Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) | Streaming Licensing # 20105663Worship Guide
The Greatest Stories Ever Told: How Not To Lose Heart
Luke 18:1 - 18:14
August 27, 2023
Reverend Chris Hildebrand
In the Parable of the Persistent Widow, Jesus tells the story of a widow and an unjust judge, two unlikely characters in order to teach us both how to pray and how to have hope. Through the use of contrast, we see how much more God is willing and able to respond to our pleas.
View Sermon Transcript
We are nearing the end of our summer sermon series on the parables of Jesus. We have said throughout our time looking at these parables that they're not always easy to understand. Oftentimes, the gospel writers tell us that the original hears, whether they were the disciples or the crowds in general or the religious leaders, all those who Jesus was telling parables to at least at first have trouble making sense of what Jesus is trying to say. For Jesus, that's part of the point because the parables are meant to invite deeper reflection about the nature of God, the reality of his kingdom, and the beauty of our King Jesus.
This morning, we're going to look at the Parable of the Persistent Widow in Luke 18. This is a parable that is timely for us because it's intended to teach us how to have hope and to teach us why we should have hope and ultimately, how we ought to be a church that is called to live in a world as people of hope. Because this is a parable, the characters might surprise us, the way the story is told might confound us, and what we are called to do and who we are called to be might seem beyond what we are capable of. But these are the parables of Jesus. They are the greatest stories that have ever been told because, ultimately, they are about him and his love for us. Let us hear God’s word—Luke 18:1-8.
1And he [Jesus] told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. 2He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. 3And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ 4For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’” 6And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. 7And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? 8I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
This is the word of the Lord. It's absolutely true, and it's given to us in love.
Would you pray with me?
O God, we have sung of your grace and mercy, your all sufficient merit, which covers us and guides us, and is our only hope. This morning, O God, would you teach us how to hope and how to express that hope and direct it towards you and help us to offer it to one another and to the world around us. We can only do that by the power of your Spirit. We pray that all in Jesus name. Amen.
It's always helpful when someone is telling you a story—especially if they know it's going to be a hard story to follow or to understand—to tell you the point of the story before they even get started. It is certainly helpful to the preacher. That's exactly what Luke does in the very first verse of this parable. He says, “And he [Jesus] told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart [or to have hope].”
It's interesting that Luke would link these two realities together—prayer and hope. Jesus taught his disciples a few chapters earlier about how to pray. He teaches them what we now know is the Lord's Prayer. He wants them to pray, but he knows that prayer and hope go hand in hand. The more you pray, the more you cultivate hope. The more you live with hope, the more you will be apt to pray. Jesus tells this story of a widow and an unrighteous or an unjust judge, two unlikely characters to teach us both how to pray and how to have hope. I want to look at three aspects of this parable of this passage and see how it teaches us how we ought to always pray and have hope—things which don't come naturally to us and are not easy to do. I want to look at the cry of hope, and the God of hope, and then the community of hope.
Cry Of Hope
First, the cry of hope. Jesus here is telling his disciples the story of a widow who is pleading for justice. She is facing oppression or injustice on some level. Jesus doesn't tell us anything else of her details, but her only recourse apparently is to plead to this judge. The problem is the judge neither fears God nor respects man and because of that he simply ignores the widow and her pleas for justice, at least for a little while. Her conditions are hopeless, at least on the surface. But we hold these two realities together, and on the surface, she's in a bind. She has no advocate. All she has is this unjust judge. Yet, the one thing we know about this widow is that she is persistent. Her persistence is really an act of hope in itself in the face of injustice and desperation. Again, on the surface, this is a strange parable without a lot of detail, but remember, Luke has told us that Jesus is telling this story in order to encourage his disciples, and to encourage us, how we ought to pray and how we ought not to lose heart.
A few years ago, somehow someone discovered a prayer journal of Flannery O'Connor. Many of you will know that O'Connor was a Southern writer. In her short life, she only lived to the age of 39. She was prolific. In her early 20s, in 1946-47, she was in Iowa City. She was studying writing and struggling with her Christian faith and with her prospects of becoming a competent writer. It was apparent that she was losing heart, so she started a prayer journal. This journal is so intimate and raw and beautiful. It reads like Augustine’s famous work Confessions or Mother Teresa's prayer journals. It's a beautiful devotional work, and it's filled with beautiful prayers and pleas. One of the remarkable things about it is her persistence. She is unrelenting and unwavering in her request and pleas to God. Page after page she is living out the point of this parable in so many ways. O'Connor knew the only object of her desire and her requests, the only place for her fear, the only object of her hope, was God. So she prayed persistently, giving all of her fears and emotions to God and what begins to emerge—even as she's so honest about her doubts and honest about her feelings—is her hope in God who hears her and who answers her.
