Sunday, 20 October 2013

Persistence pays off (Luke 18 1-8)

Sermon by Rev Paolo Castellina on Luke 18 1-8 (Church of England text for today)

Have you ever met insistent people? When they want something and we can provide it to them, they will not leave us in peace until we consent to their wishes". We say " least then they will not bother us anymore". 

Is insistence a good thing, bothering people to exhaustion in order to get what we want? Well, it all depends on what we ask for and why, because it could be seen to be equally reasonable to say "No" or "Wait" to their request, for many necessary and justified reasons.

The concept of perseverance in what is good, in the sight of God, is often commended in Scripture as an important value. Similarly, perseverance  in what God considers an evil is particularly condemned and, in this latter sense, it is called "obstinacy". The semantic field of this concept is interesting. We have also the term "resilience".  The term resilience is derived from the Latin "resalio," iterative of the verb "salio " which, in one of its original meanings indicated the action of getting back into the boat capsized by the waves of the sea. An approximation today might be "reboarding, in spite of everything".  

Resilience is the ability to cope in a positive manner with traumatic events, to reorganize one's life positively in the face of difficulties. It is the ability to rebuild, remaining sensitive to the positive opportunities that life offers, without losing one's humanity. Resilient people are those who are immersed in adverse circumstances, who can, in spite of everything and sometimes against all odds, respond effectively to opposition , to give new impetus to their existence and even to reach important destinations.

The biblical text

A character who demonstrates positive insistence, persistence, perseverance and resilience, is introduced in a parable of Jesus: "the parable of the widow and the judge". In that story, there are two characters who "persevere" in a different way: a corrupt judge and a good widow. In the "tug of war" between the two, the judge succumbs.

Let us read the text as we find it in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 18 from the first verse, and then we will try to understand the message in Jesus' intentions, and how it can be applied to our situation .

"Then Jesus  told them a parable to show them they should always pray and not lose heart. He said, 'In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected people.  There was also a widow  in that city who kept coming to him and saying,‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but later on he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor have regard for people,  yet because this widow keeps on bothering me, I will give her justice, or in the end she will wear me out by her unending pleas.’” And the Lord said, 'Listen to what the unrighteous judge says! Won’t God give justice to his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he delay long to help them? I tell you, he will give them justice speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?'" (Luke 18:1-8) .

Understanding the text

1 . A parable with a stated purpose. The reason for this parable is explicitly stated by the Evangelist Luke. Jesus proposed this parable to his disciples in order to show how they should always pray (pray in all circumstances) without ever getting tired of doing so, without discouragement or despair.

There may be many circumstances where Christians fall into discouragement and do not feel any more than it's worth continuing to pray. God delays his answer and we may feel that maybe He forgot our prayers or He doesn't care. "He does not listen to me because I'm not worthy of listening to, or I did something that offended Him, so He withdrew His blessings from me"... You then fall in resignation and fatalism, into despair, or even doubt God Himself". Is this a reasonable response? The Lord Jesus says no, it is not, and invites us to reflect first of all on the character and attributes of God.

2. A corrupt judge.  In a certain city, Jesus tells us, there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for anyone. Here we have a corrupt judge. He was unfair and dishonest. His decisions were based on personal interests and preferences. This judge had so much power that no one could successfully challenge his methods so as to have him deposed. He felt invulnerable and confident. He was probably a civil court judge, dealing with issues and disputes of a financial nature. He exploited the cases submitted to him in order to serve his private interests, to favour those from whom he could gain a profit, financially or socially. He sought how he could make the best for himself, to foster his position. Of God and the moral law He did not care a jot. He was probably effectively an atheist in an age before public accountability who believed he could do whatever he wanted, without having to account to God regarding his life. He could "get away with" his injustices without fear of having to give an account of himself to higher authorities (which, of course, were also disinterested, or complacent). He did not even care what people said about him, for people's respect or for popular opinion. It was "an untouchable", above the law which he supposedly delivered.

3 . A persistent widow. In that city there was a widow  who continued to go to his court on numerous occasions in order to demand justice for the wrongs that she had suffered. She told him: "Vindicate my rights over against to my opponents," i.e. " Protect me legally, protect my rights. I have been cheated."

