Luke 18: 1 – 9_The Squeaky Wheel Gets the Grace_October 20, 2019

The Squeaky Wheel Gets the Grace
Luke 18: 1 – 9

(preached October 20, 2019)

What do you suppose prompted Jesus to tell the parable in our passage for today, from Luke’s gospel? What inspired this strange parable about a widow and a judge? Luke doesn’t give us much to go on here. He simply says that Jesus wants to encourage the disciples to pray and not lose heart. Any number of things could have led Jesus to tell this parable. Maybe Peter had been grumbling that God didn’t seem to hear his prayers. Or maybe Andrew had shared his disappointment when, after he prayed and prayed for a healing, the illness continued.

The disciples may have been discouraged. Jesus may be looking for a way to inspire them to pray continually and not lose heart. So he tells this strange story, this story of a very persistent widow and a judge who “neither feared God or respected people.” You know, when you think about it, it’s a good thing this widow is persistent; we might even say pestering. It’s a good thing she doesn’t give up. Persistence is the one thing she has going for her. Jesus describes her as a woman alone, with no one to plead her case for her. As a widow in first century Palestine, she has very little power. In those days a woman’s entire social and economic status was tied to that of her husband. She has no right to own property in her own name. She has no means of supporting herself. If a widow had no sons, there was no one to look out for her interests. If she had a falling out with her sons, there was no one to protect her. In the eyes of the law, she was not considered a person in her own right.

So this persistent widow is in a very vulnerable position. Yet she insists on asking the judge, over and over again, for justice against her opponent. Jesus doesn’t say why she’s looking for justice. What wrong had she suffered? Her opponent may be someone who took advantage of her in a business deal. Someone may have been trying to get something out of her, but as a widow she doesn’t have much to offer. She has to muster all her energy to hound and harangue this judge, to convince him to bring her justice.

And the judge? At first he’s cold and callous. We’re not surprised; Jesus has said this man never gave God a thought and cared nothing for people. At first the judge basically tells the widow to buzz off. But she’s not that easily deterred. She comes back, again and again. She refuses to be silent. She keeps after him. She’s like the squeaky wheel in a favorite, uniquely American saying, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

That squeaky wheel isn’t a very glamorous image, but Jesus holds the widow up as an example. He tells the disciples, “You need to be like that widow. Pray always. Don’t lose heart. Never give up.” His message is not a complicated one; it’s very simple. A little boy in kindergarten understood the concept very well. He showed that one day when his class made a visit to the local fire station for a tour. The firefighters talked to them about fire safety. They listened as one firefighter explained what to do in case of a fire. He told the children, “First, go to the door and touch the door to see if it’s hot. Then,” he said, “fall to your knees. Does anyone know why you ought to fall to your knees?”

The little boy’s hand shot into the air. “Sure!” he said. “To start praying to ask God to get us out of this mess!”

I think Jesus would have said that boy was on the right track. He would have commended the boy’s faith, as he commends the faith of that widow the judge finds so annoying. Jesus knows that we need to pray. For Jesus, though, prayer is more than just asking God to get us out of a mess. Prayer is more than telling God what we need. Prayer is more than what we say to God. Prayer does something for us, deep inside. When we pray, we grow in faith. When we pray, fervently and frequently, we open ourselves to the grace of God. So Jesus says, “Pray always. Don’t lose heart. Never give up.” This parable of the widow and the judge is about prayer. It’s also a parable about faith.

Next week, on the last Sunday of October, we will celebrate the heritage that is ours in the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation changed Christianity in a number of ways. One of the most profound changes of the Reformation was inspired by Martin Luther. Luther was an Augustinian monk. He didn’t really want to start a new form of the Christian faith. He deeply loved the Catholic church. He simply wanted the church to make some reforms. For example, one of Luther’s core beliefs was that every person should be able to read the Bible, to interpret for him or herself the meaning of God’s word. He translated the Bible into his native language, German, so ordinary people could read the Bible for themselves. They no longer had to depend on clergy to interpret God’s word for them.

