Right now we find ourselves in the time of the year that the church calls “ordinary time.” Ordinary time is the long interval that stretches from Pentecost to Advent, and it’s called ordinary not because it’s mundane or plain but because it is numbered: In Latin “ordinary” just means numbered in order. You may remember from math class that ordinal numbers are those that simply proceed one after another by whole integers, and that’s the way this time of the year marches on too, one Sunday after another following Pentecost: first Sunday after Pentecost, second Sunday after Pentecost, and so on to the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost and beyond.
Now it’s not hard to see how the meaning of the word “ordinary” drifted from simply suggesting one after another in good order to implying featureless or even a bit boring. Ordinary time is not supposed to be boring of course, but without any great milestones to break up the sequence of one Sunday after another we can wonder during ordinary time about what is it exactly we are doing here. What is going to happen next? Is anything exciting around the corner or is it just more of the same?
Today’s parable from Luke’s gospel, which is actually a very strange one, a bit hard to understand perhaps, I believe is one that is especially appropriate to ordinary time.
Our Lord tells this parable while he is on his way to Jerusalem, where his ministry on earth will be fulfilled in his death and resurrection. On the way to Jerusalem he heals the sick, he casts out demons, he preaches to the people he meets on his way, and he teaches his disciples in parable like this one. We too are on the way, and ordinary time is an especially fitting time of year to dwell on what it means to be on the way, how it is that we too are journeying toward our true home.
Luke actually gives away the ending of the parable at the beginning: he tells us straightaway what the lesson of this parable is: it is about our need “always to pray and not lose heart.” We know from the outset then that the story to come is about how we must persevere and remain in prayer. How then does Jesus teach us this?
He gives us a story about a judge who he says neither feared God nor had regard for people. If you think for a moment about what Jesus proclaimed as the great commandments—that we love God and love others, that this is the whole of the Law and prophets, to love God and to love others—then we will realize that this judge is pretty much the opposite of what we would hope for from a righteous person. The righteous love God and love other persons; this judge does neither.
And this judge, who fails so obviously when it comes to love of God and love of others, is pestered by a widow who has a case against someone who has deprived her of her rights. Let’s do remember that a widow in the time of Christ would have no one to help her defend her rights. Without a husband she was vulnerable, but by the law of Moses as expressed in Deuteronomy, a judge was particularly obliged to defend the rights of widows. Deuteronomy 27:19 says “cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.” This judge has got to know that he is acting in contradiction to this explicit law of God proclaimed through Moses. And yet he refuses a legitimate grievance on this part of this widow.
Why does he refuse? I get the sense that he refuses not because he is a truly horrible malicious person but because he simply cannot be bothered. He may be just lazy, so indifferent that he figures it is not worth his trouble to actually do right by this widow. But in the end he decides, for what are clearly selfish reasons, to grant the widow her demand to be vindicated before the bar of justice in her claim. And he does so not for high-minded reasons, not because he is such a God-fearing or justice-loving person but because he just doesn’t want to put up with this poor woman bothering him endlessly. She presents every indication of being ready to wear him out.
Now that is clearly not a praiseworthy reason for doing the right thing, as our Lord establishes in verse 6: “Hear,” he says, and I think he says this with quite a bit of sarcastic humor, “hear what the unrighteous judge says.” It’s as if Jesus is saying, “Can you believe what this man has to say for himself, just listen to how he justifies his behavior:” “I will vindicate her or she will wear me out by her continual coming.”
Now here is the key point. Luke loves this kind of story; his gospel is full of parables that work in this clever way. Jesus basically says if a judge who doesn’t fear God and has no regard for his fellow human beings, if a judge who simply can’t be bothered, a judge who is lazy and indifferent, if a judge like that can actually give justice to someone who deserves it, if a judge like that can for once in his life BE just, then how much more is it the case that God Almighty, who rules as creator and judge of the entire universe and all who live therein, how much more is it obvious that God will give justice where it is deserved. “Will not God vindicate his elect who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over helping them? I tell you, he will vindicate them speedily.”
The unrighteous judge drags his feet, takes his sweet time in granting what he knows to be the right outcome to a legitimate claim brought to him by a vulnerable and defenseless plaintiff. Will God take such a long time to grant justice? No, Jesus says, no, he will grant justice very quickly.
How can that be? Doesn’t it seem like in all of our experience justice is not at hand quickly, justice takes forever to be granted. We wait and wait and wait for justice to be done. Ultimately we are counting on the Lord Jesus himself to restore justice, and in that case we have indeed been counting for a very long time, not twenty-two Sundays of ordinary time since Pentecost, not even twenty-two thousand Sundays, but much more. We can ask, it seems to me, in the doldrums of ordinary time, what is happening? Where is God in all this? What is going to happen next?
The answer to such questions is not an answer but another question, and it is Jesus’s own question: “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” What would faith look like when the Son of Man comes? What would the Son of Man be pleased to find when he comes? What would gladden the heart of God himself when he looks at us in the course of “ordinary time,” in the course of our day-to-day existence?
What would gladden God’s heart is to see that we are more like the widow than like the judge.
Because here is an uncomfortable recognition. I for one am more like him than I am like her.
I have a friend who asked me to pray for his daughter three or four years ago now, I’ve lost count. And I have done so. I have prayed for her many times, just like he asked. But have I prayed for her every day? As often as he prays for her? Nope. Even though he asked me to. Some days, I have decided I just could not be bothered.
But the widow would not let up. Without anyone to defend her interest she brought forth her only weapon: persistence.
The widow in our Lord Jesus’ parable is our picture of what we are meant to be doing with our time here while we wait. This is ordinary time; this is the time that passes without any great miracle or reassurance or inspiration to bring us along our way. This is the time where we do the best we can to be worthy of Christ and be ready for his return to us and the final institution of his kingdom. So how do we show that there is faith on earth? What is the sign of our faith?
It is the fact that we are willing, like the widow, to bring our demand before the throne of justice, again, and again, and again, and yes—if we must—again and again. In a few moments, we are going to pray, as we pray every week, for the whole world. We will pray for problems that seem intractable, irresolvable, we pray for peace in places that are constantly plagued by war and violence, for people who are in situations that seem hopeless, for the church, which seems dysfunctional and disorganized. Every week we pray for these things, and I fear that it becomes pretty easy to lose heart: this parable from Luke 18 is a reminder of what is going on in our liturgy week-by-week: Jesus says that even a lazy, indifferent judge can be persuaded to do the right thing by a widow who is sufficiently persistent.
If that is so, how much more ready is God to do justice? He is ready to do justice and to execute it swiftly. So why wait? I would suggest the following: God is being patient, and God is being patient with the unjust judge and people like him. People like me.
Why is God patient? God is patient because God wants to give everyone a chance to repent. The unrighteous judge needs to realize that he is in the wrong. And God is patient because God wants to give us a chance to pray always and not to lose heart. God wants to give us a chance to be more like the widow and less like the judge. Often we feel we are waiting for God to act; but it may be that God is also waiting for us.
Will the Son of Man find faith on earth? He will if he finds us at prayer and persistence. I just saw my friend this past summer again and asked whether his daughter is doing any better. She’s not. She’s getting worse. That’s discouraging news. The sort of news Luke’s widow probably got every day, day after day, as the weeks ticked by. What am I supposed to do? Just keep on praying? Yes. That’s right. Don’t stop praying. Don’t stop questing after justice. Don’t lose heart. There is hope for justice. There is hope for healing. Because God is not like Luke’s judge. God’s heart can be moved much more easily than the judge’s. And if the judge—with divine patience and human persistence—if the judge can get around to doing what is right, then there’s hope for us too.