October 20, 2019, Hesed for the Win, Luke 18:1-8 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000158
I don’t know much about the world of judges and lawyers and court cases, but I do know a lot about persistent questioning, because I’m a mom, and when I read the parable of the persistent widow, I think to myself that no persistent widow could possibly out-persist a four-year-old who wants something really really bad. The parable we read this morning is about that kind of persistence. The parable we read this morning is also about prayer. Because Jesus told this story to teach the people around him how important it is to pray and keep on praying and not get discouraged.
I have a list that I pray through every morning; it’s the list all the Daughters of the King use for their daily prayers. It’s fairly long, four or five pages on my computer, and I pray through every name in the morning before I read morning prayer. Some people have been on our list for months. Some people have been on our list for years.
And there are days when we might wonder why we keep on praying, day after day, and month after month, and year after year? Are we hoping that we will wear God down with our persistence, like the widow in the parable, bugging the living daylights out of that godless, cold-hearted judge until he finally gives in and gives her the justice she was asking for?
I grew up in the Roman Catholic tradition, and repetition was a big part of my prayer life as a child. As a Catholic, you almost never said just one Hail Mary or one Our Father. If you were praying the rosary you prayed along the string of your beads, one Glory Be, one Our Father, ten Hail Marys, one Our Father, and so on and so forth. If you went to confession and told the priest all the naughty things you had done that week he always gave you a penance of prayers in multiples – five Our Fathers, or whatever. Prayer took real persistence; for a sleepy child it was sometimes very hard to pray the whole rosary before you nodded off, and I remember worrying about that. My kind, wise Mom assured me that if I fell asleep the angels would finish the rosary for me. But it was all good training for me, I think, in learning how to be persistent in prayer.
The danger, of course, is that in all our persistence and repetition, we can lose the meaning of our prayers so that they become just a string of sounds, senseless babbling offered up on autopilot. Who hasn’t caught yourself daydreaming or running through your grocery list during a familiar prayer because you knew it so well that your brain went into autopilot mode? Jesus made it clear to us that simply flooding the airwaves with words, as it were, was of no value at all. “When you pray,” Jesus said once, “don’t babble on endlessly like the heathens do, thinking that the gods will hear them just because their prayers are so long.” Instead, when the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, he taught them one short, simple, direct prayer.
So when Jesus tells the story of the persistent widow to teach people to be persistent in their prayer, he isn’t saying that God won’t hear them unless they really crank up their prayer hours to 11 on the one-to-ten scale. We know that, too, because he adds one little phrase. Jesus told this story about the need to pray always – and not to lose heart. This story isn’t about wearing God down so that he’ll finally do what we ask. It’s about the very real temptation to get discouraged, to lose hope, when we pray for our sick friend day after day and week after week and month after month. Even year after year.
But our reason for not losing hope is not only our own persistence in prayer like the widow in the story – it’s also, it’s even mostly, about who God is – it’s about God being nothing like the judge in the story. “Listen,” Jesus said. “Even that wicked, heartless judge gave the poor widow justice – though it was for no other reason than to shut her up. But when you pray, you pray to God – can you even imagine that God would be slow in answering you? When the Son of Man comes back, will he find faith? Will you still be holding on, and not give up?”
In the Old Testament reading today we read about someone who literally held on to God. Jacob was travelling back home after being away for a long time. He had cheated his twin brother out of his rightful inheritance, and he had run away because his brother, Esau, was out for his blood. And now, twenty years later, he was coming home fearfully, not sure what kind of a reception he was about to get. And on the very night before he was to meet Esau, an angel of God came to Jacob as he lay under the stars, all alone. The angel and Jacob wrestled all night long, until the sun rose on the day that Jacob had been dreading for so long. And when the sun began to rise, Jacob was hanging on to that angel like his life depended on it – which it did. And so he said to the angel, “I won’t let go until you bless me.” And God – because it was God himself – gave Jacob a blessing and a new name, “Israel”, which means “He wrestles with God.”
The Persistent Widow, and Jacob the Wrestler, these are images God has given us for the sometimes hard work of prayer that we do. But the reason we hang on without giving in to despair is not our own persistence; the reason is that we know that the One we pray to, the One we wrestle with, is the God who loves to hear us, the God who is good and just and loving.
There is a Hebrew word that is used to describe God in the Old Testament about 250 times from Genesis to the prophet Zechariah. The word is hesed, and I want to talk about that word a little bit. Hesed is such a big concept that it can’t be adequately translated in just one way; hesed is God’s steadfast love, his mercy, his lovingkindness. Hesed preserves life. When Jacob lay down on the very night he would wrestle with the angel, he prayed to God, “I don’t deserve even the smallest of all the deeds of steadfast love – of hesed – that you have shown me. Please, God, deliver me from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid of him.”
In his fear, Jacob reminded himself of the steadfast love that God had shown him, protecting him, blessing everything he had done in all his years away from home. It was remembering the hesed of God that gave Jacob the strength to hold onto that angel, even the boldness to demand a blessing from him, without giving up. It’s the hesed of God that gives us the boldness to come to him, and that gives us strength to persist in our prayers.
That four-year-old child that is so insistent about ice cream, or going to the park, or having a story read to her, or just being heard, asks boldly and persistently because she knows she is demanding good things from the person who loves to give her good things. She doesn’t like waiting, the same as all of us, but she knows in her heart that good will come at the right time. She trusts in the hesed of her mother or her father or her grandparents, she knows their lovingkindness towards her, so she keeps asking. And asking. And asking.
And like beloved children, every morning, or every evening, or when we have moments of solitude driving in our cars – whatever time it is that each of us have for bringing our needs and the needs of the people we care about to God – we hang on and we keep on praying. We ask God to be with our friend who has cancer, or who battles depression. We ask God to help a grandchild who seems to have lost his way. We ask God to forgive us our meanness and our foolishness, and to help us be better people. We ask God to watch over the people who live in the midst of war or famine. We ask him to watch over the homeless, to give justice to widows and orphans.
We keep on praying, day after day, week after week, month after month, even year after year. Our God is never slow in hearing us; he is with us every moment, even when his answers seem long in coming. We remember his goodness to us in the past and we hold on, like Jacob held onto the angel. We pray with boldness, because we know that we are praying to the One who has hesed. He is the God of mercy, the God of steadfast love, the God of lovingkindness, the God of grace. And we do not lose heart.