Oftentimes, when you try and pray, when we try and live with hope, when we try not to lose heart, when we try to take up this parable, or live as O'Connor did, and pray like O'Connor did, it can all sound a bit naive, at least to our modern sensibilities. One of the tendencies that we have as modern people is that whether you're a Christian or not, is that hope, real hope, takes a certain level of well naivete. You need to be able to look away at the bad stuff, or not look too closely at the world, or somehow insulate yourself if you're going to have hope. Hope is for kids, but we all know better that real hope can't be found if you're really going to look at the world.
One of the shocking realities of the Bible as you read it carefully is how honest and unflinching the Bible looks at the world and specifically, the darkness and the brokenness of the world. The darkness of sin is so ever present—the darkness of injustice, the human heart, rebellious nations, corrupt leaders. What you find in the Scriptures is darkness abounds in so many ways all throughout the Bible. It's anything but naive. The Bible time after time, exposes and reveals the darkness of the world and the darkness of the human heart. Spend time with Psalm 88 or so many of the other Psalms that deal with the darkness. Read Ecclesiastes or Job or Judges, or read any and all of the prophets. Look at what happens to John the Baptist who is announcing the coming of Christ. He's beheaded in prison, just as a party favor, as a joke at a party by Herod. Then follow Jesus to the cross. Watch as he takes the weight of darkness on himself because before he's the triumphal King and his resurrection and ascension, he's the man of sorrows hanging on a cross. Then follow the early church as they take the message that Jesus is King to the world, and just as Jesus faces darkness so does the church. You don't get very far into the Book of Acts before you read about Stephen being stoned to death giving his testimony. He's the first martyr of the church. Watch as the church faces threats of violence and death and persecution. The Bible is not naive to the realities of the world and to the darkness of humanity. Remember, the reason Jesus is telling this very parable to his disciples is because he's telling them that they're going to face persecution, suffering, and even death.
It is because the Bible is not naive, that when David calls us to hope in the Psalms, and when Solomon tells us to look with hope beyond the sun as he writes in Ecclesiastes, and when Jesus and then Paul and the rest of the New Testament writers call us to hope it's not a false hope. It's not a naive hope. It's a real hope. It's a true hope. Here in this parable, Jesus is telling his disciples and us that the one true hope we have is in him. And for this widow, her hope and her persistence is not grounded in any sort of naivete about our world in her situation. She's got one request, give me justice against my adversaries. She knows her desperation. She knows that her only way out is this unjust judge. The persistent widow, she has a right. She does not give up hope. She goes to the one person, the one place where she can cry for justice, and so should we. We go to the one who is fully acquainted with the darkness and death. We go to the one who will, in fact, face death shortly after telling this parable. We go to the one who calls us to true hope. We go to Jesus because he's the one that secures hope for us. When we face the realities of our world and our situations—our broken bodies, our broken relationships, our broken political systems, our lost dreams, our nagging loneliness, our failing mental health—we should not lose heart because we have hope. We have a Savior that is utterly acquainted with the darkness, and he promises to rescue and deliver us from any and all darkness because he is acquainted with the darkness. He is the God of hope. He's the king of hope.
God Of Hope
I want to look a little more carefully at how this parable shows us the God of hope. This parable seems like a strange way for Jesus to encourage his disciples. Why tell them a story about an unrighteous judge who neither fears God nor respects man? Why not tell the story of a benevolent and attentive judge? Why not tell the story of a righteous judge who rescues the widow or lays his life down for the widow or sends his son to rescue the widow? Why tell the story like this? Why tell it in this way? This is a story of contrast. We tell stories of contrast all the time. When you tell a story of contrast, what you bring into clear focus is the object of the one who you're trying to point to. We tell stories like this all the time. “Do you remember how unfair our teacher was last year? You remember that? Guess what? Our teacher this year is nothing like that. They are way better than the teacher we had last year. You remember that person I was kind of dating last year, remember them? The person I'm dating now is so much better than that person I dated. You couldn't even understand the difference. Do you remember the diet and exercise regimen I was on last year where I spent all that money and didn't see any results? The diet and exercise regimen I'm on now is so much better than the one I was on last time.” These are stories of contrast, and we tell them all the time. That is what Jesus is doing here and even more. Jesus is telling a story of contrast, but in a way that suggests it's a “how much more” kind of story. In other words, if the unrighteous judge is finally willing to relent and answer the widow, which he is, then how much more will your Heavenly Father hear your cries and your pleas? That's what Jesus is saying in verses 6-7, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night?”
