Several years ago, deep within the news coverage of terrible events in Myanmar, a BBC reporter shared the story of Ma Theda, a writer and doctor who was held in solitary confinement for six years after she wrote against the abuses in the government there. When asked how she survived those long years of waiting and suffering, first she cited books, which were like “vitamins” to the prisoners, and then she described her spiritual life. The reporter said that, as a Buddhist, Ma Theda meditated 18-20 hours a day.[i]
Can you imagine that? Meditating, praying for 18 hours a day?
As I indicated in the introduction to this text, our passage this week from Luke is about that waiting and about not being discouraged, not losing heart. Like Ma Theda, we are being encouraged to be persistent in prayer; persistent in hope.
Now, traditionally, this passage has been viewed as an instruction to “nag” God with our repeated requests, so that God, like a weary and worn-down parent, will eventually give in and give us what we want. But that interpretation falls short of Luke’s intention here. I spoke last week about a thread that’s running though this part of Luke’s Gospel and that thread is grace. And today’s passage is no exception.
Chapter 18 begins by taking that mantel of grace and expanding upon it. What do I mean? Well, consider if you will, the deeper message of this text; a message about sitting quietly in the presence of the Sacred and then taking the fruits of that time spent with God and transforming them into acts of justice. “For goodness’ sake,” Jesus says, “if an unjust, disrespectful judge who’s afraid of nobody and nothing, hears the case of a poor widow just to avoid getting nagged or embarrassed by her constant pleading, well, then, how much more will God–the God of justice and compassion, the God of the ancient prophets, the God on the palm of whose hand our names are carved–how much more will that God hear the prayers of God’s own children who cry out day and night from their suffering and their need?” Jesus is teaching us something important here about the nature of the God to whom we pray. And what does that nature look like? Well, once again, Jesus uses a figure from the very edges of society to teach his followers this lesson.
You know, the word for ‘widow’ in Hebrew literally means ‘silent one’ or ‘one unable to speak.’ And that makes perfect sense in this patriarchal context where only male voices were heard. Women weren’t allowed to speak on their own behalf. So, this “silent one” was acting outside the norm, outside the boundaries of what it meant to be a woman, literally, outside the Law, when she found her voice and spoke up for herself. Maybe it’s because she knew that there was a special place for her in the heart of God, as the Bible often says. Widows and orphans, refugees and immigrants, strangers who find themselves living in a foreign land, are all very close to the heart of God and the focus of God’s concern. Why? Because these are the “least of these” that Jesus commends us to care for in Matthew 25.
Now, it makes sense at this point to ask ourselves who “the widows” are in our time: the ones without a voice who speak out against injustice. The recent reaction to Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist, is a good illustration of how the highest and mightiest feel threatened by the persistent and righteous protests of those “little ones” they would like to dismiss.[ii]
Greta is only one example of many when it comes to climate change. Young people all across our nation are raising their voices, organizing marches, and presenting educational events. I mean, look at the amazing turn out in Ashland last month at the climate march; an event primarily organized and led by our young people. I’ve also heard the voices of high school age people outraged to the point of action concerning the events on our southern border. I heard many articulate voice come to the microphone at General Synod and speak to all sorts of justice issues for the perspective of the next generation. And these speeches were moving! “Let the children come,” Jesus said, “and do not stop them, for the realm of God belongs of such as these.”
You know, as I say this, I’m reminded of another story; another story of a young woman’s persistence in the face of injustice. This story takes place during a famine, a man took a wife and together they had two sons. As the years passed, however, the man died leaving his widow in the care of her two sons, who also had married but had not yet had any children. Now, this living arrangement worked for about 10 years until suddenly both sons died, leaving their mother and her two daughters-in-law to fend for themselves. And as you know, women fending for themselves in the ancient mid-east was a bad idea.
So, the mother-in-law, being from another country originally, decided to return to her home, and she urged her daughters-in-law to return to their families and find new husbands. And that’s what one of the daughters-in-laws did, but he other refused. “Where you go I will go;” she insisted, “where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16)
Now, you’ve probably already you figured out that this is the story of Ruth from the Hebrew Scriptures and her persistence in going with her mother-in-law Naomi into a dangerous foreign land. There as an easier option, a safer way, but Ruth was loyal to her mother-in-law, she loved Naomi, and didn’t want to see any harm come to her. And it was because of that love, that unconditional, put-yourself-out-there kind of love, that the two of them ended up finding their way.
And in a very real way, it’s this same kind of “Ruthian” persistence that God is calling us to demonstrate. Yes, this parable is framed by references to prayer and faith, and these things are important! But the emphasis on justice here is striking as Luke continues to expand our understanding of grace to include justice-seeking. And how this justice-infused grace then figures in the confrontation between the vulnerable justice-seeker and the unjust power-holder. In this parable, the powerful and just God takes the place of the unjust judge, granting justice to the most vulnerable ones, the ones who cry out day and night.[iii]
So, what about us? Can we follow the lead of our young people and be persistent in our pursuit of justice? Can we be like Ruth and be persistent in our love of God and neighbor? And can we, as individuals, begin to create the time and space everyday to be in the presence of God? Maybe not 18 to 20 hours a day, but isn’t there an hour or two in your day to just be, to meditate, to pray …and then from those sacred moments, let the spirit of justice flow? And finally, as a community of faith, might we be persistent, even in the face of resistance, even when the odds seem long, might we continue to be persistent in our goal of creating a “just world for all?”
In the name of the One who calls us and challenges us and continues to love each of us unconditionally no matter where we find ourselves on this journey of life and faith. Amen and Amen
[ii] Ibid. Matthews