A Parable with a Punch
10-20-19 Luke 18:1-8
A landlord recently relented on his eviction of a 70-year-old widow, a longtime resident of Little Tokyo near downtown Los Angeles.
Rents in the area are skyrocketing: one nearby two-bedroom apartment has increased 300% since April.
The widow could not afford such an increase but the landlord was deaf to her personal pleas, so she and some neighbors appealed to his personal reputation by picketing his home in Brentwood.
The landlord relented and a compromise was reached.
This was an old Saul Alinsky tactic.
Saul Alinsky was a community organizer who during the first half of the 20th Century worked to empower people trapped in poverty and living at the mercy of wealthy slumlords and their political lackeys who turned a blind eye.
Alinsky began his work in Chicago where residents lived in rat-infested apartments that often lacked running water or working plumbing.
When appeals for help through normal channels failed, he organized picket lines in front of slumlord’ homes in their tranquil neighborhoods, and when police shut down those protests, Alinsky had demonstrators appear at restaurants and concert halls frequented by those wealthy patrons.
Protestors were always respectably dressed and well behaved, but they would become such a challenge to the public image of the Establishment people that they often would relent and make some building repairs.
Maybe his most famous threatened action was in Rochester, New York where locals were in a sometimes-brutal conflict with the city’s largest employer, Eastman Kodak, over equal job opportunities for African Americans.
Alinsky announced plans for dozens of people to buy tickets to symphony concerts that they knew the city officials and Kodak executives attended.
Beginning the day before the concert, all the protestors would prepare by eating large quantities of baked beans, and then during the concert they freely and audibly relieve the accumulated gastric pressure.
Of course, Alinsky received lots of criticism for these tactics, but he never apologized because he found that this was the only way to get the attention of the power elite who were otherwise deaf to the appeals of the poor.
The power of intrusiveness into the insolated world of the elite was the only power they had.
Well, it turns out that the seventy-year-old woman in Little Tokyo and Saul Alinsky would make Jesus proud, as we heard in the parable from Luke 18 that Janette just read.
Widows were among the most vulnerable of society, impoverished and frequently victimized.
Luke 18:4-5 “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”
The NIV translation softens this confrontation, which Jesus puts into the metaphorical context of a boxing match.
In the original Greek 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 (hypopiazo) by her coming”
With our cultural distance, we miss the humor of this scene.
Jesus’ listeners would have laughed at this topsy-turvy picture of a lowly widow pummeling an unethical judge.
This was not stand-up comedian humor, but like a modern political cartoon that leads us to laugh at how the powerful can be humiliated and humbled.
Through political cartoons, the powerful are exposed as corrupt, weak and needy at their core, and we are encouraged to push for justice.
Faith, we are reminded, is not losing heart,
Faith is persisting even when the odds are stacked against us.
Justice, in this world, is often a struggle – but one that God’s people are to undertake with persistence.
Jesus contrasts God to the judge.
God is not like this reluctantly responsive judge.
God does not need to be badgered into listening.
Vivienne tells about times when she was woken from sleep with an urgent message to pray for her son Tim back when he was out on the streets and selling drugs.
Sometimes she would pray through the night, only later hearing about grave danger he had survived the night before.
On one occasion, the man standing right next to him was shot but Tim was unharmed.
All these years later, after a life of drugs and dealing, Tim is still alive while many of his friends are dead, which she attributes to hours of prayers for him.
It can feel like a mystery why God doesn’t just answer our prayers so we can move on.
Maybe because the timing isn’t right, or maybe because what we ask for is wrong, or maybe we aren’t somehow prepared to receive the blessing that awaits us.
Maybe there are other forces and factors we don’t see at work.
I don’t have the answer of why in every case, but I do know that we are told to pray, to pray through all circumstances, and to pray with the persistence of the widow.
And when God does respond, God does so willingly.
If anything, God – who pursues us when we are like lost sheep – is more like the widow in her own relentless commitment to justice.
Luke 18:6-8 Then the Master said, “Do you hear what that judge, corrupt as he is, is saying? So what makes you think God won’t step in and work justice for his chosen people, who continue to cry out for help? Won’t he stick up for them? I assure you, he will. He will not drag his feet.
