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Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Parable of the Persistent Widow and the Unjust Judge

“And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Luke 18:1-8
XXI Pentecost October 21, 2007
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham, NJ
(the Rev’d) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor

I want to admit something right up front. The parable of the Persistent Widow is not one of my favorites. Okay. It’s probably my least favorite parable.

I realized this at the precise moment that Charlie Foster, at the Bible Study which precedes our Vestry meeting, said, “Ah, this is the Parable of the Squeaky Wheel.”

At that exact moment, I also realized that Linda Coogan had said those same words two days before at the Bible Study which precedes our Staff meeting.

Yup. I don’t like this parable.

Why? Well, this is not my idea of prayer – that of persistently nagging until God relents and gives us that for which we have been pestering God. I don’t like the image of the person who prays as a nagging, petulant child or bitter, badgering old woman.

I also don’t like this image of God – the preoccupied, distant parent or capricious judge who must be hassled and harassed before surrendering to our pleas.

Having said that, however, I realize that this parable may be an important image of prayer for you, and that I might be unintentionally stepping all over your favorite parable. I apologize if this is so for you.

I don’t mean to diminish any image of prayer that works. I just think there are other, more powerful, less stereotypical images and more contemporary parables of prayer that speak to the struggles of what my friend Mariam calls, “getting into God’s vibe of prayer.”

We catch a glimpse of this in the Hebrew Scripture appointed for today. Jacob wrestling all night with the angel is one of my favorite stories about prayer.

Jacob – the son of Isaac and Rebekah, who was the son of Abraham and Sarah. He was the twin brother of Esau who stole his brother’s inheritance. He is the son of the man whose very name in Hebrew, Yitzhak, is the very sound of laughter.

I am told that the name 'Yitzhak' is a play on the story of God of who sent angels to tell Sarah, Jacob’s grandmother, that she was pregnant in her old age. And Sarah laughed –and had son she named Yitzhak, the sound of laughter to Hebrew ears.

And Jacob, whose father's name is this very sound of laughter, wrestled all night with an angel and woke in the morning to walk with a limp. Apparently, God does not like to be laughed at. Perhaps it was God who said, “He who laughs last, laughs best.”

The story of Jacob and the Parable of the Persistent Widow are both stories about faith. Indeed, we are told that Jesus tells this parable to the disciples “about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” The parable ends with Jesus talking about the persistence of prayer as a manifestation of faith.

I recently came upon a modern parable which, I think, speaks powerfully to this. Indeed, I think if Jesus were here this morning, preaching to us about the persistence of prayer as a manifestation of faith, this is a parable he would use himself.

I read it first in Barbara Kingsolver’s book, “Small Wonder.” It is a true story. Kingsolver says that if you get on the internet, find a good search engine, and type in , “Kayhan, Iran, bear,” you will find this tiny remarkable note in the human archive. I’ll call it, “The Parable of the Lost Boy and The Lorestan She-Bear.”

Kingsolver begins the story with this opening sentence: “On a cool October day in the oak-forested hills of the Lorestan Province of Iran, a lost child was saved in an inconceivable way.”

She goes on to say that he was the 16 month old son of a young couple who had been cared for in the village by a young teen aged girl while they worked the wheat fields. The girl turned her back, or her head in the way everyone does when they are watching a group of children, and when she turned around again, the little boy was gone. Had disappeared. Vanished from plain sight.

Distraught, she ran to greet his parents as soon as she could free herself from her other charges. She had searched everywhere for him, but he was no where to be found. Frantic, his parents looked everywhere.

Soon, his they were joined by everyone in the village, calling out his name, turning over this box and that bed, expecting to hear him laugh and they would too and the game would be over – to no avail.

Other villagers soon went to bed for the night, but not the boy’s parents, who could not sleep as they anxiously awaited the dawn’s early light to begin the search for him again. Another day passed without any success.

Some of the villagers mentioned the possibility of a bear but were quickly hushed so that the mother would not hear. Surely, if a bear had come . . . .to finish the thought was unthinkable.

The boy’s father had heard and even though it was unimaginable to consider the possibilities, he knew he had to search out the caves in the hills where the bears lived. He convinced several of the men to light torches and join him in his search. It might have been the fifth cave or the hundredth cave.

No matter. Whenever the story would be told it would be this cave that was spoken of. This cave. The cave from which they heard the baby cry. The cave from which they also smelled the presence of a bear.

Even so, the men went in, torches lit, following the sound of the baby. And when they lifted their torches to the darkness, there he was, the boy – safe, sound, unscathed – sitting with the she-bear curled around him, protecting him from these fierce-smelling intruders.

As if that were not miracle enough, the story continues to report that the father handed his torch to a friend, looked that bear in the eye, and moved forward to pick up his son.

There are no reports that they killed the bear. Only that the father picked up his son, who was well and happy and smelled of milk. The she-bear had been nursing him. And, she did not attack the father or any of the men when they took the boy from her.

There are many ways to think about Kingsolver’s story. On one level, it can be easily dismissed as untrue. Just hysterical, embellished folk lore from a backward country. It could be explained scientifically – that the DNA we share as mammals led this lactating she-bear to care for a boy-cub who was crying for milk.

See? Nothing more than conditioned response. Or, it could be easily romanticized as the story of the unconquerable power of a mother’s love.

Kingsolver says this, “I believe in parables. . .This story of a bear who nursed a child is one to believe in. I believe that the things we dread most can sometimes save us. I am losing faith in such a simple thing as despising an enemy with unequivocal righteousness.

