It turns out that well-known preacher and writer Barbara Brown Taylor has published a sermon on this text from the Gospel of Luke in her book Home By Another Way with the same exact title as I chose for my sermon this morning. Great minds, etc.
Maybe I had her catchy title somewhere in the back of my mind when I was sermon planning, or maybe this is just another subconscious nod to my secret wish to BE Barbara Brown Taylor . . . but I didn’t choose this title intentionally, I promise. When I first realized this coincidence, I thought briefly about the fact that this might be a sign from God that you needed to just hear me read her sermon this morning, but in the end decided you could probably just do that on your own. After all, adapting sermons from another time and another context for your own context—even if you do it honestly—is always tricky business anyway, so I think it’s better to tackle this text for ourselves.
The problem with making this text from the Gospel of Luke our own, though, as we’ll quickly see the closer we look this morning, is that, in effect, we can’t avoid reading someone else’s sermon for another time and another context. “The Parable of the Persistent Widow” as this pericope is commonly labeled, was a sermon of Luke’s, directed at a certain group of people. Contextual! We only find this parable in the Gospel of Luke—no place else—and it’s the first of two pretty preachy segments of teaching from Luke on the subject of prayer.
You’ll see if you look closely, not Luke’s regular reporting of Jesus’ activities and interactions, but a story about Jesus framed by Luke’s very own commentary. In verse one, for example, Luke starts out by telling his readers that Jesus told them a story…then he says what the story is about (just in case anybody’s confused). He tells the story, which we’ll get to in a minute, and then in verse 6, Luke quotes Jesus telling the crowd one more time what the story means—which may, in fact, be an accurate quote of Jesus’, but is probably more likely selective memory or a sneaky literary trick to underscore a point one more time.
This framing—commentary by Luke at the start and at the finish of the parable—is what clues us in to the fact this this parable is so very, very contextual. Luke stuck this little story in his Gospel, as well he should have, for the benefit of his specific audience—to address the things they were living through as they would have been reading his Gospel. Why? Because that’s what good preachers do—speak to the current situation of their audience.
And who was Luke’s audience? Luke was writing about a generation after Jesus died, at the earliest around 60 AD. Most scholars think that Luke also wrote the book of Acts, the story of the early church, and that perhaps the two books were meant to go together.
If we take this to be the context for Luke’s Gospel, then, we will know that the Christians reading his text couldn’t really remember Jesus the person. Maybe some of the older ones had known Jesus in person, but most of the church was made up of new converts and younger folk who, while they fully believed the Gospel message, did not have a first-hand experiential knowledge of Jesus. To make matters worse, they were getting kind of tired of hearing the message that had kept the first generation of Christians going under extreme hardship: that Jesus was on his way back, imminently, and that if they could just hold on, he would be there soon to make everything right.
See, in the meantime, they were a tiny, persecuted minority in the huge Roman Empire. While they’d had to be careful immediately after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, the political and cultural pressure had continued to mount, and, well, life just wasn’t all that fun for them. At all. They were tired and discouraged and losing heart; they didn’t know what the future held for them; they were close to giving up, because, let’s be honest, this whole following Jesus thing was not exactly as great as they had envisioned when they started.
So this was the context into which Luke made the decision to put this little parable, which was completely ironic and totally, ridiculously unrealistic, bracketed by his own commentary just in case nobody got the point. Here’s the story he told:
In a certain city there was a judge who was corrupt and a widow who needed justice. The widow begged and begged, so much that the judge got sick and tired of listening to her. Just to make her shut up, he gave her what she wanted. The end.
All of these details: the city, the judge, the widow…they were included to underscore the fact that this was not a historically specific story; this was a symbolic story, meant to be stereotypical.
The city is not a specific city; it could have been any city.
As for the judge, well, he was a politician, someone who wielded power and brokered influence, who kept his job by making and keeping the right people happy. The people back then knew without even thinking about it, and we, of all people, residents of Washington, DC, should know: who could be more notoriously corrupt than a person who deals in power and influence?
The widow? Well, everyone knew that widows were the most vulnerable members of society. Women in general had it tough…consider: an unmarried woman was not allowed to leave her father’s home alone; a married woman her husband’s. Women could not testify in court. They could not appear unaccompanied by a man in any public venue. Women were never allowed to talk to strangers. Whenever the occasion arose for them to go out in public, accompanied, they were required to wear two veils. The plight of a widow was dire. She had no protection, and in order to advocate for herself as the persistent widow in Luke’s parable did, she would have had to be seriously breaking the laws of the time. And everybody listening would have known that when Luke talked about a widow, he was talking about someone who was utterly desperate, vulnerable, and weak.
Talk about stereotypes! Thinking in extremes, Luke had picked out the most corrupt and the most vulnerable members of society to underscore the point he was trying to make. And, while you could argue a couple of different positions, when we’re wondering exactly what Luke meant by all of this, it’s probably best to just take him at his word…since he told us what he meant, after all. Twice. Writing to people who were discouraged and persecuted, Luke was reminding them not to give up…never to lose heart…to keep showing up, no matter how vulnerable they felt or how hopeless the situation seemed, to keep hanging on to what they hoped and dreamed for, because somehow, some way, even in the face of evil and corruption, it will come to be.
Luke was a good preacher, and he knew his people, so we can only assume that the story he told met a need in the context it was delivered. And that’s great, except it leaves us scratching our heads a little bit and wondering what exactly this parable might mean for us. After all, I think we would be stretching things a little too far to take the position that we are vulnerable and persecuted, as the early Christians were. Yeah, we’re really not. At all. So, since that application doesn’t hold water even a little bit, what might it mean for us?