Another core belief for Luther, and one we cherish as his heirs in faith, is that God’s grace is freely given to us. We don’t have to earn God’s grace. All we have to do is believe. There’s a theological term for this core belief of Luther’s: it’s called “justification by grace through faith.” But to put it more simply: all it takes for a good relationship with God is faith in God’s unconditional love. God’s grace is there for us; it’s not something we have to work and work to earn. Faith is ours to receive. All we have to do is believe.

All we have to do is have faith. Did you notice that, after telling the parable, Jesus asks a question? He asks, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” He has just told a parable of a woman whose faith is so strong, that she doesn’t give up. Now he’s asking about the future: when he comes back, will he find that people have faith like the faith of that persistent widow?

It may seem a strange question for Jesus to ask, but it helps to remember when Luke wrote his gospel. It was a number of years after the man Jesus had walked the earth, had died and risen from the tomb. The flesh and blood man Jesus wasn’t there any more. People were beginning to wonder if Jesus really was coming back. All the people who knew the flesh and blood Jesus had died. The church was trying to keep the faith, but it’s not hard to imagine that some were beginning to wonder. They might be asking themselves, when Jesus comes back, will he find that we have been faithful? So Luke makes sure to include in his gospel this parable of a widow, a widow who has faith, who pleads her case persistently, and doesn’t give up.

Jesus says, “Pray always. Don’t lose heart. Never give up.” Faith grows when we pray, when we pray persistently, fervently. Our faith grows when we pray, not only because of what we hope God will do, but also because of what will happen in us: the changes that will happen in our hearts and minds. Christian writer Frederick Buechner wrote about the importance of persistence in prayer. He said persistence is key, “not because you have to beat a path to God’s door before God will open it, but because, until you beat the path, maybe there’s no way of getting to your door.” Until you beat the path, until you open the way, God has no way of getting to you. God doesn’t force a way in. God always waits for us to open the way.

So maybe we can think of prayer this way: prayer opens a channel between us and God. Praying continually, persistently keeps that channel open. Channels in the ocean can get blocked by sand that builds up. Channels in the ocean can be disrupted by storms. In a similar way, the channel between us and God might get blocked by the sands of discouragement. Those channels might be disrupted by the storms of fear. But Jesus says, “don’t lose heart. Never give up.” Because when we pray, persistently, those channels stay open. Through those channels, God’s grace can freely flow into our hearts.

The widow in the parable comes to the judge again and again, demanding justice. Finally, as a more playful translation of the parable puts it, the judge says to himself, “I don’t care what God thinks, and I care even less what other people think. But because this widow won’t quit badgering me, I’d better do something and see that she gets justice – otherwise I’m going to end up beaten black and blue by her pounding” (The Message). The judge gives in, not because of his high moral character, but because, by coming again and again, the widow has simply worn him down.

And Jesus says, “If that judge, as corrupt as he is, will give the widow justice, how much more will God – who is good and desires good for you – how much more will God give you what you need?”

Jesus says God is faithful. We can approach God fervently, persistently, all the time. God longs for our healing. God longs to make us whole. God longs to heal the hurts in a relationship with us. God comes to us in Jesus Christ, who gives us life abundantly, and doesn’t count the cost. God loves us all the way to Calvary, with a love strong enough to endure the cross.
I’ll close with the words of American author H. Jackson Brown. Brown draws an analogy from nature, in something he wrote, about a confrontation between a stream and a rock. He writes, “In the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins. The stream doesn’t win through strength, but through persistence. Little by little, daytime and night time, summer, fall, winter, and spring, the stream continues to flow. And gradually, in a million grains of sand, the rock gives way.”

My friends, may our prayers be like streams of water, flowing over rocks of fear and discouragement. May our prayers flow daytime and night time, summer, fall, winter and spring. May our prayers flow faithfully over the hard places in our hearts, wearing them down, opening a way for God’s grace to flow freely to us.

Rev. Elva Merry Pawle
Pentecost 19

Why do doctors and lawyers call what they do practice?