Most likely she had lost the inheritance which she had been left to some unscrupulous family members or her husband's former associates. They had had taken away the means of her own existence. They had taken advantage of her because she was a woman (not necessarily old), a woman socially devoid of power and resources to enforce her rights. I do not think she even had children who could defend her. Maybe her own sons or daughters had taken away all her possessions and property on some pretext, and did not care for her. This woman was not, however, devoid of initiative. Having lost her husband, her only support, and made the object of injustice, she did not get discouraged. Instead, she claimed her rights by challenging the whole of society which had wronged her, taken advantage of her. She was not daunted even by the fact that in her village the judge in charge of justice was a thoroughly corrupt man. She demands that legal protection of which she knew, ethically, she had the right to. The judge had a duty to help her. She rightfully claimed what was hers and without fear .

We see here how Jesus used to show a deep concern and care for those who were powerless and marginalized. Jesus, furthermore, praised her spirit of initiative, pointing it as an example for those who fight for their rights, the equal rights before the law of men and women.

4 . The capitulation of the corrupt judge . In the story which Jesus tells, we see that the corrupt judge does not want to listen to her reasonings. He does not want to do justice to that woman. He seems to say to himself:  "What advantage could derive from this, if I did? None". At the insistence of the woman he rejects her appeals with equal insistence, but suddenly " he comes to himself." Perhaps his conscience gets the upper hand on him or, more likely, he realizes that the insistence of that woman was inconvenient to him.

In fact, he acknowledges he is a man who is not honouring his duty. He knows the truth about himself, but it makes no difference to his actions. He is not going to repent : he is consciously evil, selfish, and a profiteer, and he liked being so: "Though I neither fear God nor respect for anyone ..." . He knows it, he admits it, but shows no sign of repentance. He acts correctly only because his conscience and this woman was "bothering him" and he wants to silence them. He only wants to stop the "annoyance" that the widow gave him and because the situation itself could have become embarrassing for him. He begins to realize of the consequences of his decision not to do justice to the woman.

5 . The reasons for capitulation. That corrupt judge says to himself : "Well , because this widow keeps bothering me, I'm getting tired of it. She is giving me trouble, so I will do what she demands". Why ? " ... because, coming and insisting without ceasing, she will wear me out by her unending pleas". This translation does not exactly render the Greek idiom used in the original text. Literally, in the original, this expression is " that she does not give me a black eye", " she may not hit me and cause bruises to me. This judge would have deserved "a black eye", but here the expression is used metaphorically of someone or something that bothers constantly, rather like a wasp circling us at a summer picnic, which may strike, so we move off a little, from our pleasures because at that point to kill it would be inconvenient.

6 . Who win the contest. Jesus concluding the parable, comes to the point of the story. He wants to teach us something important. He says: "Hear what the unjust judge saith."

The point of the parable, Jesus says, is that the lack of compassion on the part of the judge is conquered overwhelmingly by the persistence of the widow who is not discouraged by anything. She demands justice and she will get it.  She seems to say: "Let's see whose will is stronger!"  These are words of encouragement aimed at those who, in the face of obstacles, feel uncertain about being able to reach the goals that they have set for themselves.

7. The character of the corrupt judge. The emphasis here, however, is above all on the flawed human nature of the corrupt judge. "If even a corrupt judge had to respond to the insistence that widow, would not God answer, as a loving Father to his children?", "Won’t God give justice to his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he delay long to help them?" The questions here are rhetorical : the first question expects a "Yes" , the second a "No" .

On total contrast to the corrupt judge, God is a righteous Father. He is loving and always available to His children, whom He has drawn from the world and redeemed from sin and its consequences through the effective work of Jesus Christ. Now, thanks to Him, they are assured forever by His love, compassion and care.

This poses, however, a problem: when His children are afflicted with serious problems or , as was common then, they are persecuted because of their faith and afflicted with injustices, they cry out to Him in prayer in order to obtain that justice which they are deprived in this world. They "cry to God" and ask Him to defend them, but He does not seem to respond, or He delays in doing so.