This parable means, a lot of preachers would say, that if we want something from God, we just need to pray. Not getting any results? Pray harder! Still nothing? Must not be praying hard enough, so try again. Try and try and try—keep trying—until God finally gives in and gets you what you want, if only to make you shut up. This sounds a little too blunt, I know, but if you want to put some really nice, spiritual language around the point, you can easily use Luke’s words: “Don’t lose heart! Keep praying! God will answer your prayer!”
It may not surprise you to know that I have a few issues with this much-too-easy interpretation of the parable for our modern lives. For one thing, it really does not say much of anything good about God. If we read the parable this way, God becomes either a disinterested authority figure who finds humanity annoying or an easily manipulated puppet who, if we approach him in the right way, will give us whatever we want. If we were to tell it this way, why, you could just retell the Middle Eastern folktale of Aladdin, the ne’er do well who, though various circumstances, found himself in possession of a magic lamp that, when he rubbed it, gave him everything he’d ever dreamed of.
And not only does that interpretation of the text not accurately depict the Gospel Jesus preached, it just doesn’t work that way . . . and I think, even just using my own life for reference, that I can say that with all confidence and conviction.
See, it’s always a bad idea to take scripture out of context and preach it with general and sweeping applications. It’s not only inaccurate, but it can also teach things about God and the life of faith that are harmful and even destructive. I think we can all agree that we’d never want to misuse scripture in that way.
But that leaves us still with the question of how exactly we, the people of Calvary Baptist Church, need to read and hear the words of Luke’s Gospel this morning. And I guess, if we’re being true to Luke’s original teaching strategy, we’ll need to ask ourselves what we know to be true about God as taught to us in the life and witness of Jesus Christ as we consider how these truths can help us apply this parable to our own, 2010 Washington, DC context. So, here we go.
We’ll begin by noting that we are about as unlike the Christians to whom Luke was writing as just about anyone ever has been. Last time I checked, even here in the big city, we were not generally considered a tiny, oppressed minority. And, while I do often have to fight to convince the people who validate parking at the hospital that I am not lying when I tell them I am a minister, even I wouldn’t really say that falls into the category of persecution. We’re still waiting for Jesus to come back, it’s true, and our world is riddled with injustice and pain, but in general I am going to say that we don’t live every moment in utter disappointment that the rapture didn’t come yesterday as planned. There are thousands of years of distance between the urgent desperation of the early Christians and our own elusive hope that something is going to happen sometime but we’re not sure what.
But I can say that, while it might be different than that of the early Christians, our context is also one in which we are dogged by hopelessness from time to time. There are some days when we wonder, even if we don’t have the courage to say it out loud, if God is really listening to what we have to say because, well, there’s quite a bit around here that needs divine intervention. We look around at our lives and our community and our world and, well, let’s be honest: it’s not hard to feel doubtful.
We want to be hopeful people of faith. We know we have it way better than the first Christians, who were scared for their lives every single day and who surely felt very urgently a sense of God’s abandonment as they waited for what they believed was right around the corner but it never seemed to arrive. But we still feel alone sometimes, and we wonder if God will come quickly to help us, that God will keep our lives, as the Psalmist insists, or whether we’re offering up our deep pain and hopeless wondering to an empty, dark void.
Our Calvary context this morning specifically is the context of stewardship, of the reminder that all of our lives belong, not to us, but to God. And we’ve each been led in one way or another to plant our lives in this place, in this community of faith, to live in community with each other remembering always that corporately and together: we belong to God.
It all sounds great at first, doesn’t it? This is a beautiful church, with wonderful, friendly diverse and different people! We challenge each other to live the radical Gospel Jesus came to preach as we grow and build this community of faith together, tending it carefully and making it ready for those who are still in need of a place like Calvary Baptist Church.
Aww, that’s so nice. I think we can all remember the first blush of love, when we encountered this family of faith and found, unbelievably, the perfect place for us.
But, life goes on, as it has a tendency to do. This beautiful church becomes the subject of long and (some would say) torturous committee meetings during which we struggle with all our might to take care of this physical plant we’ve inherited. And this wonderful, friendly, diverse community of faith, with a little bit of living, almost inevitably from time to time becomes a community of . . . human beings, that is, people who are sometimes not so friendly, who often don’t understand each other, and who, even despite their best efforts, sometimes allow their differences to divide them rather then bring them together.
And the discovery that this place, this holy, wonderful place, is not as perfect or beautiful or spiritual fulfilling all the time as we had originally thought . . . well, this can be a little disillusioning, can’t it? We can get dismayed that we thought we had found a perfect respite from the rest of the world, but some days it can seem just as devoid of God as everything else. And those thoughts are enough to maybe even make you want to pack it all in and head home, sure that God isn’t listening right now and might never have been at all.
Perhaps Luke, if he had been writing to us, would have said that it’s here, in these moments, that the parable of the persistent widow speaks to our context.
And perhaps we, Calvary Baptist Church, are called upon to remember on this day that the life of faith we’ve set out on . . . the challenge of following Jesus Christ . . . is not like the fable of Aladdin at all, but maybe more like something another focus of modern cinema said. It was Woody Allen, who does not make animated movies at all, who said, “90% of life is just showing up.”
How better could we, the people of Calvary Baptist Church, live the lives of faith we’ve been given in a world devoid of faith and lacking in hope, than remembering that we belong, not to the many things that pull at our lives demanding our attention or to the whims that drive our behavior most of the time, but rather . . . we belong to God.
And because we belong to God, we will keep offering everything we have and everything we are with the brave and faith-filled hope that God is here, and God’s work is well underway.