Proper 24C 2004 Genesis 32:3-8, 22-30; Luke 18:1-8a
Jesus told his disciples about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. Be persistent and have hope. Certainly Jacob
wrestling with the angel in the night was persistent and hopeful.
Most of us have heard of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn opposed the powers that be of the Soviet Union long before
its collapse and he spent may years in the prison damps of the Soviet Gulag, about which he wrote that magnificent book, The
During his time in the prison camps along with other prisoners, he worked in the fields day after day, in rain and sun, during
summer and winter. His life seemed to him to have only backbreaking labor and slow starvation in his future. The intense
suffering reduced him to despair, hopelessness.
On one particular day, his despair overwhelmed him completely. He saw no reason to continue his struggle, no reason to keep
on living. His life made no difference in the world. So he gave up.
He recalled that he left his shovel on the ground and slowly walked to a crude bench and sat down. He knew that at any moment
a guard would order him to stand up, and when he failed to respond, the guard would beat him to death, probably with his own
shovel. He had seen it happen to other prisoners.
As he waited, head down, he felt a presence. Slowly he looked up and saw a skinny old prisoner squat down beside him. The
man said nothing. Instead, he used a stick to trace in the dirt the sign of the Cross. The man then got back up and returned
to his work.
As Solzhenitsyn stared at the Cross drawn in the dirt his entire perspective changed. He knew he was only one man against
the all-powerful Soviet empire. Yet he knew there was something greater than the evil he saw in the prison camp, something
greater than the Soviet Union. He knew that hope for all people was represented by that simple Cross. Through the power
of that simplest of Christian symbols -- the Cross -- anything was possible.
Solzhenitsyn slowly rose to his feet, picked up his shovel, and went back to work. Outwardly, nothing had changed. Inside,
he had received hope. (1) From that moment on he persisted in his struggle against his jailers.
Jesus was preparing his disciples for what they would face after his death. Persecution and discouragement lay in their future.
And so he told them the parable of the unjust judge. And certainly the persistence of the widow in the face of the unjust
judge seems at the first level of the parable to have carried the day. But parables always have many levels and this one
is no exception.
Remember the parable of the Shrewd Steward -- also called the Dishonest Steward – who was squandering his master’s
money and was about to be fired. He quickly reduced the debts of the people who owed his master money and for this was commended
by his master. A good thing had happened from an action of a dishonest man.
Likewise in today’s parable, an absolute good came from a disreputable and unjust judge. Just to get rid of the widow,
he granted her appeal for justice. It is interesting that the Greek idiom translated into English for “so that she
may not come and wear me out” is literally “so that she may not finally come and slap me in the face”.
G. K Chesterton used a delightful set of images for this path of persistence. He was asked how he thought people kept being
expectant in the face of death and difficulty. He answered, "They see a track in the snow, a lantern showing a path, a door
set open." These images do seem to be the way. A track in the snow. You find that other people have made it through winter
times, and so you can hope that you can too. Or there is a lantern just at dusk or midnight or 3:00 A.M. In the long dark
night of the soul, some unexpected light appears along the way, or – even better -- there is a door set open. Surely
the persistent widow had little clues along the way. She saw the door set open. The judge didn't have the strength to beat
her. He was a weak man and was weakening even more in the face of her persistence. She saw that the door was ajar, and she
ran for it. She saw hope in her persistence. (2)
Persistence and hope. This parable reminds us not only of our own need to be persistent in prayer and hope but also tells
us something about the God who loves us. It tells us that God is always steadfast and persistent in calling us.
Throughout our lives God calls us. God's call is persistent, and so long as we live it continues. We will never arrive at
the place where we can say, "There, now I've done it all. God will ask no more of me." God's call may be different at different
times in our lives, but there is always more. At times we listen well, at times perhaps not so well, but God's voice is never
stilled. Each time we hear and respond, we become more the person God calls us to be.
The great English poet John Donne (1573-1631) knew something about this persistence of God. Donne is perhaps most well known
for these lines: "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls: It tolls for thee." John Donne was also a priest of the Church of England, and besides being a noted poet
he was also the most famous preacher of his day. It seems he knew that it was not only God who called but also God who gave
the grace to respond. In this poem we see something of Donne's response to the persistent call of God in his life:
Batter my heart, three person'd God, for you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow mee, and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely I love you, and would be loved faine,
But am betroth'd unto your enemie.
Divorce mee, untie, or breake that know againe;
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee. (3)
We all, each and every one of us longs to pray, and to learn to pray, and to persist in our prayer — not so that we
can change God, but so that God can change us, and help us enjoy that fullness of life God intends for us.
The story is told of a girl who watched a holy man praying at the riverbank. Once the man had finished his prayer, the
girl approached him and asked, “Will you teach me to pray?” The holy man studied the girl’s face, and agreed
to her request. He took her into the river. The holy man instructed her to lean over, so her face was close to the water.
The girl did as she was told.
Then the holy man pushed her whole head under the water. Soon the girl struggled to free herself in order to breathe.
Once she got her breath back, she gasped, “What did you do that for?” The holy man said, “I gave you your
first lesson.” “What do you mean?” asked the astonished girl. He answered, “When you long to pray
as much as you long to breathe, then I will be able to teach you how to pray.” (4)
1. From Luke Veronis, “The Sign of the Cross”, Communion, issue 8, Pascha 1997, as told by the Very Rev. Charles
Hoffacker, THE VOICE OF THE WIDOW, Selected Sermon for Proper 24C 2004, Worship that Works, dfms.org.
2. Donna Shaper, Hope in the face of death”, Luke 18:1-8, sermonconnection.com
3. From The Revd Barbara Bream, Selected Sermon for Proper 24C 2001, Worship that Works, dfms.org.
4. Hoffacker, op. cit.