This is the other reality we see throughout the Bible. Just as the Bible looks unflinchingly at the darkness of the world, it also constantly is calling us to hope. Time after time we see that the darkness, death, sorrow, brokenness, sin, are all real. And yet, here is this God and he hasn't been overcome. He will not be defeated. He will not be overwhelmed by the darkness and he offers you this hope. He is the God of hope. He is constantly calling out to us and offering us hope to the weary and to the desperate. The one catch is that if you want to receive this hope from this God, then you need to see and admit the reality of your weariness and your desperation.
One of the interesting things you see in the Bible is that those who are desperate, those who come to an end of themselves, those the world deems as hopeless and helpless, they are the ones who actually see this hope. They are the ones who see the God of hope, who actually trust in the God of hope. It's the blind who see Jesus. It's the sick, who see him as the physician. It's the broken who are healed. It's through the tears of our grief and sorrow that we so oftentimes see Jesus most clearly, and find that he is the source of our hope. It's only when we come to the end of ourselves that we learn how to pray and how to have hope. And so with this, how much more story we are invited to see the God who hears the cries of the widows, the orphans, the victims of injustice, the weak and the brokenhearted. The point of this parable is not that God only answers prayer when he gets annoyed with you at your persistence. Certainly, the point of this parable is not that God is anything like this unjust judge, who is only thinking of himself. No. The point is that if even an unjust judge will answer this widow's plea, then how much more will the God of Israel, how much more will the God of the universe answer yours?
Jesus tells us that God is ready to act for his people, for his elect, and he will speedily bring justice. In verses 7-8, and this God, Jesus tells us, is the same God who pays particular attention to the brokenhearted, to orphans, widows, and the helpless. He pays particular attention to those who see their need of him. Listen to Deuteronomy 10:17-18, “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.” Listen to Psalm 68:5-6, “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation. God settles the solitary in a home; he leads out the prisoners to prosperity, but the rebellious dwell in a parched land.”
This is the God of hope. Interestingly enough, the other time Jesus teaches on prayer in Luke's gospel, which we kind of alluded to earlier, he tells the same kind of story. He tells a “how much more” kind of story in order to give them hope. After teaching the disciples to pray the Lord's Prayer in Luke 11, Jesus says this starting in verse 5,
5And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, 6for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; 7and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? 8I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. 9And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 11What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; 12or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
It's a similar “how much more” kind of story. If you know how to love and give good gifts to your children, he tells the disciples, how much more will your Heavenly Father give you the gift of the Holy Spirit? That is what Jesus is teaching here in this parable. God is so much greater than this unjust judge. If he is committed to the outcasts, the orphan, the widow, and the fatherless, how much more should we cry out to God? This widow was persistent and had no reason to hope, but the disciples have every reason to hope and therefore every reason to pray because they serve a God who is hope. He is a just judge. He is a king and a generous father, so why would you not cry out to him? Why would you not take heart because God hears your prayers. He hears your cries. And he has promised to do something about it.
The challenge that we face is that oftentimes we forget the “how much more” kind of stories that Jesus tells, and the God we envision, or the God we come to believe in, or the God that we end up rejecting is not much better than the unjust judge, because in the end, he's just like the unjust judge. After all, it's all too easy to look at the darkness of the world and in our lives and to see and believe that any hope in anything beyond ourselves is hopeless. It's easy to believe that whoever and whatever is governing the world is deaf to our cries, uninterested in our plight, and simply powerless to rescue. What Jesus is telling us here and what the Bible testifies to time and time out, and what the church has bore witness to for over 2,000 years, is that this kind of thinking, that God is like the unjust judge, that kind of living is actually really naive because after all, you being a human being were made in the image of God. You are actually made to hope. Without hope you don't function. Without hope you can't function. Without hope you don't get out of bed. You must hope in something. You will hope in something. You do hope in something.