A mirror held up to every moral superiority will show its precise mirror image: The terrorist loves his truth as hard as I love mine; he has a mother who looks on her child with the same fierce pride I feel when I look at my own. Someone, somewhere, must wonder how I could love the boys who dropped the bombs that killed the humanitarian-aid workers in Kabul.

We are all beasts in this kingdom, we have killed and been killed, and some new time has come to us in which we are called out to find another way to divide the world. Good and evil cannot be all there is.”

I, too, believe that the things we dread most can sometimes save us. We live in a world that is, day by day, even as I speak, filling up with more dread than most of us can bear. War continues to rage in Afghanistan and Iraq and genocide persists in Darfur, despite my fervent daily prayers – despite our weekly commitment as a community to light a candle of prayer instead of cursing the darkness of war.

We love our little community – Mayberry USA, some of us like to call it – because it is clean and pretty and, God knows, well lit, and it makes us feel safe and secure. And yet, we know that it is not. Recent news events have shattered that illusion.

These are desperate times, my friends, and the words of William Blake have never been more true: “Desperate people in desperate times do desperate things.”

Despite our best efforts.

Despite all our outward and visible signs of our hard work and well earned affluence.

These desperate times have caused some of the more desperate among us to do desperate things. “We have met the enemy”, as Pogo says, “and it is us.”

And yet, I believe that our greatest dread may be our salvation. That’s the message of the story of the Jacob wrestling all night with the angel.

It is the deep meaning of “The Parable of the Lost Boy and The Lorestan She-Bear.” The father had to pass off his torch and look the she-bear in the eye to save his son. And the she-bear, for her part, had to look into the eyes of deep grief before she could recognize her own.

Wrestling and persistence, struggling and facing what we most dread. These are offered today as models of faith and prayer, pathways to salvation. Yet, the Parable of the Persistent Widow does offer us an important lesson:

If you persist in asking God anything, persist in asking these questions: What do I dread? Why does it cause my heart to quiver with trepidation? What is the name of the angel with whom I must wrestle all night? How will I be changed and transformed by that encounter?

And then, pray for the strength and courage to persist and persevere.

Jesus gives us these parables so that we would know about our need to pray always and not to lose heart. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?



Wormwood's Doxy said...

Elizabeth---this is my second favorite story in the New Testament (after the story of Jesus' healing the Canaanite woman's daughter).

What is key to me in this story is that the judge was unjust. The widow caused justice to be done by sheer persistence, even though the man was known to be an unfair judge.

Do you see any parallels to the current situation for GLBTs in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion? I do. ;-)


Elizabeth Kaeton said...


Are you kidding me? Did you not hear me say: "I believe that the things we dread most can sometimes save us"?

As with all parables, "Let those who have ears, hear."

Wormwood's Doxy said...

Sorry if I said something offensive...

I was just responding to your statement that this is your least favorite parable. I've always liked it because it spurs me to keep trying, even when the odds don't look so good...


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

No offense taken.

We're talking about clarity here.

Thanks, Doxy, for your comments and you witness.

Texican said...

Your constant reference to fantasy and fiction are repulsive to thoughtful Christians in and out of our Episcopal Church. I can't believe that anything but a desperate angry shizophreniac would go online with such depravity and utter garbage. Who would be surprised that you are selective in your choice and rejection of scripture? You know as well as I, that your diatribes and assertions serve only to justify the error of your broken life and to recruit others who might otherwise return to spiritual health. Shame on you! Stop doing damage, work on yourself before you pretend to practice being a pastor.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Okay, since yours is the first email this morning to make me smile broadly, I'll take the bait.

How is saying that this parable is not my favorite and using a modern parable equate with a rejection of scripture?

I promise to take my meds before I read your response if you promise to take yours before you write it.

Of course, my meds are prescribed by my doctor for low back pain.

There is little doubt that your response promises to cause a pain in the very lower reaches of my backside when it doesn't cause a broad smile to cross my face.

God's blessings on you this day.

Bill Seaver said...

A company I do some work with here in Nashville just created a product called Modern Parables ( which has a modern retelling of this particular parable (along with five other parables.) Though you may not like the film version of the Modern Parables version any more than the one in the Bible I think you will find it interesting nevertheless. You can see a trailer of it on their site if you're interested along with a full version of their "Good Samaritan" film and the corresponding application video.

God bless.

Ann said...

I love this parable - see my thoughts about it here. Interesting that the Greek word used by the judge - "she will wear me out etc." is actuall a boxing term in Greek for giving someone a black eye. I don't parallel the judge with God - faithfulness and persistence is God's way not injustice.

Calvin Lam said...

Hi Elizabeth, I was just scrolling through online for commentary on this passage and came across yours.

I believe that Jesus intended for us to see this unjust judge in contrast to our God.

1) Our God is not unjust and definitely cares about men (people)! He is all for justice (Exodus 22:22-24, Psalm 7:11).

2) In this parable, the widow has no relationship with this judge accept for the fact that they are in the same town. We have an intimate relationship with our God as His children. We have all sinned and God being just, needed to do something about that. But because he loves us so much, instead of punishing us He sent His one and only Son, Jesus Christ to die on the cross to fulfill that justice.

I hope and pray that you will see what Jesus is trying to say in this parable!


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hi, Calvin. I think I do see what Jesus is trying to say in the parable. I just think I see it differently than you. Which is, I think, just fine with Jesus. That's the nature of parables. It's obviously not fine with you, so I will return your generosity of prayer for me with prayer for you.