Losing Heart

Luke 18:1-8
David A. Davis
October 16, 2022
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Jesus told the disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. A parable about how they “ought always to pray and not to faint”.  Jesus told them a parable to “show them that they should always pray and never give up. The parable comes here in Luke after a few tough parables that begin with “there was rich man”. When a parable begins “There was a rich man”, its not going to an easy one. After a few parables about a rich man, after Jesus teaches about mustard seed faith and forgiveness, after Jesus tells the one about the leper who came back to say thank you, after Jesus tells the disciples about the days of suffering that were surely to come: suffering for the Son of Man, suffering in the world when the Son of Man is to be revealed, suffering in the life of discipleship, shortly after Jesus in Luke proclaims  “those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it” After all that in Luke, right then in Luke, Jesus tells them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.

In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God not had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to the judge to ask for justice in a particular case. The judge refused for a while, maybe for a long while, maybe a good long while. Then like a ruthless politician that so often confirms the worst fears people have about a person, the judge confirms that he has no fear of God nor respect of people. “Yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out”.  The judge making himself look all the worse complains that the widow is just going to wear him out with her persistent whining.” Jesus told them this parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.

Tradition and bible editorial committees most often label Luke 18:1-8 “the parable of unjust judge”. Newer editions sometimes give equal billing calling the section “the parable of the judge and widow.” The protagonist in the parable is clearly the widow not the judge. One would think if you had to give the parable a title you would call it “the parable of the persistent widow”. After all, Jesus told them the parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. While one can imagine that a more accurate labeling of the parable didn’t happen until women gained a seat at the editors’ table and pointed out to the men that the widow was the one not giving up and losing heart, my hunch is that the historic focus on the judge is more a result of the problematic interpretive move that casts the judge in the god-like role. It’s such a common approach to parables; to try to assign every role, to try to turn the parable into an allegory.

It is true that with his own commentary after the parable ends, Jesus offers a comparative reference to God; “Will not God grant justice to God’s chosen ones who cry to God day and night? Will God delay long in helping them? I tell you, God will quickly grant justice to them.” Notice when it comes to Jesus’ take on the judge, there is both comparison and contrast when it comes to the ways of God.  An effort to stretch further in portraying the non-God fearing judge as a god-character is misguided. But John Calvin himself in writing about this parable states that “the point of it is that God does not help God’s people immediately because in a sense God wants them to tire themselves out with praying.” Really, John?

The parable is not comparing prayers and a cry for justice to bothering God. Nor is it providing an object lesson to support intercessory prayer and how or why it works. It would seem Luke’s Jesus could not have been more clear; he told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. So the take away for the listener, for the reader, for all who encounter the parable of the persistent widow, the take away isn’t to figure it out, or to claim a mental victory, or to squeeze the life out of it interpretively, or to dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s and make sure to use your highlighter….the take away is to pray always and not lose heart. “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Will he find his disciples crying day and night for justice, praying always, and not losing heart?

Praying always.  Pray in the Spirit at all times (Eph 6). Continue in prayer (Col. 4). Pray without ceasing (I Thes. 5). Praying always. Always praying doesn’t just describe life in a monastery or a daily quiet time that lasts forever or a dinner prayer never missed. Always praying implies a relationship with God, a disciplined commitment to nurture one’s awareness of God and God’s mercy, and an honest openness to the presence of God in every area of life. Always praying. It’s an aspiration to deepen and nurture the gift of faith. An acknowledgment that when it comes to prayer, one can never have enough. Praying always. In the canon of scripture praying always is more of a promise than it is a pipe dream. Fewer promises of God can be more essential to daily life than how the Apostle Paul describes the Spirit interceding for us with sighs too deep for words…for we do not know how to pray as we ought. Always praying.

Praying always isn’t the hardest part, losing heart is. Not losing heart. Not getting discouraged. Not losing one’s passion for righteousness. Not giving up. Not wanting to quit when it comes to working for the kingdom, and serving a vision of the world as God wants it to be, and being an instrument of God’s peace, and believing that mercy and compassion ought to thrive in creation now and not just in the world to come, and living out the conviction that the everflowing stream of  God’s justice and righteousness ought to be gushing forth now in a world so full of resources and wisdom? Not losing heart? Well, that can be the hardest part.

A few weeks ago, I spent a couple days in Richmond, Va. with a peer group of pastors. One of our activities was walking a portion of the enslaved persons’ historical tour in downtown Richmond with two pastors who have worked for decades to learn and tell all of Richmond’s history. One of the pastors is an African American Baptist named Sylvester Turner. Friends call him “T”. The other is white Episcopalian named Ben Campbell.  I would guess they are both in their upper sixties, early seventies. Our docents of city history explained that the enslaved person’s trail came about in the 21st century as Richmond started to come to grips with all of it’s history. A history not full told. A history still being discovered. They told us that in the first half of the 19th century, Richmond had become the very heart and economic engine that of the evil of the domestic slave trade. The buying and selling of enslaved people in auction houses there in the city down the hill from the state capital. A section of the city called “Tobacco Row”.  We stopped at one of the sites that is an archeological site. The site of Lumpkins Slave Jail only unearthed and excavated in the early 2000’s, Lumpkins Jail was described in the discovered writings of enslaved people as “the Devil’s Half Acre”.

We stood at the site just below the elevated I95 running through the center of Richmond, as our leaders had to shout over traffic noise so we could hear. They told us more about Lumpkins Jail. Robert Lumpkin was known for his cruelty and abuse toward enslaved persons. An enslaved woman named Mary was the mother to several of his children and when Robert Lumpkin died that property was turn over to Mary who by that time after emancipation was legally allowed to have ownership. She eventually sold it and the property was the site of a seminary training African American clergy, Richmond Theological Seminary. That became Virginia Union College now University, a historic Black university. The first African American governor of Virginia, Douglas Wilder, was a graduate of Virginia Union College.

The dig has been covered up with layers of earth in order to best preserve it until plans and funds and vision for a proper museum can come to fruition among city and state leaders. We were told that current leaders at both the city and state level including the governor of VA. are now waffling as to the historic development and preservation just down the hill from the state capital and are entertaining other offers for a more profitable redevelopment such as a parking garage. When asked what they thought would happen to the site in the future, the weary episcopalian cited the current debate in VA about how and what to teach when it comes to US history, specifically racial history. He said he thinks they will pave it over and described it as a metaphor for paving over so much of Richmond’s history. He sounded like he had lost heart. The Baptist pastor stood up a bit straighter and disagreed with his friend of forty years. “No, I believe it will happen. It’s God’s work now.”  He preached with confidence.

“Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”

Somewhere, someplace last night a parent or grandparent was joining in the bed time ritual with a very young child. Before prayers and lights out, it’s the reading of a few picture books.  After the first book, the child says “just one more”, and after the second book, “just one more”. “Just one more.”.  Well, the one doing the reading didn’t really want the moment to end either. The parent, the grandparent cherishes every plea because it’s a sacred time. A sacred plea. Just one more.

Some days all you can do is ask Jesus to tell you just more. Just one more Lord. One more about the need to pray always and not to lose heart. Because when the Son of Man comes, the Son of man is going to find faith on earth. By God’s mercy and grace and with a whole lot of sighs of the Holy Spirit too deep for words, folks like you and me, children of God, followers of Jesus, disciples crying day and night for justice, praying always, and not losing heart. Praying always and not giving up. Tell us one more, Jesus, just one more…so we can pray always and not lose heart.