"Daddy, when are we going to the ball game? You promised we would go."
"Yes, son. I promised. We will go. I told you we would go. We'll go."
"Honey, I've tried to tell you for a long time that we're in trouble. And, I've tried to tell you that we need to make the changes you said we would make. You promised that you would do that. You said so a long time ago. Nothing's been done."
"I know I promised. I told you I would, so I will."
Most of us, at one time or another in our lives, have hung on the edge of a promise delayed. We have waited and waited and waited some more for the fulfillment of something that has been promised to us. And you know as well as I do that the longer the delay in the fulfillment of the promise, the more we begin to consider that the promise won't be kept at all. Because, as soon as a promise is made, there is created within us an expectation of fulfillment. And I suspect that emotionally, deep in the deepest recesses of our souls, there's no difference in feeling between a promise long delayed and a promise betrayed. It's painful to wait for what's been promised but not fulfilled.
And, so, when a promise deeply hoped for is delayed, it's easy to lose faith in the one who made the promise. It's easy to lose confidence in that person, easy to lose trust in that person's word. It's easy to become disheartened. And, sometimes, the relationship becomes estranged, if it survives at all. Promises made but long delayed are a hurtful big deal. And promises made but long delayed can strain or adversely influence or interrupt intimacy between people. Promises made but long delayed bring pain to relationships between parent and child, between spouses, between friends.
But, what if the one who made the promise, the promise that's been long delayed, is God? What if someone begins to lose faith in God? What happens when God's confidence is called into question, when someone begins to lose trust in God's word? What if someone becomes disheartened toward God? What if intimacy with God is interrupted? If it's painful, because of a delayed promise, to be estranged from mother or father or sister or brother or spouse, how much more painful must it be to be estranged from the One who is life itself?
That's the very situation our passage of Scripture addresses. Luke is writing to his church several generations after the life and death of Jesus. And from the earliest times that Jesus' followers had tried to make sense of his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, they had hung on the delicious promise that he would return. And they expected his return imminently. And the longer they waited for his return, all the while seeking to be faithful to what he had taught them, the more they experienced despair at the delay of his promised return. And not only were they experiencing despair at the delay, some were also experiencing suffering and abuse. And so the promise of Jesus' return undergirded and overarched their lives. The promise that Jesus would return was the encompassing hope in which they found their rest. Keep in mind, as I've already mentioned, that by the time Luke writes his Gospel, several generations had passed since Jesus' followers first began to hope for his promised return. Mothers had rocked their children to sleep, reminding them that Jesus would return. People had encouraged one another, reminding them that Jesus would return. People were strengthened to face suffering and abuse, because of the promise that Jesus would return. And it is as if they began to say as a people, "How long will you make us wait, Lord? When will we see your face?" As the Psalmist says, "Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Wake up! Do not cast us off forever" (Psalm 44:23).
You can only ask people to hang in there for just so long. After a while, a promise delayed feels just like a promised betrayed. And that's why Luke tells us in the verse that introduces the parable that Jesus told this parable so that people would not lose heart.
And so the parable of the widow and the unjust judge is not so much a parable on how to pray, not so much a parable on steadfastness in prayer, as it is a parable on trust in God to grant justice and to bring vindication to God's people. People in Luke's community were beginning to despair, beginning to lose heart, beginning to question God's promise. And by means of this strange parable, Luke reassures his community that God will keep God's promises, that the day is surely coming, and coming speedily, when God will grant justice to God's faithful ones.
The woman in the parable is a widow. This is noteworthy. Theologian Sharon Ringe says, "A common theme in the Hebrew Bible is the need for people-particularly those in authority-to fulfill God's own purposes by caring for widows and orphans." This theme of care for the widow weaves its way from the beginning to the end of the Old Testament. The specifics of the woman's circumstance do not matter. What matters is that she is among those whom any respectable judge would be seriously obliged to help.
But, as you noticed, this is no respectable judge. Jesus points out that this judge neither fears God nor has any respect for people. Not even a deserving widow is going to get a good hearing from him.
But, this is no ordinary widow. This woman is bold and brash, even uppity. She keeps demanding her justice even though her chances of success are little and none, saying, "Grant me justice against my opponent."
And for a while, the judge refuses. But, finally, he relents, saying, "I have no fear of God. I have no respect for anyone. But, dadgummit, I'm going to do what this woman asks, because she keeps bothering me, and I don't want her to wear me out by continually coming." The Greek word translated "wear me out" literally means to "strike under the eye" or to "give a black eye."
"This woman is going to give me a black eye if I don't give her what she wants" is the judge's way of saying that her unrequited claims for justice are a visible mark to everyone in the community of his failure as a judge, says Ringe. And while the judge doesn't care about anybody else, I can bet you he cares what everybody else thinks about him. And so in order to avoid the black eye, he gives in.
Now, this parable is not an allegory. God is not like a crusty old judge who doesn't care. The form of the parable is from lesser to greater, theologian Fred Craddock says. If a judge who does not care will do this for a widow woman, then how much more will God, who loves justice and does care, do for God's people?
So Luke means to say to his church, in danger of becoming disheartened in the face of the delayed promise of Jesus' return, "Don't lose heart. Trust in God. Be confident in God. God is faithful. God will deliver. God will keep God's promise. God is trustworthy. Wait for the Lord. And as you wait, wait trusting, not despairing."