The question of " the delay" of God is controversial. God's delay could be due to two factors (both possible in our text). (1) There is a rich vein of biblical teaching clarifying that God makes use of or even plans the tests to which they are subjected and does not free them immediately from them because this rather provides them with the human and spiritual resources that make them stand stronger and more mature in the faith. Even suffering, in this case, "cooperates" with their eventual good ans this purpose may be "more urgent" than liberation or immediate healing. (2) It may also be that God does not intervene to neutralize and destroy opponents because he wants to give them time to consider and repent. Scripture talks about the times of "God's patience" (Romans 2:4 , 2 Peter 3:9). This concept also occurs in "For I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited. A partial hardening has happened to Israel until the full number of the Gentiles has come in" (Romans 11:25). "I have other sheep that do not come from this sheepfold. I must bring them too, and they will listen to my voice, so that there will be one flock and one shepherd." (John 10:16) .

In any case, God is not deaf to the prayers of His children, His elect, but He will intervene, in due course. The delay of the Lord in responding always has a purpose .

8 . A surprising conclusion . The last sentence of the parable is surprising so that it almost does not seem connected to the story itself.  "I tell you, he will give them justice speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?'".

The return of Christ is not introduced here without good reason. It will be the "mechanism" by which God himself will do full justice to the elect (cf. Revelation 6:9-11) . It will happen in time and place, in a certain and assured way . This return will "deliver justice". It is in this chosen way that God will not forget His elect and will answer them. In the light of eternity, that is how they will be  vindicated. The world will acknowledge its crimes against them and will suffer the just condemnation by God at this certain event. God is already preparing Jesus' return ( see12 :35- 48, 17:22-30).

We must not lose faith that full justice is assured.  The Son of Man seeks those who continue to believe in Him despite having to wait. The "Son of Man" is the Messiah who comes as Judge (Ezekiel 2:1; Daniel 7:13) in whom the attributes of humanity and divinity are joined. The New Testament emphasizes a physical return for Christ. It does not tell us, however, the date when that return will be made. It tells us to be actively involved in the work of the Kingdom and to be ready when He returns, no matter when.

"Faith " here expressly has a definite article. It shows faith in the promised return of Christ, a faith that persists despite delays and which is not discouraged by corruption. These words are certainly related to the immediate disciples of Jesus, in view of His coming passion and death. Will the faith of His disciples stand form and fight in the face of total injustice from those who will seem to escape the results of their crimes in this life? How much faith do they, and we, have that Christ, the same Christ will one day return as He has promised?

There are many reasons today that cause the children of God to be discouraged, not least among them the ever greater wickedness of this world, economic crises and the moral and spiritual apostasy of many churches. But was all this was not already foretold by the Holy Scriptures and by Jesus himself? For the children of God, this is not the prelude to the end, but the prelude to the beginning. This means that soon the Lord Jesus will return and will put the word "The End" in front of every evil and injustice deception and deed and will usher in "the new heaven and the new earth where righteousness dwells" which His children will enter.

It 's all a matter of perspective: the children of God, His elect, must persevere, persist, insist on doing what is right before God and not be disappointed. Certainly, God will answer to their prayers, in many ways delivering relief, but the most important answer will be the glorious return of Christ.

Today, the Lord can and will answer our prayers and give us perseverance that is necessary for us, the willpower that allows us to pursue the goals that God has placed before us in His word, with perseverance and determination. God can and wants to give us that extra boost that will allow us to focus in prayer and meditating on His Word, the same drive that causes some people to wake up every day at 06:00 a.m. in order to go running because they want "to get in shape"; the same ability to say no to our favourite pastimes when you have to study for the next exam. In short, the willpower comes before the attainment of our personal goals, the strength which we most need at the very beginning, the point when we tend to get discouraged and procrastinate most.

God can and will give us that resilience that allows us to pursue the objectives of the Kingdom of God despite the defeats and the inevitable setbacks of life. It is that "crazy rationality" that helps us for the hundredth time to stand on our feet again having fallen down, aware that sooner or later we will reach our goal. It is the ability to restructure our failures and consider them inevitable steps towards success. In short, the Christian is resilient during and after our goals: while , when we must tap into all our physical and mental resources to make that last mile that separates us from the finish, and after, when we have to deal with a temporary defeat, proving to be able to stand up again and proceed forward anyway.  

Rudyard Kipling's famous poem "If" is about the quality of undaunted perseverance, which we can translate into parallel spiritual qualities.

We are so accustomed to react mechanically to events of life that we can forgot that our extraordinary ability, the essence of resilience is to do what God wants with the strength He can give us. The Lord Jesus illustrates it in the parable of the judge and the persistent and persevering widow. 

Let us ask the Lord for this strength and practice it.

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