She was used to waiting around for the left-overs, this unnamed, persistent, probably even irritating widow.
Under the law of Moses, widows always got the left-overs. But if you know anything about left-overs, they are almost always an afterthought. In the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 24:19-21, Israelites were admonished to not harvest so thoroughly that there was nothing left.
If they forgot a sheaf of wheat in the field, they were to leave it for the orphan and the widow; if they harvested olives, there were not to strip the trees bare. They were to do a good job but not a thorough job, so that the orphan and widow could pick what was left—you know, after you’d picked all the good olives, all the ripe ones, all the ones that weren’t already squishy. Same thing with grapes in the vineyards. You also weren’t to harvest from edge to edge of the field, but were told to leave the trees or vines on the perimeter less thoroughly harvested, but lots of landowners didn’t take that seriously.
There was a word for this kind of higgledy-piggledy gathering of the leftovers from the various fields: gleaning. You can hear the word “lean” right in there. Lean pickings, based on the probable ruthlessness with which they landowners and the day-laborers they hired adhered to the principles of profit-margins.
Even worse, if a widow’s husband died without children, especially a son, for her comfort and protection in such a male-centric society, the law stated that her husband’s brother should marry her. Later, that got stretched to include more distant kin. If that kinsman refused to “redeem” her, she was commanded to try to shame the brother at the city gates. Which of curse also broadcast HER shame at being alone and defenseless.
Now, sometimes, it worked out. Ruth, even though a foreigner, insistently went back with her beloved mother-in-law, Naomi, to Israel after Naomi’s husband and sons died, and while Ruth was gleaning, she attracted the attention of the wealthy landowner named Boaz, who was her husband’s kinsman.
Ruth ended up marrying him and having a son to comfort Naomi in her old age. That son became the grandfather of King David, and therefore Ruth became an ancestor of Jesus.
The widow Judith, likewise, not only castigated the generals of Israel to their face when they failed to trust God enough to deliver them from the Assyrians, she worked it.
She didn’t leave it there—no, she worked her considerable beauty, charmed her way into the trust of the enemy general, was taken to his tent, got him drunk, and decapitated him. Bam! Off with his head! And after she saved her people, she refused to marry any of her many suitors, and lived out the rest of her life as a widow.
Probably to save herself from rolling her eyes a dozen times a day, given the shallow dating pool she had to pull from.
Insistence, persistence, and bravery seem to be defining characteristics of Biblical widows. There are other widows who appear in scripture: the unnamed woman who fed Elijah the last bit of food between her son and herself and starvation based solely on his assurance that all would work out. She ended up not only NOT going hungry, but having Elijah pray her son back to life when he died suddenly, just as Jesus would revive a widow’s dead son in the Book of Luke.
Jesus criticized his religious opponents for sucking widows dry of all their savings, and immediately watched a widow put two small coins in the temple treasury—all she had to live on—and he raised her up as an example of righteousness and faith. The widow Anna was a prophet who rejoiced when Jesus was presented in the Temple as an infant.
So, we get a picture of insistence, persistence, bravery, boldness, and faithfulness. It’s remarkable how strong they are, given the way the deck is stacked against them. So when Jesus introduces this widow in his parable, I think we can see her in a long line of women who have been pushed around by virtue of their outcast status. Living without a male protector and provider, literally drawing her living from the margins of the fields and the margins of society, forgotten by all her married friends because she doesn’t fit in to a society based on large family units that were necessary for survival, she’s not beaten down.
She’s had all she can take, and she won’t take any more.
She reminds me of a meme that made me laugh a couple of weeks ago: it showed a beautiful night scene, but in bold white letters it said. “Never pick a fight with a woman over 40. They are full of rage sick of everyone’s … um, nonsense.”
Even though she knows the judge over her case is corrupt, contemptuous, and evil, not caring about any of the responsibilities of his office, she doesn’t quit. Even when shushed and dodged and told to shut up, nevertheless, she persists. She persists in speaking truth to power. She has a claim, her claim is just, her situation is dire as a widow, and she will not—cannot—give up.
And finally, just like a raindrop and its kindred will wear down even the most solid rock, or the way a delicate flower will shoot up through the minutest crack in the pavement until it causes the entire sidewalk to buckle, she wears down this judge who just doesn’t give a damn about anyone but himself. The story states that the judge tells himself he didn’t want her to “wear me out”—but the actual translation is “give me a black eye.” I like that—her persistence scared him a little, or maybe a lot. Kablam! Good! She uses his own sense of self-importance against him, and for love of his nerves, he gives in and grants her justice.
Now let’s get something very clear right now. The dishonest and unjust judge is NOT a metaphor for God. Instead Jesus is using this story in a method of argument known as via negativa—the “negative way.” But the unjust judge is not EQUATED with God. Jesus uses the unjust judge to describe what God is NOT. Via negativa. God is GREATER than the unjust judge.
The promise embedded here is this: if even the unjust judge can be moved to acceding to the widow’s demands, how much more trust can we have in God when we ask for justice? It is the job of a judge—and of God-- to fulfill the demands of justice. If a judge who is arrogant before God and the people will eventually give in to the demands of a persistent widow, surely God can be depended upon to do even more.