And if the parable addresses itself to prayer, this is where it does so. The parable teaches us that prayer is work, because our prayers for the things we most deeply need are often met with long periods of silence from God. Craddock writes that prayer is hard work because the human experience is often an experience of waiting in the face of delay. The man who taught me to preach tells of a gathering of a group of people concerned with injustice and oppression in our society. An elderly black minister at that gathering read this parable, and in one sentence summarized the whole thing. "Until you have stood for years knocking at a locked door, your knuckles bleeding, you do not really know what prayer is," Craddock says.
To listen to some in the world today, prayer is easy. To listen to some, prayer is the way we get our spiritual goodies. Or to listen to others, prayer is the way we get our material goodies. Or for others, prayer is the answer place, where God clearly addresses all of our questions and places our souls forever at ease. Maybe I've missed something, but I've never experienced prayer in that way. Prayer has always cost me more than it's given. And, to my knowledge, prayer has never yielded me a car or a wad of bills or a parking place at the mall. And call me crazy, but prayer has always generated for me more questions than answers. I've never quite grasped the notion of prayer as the divine vending machine. Put in your faith. Be sure to put in enough. Pull the lever. Get what you want or what you think you need. Prayer for me has always felt more like wrestling. In prayer, I have often felt like Jacob, who wrestled with God, struggled with God, through the long night until the break of day. That's why the people in my life who have taught me most about prayer aren't the ones who have all the answers. The people in my life who have taught me the most about prayer are the ones who have practiced hopeful and confident prayer in the face of God's silence.
Most of life, at least as I have experienced it, is characterized by waiting with questions rather than being bathed in answers. Why do you think the Scriptures are filled with images of waiting upon God? Why do you think the Scriptures so frequently ask God to explain God's delay? How many times have you prayed and prayed and prayed and prayed some more for one of God's promises to be fulfilled in your life only to hear God's long silence? And this juncture, this experience of delay, represents the moment of spiritual crisis, of abundant opportunity. What will I do? How will I be in the face of the silence? What is my response to the delay of the promise? Is it to despair? Is it to reach for easy answers because I'd rather have an easy answer now than to wait patiently for the authentic one? Is it to abandon my hope and my confidence in God?
No. In the face of a delayed promise, pray like an uppity widow giving a black eye to an unjust judge. Pray boldly, audaciously, without ceasing. But, above all else, pray in trust and confidence and hope in God, who is worthy of that. Don't pray in despair. Don't lose heart. God will come to you.
"If it seems to tarry," the prophet Habakkuk says, "wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay." And the Psalmist says, "Why are you cast down, O my soul, why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God" (42:5).
You see, the time we spend in hopeful and confident prayer, in the face of promises delayed, in the face of long seasons of silence, is the time that transforms us into the vessels that will be able to hold the answer when it finally comes, writes Craddock. Praying with patience and hope in the face of such dryness, praying with patience and hope in the face of such silence, leads us into what Thomas Merton calls "pure prayer," prayer that is no longer focused on the self, prayer that's no longer even focused on the prayer, but prayer which through days of seasoning has come to focus the soul completely and utterly on God.
And Jesus concludes the parable with a skewering question. "When the Son of Man does come, will he find faith on earth?" Will our souls still be alive in God, in spite of the promise's delay? Or will he find us having given up, having capitulated to despair? When the answer to the prayers we have prayed and prayed and prayed finally comes, how will we be found? Will our hearts still be open to receive the answer we've sought for so long? Will our lives still be turned Godward? Will we have walked through the refining fire of the promise's delay to the point that we have been remade into a vessel that can truly contain the answer? Or will we have turned instead to resentment or bitterness or despair? How will the coming of the answer find you?
Disciples of Jesus Christ, those who have been taught to pray as he prayed, are like bold, audacious, uppity widows who demand justice from a crooked judge. Prayer is the medium through which we wear God out, if need be, through which we give God a black eye, through which we boldly remind God of God's promises, until the answer comes. Prayer is the medium through which we commune with God, through all the seasons of life, especially the ones that are parched and dry. Prayer is the medium through which we ready ourselves for the answer, since I suspect we are seldom ready to receive God's answer when we first place the request.
As for me, I'm not going to give in to despair. There are parched places in my life today. There are answers I want that I have not yet been given. There are promises God has made to me that have yet to be fulfilled. There are spots in my bones that are weary and places in my soul that are dry. So, what? Am I going to give up? Despair? Allow my relationship with God to suffer? God is the only hope I have. Of all of the relationships I need, my relationship with God is the highest. I'm not closing up emotional shop in my relationship with God. I will keep my heart open in the face of delay. I will trust God in the face of delay. I will try to act every day like that uppity widow, asking until I finally receive, knocking on the door until it finally unlocks, flinging my prayer into the silence until the answer finally comes. People who do that will rejoice with unspeakable rejoicing when their vindication finally arrives.
As they carry me to my grave one day, you might say, "He was crazy to believe all that time. What a fool." Maybe so. But the widow never turned away, never gave up, never lost heart. Neither will I. Neither will you. Amen.