Thoughts and Prayers: The Widow Wins
(Luke 18:1-8)

Sermon by the Rev. Dr. J. Michael Solberg
The Union Church of Hinsdale, August 12, 2018
(with sections borrowed from “The Widow Wins,” 
by Jason Troxler, Duke Chapel, October 17, 2010)

            Our focus this summer in worship has been prayer. In some ways, this focus came about because of the mass murder school shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February.

Following the shooting the Governor of Florida followed a long political tradition and sent his thoughts and prayers to the families of those who were killed. Several of the students told him they didn’t want his thoughts and prayers, they wanted action – they wanted adults in power not to let 18 year olds who have publicly threatened to kill a ton of people, not to be able to buy assault weapons.

Sadly, the phrase thoughts and prayers has become something of a joke. When people with power send thoughts and prayers to victims of policies that the powerful have the ability to change – the victims and anybody with a healthy amount of compassion is gonna say, “You know what, forget you, keep your thoughts and prayers and use the power you have to do something about this – to keep it from happening again.” Be it mass shootings or the zillion other things that aren’t in the headlines, like lead in people’s water, preventable diseases, lack of access to health care, poverty, schools that just warehouse students – forget you, keep your thoughts and prayers and use the power you have to something about it. That’s what anyone under the age of 30 thinks about “thoughts and prayers.”

You know, I think what they want instead is what I would call living prayers.

A living prayer. That’s what the woman in today’s scripture passage is. Remember the first line of this passage? “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” This is a parable about prayer and encouragement not to lose heart.

“In a certain city,” Jesus says, “there was a judge who neither feared God or respected people.” The judge was crooked, shameless. He didn’t care what other people thought. He didn’t care what God thought. His decisions bore little resemblance to what was right. He was unfair, unjust.

The judge was perhaps a lot like life in a fallen world. Unfair, unjust.

But in that city with the unjust judge there was this widow. In the Bible, widows are sometimes stock characters who represent the most powerless people in society. Without a husband, they are poor and vulnerable, without property or legal rights, and they are expected to play the part. No one is less likely to be able to stand up for themselves than widows. But his woman, she comes to the judge and said, “Grant me justice in my case.” As you would expect, the unjust judge just smacks down the gavel and shoos her away without hearing her case: maybe because she won’t pay him his standard bribe, maybe because he’s afraid of her more powerful opponent and he knows she’s a nobody in comparison, maybe because he’s too busy and just doesn’t care about some emotional widow. Either way, the widow is ignored and sent on her way.

Now many of us, if we were in this widow’s shoes in that place and time, we might have lost heart. We might have gone home and licked our wounds. We might have sighed and said, “Life isn’t fair: You can’t fight city hall.” Just like we say, “There is little we can do about gun violence in Chicago. There is little we can do about bad schools in poor neighborhoods.” We might resign to the system as it is and try our best to move on with our lives in an unjust world.

But that’s not what this stubborn widow does! She doesn’t lose heart, she stiffens her backbone. She wakes up in the morning, pulls her wrap tight around her, walks with purpose to the courthouse, storms into that courtroom like a tornado, marches right up to the front. The judge, probably sitting high up in authority, stares down at this poor little woman beneath the bench and says, “You again? What do you want?”

And this wonder-widow just looks up at him and articulates every word: “I want justice, and you’re going to give it me, you hear?” And that little uppity widow causes such a commotion that the bailiffs have to come and drag her out of there with her protesting the whole way. But that doesn’t stop her: the very next day, she gets up again, stomps uninvited into the courtroom again like she owns the place. And this time she’s carrying a great big picket sign with Deuteronomy 10:17-18: “For the LORD your God is LORD of lords . . . (who) is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow.” A reporter there to cover a different story about someone who matters, notices the ruckus and starts to take notes. The judge blushes, throws up his hands, doesn’t know what to do, so he orders the bailiffs to haul her out again.

But she comes again the next day, when there are a few more reporters there, and she is wearing a T-shirt that has across the front, “Your Honor Has No Honor.” Her photo gets in the paper with a sympathetic headline. And she comes again the next day. And the next day. And the next day. Every day. It gets so bad that she gets to know the bailiffs by their first names, asks about their families on her way in and says see you tomorrow each time they carry her out.

That widow is on that judge like a flea on a dog. She is creative and relentless. Every day, she keeps coming, and coming, blitzing this poor judge. This widow knows life isn’t fair, especially for widows, but that doesn’t mean that she’s just going to roll over and take it. She knows that she may not have a lawyer, but maybe she’s read enough of the Bible to know that God is the public defender of the poor, that there is a lot bigger bench and a lot higher court than this one that is going to eventually make a ruling in this case. So she does not lose heart. She keeps coming, keeps coming, keeps coming, pummeling the unfairness of life and the unfairness of that judge. Finally the judge realizes he has lost control of the narrative. He can’t put a poor helpless widow in handcuffs and hope to get reelected, even if his PAC does run that attack ad they’ve been working on. And now this relentless widow is making such a public spectacle of shaming him that the TV crews are there every day and he can’t help but worry about what the wonder-widow is going to come up with next. So the judge says, in a more literal translation of the Greek, “Because this widow wears me down, I will avenge her, lest by her persistence, she gives me bruises.”

The widow wins! The widow wins.

But again, Jesus says this is a parable about prayer. But in the story, we never once hear the woman pray. What we see is the woman acting to demand justice. This woman is a living prayer.

