Sermon for Morning Service on Sunday, 16 October 2022

Persistence in faith and prayers!

By Revd George Mwaura

[Psalm 121 & Luke 18: 1–8]

There are only two characters in this short parable that Jesus told his disciples. It is difficult to imagine a more striking contrast between two people than between the judge and the widow. Interestingly, neither is named, but their very titles suggest the contrast. ‘Judge’ calls to mind authority and power, while ‘widow’ in the culture of Jesus’ time suggests helplessness, poverty and vulnerability. One would expect, therefore, that in any contest between the two, the widow would not stand a chance. We would expect her to make her plea timidly in a trembling voice and then, at the first roar of the judge’s resounding ‘No’, to slither quietly into the shadows. But not this widow! She keeps coming back to the judge’s court. She reminds me of a true story of another woman named Marian Kemshaw of Yorkshire. On 3 August 1970 she finally passed her driving test at her fortieth attempt. After so much struggle and perseverance, one would assume she started driving right away. But unfortunately, after spending so much money on driving lessons, she couldn’t afford to buy a car. Maybe it is just as well; how comfortable would you be, knowing that the driver right behind you had failed the driving test forty times! Persistence!

It is not likely that the widow in our story went to court with expensive solicitors and assistants carrying stacks of files. I cannot imagine her raising her voice or pounding the table like they do on television. Nor can I see her with downcast eyes crying for pity. The only line she speaks in this narrative is a straightforward, legitimate request: ‘Grant me justice against my opponent!’ We are not told who her opponent was, nor what injustice she had suffered, but she seemed to have no advocate. Her status as a widow made her easy prey by many unscrupulous characters. Her case was probably like many the judge heard every day. It might have seemed unimportant to the judge, but it was crucial to her. And standing between her and justice, was this judge characterised as one who neither feared God nor had respect for people; a fact he happily endorses. Since he did not fear God, he felt no need to make moral judgments, as he was not accountable to any higher authority than himself. When he saw the widow standing before him and listened to her request, he did not see a person in need of justice; he simply regarded her as another petty nuisance, not worthy of his time. He therefore dismissed her with no guilty conscience. Sadly, that has been the plight of the majority poor throughout history.

So, what weapons did she have against such an adversary? Her weapons were those for which the judge had little respect or understanding because he did not possess them himself. Among her weapons were patience, persistence, a strong sense of justice, and confidence in the rightness of her cause. She had the faith to believe that at the end of the day justice would triumph over injustice; good would conquer evil. So, day after day, she went to the judge’s court with her request: ‘Grant me justice.’ Day after day he ignored her hoping she would give up. But not this widow. Did she become discouraged? I am sure she did. Did she ever wonder whether she had a chance of success? Perhaps.

How long she kept going to the judge we are not told. But one day he looks up from his bench, and there standing before him once again is the widow. Try and visualise him clasping his head in hands and wailing, ‘Oh no, not you again; this is it, I’ve had it with you; your petition is granted!’

Please note that the judge does not undergo a sudden change of character; he does not experience a dramatic conversion like the apostle Paul. Nope! He admits that he still does not fear God nor respect people. In granting the woman justice, he is not motivated by morality or compassion for the oppressed; he simply wants her to stop coming to his court least she wears him out. It is for his own comfort that he finally makes the decision that he should have made when the widow first appeared before him.

Luke gives this parable an introduction that suggests why and to whom it was first addressed. When Jesus told his disciples this parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart, he was speaking to a people who had been taught to pray and who did pray. But these same people may well have been in danger of losing heart because of rejections, lack of understanding on their own part, and the difficulties of being faithful disciples in first-century Palestine under Roman occupation.

So this story about a helpless widow who by patience and persistence prevailed over a ruthless judge gave them courage. It bolstered their resolve to continue in patient and persistent prayer. I have no doubt it was a great source of hope for those first Christians. Many of them held on to hope. Many of them never wavered in their faith and prayers. Had they not been patient and persistent, the Church would not have survived and we would not be here this morning.

This parable not only encouraged them to be patient, but it gave them a basis for their hope. Ironically, they could see in the character of the judge the basis for their hope. They grasped the truth that God is not like the judge. Jesus himself makes the point by posing a question that sets the character of God in stark contrast to that of the judge; he asked: will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? The truth is, God does not need to be cajoled, pestered, hounded or worn down before he will hear the cries of his people. Throughout the ages, the people of God have had to wait with patience and persistent faith for God to act to give them justice. Think of the children of Israel enduring slavery in Egypt for 400 years? Remember the transatlantic, inhuman trade of Africans as slaves to Europe and America again for about 400 years. Alternatively, think of the many countries under colonialism until fairly recently – some for 600 years. Think today of Ukraine; seven months of merciless bombardment, destruction and genocide from a tin-pot dictator who now threatens the world with nuclear destruction. Surely the foremost question in the mind of Ukrainians is: ‘How long, God, how long?’ There will always be need for patient, persistent prayer and pressure in pursuit of justice. And  faith in the faithfulness of God makes such patience possible.

Jesus knew that through the coming ages there would be times when his followers would be tempted to lose heart; for evidence of this, look no further than our generation. And so, as he concluded the parable, he posed a question that challenges us to pray always and not lose heart; he asked: when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth? We cannot avoid this question by projecting it far into some remote future; oh, no: it is directed at you and me!

The unnamed widow of Jesus’ gripping narrative encourages us to continue our trust in God whatever earthly judge we find ourselves before. We need not fear to struggle with God in prayer. We need not be hesitant about bringing all our needs, doubts, and fears to God. For when God sees us coming, God never clasps God’s head in hands and cries: ‘Oh, no, not you again!’ On the contrary, God invites us to keep on presenting our petitions before his divine throne of mercy, where we shall surely receive justice.