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Thomas J Parlette

“And Then Some”

Luke 18: 1-8

10/16/16

 

In the Gospel stories we learn that Jesus is many things. He is a teacher. He is a healer, he is a man of prayer. He is a miracle worker, he is a prophet, he is our savior. And today we can add one more thing to the list. Today we learn that Jesus was a bit of a comedian as well. This morning Jesus tells both a parable and a joke. That’s what this story about a persistent widow and an unjust judge is meant to be. It is a joke designed to teach us something.

The best speakers, the best teachers, they know how to inject a little humor to keep the audiences attention and drive home a point. Jesus is no different. He has used humor before:

–         you remember the one about the camel and the eye of a needle; it’s easier for a camel to slip through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven. I’m sure people smiled at that image.

–         Or, during the sermon on the mount, Jesus said, “Why do you try to take the splinter out of your neighbor’s eye when you ignore the log in your own.” I’m sure Jesus got some chuckles with that one as well.

This story does the same thing. It’s easy to imagine Jesus’ disciples smiling and laughing as they hear about this little old lady pestering this corrupt and uncaring judge. She’s at his door when he leaves for work, “Grant me justice.” She’s at his office, shouting through the window, “Grant me justice.” She walks behind him as he heads home at the end of the day, “Grant me justice.” Finally he has had enough. “Even though I don’t care about justice or about people in general, I’ll give her what she wants, before she gives me a black eye” – that’s literally what the greek here means. The NRSV translates it “wear me down”, but it literally means give me a black eye, or as the Message puts it “beaten black and blue.” I’m sure the disciples chuckled at this image of the little old widow following this heartless judge and beating on him until she got what she wanted.

But when the laughter dies down, Jesus makes his point. That judge, corrupt as he is, he finally does grant justice. Don’t you think God, the God who loves you and chose you to be his child, don’t you think God will step in quickly and grant justice? Pray consistently and be persistent in your faith, just like that widow.

That is the message of this parable. Be persistent in your prayers for justice. Be consistent and never quit.

And yet there are two major problems with this story. If we identify ourselves as the widow, offering her petitions with such persistence – does that mean that the judge represents God? Is this what we have to do to get God to answer our prayers. Does this parable teach that we have to badger God into answering our prayers? Do we really have to wear God down in order to get justice?

Many people over the centuries have wondered about that. But the answer is no, the judge here is not meant to represent God. This parable works as a negative example. It’s meant to be absurd. That’s why it helps to think of this story as a joke. Of course God does not behave like the judge. God loves us and wants the best for us. God has chosen us to be God’s children. When God’s children cry out in prayer, God will listen. God will not delay.

Which brings up the second problem with this story. What do we say about unanswered prayers. Jesus assures us that God will act, God will step in. God will quickly grant justice. And yet we’ve all had experience with unanswered prayer. We’ve prayed for healing that never came. We’ve prayed for a new job but we’re still stuck doing something just to pay the bills. We’ve prayed for our children, but nothing changes. We’ve prayed for an end to violence, racism and oppression, and yet the news seems to get worse every week. It’s easy to wonder about the truth of Jesus’ words here. Does God hear our prayers? Will God answer? Does prayer really work?

In addressing that issue, perhaps the final test is not asking, “did I get what I prayed for, did I get what I wanted”, but rather, considering “How was I changed by the time spent in prayer.”

Huston Smith, the well-known professor of world religions, once wrote “When the consequences of belief are worldly goods, fixing on these turns religion into a service station for self-gratification and churches into health clubs. This is the opposite of religion’s role, which is to de-center the ego, not pander to its desires.”(1)

When we pray we are participating in something larger than our own wants or needs. We are participating in the coming reign of God. By praying continually and not giving up hope, we live in the certainty that God does not abandon this world. Living in hope, we work, in whatever ways we can, for the justice and peace that is coming.(2) What Jesus says here is that we are to be persistent in that prayer, in that pursuit of justice.

James Byrnes, who was Secretary of State under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, once said that the difference between successful people and average people could be summed up in three words – “and then some.” He said, “Average people do what is expected. Successful people do what is expected, and then some.” Certainly our widow did what was expected, and then some.(3)

She badgered this judge, and then some.

She gets on his case, and then some.

She goes after justice, and then some – and she is successful.

She gets the justice she desires.

We are called to pray with the same persistence that this widow shows.

We are called to pray without ceasing, and then some.

We are called to live life in an attitude of prayer, to practice the presence of God, as the 17th century monk, Brother Lawrence used to say.

In so doing, we are participating in God’s saving work. By praying and seeking justice persistently, and then some – we offer our best effort in bringing about the Kingdom of God.

I like the story that is told about Henry Kissinger. One of his aides once brought him a report that Kissinger had requested on a conflict in Africa. The aide came into Kissinger’s office and laid the report on his desk.

But Kissinger didn’t pick up the report. Instead, he looked up and asked, “Is this your best effort?”

And his aide answered, “Well, sir, there are some other things that I wanted to check out, but there wasn’t enough time.”

So Kissinger said, “Take it back, rework it, and then bring it back to me.

So the aide took it back, and for two weeks, labored over the report. Finally he brought it back and gave it to Kissinger. Once again, without looking at the report, Kissinger asked, “Does this represent your best effort?”

The aide thought for a moment and said, “Well some things aren’t too well documented. I could spend some more time in research.”

“Take it back, work it over, and bring it back when it represents your best effort.

A week later, after working almost day and night, the aide brought in his report and laid it on the desk. For the third time, without looking at the report, Kissinger asked, “Does this represent your best effort?”

And the aide responded, “Yes sir, it represents my best effort.”

“That’s all I ever wanted. I look forward to reading your report.”(4)

As this widow shows us, by praying and seeking justice persistently, and then some, we offer our best effort in bringing about the Kingdom of God.

May that be true of all of us. Amen.

 

1.                           John Buchanan, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p. 191.

2.                           Kimberly Bracken Long, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p. 190.

3.                           John Wayne Clark, Father Forgive Them, CSS Publishing Inc., 2006, p. 417.

4.                           Ibid… p. 414-415