Are you Persistent or Resistant?

Psalm 119:97-104 (The Message)

      Oh, how I love all you’ve revealed;
      I reverently ponder it all the day long.
   Your commands give me an edge on my enemies;
      they never become obsolete.
   I’ve even become smarter than my teachers
      since I’ve pondered and absorbed your counsel.
   I’ve become wiser than the wise old sages
      simply by doing what you tell me.
   I watch my step, avoiding the ditches and ruts of evil
      so I can spend all my time keeping your Word.
   I never make detours from the route you laid out;
      you gave me such good directions.
   Your words are so choice, so tasty;
      I prefer them to the best home cooking.
   With your instruction, I understand life;
      that’s why I hate false propaganda.

Jeremiah 31:27-34 (NRSV)

27The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. 28And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. 29In those days they shall no longer say: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” 30But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge. 31The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. 

Luke 18:1-8 (The Message)

The Story of the Persistent Widow

Jesus told them a story showing that it was necessary for them to pray consistently and never quit. He said, “There was once a judge in some city who never gave God a thought and cared nothing for people. A widow in that city kept after him: ‘My rights are being violated. Protect me!’

“He never gave her the time of day. But after this went on and on he said to himself, ‘I care nothing what God thinks, even less what people think. But because this widow won’t quit badgering me, I’d better do something and see that she gets justice—otherwise I’m going to end up beaten black-and-blue by her pounding.'”

Then the Master said, “Do you hear what that judge, corrupt as he is, is saying? So what makes you think God won’t step in and work justice for his chosen people, who continue to cry out for help? Won’t he stick up for them? I assure you, he will. He will not drag his feet. But how much of that kind of persistent faith will the Son of Man find on the earth when he returns?” 

I.                    “The days are surely coming … I will write my law in their hearts”

If we start with just looking at the topics presented in our three scriptures, we see the large brushstrokes of justice, the law, love of God and God’s word for the world, and prayer.  There are even more themes that bubble up out of these passages, but these are the big topics that scream for attention.

The passages from the Old Testament – from Jeremiah and the Psalms are full of promise and hope.  They present a view of God’s law and statutes as good and just and holy … something worthy of honor and adoration.

The New Testament passage is almost biting in its censure of one character over the other.  <<Supreme Court Case concerning obscenity.>>

What does God’s Justice look like?

I think you cannot make hard and fast rules, but when you hear of a situation and consider all sides from God’s point of view, it becomes easier to discern what would be seen as just in God’s heart.

Justice is not something that is easy to determine or easy to take action on, but … God’s promise in Jeremiah is that the law of the Lord is written on our hearts.  I want you to remember that – the law of the Lord is written on our hearts.

II.                 The Two Characters –


The Persistent Widow

–          Unrelenting

–          Annoying

–          Strong

–          Desperate

–          Tenacious

–          Bold

–          Willing to dare

–          Nothing to lose

–          Ignores societal rules/expectations and strives to be heard in order to change her fate/circumstances (powerless)

The Unjust Judge

–          Callous

–          Uncaring

–          Selfish

–          Unmoved

–          Only looking out for himself

–          Unconcerned with justice or with the plight of others

–          Changes his mind only out of a sense of self-preservation and self-regard “otherwise I’m going to end up beaten black-and-blue by her pounding” (The Message)

 

III.               Which character are you?  Which is God?

Typically, we understand ourselves to be the persistent widow – always asking God for guidance, for support, for help, for something.  This tells us something important about what our responsibility is in our relationship with God.  We must be intentional about being in contact with God for that is how we participate in God’s plan for our personal lives and for the world.  It’s not that great of a comparison for us because really, the best thing that can be said for the widow was that she was willing to be the loud, irritatingly squeaky wheel to get the attention she needed.  We may not particularly want to see ourselves as “bothering” God or as annoying flies buzzing around God’s head, but that is who the widow is and it works for her.

Naturally, then, we understand God to be the unjust judge in this story … in fact Jesus closes his parable by informing that if this jerk of a judge can find his way to begrudgingly granting justice, how much more will your Creator who is infinitely invested in the Creation’s well-being work for and grant us justice?  This insight into God’s character tells us that God cares, God is not unmoved by our positions.  God is empathetic and engaged by our lives and our stories.  God is involved.

IV.               Whose persistence?

What if we are not the persistent widow in this story?  What if we are, instead, the unjust judge?  Bob Dunham joins me in speculating about turning our interpretations sidewise for this passage.  He asks, “Might this parable speak to the resolute, persistent, unrelenting, determined One who keeps knocking on our door, challenging us to respond, pressing us to accept God’s claims, urging us to work for the good of neighbors in need?”[1]

All of Scripture, it can be argued, is a love song from God documenting God’s persistent chasing of humanity.  “God is so persistently in love with us, God’s love is so sovereign and unshakable, that we can trust in this God to bring about justice.  We can be sure God hears our prayers, our crying day and night … God has not forgotten us.”[2]

I wonder if we’re willing to see God as this persistent, irritating, annoying widow who will not give up or take no for an answer.  Perhaps it would be easier if we replace the word persistent with the word faithful.  We believe in a faithful, persistent, never-giving-up kind of God that is continually trying to help us listen for God’s call on our lives.