Having been made in God's image, you're also invited into a larger story, into a greater hope, a greater kingdom than your own, that has as its center the king of all hope, who is Jesus. To reject the hope that he offers, to reject the hope that he conquers death and resurrection, to reject the hope that he now rules the world and his ascension into heaven, and to reject the hope that he has given us the promised Holy Spirit to guide and govern us, to reject all that is to deny the hope that you are actually longing for, to deny the hope that you're looking for, and to deny the real hope that you are offered day after day. In having come to the false belief that the world is guided and governed by an unjust judge, or some impersonal force or unjust force, we turn to so many other false hopes because we have to hope in something. We end up living in a world filled with false hopes. We cling to modern day hopes of technological advancement. It is our hope that someday technology will save us. Make no mistake, I love technology. I am a huge fan of modern medicine. I love my wireless earphones. But technology is not going to save us. It cannot be our ultimate hope. We put our hope in political parties as though if we just get the right people in office, we'll be OK. We hope in some sort of vague notion of social progress as though if everyone would just figure out how to behave themselves and be the best version of themselves, then we could all have our American dream and we'd be OK. Or we put our hope in nostalgia. If we can just recapture what we once had, if we can just go back to how things used to be at some time and someplace, then we'll be OK. But these are all lesser hopes. And they are all false hopes because in the end, none of these hopes can bring about the life that we long for. Because the hope we need must deal with the reality of our lives in our world and must deal with the darkness. The hope we need must deal with sin and sorrow and death. Only Jesus can offer that true hope, which brings us finally to the community of hope.
Community Of Hope
Jesus ends this parable with a question and it's daunting to say the least. In verse 8, “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” It's a bit of a haunting question. I think given the context, one of the things he means is, will there be a community of persistent widows? Will there be a community of persistent widows praying and cultivating hope and living out this hope that has been offered to them? But it also serves as a warning that this kind of persistence as modeled by the widow, this kind of hope, which requires a kind of hope that is not directed to ourselves, but to the God of hope. That kind of hope doesn't come naturally to us. We don't just fall out of bed and begin to hope in this way, so we need help, and our neighbors need help.
There's one more “how much more” story that is going on in this parable. The widow must carry on hope and be persistent all by herself. In this parable, she is completely alone, the best that we can tell. As Jesus ends this parable, he's asking who's going to bring all their hopes, who's going to bring all their cries and prayers and desperations to me? The reason this is a “how much more” kind of story is because if this widow, by herself, could carry on in hope and persistence to an unjust judge all by herself, then how much more ought his disciples? How much more are we as the church be a community of hope, who put their hope in the God who calls us to hope?
This is an invitation to us, and it is a call of every church and every place and every land and every age to be a community of hope. Everything we do ought to point to the hope that we've been given in Christ, all of our ministries, all of our activities express and nourish hope. Everything we do here in worship nourishes hope. We sing in hope. We pray in hope. We listen in hope. We greet one another in hope. Every time we open our apartments in our homes, we share life in a Community Group, every time we sit and listen to someone tell their story, or we grieve with someone, or we come alongside someone and pray with them, every time we serve our neighbors, every time we serve with our ministry partners, whether it's at Bowery Mission or Safe Families or Reading Buddies, we act in hope. We're actually nourishing hope. The reality is, we just can't muster up this hope by ourselves. We actually need each other. We need each other to hope on our behalf when we have trouble hoping. We need each other to point us to the God of hope when we have trouble seeing him, or when we lose sight of him, or when we begin to believe the false and lesser hopes that are always in front of us. Our neighbors need us living out this hope and pointing them to the only hope that endures, the only hope that conquers, the only hope that is real hope. They need us pointing them to the hope that they're searching for, the hope that they're looking for, and the hope that they actually need.
Jesus invites us each and every week each and every time we gather to put our hope in him. This week, let me encourage you to remind yourself of the “how much more” story that Jesus is telling you here in this parable. How much greater, how much more is your God than this unjust judge? How much more do we now have a community gathered around the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, how much more than this widow do we have to call one another to hope, to walk alongside one another in hope, to nourish the hope that we've been called to. Jesus lives out this story. Jesus lives out the “how much more” story that he is telling, and he calls us to always be praying and to not lose heart because Jesus has come, and he is the one who offers us hope.
Our great God and Heavenly Father, we thank you for the hope that you've given us in your son Jesus. Would you make us a community of hope, who in all that we do, and all that we say, and all that we are would cultivate this hope that you have given us. May you be the object of our hope, may the story of your death and resurrection give us hope, may the promise of your return give us hope. May you guide us as we live out this hope faithfully before you. We pray all this in Jesus’ mighty name. Amen.