Not all prayer will feel like a struggle with God.
But for those times when it does, both the Old and New Testaments offer particular words of encouragement.
We hear other lessons of faithful persistence in the gospels, like the hemorrhaging woman who pushes through the crowd just to touch the hem of Jesus’ robe, and the men who bypassed the crowd surrounding Jesus by lowering their sick friend through (the) roof of where Jesus was staying.
Then there’s this wonderful parable in Luke 11 where Jesus is teaching his disciples about prayer.
Right after he gave them the Lord’s Prayer as a kind of template for prayer, he tells about a man who has an unexpected guest arrive at midnight but he has no bread to serve him dinner, so he goes to his neighbor’s house to ask for three loaves.
The sleeping neighbor tries to send him away by saying that the door is already locked for the night.
Then the parable continues, Luke 11:8-9 “But let me tell you, even if he won’t get up because he’s a friend, if you stand your ground, knocking and waking all the neighbors, he’ll finally get up and get you whatever you need.”
“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”
Jesus never promises the cosmic vending machine model of prayer: insert prayer, receive your selected blessing.
It sometimes takes persistence, like back in the Hebrew scriptures when we find Jacob wrestling with the angel to the point of being injured, but wouldn’t let go until he received a blessing.
God blesses, but sometimes only after we wrestle through the night.
As a matter of fact, the meaning of the word Israel is “one who struggles with God”.
One time, Mother Theresa was in New York City to meet with the executives of a large company.
Before the meeting, however, the executives had privately agreed not to give her any money.
Eventually the diminutive Mother Theresa arrived and was seated across from two of them separated by a very large desk.
They listened to her plea but then said, “We appreciate what you do but we just cannot commit any funds at this time.”
“Let us pray” Mother Theresa said.
She then asked God to soften the hearts of these men.
After saying “Amen,” she renewed her plea and they renewed their answer that they were not going to commit any money.
“Let us pray” she said yet again, at which point the CEO relented and asked for a checkbook!
Persistence in prayer keeps us close to God and attuned to His voice, and it keeps our concerns front and center to God.
That is why the Apostle Paul said that we don’t have to wait for an emergency – pray all the time to stay close to God all the time.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
There is a tension in this verse: on the one hand, pray continually even during those times that it feels like a struggle.
And yet, rejoice and give thanks.
Are those two stances in conflict?
Jeremiah was the prophet to the humiliated people exiled from Jerusalem after their defeat by the Babylonians.
For seventy years they would long for home and would pray to return, even though God’s repeated answer was “yes, but not yet”.
Psalm 137 was composed during that period.
Psalm 137:1-4 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
Many false prophets appeared during those times stirring up false hopes for a quick return home or even an easy victory through rebellion.
But Jerimiah’s counsel was to keep hope alive, to pray, to trust God –
and also to enjoy life in the meantime, even in the strange land of Babylon.
The world as they had known it was over.
Now there’s a new normal – but you are still alive and God is still with you, and in God’s timing you will return home.
In the meantime, live in the present, not the future.
Jeremiah 29:4-7 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
In some ways, you may feel like an alien in your own land.
Technology and urban expansion make our world change so quickly that we might feel like we don’t belong.
Unprecedented corruption is being exposed among our elected leaders, some of whom are challenging continued existence of the form of government and values that we always assumed would define our country.
Because tragedies fed through the 24-hour news cycle, terrible images and disturbing stories continuously pop up on our screens.
At the same time, participation in valued institutions of worship and service organizations is plummeting and fewer than half of young American adults today say they are Christian.
Where’s the hope for the future?
Peter wrote to his congregation as they felt isolated and attacked.
Pray without ceasing, live in the now – not in the past or future – and live lives of value and example:
1 Peter 2:11-12 Friends, this world is not your home, so don’t make yourselves cozy in it. Don’t indulge your ego at the expense of your soul. Live an exemplary life among the natives so that your actions will refute their prejudices. Then they’ll be won over to God’s side and be there to join in the celebration when he arrives.