V.                 The Unjust Judge

And now if we think about God being the widow, that puts us in the position of being the unjust judge – callous, unfeeling, uncaring person.    Who wants to be that person in the story?  Remember what Jeremiah said?  “I will write my law on their hearts.”  The unjust judge, in this parable, was a hard-hearted individual.  This is the indictment and the warning of this story: don’t be this man.  Don’t harden your heart against the world or the people around you.

Story about Paul Rusesabagina from Hotel Rwanda. 

Hotel Rwanda, the difficult story of what happened in Rwanda in 1994, when that African nation descended into madness, with the powerful Hutu majority beginning a systematic slaughter of the Tutsi minority. One writer would later call that massacre “the fastest and most efficient killing spree of the 20th century;” in one hundred days, the Hutus killed 800,000 Tutsis.4 The film tells the story of that horror through the person of Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, a Hutu who made a promise to protect his Tutsi wife and the family he loved and ended up finding the courage to shelter and save over 1,200 people by hiding them in the luxury hotel he managed.

As the horror built, Paul initially protested that there was nothing he could do, but his reticence was challenged by the steady beating of truth upon his door. What was it Alan Culpepper said? “To those who have it in their power to relieve … distress … but do not, the call to pray day and night is a command to let the priorities of God’s compassion reorder the priorities of their lives.” Paul began to see the horror and experience the shame. It was a truth he didn’t want to admit; but in the end, his conscience prevailed and he acted to save as many lives as he could.

But Paul was not the only one to hear the beating on the door and to experience the need to reorder his priorities; it happened also to many viewers of the film. And I think it happened especially in one telling moment. About midway through the story, as the slaughter of the Tutsi people escalated in Kigali, Western reporters began to capture scenes of the genocide on tape. Paul was heartened a bit, because he assumed the broadcast of such images would prompt immediate Western intervention. When a skeptical Western reporter expressed doubt, Paul was dumbfounded. “How can they see that and not intervene?” he asked. But the reporter had seen it all before. “More likely,” he responded, “people will see the footage, say ‘Isn’t that horrible?’ and then go right on with their dinners.” It was for me a particularly disturbing moment in a deeply disturbing film, for I knew he was right. Who could see and hear that exchange and not feel shame? (Whose Persistence? Dr. Bob Dunham at Day1.org)

That shame is the shame we should feel at being the unjust judge.  I would like to clarify here: it is NOT our job to save the entire world.  I think Jesus did that quite well without any of our input.  What is required of us is to do our part, to pay attention and seek God’s will in the here and now, and to participate in God’s plan for the world.  If each of us does our part, we will be answering the God who continues to chase after us.

If God is the widow persistently chasing us, asking us for justice, can we refuse to be moved?  Are we willing to harden our hearts to God’s movement?

VI.               Surely the day is coming …

Or are we willing to care, maybe too much, and respond to the widow’s cries for the world?  Are we willing to break open our shells and let God’s light into our hearts?

In our Old Testament passage, “Jeremiah tells God’s intention to make this a covenant of internalized integrity.”[3]  The story of the widow and the judge is the story of two characters caught in a relationship where they teach each other how to change and be changed for the better.  In the same way, “we cannot separate who God is and what God does from who we are and what we are called to do.”[4]

God will keep pursuing us and we must keep opening our hearts and listening for the law that God has written in them to show us how to live a better, more full, more just life in this world.  In this way, we will participate in the creation of God’s kingdom here on earth.

Let us pray:

Persistent God and Holy Spirit, You call us, pinch us, move us, pester us until we respond.  Thank you for never giving up on us.  Call to us once again, help us to listen and to be moved.  Break our hearts open so that we may hear and see your law written on our hearts.  Help us to be soft-hearted, moved by compassion to seek your justice in the world.  Amen.

VII.            Some thought-provoking questions:

Does prayer feel like a habit to you?  Is that good or bad?
Who is “the widow” in your life situation, who may be asking for justice?
How does your prayer life describe your belief in God?
What would happen if all Christians prayed for one hour each day?
Does it bother you to think of prayer as “bothering” God?


[1] Dr. Bob Dunham at Day1.org, Whose Persistence? Luke 18:1-8.

[2] Margit Ernst-Habib in Feasting on the Word, Luke 18:1-8.

[3] Bruce Boak in Feasting on the Word: Jeremiah 31:27-34.

[4] Margit Ernst-Habib in Feasting on the Word, Luke 18:1-8.

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