It’s not, Jesus says, that God is like the unjust judge whom you have to badger into submission to get any kind of response. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Jesus says, “If even a powerless unnamed widow can get justice from a corrupt judge with nothing but sheer, raw persistence, imagine how much more quickly justice will be granted when God’s BELOVED become living prayers, crying out to God every night and work every day, so they might partner with God to bring about the justice they are seeking.” “I tell you,” Jesus says, “God will quickly, suddenly grant justice to them.”

This is a parable about a living prayer. Jesus is not talking about prayer that is some serene supplication that is soothing sedative for the spirit. It is not prayer that helps us accept our situation in life and anesthetize our anxieties. It is not a prayer to enlarge our territory or our bank account. No, the kind of prayer Jesus is talking about is wonder-widow-type prayer, squeaky-wheel prayer, thy-kingdom-come, thy-will-be-done-on-earth prayer, prayer that won’t accept anything less than what’s right, upper-cut prayer that gives sin and meanness and inhumanity and unfairness a black eye.

The great preacher Tom Long tells the story of the day that the late Mother Teresa of Calcutta went to visit prominent Washington lawyer and sports owner Edward Bennett Williams. Mother Teresa was raising money for an AIDS hospice, and the attorney Williams was in charge of a small charitable foundation that she hoped would help. Williams, though, was reluctant: he thought, “I really don’t want to make a contribution, but I’ve got this Catholic saint coming to see me, so what do I do?” He decided to hear Mother Teresa out and then politely tell her “No.”

Soon enough little Mother Teresa was sitting across the attorney’s big mohagony table, a little widow-looking woman in a white sari looking up at the man in gold cufflinks and a designer suit. Mother Teresa talked about the work of the Hospice, and then made her request for help. Williams listened patiently and then said, “Mother, we are very touched by your appeal, and your wonderful work, but unfortunately, the answer has to be “No”.” Mother Teresa said, “Let us pray.” They bowed their heads and she prayed. But Long says that after the prayer, Mother Teresa made the same exact pitch for the hospice, word for word, as she had before. Williams again politely said no. Mother Teresa said, “Let us pray.” Edward Bennett Williams, exasperated, looked up at the ceiling and said, “All right, all right, all right, I’ll get my checkbook.”

“Do justice. Let us pray. Do justice. Let us pray. Do justice, let us pray.” And the widow wins.

For Mother Teresa, and for her Lord, prayer is not the opiate of the people, it’s caffeine for the world-changers. The theologian Karl Barth once wrote that when we clasp our hands in prayer, we are participating in an uprising against the injustice and disorder of the world. A world made right comes not only through the picket line or the protest march or the policy decision, but through the prayer closet, where we are grounded in God and shaped like Christ, and become the people God wants us to be.

Amid a life where all things are intimately connected with one another, from the nation-state down to the quark, the gift of prayer allows us to cooperate with God in summoning a new future into being.

So keep on praying, Jesus says, don’t lose heart, not even tomorrow: your prayers are heard, and justice is coming. Whatever we may be tempted to think, our prayers for justice do not connect us to some heavenly call center where we are put on hold and assured “Your call is important to us” while we remain eternally stranded in the bureaucracy of blessing. No. Neither does prayer put us at the back of the line of an over-full court docket, where we are treated like a number and our case won’t be heard or months. Our prayers, our deep heartfelt cries for justice, for what is right, are heard – and God turns us into living prayers.

When a newborn infant cries out for its parents in the middle of the night, her parents jerk immediately awake in the bed, because even in their sleep their ears are attuned to the cries of their child. So too is God attuned to cries of all of God’s children, day or night. And yet . . . and yet . . . there is the ending of this story. Jesus knows all too well that we live in a fallen, widow-making world that is often an unjust judge, that often seems to neither fear God or respect people, a world in which life is often unfair. It is a world in which there is a mysterious delay between our prayers for justice being heard, and our prayers for justice being answered: we live in that time between the cry in the night and the parent rushing into the nursery. For some, that delay may last until the world to come. That agonizing delay is enough to make us lose heart, perhaps to make us give up on prayer altogether. How long, O LORD?

And that’s why at the end of this parable Jesus, turns that question of “How Long” back around to us. He asks this poignant question that is left hanging in the air: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Will there be anyone audacious enough to still be asking for a better world, to believe that our prayers matters enough to become living prayers? Will we cry out day and night for the justice this world so desperately needs, that we need – or will we be too busy or sophisticated for that?

When God’s day is here, will there still be a people who refuse to confuse this world’s “No” with God’s final answer? How long would you wait? Wait and pray and act? Will Jesus, our Ruler and Guide, find anyone as indomitable as that widow, as indomitable as he himself was, who won’t stop praying and seeking justice, even if it means a cross?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu was one of the leaders in the church struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and he is a man deeply grounded in prayer. He and those he lead prayed regularly every day, especially on days when they confronted power. And when he talked to the powers that be, he would say, “We want justice, and we believe that one day God will give us that justice. We are inviting you to join the winning side. End apartheid. Come over to the winning side. Because we’ve read the end of this book, the Bible, and we know who wins!”

And, of course, Desmond Tutu was right: the “widows” won.

When the Son of Man comes, will he find such faith on earth?

Will he find such faith in me, in you?

Join the winning side.

Keep on praying.

Give the unjust judges, and politicians, and every other kind of leader of this world (including perhaps ourselves?) some bruises.

Don’t lose heart seeking what’s right.

Be a living prayer.

Because we’ve read the end of this book, and, thanks be to God, we know who wins: the widow wins!