. Persistent prayer becomes an act of faith in Christ, which opens our hearts to the heart of God, so that our hearts break over the same things that break God’s heart, so that our hearts beat in the same divine rhythm. In so doing, we grow in our faith in Christ.
That brings us to a third possible reading of this parable. One reading is that we see ourselves as the widow boldly seeking the assistance she needs. In another reading, we identify with the judge, overloaded with enough work and worries of his own without having to act on behalf of the disenfranchised. But where is God in all this? Jesus specifically tells us that God is not like the unjust judge. No, Jesus, tells us, God will act to bring about justice, and quickly.
But what if Jesus is like the persistent widow? Let us remember that the One who told this parable modeled what persistent prayer looked like. Prayer was the lifeline of Jesus’ faith; His faith was fortified by prayer. Like a child seeking out a parent, early in the morning, Jesus would go off to a solitary place, where he prayed to his heavenly Father. He taught his disciples to pray for their enemies. Prayer was such an important of Jesus’ ministry that his disciples did not ask him, “Teach us how to preach,” or “Teach us how to lead a Bible study,” or “Teach us how to run a committee.” No, Jesus’ disciples asked, “Lord, teach us how to pray.” And Jesus taught them to pray, saying: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Later, when Jesus himself was about to be arrested at the Garden of Gethsemane, He himself prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” Nonetheless, Jesus was arrested, tried and condemned to death. On the cross, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But God did not seem to answer. Before Jesus breathed his last, He prayed to his Father, “It is finished. Into your hands I commend my spirit.”
Jesus’ life, then, is marked by prayer, as an expression of Jesus’ relationship with God the Father, and as an expression of Jesus’ love for us, as he prayed for Jerusalem, for his disciples, and for us. Scripture paints another picture of Jesus’ persistent prayer and attention to us. In Revelation 3, we have an image of the Son of Man coming to our churches and to our hearts, saying: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” As the One who will return to judge the living and the dead, Jesus knocks on our doors not wanting justice from us, but wanting to make us just and right in the eyes of God. Will we recognize the persistent voice of our Master and welcome Him in? Will the Son of Man find faith on the earth?
When Wesley was around six, the following scene took place in my household at least two or three times a week. I’d be on the computer working, and Wes would come into the study and ask:
Hey Dad, do you want to play catch with the football with me?”
I’d reply: “Give me five minutes, Wes. I need to reply to some emails.”
“OK,” Wes would say.
A minute later, Wes would come in, tossing a football. “Hey Dad, I’m ready for you to throw the football with me.”
I’d reply: “Yeah, yeah. I’ll be there in a minute.”
“OK,” says Wes.
A minute later, Wes would come in, now wearing his toy Seattle Seahawks football helmet. [He had a brief fascination with the Seahawks back then.]
“OK, Dad, you ready to play football?”
I reply: “Good grief, give me a break! Just a couple more minutes!”
“OK,” he’d say.
Finally, a few minutes later, Wes would come in, all dressed in his Seattle Seahawks jersey and pants, together with the toy shoulder pads and helmet, with the ball still in his hands. He’d announce, “Come on, Dad! I’m READY to play football!”
At this point, who could say “No” to the little guy?
So we’d go out and play.
Wesley, like many kids, was persistent. He also had faith – if he weren’t absolutely sure that I would say yes, would he go get the football, and clothe himself with shoulder pads, helmet, uniform, and shoes? And his faith was grounded in relationship, the loving relationship of a child to a father.
Today, Jesus invites us to a loving relationship of a child to a Heavenly Father. We are encouraged to persistently pray and ask God for what we need. All the while, even as we wait for an answer, we are called to live by faith by clothing ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ.
So, if today finds you feeling like the widow in need, Jesus encourages you not to lose heart. May you address God boldly, with a faith that is grounded in love. If today finds you feeling like the overwhelmed judge, Jesus invites you not to harden your heart. May you hear God openly, with a faith that says “Yes” to the voice of Jesus. Either way, whether you speak to God or whether you listen to God, you are praying to God, with a persistence that is born of love, situated in relationship, and grounded in faith.
Leadership coach and church consultant at MichaelKCheuk.com. He is a Good Faith Media governing board member, who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.