To Not Lose Heart
A Sermon on Luke 18:1-8
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash]
I have a question for anyone who has ever had any significant child-rearing or child-care responsibilities:
Would you say that, as effective negotiation strategies go, whining should be encouraged?
Anyone in favor? Anyone really appreciate the persistence and dedication of a child who will commit to following you around for 10 solid minutes, repeating various iterations of “Oh come on! Please? Why not?! It’s not fair!”?
Is it just me who gets a little irritated by that approach?
Now, I am fully aware that I am no perfect paragon of parenting patience. So, I am under no delusion that God’s tolerance should be judged against my standards.
But, on the other hand, I don’t think I’ve ever been described as a person who “neither fears God nor has respect for people.” So, if I fall short of the divine mark, I also feel pretty safe in assuming that the unjust judge does as well.
Which is an (only mildly) snarky way of saying that the judge in this parable is NOT a representative of God, and Jesus is NOT trying to tell us that we have to be super annoying to get God’s attention.
We aren’t going to sway God’s plans based on how many fervent prayers we say.
We don’t actually have the power to talk God into taking action simply based on our persistence.
Jesus is not offering us the secret formula for how to manipulate God through our devotional life.
In fact, I don’t think this parable is about how God responds to us at all. I think it’s about what prayer does to us.
Luke, himself, tells us at the very beginning of today’s reading that this parable is about us when he writes that Jesus told his followers this parable “about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (Luke 18:1).
Now, encouraging us to pray is only to be expected from the Son of God, but the second phrase is more specific… it highlights the reason that Jesus’s followers need the encouragement:
So that we would “not lose heart.”
I find comfort in Jesus’s acknowledgement that we need help in order to not lose heart.
It takes away the shame when I get discouraged, knowing the Jesus gets it. Jesus understands that there are so many reasons that we can start to lose heart in the broken, messy reality of life.
The reason most related to this parable’s theme of “persistence” is time… our very human impatience and frustration when something we desperately want or need is not happening.
However poetically Garth Brooks might have sung about unanswered prayers, the experience in the moment of begging God to intervene and then seeing nothing change can be incredibly disheartening… it can leave us feeling abandoned and hopeless.
But Jesus tells us to keep praying, because something happens when we pray through the stretching time of impatient waiting.
We remind ourselves that we are not waiting alone.
When we talk to God about our need, instead of just talking to ourselves, we get pulled out of our own internal monologue.
We open our hearts and minds to consider factors or alternative perspectives we might not have thought about before.
We get the chance learn a new lesson, or to let go of an unfruitful expectation.
And, most importantly, we get invited into trust, into the assurance that God is not abandoning us just because our prayer is not being answered. God is waiting with us… holding tight to our hearts, so we don’t have to lose them.
The same God whom Jeremiah speaks of writing the law on our hearts also writes love in our hearts… and we’ll see it there, as long as we don’t stop praying, don’t stop talking to God through the waiting, and longing, and even the frustration.
Of course, sometimes its not just frustration that we have to battle through. Sometimes the thing that threatens our hold on our hearts goes deeper: grief.
Any kind of significant loss can send us into the disorienting spiral where we lose touch with our hope, and our motivation, and our sense of agency in our own lives.
As a widow, the petitioner in today’s parable would have certainly known loss: the loss of her husband, and – given her time in history – that would have also meant the loss of her economic and social position in society, leaving her vulnerable and grieving on many levels.
This is why the laws of the Hebrew scriptures so often repeat the exhortation to be kind and just toward widows.
But those laws only helped if they were upheld by those with authority, because – as a woman – she had no legal standing to actually bring her case to court.
Try to imagine that. Imagine the debilitating weight of grief, piled on with an ongoing injustice, and the knowledge that she had no recognized power to do anything about her situation!
It would be pretty easy to lose heart!
Just as it is easy for us… when we are caught in depression, or loss, or any experience that leaves us feeling helpless, unheard, or unseen.
But, again, Jesus’s call into prayer is a direct response to the lure of victimhood. It is a reminder that, however helpless and broken-hearted we might feel, the God of the universe sees us and hears us. We are not alone.
And when we have access to that source of comfort, even the deepest grief does not have to rob us of our voice.
As Pastor-scholar Francisco Garcia explains, “What Jesus does in this parable is challenge the assumption of the helpless widow, giving her agency and authority to challenge corrupt power.”
What about the times when we don’t WANT to challenge power though? What is Jesus’s challenge to us when we are tempted to lose heart in the work of challenging injustice? When the reason we struggle is our own passivity?
This is really the most direct application of today’s parable, because the story does not just speak generically to all kinds of prayer; it speaks directly to the appeal for justice for the oppressed.
It speaks to the need to not lose heart in the fight against the misuse of power.
In the case of the widow, her motivation to keep persisting is obvious, but what about the times when we are not the direct victims of injustice?
The reality is that our world is FULL of examples of how power can be misused: environmental degradations, and racial profiling, and unjust wars, and transphobia, and health care inequities, and, and, and… the list never ends.
And when it’s an issue that doesn’t make an impact in our daily lives… it’s easy to get apathetic. To shrug our shoulders and ask, “what can I do?” To lose heart.
When the local Lutheran pastors gathered for our monthly cluster meeting this week, our devotional time focused on the passage from Esther, chapter 4, where Queen Esther’s cousin, Mordecai, challenges her to take action with her husband, the king, to save her people, the Jews, from a planned slaughter.
In the passage, Esther has lost heart – she thinks she is powerless to do anything, since she cannot legally even approach the king without being summoned.
Mordecai’s response is powerful. He tells her that help WILL COME for the Jews regardless of whether she acts or not… but he doesn’t leave it there. He challenges her to trust that she has been placed in her royal position “for such a time as this.”
In other words, Mordecai does not ground his motivation to act, or his exhortation of Esther, on the assumption that they have to be the ones to solve the problem. He trusts God to be involved regardless.
But he doesn’t let that become an excuse to be passive. He doesn’t let himself or his cousin lose heart.
And, I think that mindset is ultimately what Jesus is calling us to in this parable.
He is telling us to be persistent in our prayer AND in our work for justice not because of the impact we will have on God’s actions, or on the power structures of our time, but because of the impact our prayer will have on us!
Because it will form us into the kind of people who don’t get trapped by frustration, or debilitated by grief, or apathetic in the face of a broken, unjust world.
People who know the responsibility is not all on our shoulders, but who act for justice anyway because we trust God to be in that work with us.
In other words, such a life of prayer will form us into people who LIVE, day in and day out, exactly the kind of faith that Jesus hopes to find on the earth.
Thanks be to God.