In fact, here’s an interesting twist. Consider the scope of scripture, with God constantly urging us to do justice, love mercy, and walk in humility with each other and God—and most of the time we flat-out refuse. What if we saw the persistent widow as God, and the unjust judge as the community? That may be the sermon I preach the next time this comes around in three years. Think about it. Because prayer is a conversation between us and God, that reversal also works, and also teaches us a lesson about prayer as a two-way conversation with God
It is unusual that this parable—which only occurs in Luke—begins with a statement about what it is about. That is not normally the pattern. But prayer is something that most of us do at various points throughout our week and our lives. Of course, most of us have experienced the feeling that our prayers are seemingly not heard, much less answered. That’s what happens when we think of prayer as a laundry list of demands that we hurl at God like the widow’s unceasing cascade of demands for justice.
Prayer will not succeed when it is simply a way for us to do all the talking. Prayer is certainly not going to work if it is merely seen as a way for us to demand what we think we want and cannot get unless we beg, plead, or wheedle endlessly in some sort of superstitious loop. The point of prayer is that it is a conversation with God. It is only in the silences between our words that we leave any space for the movement of the Spirit in that conversation.
Prayer is opening ourselves to the possibilities of God’s will, which of course is a scary proposition. We like to be in control, and do what we want. The first verse of this reading actually tells us the real point: we need to pray always in order to keep our hearts grounded in God. Prayer is not just a demand for satisfaction but a conversation, in which we need to listen, not only speak. Prayer is a means of building a relationship with God, of seeking out our own heart and to open it up to the voice of God in our lives. Prayer is a means of strengthening our trust in God and God’s promise of never-ending love.
As our gospel reminds us, prayer is a way to enter into the presence of God, to be surrounded by the presence of God. This is the kind of immediate experience needed to maintain faith, more than anything else, so that when Jesus returns, faith will be found on the earth. Jesus urges us to be persistent in prayer, to be persistent in being grounded in God, just as Jesus is depicted repeatedly engaging in prayer himself. Being persistent in prayer will also lead us to be persistent as faithful people if not always in faith, and indeed will carry us through those times when our faith flickers, which happens to everyone—even saints.
When I was in seminary, I once got pulled into a discussion about pastoral care. Whatever you do, I was told, DON’T pray. Several people nodded sagely around me, but I tried not to let my chin hit the floor. Why not? I asked, incredulously. In response, I was told that if you prayed for someone to be cured and they weren’t, it could cause them or their family members to lose their faith. To my mind, that made just about as much sense as arguing that a surgeon shouldn’t operate on someone in case their condition might worsen.
What we have here, I thought, is a failure to communicate. I remarked that we Episcopalians don’t have a Book of Common Prayer for nothing. We are a praying people! Now, of course, being present with people and listening to them is a vital part of caring for them rather than quickly offering up a rote prayer and going about our business, but to not pray at all? As Episcopalians, prayer is what we do and how we are formed. The law of prayer is the law of belief, after all.
Of course, prayer is NOT a cure-all, and many of us would very careful about couching our prayers in the language of seeking a “cure.” To be relieved, to be brought to comfort or peace, to be granted resilience and endurance, to feel supported, heard, and known as beloved, yes. But the fact is, as Mahalia Jackson sang, I believe that prayer changes things.
Prayer changes things-- starting with the person who does the praying. Prayer changes things by giving the one who prays a chance to both speak and listen to the presence and support of God in that person’s life. Prayer is not a wish-fulfillment system, but a mostly-intentional conversation between ourselves and the Almighty.
I say “mostly intentional” because we’ve all had those times of calling on Jesus when a child or a deer or another car darts out in front of us when we are going full-speed down the road. You know the ones: something like
But even then, I think that prayer is part of our longer conversation with God. Sometimes—more often than we like to admit, probably-- that conversation calls us to silence and to opening ourselves to the movement of the Spirit in our hearts and minds.
Sometimes prayer comes in a torrent of words. Sometimes prayer centers on the same word repeated dozens of times. Sometimes it comes in praying with someone who is ill and reminding them that they are not alone, physically or spiritually. Sometimes prayer comes with the click of one prayer bead sliding against another on a rosary, or a deliberate footstep on the path of a labyrinth. Sometimes, prayer is just the name of Jesus, or, as Anne Lamott noted, “help,” or “thanks,” or “wow” prayed on each breath.
And as we have learned a lot recently, sometimes it comes with praying through selections of scripture that do not seem to be all that congenial at the moment. Sometimes, one of the greatest aids to our prayer life is to realize that we have to get over ourselves, and get out of the way of God.
Certainly, there are times when it is difficult to pray, or to know what to pray. I’ll tell you one thing, though: when in doubt, there’s never been a time I have regretted praying when choosing between that and not praying.
So let us ever persist in prayer, that our hearts and minds may be tuned to the presence of the holy alongside us and within us.
Preached at the 505 on October 19, and at 8:00 and 10:30 am on October 20, 2019, at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville, MO.
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5