Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on October 20, 2019
[sermon begins after one Bible reading; the Genesis and Timothy readings may be found at the end of the sermon]
Luke 18:1-8 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ ” 6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
A nine-year-old gymnast was recently asked what she like most about her new sport. With gusto she responded, “Conditioning!” When her dad, a recent acquaintance of mine, was telling me this story about her a few weeks ago, he shook his head and said, who in their right mind ever says that their favorite thing about a sport names conditioning as their favorite thing. Indeed, it struck me so much that I’m still thinking about it and now telling you about it. Of all the answers this young gymnast could have given about her newfound love – bar work, floor twirls, jumps, flips, competing, whatever – she said that her favorite part was conditioning. In any sport, conditioning is usually a means to an end. Rarely is conditioning where the joy is found. It means getting into shape and getting strong enough to do whatever it is you’re going to do to in the sport itself. Conditioning is consistent, hard work. It adds up over time. Oh, how many of us wish it happened quickly.
Quickly. It’s how the widow in our Bible story would likely have preferred her justice. She kept going to the judge and demanding that he grant her justice against her opponent. It makes me wish Jesus had given a number of how many times she showed up. Eight times? Twenty times? Forty? 100? How ever many times, Jesus’ parable says that she kept it up until the unjust judge gave her justice. She bothered the judge until he gave in. (Parent and child might be a good image for the widow’s persistence in getting what she’s after.) “Jesus told them this parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart (v1).” That’s what verse 1 says – to pray always and not to lose heart.
Not losing heart jumps out of the text this week. Imagining this widow showing up many times as an example of how not to lose heart is a helpful one. First century listeners would have heard the word “widow” and understood that Jesus meant a vulnerable person with no way to support herself. More than that, they would have heard about the widow and connected her with Jewish scripture about protecting the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien – all people of community concern and of God’s concern. Given her social status, it’s remarkable that the widow has her own voice and uses it with the unjust judge. She doesn’t have to convince him with a logical argument. She doesn’t have to convince him at all. She simply has to keep showing up with her demand for justice. Her repeated presence in front of the unjust judge is an indictment of his unwillingness to help her.
More than that, her presence wears him down with an unexpected twist. The translation that we get in the reading today misses the twist that exists in the Greek. In verse 5, the English translation has the judge giving the widow her justice because he doesn’t want her to wear him out by continually coming. A closer translation from the Greek of the unjust judge’s reasoning to grant the widow justice would be “so that she may not, in the end, give me a black eye by her coming.” Worrying about getting a black eye from the widow amounts to worrying about how she’s going to embarrass him if she keeps coming. It’s comical to stop and think how it could even be possible for her to give him a black eye. Again, her repeated presence in front of the unjust judge is an indictment of his unwillingness to help her. Regardless, the unjust judge still isn’t worried about giving her justice. He’s worried that she’s going to make him look bad. In the end, though, she gets the justice she’s looking for no matter the motivation of the unjust judge.
In the face of an unjust judge, or people like him, it’s easy to lose heart and give up when a situation doesn’t change or changes for the worse. It’s also easy to become the very thing we’re working against. Reverend Dr. King, in his sermon called Transformed Nonconformists, cautions against passive patience which is an excuse to do nothing but he also cautions against hardened and self-righteous rigidity that is simply annoying and easy for other people to tune out. Rather, he calls for restraint “from speaking irresponsible words which estrange without reconciling and from making hasty judgments which are blind to the necessity of social process.” The transformed nonconformist knows that justice “will not come overnight,” yet “works as though it is an imminent possibility.” In these terms and in the story of the parable, not losing heart involves taking action when justice seems as though it will never happen knowing that it could come quickly at any time through perseverance and presence.
The parable is an example of what Reverend King is encouraging his listeners to do as prayer and not losing heart are key. Jesus closes the parable with the encouragement that if even the unjust judge can finally bestow justice, how much more will justice be given by a just and merciful God. Jesus also wonders if faith will be found on earth when he comes again. This question about finding faith on the earth makes me wonder if that somehow ties back to the introduction to the parable about praying always and not losing heart. Is faith, in this reading, about not losing heart, about perseverance, and about staying connected to the one who is faithful? Faith is often understood as confessing Jesus as Lord. Here, Jesus seems to connect faith with not losing heart, with prayer, with perseverance, and with justice for the most vulnerable. For some, Jesus’ connecting faith to other people beyond our own self is where the wrestling with God begins. Like Jacob in the first reading from Genesis, our encounters with God in scripture can throw us off balance, making us wonder if faith is worth the trouble it seems to regularly draw us into. If Jesus’ constant demand of giving justice to the vulnerable can feel overwhelming in the face of such need, imagine what being in that kind of desperate need feels like. No wonder the Timothy reading exhorts us to keep at it – “to be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable (4:2).” And warns us against “itching ears” who find teachers to suit our “own desires” rather than continuing to draw us in the direction of vulnerable neighbors.
Perhaps this is where conditioning brings us full circle and helps us hold fast when the pressure builds. Practicing faith in our prayers, in not losing heart as God’s faithful people, in persevering, and in justice for the most vulnerable may be just the conditioning we need when those faith practices seem so small in the face of injustice that we wonder what we’re accomplishing. This is a good moment to remember that whatever faith we have is a gift. Faith isn’t something we dredge up in ourselves to put on a happy face. Faith is a gift given to us by God who is first faithful to us. Faith supports our perseverance. How we take our faith out for a spin is so utterly imperfect that we may be the ones who end up with the black eye, embarrassed by the continued presence of someone else who’s in better shape to work against injustice in any form it takes. That’s why it takes all of us, called by Jesus who’s as persistent as the widow, figuring it out together as we keep the faith, trusting in God’s mercy through our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Sermon is followed by the Hymn of the Day ELW 588 “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy”
1 There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in God’s justice
which is more than liberty.
There is no place where earth’s sorrows
are more felt than up in heav’n.
There is no place where earth’s failings
have such kindly judgment giv’n.
2 There is welcome for the sinner,
and a promised grace made good;
there is mercy with the Savior;
there is healing in his blood.
There is grace enough for thousands
of new worlds as great as this;
there is room for fresh creations
in that upper home of bliss.
3 For the love of God is broader
than the measures of the mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
But we make this love too narrow
by false limits of our own;
and we magnify its strictness
with a zeal God will not own.
4 ‘Tis not all we owe to Jesus;
it is something more than all:
greater good because of evil,
larger mercy through the fall.
Make our love, O God, more faithful;
let us take you at your word,
and our lives will be thanksgiving
for the goodness of the Lord.
 Brittany E. Wilson, Assistant Professor of New Testament, Duke Divinity School, Durham, N.C. Commentary on Luke 18:1-8 for WorkingPreacher.org. workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4201
 Wilson, ibid.
 Martin Luther King, Jr. “Transformed Nonconformist” in Strength to Love: A book of sermons. (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1963), 16.
Genesis 32:22-31 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
2 Timothy 3:14 – 4:5 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, 15 and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
4:1 In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: 2 proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. 5 As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.