Rev. Rebecca Heilman-Campbell
(Luke 18: 1-8)
There’s an old Japanese proverb that goes something like this, “Fall seven times and stand up eight.” “Fall seven times and stand up eight.” Of course, this is a quote about perseverance and the resilience to get right back up when we fall. A modern story I love about perseverance is set in Malawi, Africa in a small village where a drought has gripped the land and its people. William Kamkwamba is a 14-year-old boy where when we were 14, we were bored by school, William on the other hand was trying to sneak into school since his family could not afford the $80 annual tuition fee. William spent a lot of time at the local library when one day he came across the book titled, Using Energy. In this book, it describes how windmills could generate electricity. This is a big deal for William since only two percent of Malawians have electricity and I can tell you from my own experience of traveling to Malawi and Zambia, the electricity that is available is most certainly not reliable. A windmill could change his village. It’s would allow students to study and do schoolwork at night, it could pump water to their dry crops, and save time and energy of not having to spend hours a day to haul water miles away. As William writes in his book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, “A windmill meant more than
just [electrical] power, it was freedom.”1
And so William began to build, using scraps of metal from trash bins, junkyards, and the side of main roads. He made tools our of bicycle spokes and used a stiff piece of wire heated in fire as a soldering iron. William completed his first windmill. That took some time and it was a success. Then he went on to “wire his house with four lightbulbs and two radios, installing switches made from rubber sandals and scratch-building a circuit breaker to keep the thatch roof of his house from catching fire.”2 Since then, he has helped hundreds of thousands of Africans by empowering them with comprehensive plans for solar-powered energy, wind generated electricity, and finding ways to provide clean water by tap instead of a well that’s
miles away.3 While we live in a world with smartphones and AI, there are still people working towards basic electricity and clean water. And one boy’s perseverance can ignite change and hope for a community. Just like our one persistent widow fighting for justice in our story today.
Jesus and his disciples are approaching Jerusalem, towards holy week and as they approach, Jesus continues to teach to his disciples, telling parables and providing lessons for them to take with them after he is gone. As we know about the disciples, they just don’t get it. They have lots of questions about Jesus’s teachings, obscure stories, and his mentioning that his time is coming to an end – what do you mean, Jesus? What do we do until that time and even after that time? We understand, Jesus, the Realm of God will be an era of justice, love, peace, and joy, we know that’s coming, we hear you — but what about all the injustice, hate, conflict, and sorrow here and now? What does faith look like in a world like ours?4
Jesus lived in a time of deep strife. Rome had all the power and the Jews, at that time, were both faithful people and also ingrained into the powers at be. There were persecutions and there was a lot of fear. The first line alone in our text tells us that Jesus is encouraging his disciples “to pray always and not to lose heart.” This suggests that the situation they are in and about to face is bringing great distress and discouragement among the people. There is a longing for change, for goodness and hope, all the things that Jesus has been describing in the chapter right before ours about the kingdom of God. And so Jesus tells them a story about perseverance, resilience and a story on how to hold on to hope, even when God’s kingdom is a ways off.
This is the story. There’s a judge in a certain city who neither fears God nor respects people. And in that city, there is a widow who incessantly keeps standing before the judge asking, “Give me justice in this case against my adversary.” Now widows in our Scriptures are, as one theologian writes, “icons of both vulnerability and tenacity.” In the Hebrew Bible and Jewish culture, it is believed that widows, alongside immigrants, orphans and the most vulnerable people in the community should receive special treatment and respect. Think of Ruth and Naomi’s story. Both widows and immigrants who were permitted to glean food from the leftover crops. This was expected and an act of kindness and justice on account of the farmers. And that’s not to mention that there are many widows in our Scripture that are viewed with respect, strength, and resourcefulness. Not only Naomi and Ruth, but Tamar and Anna as well.
And our widow today lives into these traits. She is persistent. Initially the judge refuses the widow’s ask but she doesn’t stop after his one decree. She persists and persists and persists to the point that the Judge gives in. And he gives in and this is true, this is the original Greek out the text, to avoid being beaten up by her. As one theologian writes, “The NRSV translation [the translation I just read], obscures the almost slapstick tone of the teaching.”5 It is translated plainly, as this, “the judge says, “because this widow causes trouble for me, I will give her justice, so that she may not, in the end, give me a black eye by her coming.” (Luke 18:5). I’m not making this up. The Greek word, hypopiazo, (hypo-pia-zo) means “to give a black eye” and is a term borrowed from boxing! Yes, boxing! Can you imagine? She is that persistent.6
Indeed, a strange story of comfort for Jesus to tell his disciples, especially with an ending like that, but as Jesus’s stories tend to be, there is more, something deeper for the disciples and for us to hear. He’s telling them that even an unjust judge gives in to a persistent woman, imagine what our Just Judge, God, will do for us? Hold on to hope because our Just God loves us and respects us and will be a part of justice here on earth. That is the lesson about God in our text. Here’s the lesson about us. We are called to be tenacious people. People who tirelessly call out for justice, who demand righteousness and greatly honor the most vulnerable. Who trust in God, that in the end, whether it’s today, tomorrow or 20 years from now, justice will be done! For we know that one day, God’s kingdom will come, but until that day, we persevere, we fall and then we stand back up and live into hope. And we find the strength to persevere through our faith and trust in God. As one theologian says beautifully, “This is the faith of a tenacious, pesky widow with a wicked right hand.”7
It’s been a hard week for many of us as we watch the news. And I want to be very clear about this, humanity is on the line. There is violence steeped against violence, horror against horror, aggression against aggression. There are thousands of lives that have been lost in the middle east, on both sides. Humanity is on the line. Justice is on the line. And we are in a unique situation as Christians, who share the same God as our Jewish and Muslims siblings, a God who is weeping over that Holy Land as I speak. We are in a unique situation as Christians to love our Godly siblings here in Charlotte, both of them to care for our Godly siblings, both of them, and to condemn vocally the organizations and powers at be that are causing this
violence and war. I won’t say anything more beyond that since it’s such a divided issue just that I recognize the pain this brings for the world, our siblings of faith, both sides, and the fear we all carry right now with what will tomorrow bring. And so we take this story, a story that is about justice and we also look at it as a story about prayer. A reminder that at the very beginning of our Scripture, Jesus tells his disciples that this is a parable about the need to pray continuously and not to be discouraged. And that’s what’s amazing about this story. It’s not a story of a widow bowing her head in a meek way, but rather firmly planting her feet and taking a stand in what she believes.8 I was reminded in my studies of this passage that, “In Jesus’ day, a typical posture of prayer was standing up, arms out, palms up, eyes open, voice clear.”9 A prayer of lament and a prayer of persistent hope. This is the prayer we carry with us this week as the world continues to rumble in violence and deep pain. This is the prayer we are overwhelmed
with as corruption and complacency divides humanity. This is the prayer we are daunted by, exhausted by and yet can’t seem to let go of because in our hearts, we are as persistent as the brave widow. We are, people of faith. We are people of faith. And so people of our just and loving God, hold on to this pray, lift it high with our arms raised for the sake of humanity, for the sake of peace. For the sake of the innocent longing for justice, like our tenacious widow. Hold on to this prayer.