For October 16, 2016
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by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
Our gospel lesson about the widow pestering the judge reminds me of the TV show “Big Bang Theory.” It’s about a group of socially inept scientists and their friends. Like all sit-coms, it has several running gags. My favorite is the way Sheldon knocks on his neighbor’s door.
Sheldon doesn’t just go to the door and knock, then wait for Penny to answer. No, Sheldon goes to the door and knocks, hard and fast, several times. Then he says “Penny!” Then he knocks some more: Knock! Knock! Knock! “Penny!” Knock! Knock! Knock! “Penny!” Knock! Knock! Knock! “Penny!” On and on and on until Penny wearily answers the door. Penny doesn’t answer the door because she wants to see Sheldon. Far from it. Penny answers the door so that he will stop knocking.
In the parable, Jesus has set for us a scene in which a poor, helpless person has nowhere else to turn but to a judge. And the judge does not seem to care about her. The only one who can help her is totally unwilling. She has no money to bribe him, no power to coerce him, no important relatives to influence him; what is she to do?
Well she has two choices: 1) she can quit, give up, crawl away in despair and frustration. Or 2) she can continue to beat upon his door, accost him in the streets, stand in his yard with a sign demanding justice, tell her neighbors and friends about his unwillingness to help; in short
– she can refuse to go away. Knock! Knock! Knock! “Penny!” Knock! Knock! Knock! “Penny!” Knock! Knock! Knock! “Penny!”
And it worked. In verse 5 the judge says ” . . .because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” The judge gives her what she wants so she will go away. He is tired of her calling his name and beating on his door. He wants to get rid of her. But why does Jesus say this is like our need to pray always and not lose heart? Does God “grant us justice,” simply to get rid of us? Or because we disturb the divine repose? Or to avoid embarrassment? How is God like the unfair judge?
Jesus’ point is tied to the fact God works on a different time schedule than we do and therefore it is easy for us to get discouraged if our prayers seems never seem to be answered, if the “Son of Man” appears unlikely ever to come. This story isn’t really about courtrooms and judges and poor widows; it is about persistence in prayer and faithfulness in living. This a story about not losing faith in the face of difficult times.
Because, for most of us, there does come a time when it feels as though our prayers are ascending no higher than the ceiling. Writer and Professor C.S. Lewis, the author of “The Chronicles of Narnia” among many other things, wrote eloquently and honestly about his feeling abandoned and left alone by God after the death of his wife:
“Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy,
so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be — or so it feels — welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?” (“A Grief Observed” pp.2,3)
Yet, despite feeling abandoned by the Holy One, somehow Lewis persisted in praying and believing, trusting and relying on God. Eventually, he came to be at peace with God and with the loss of his wife – not pleased, but at peace.
And eventually he could say about prayer, “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time- waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God- it changes me.”
That running joke on “The Big Bang” theory doesn’t always turn out the same way because the reason Sheldon is banging on Penny’s door is always different. In the midst of the humor there is the underlying fact the Penny genuinely cares about Sheldon, despite how annoying he can be. She listens to his request, which is usually somewhat bizarre, tells him no and closes the door. But Sheldon does not give up. Knock! Knock! Knock! “Penny!” “No, Sheldon!” Knock! Knock! Knock! “NO! Knock! Knock! Knock! “Penny!” Somewhere along the way, Penny finds a way to help Sheldon with his problem, to help him resolve whatever dilemma is driving him, and her, to distraction. And most of the time – the answer comes from Sheldon, not from her.
So it is with us. As Lewis said. “Prayer doesn’t change God – it changes me.” We are called to persist in prayer, “whether the time is favorable or unfavorable,” (2 Timothy 4:2), we are encouraged to struggle with our needs and with our God, employing “the utmost patience,” (2 Timothy 4:2), like Jacob in his all night wrestling match with the Holy One.
It is in those moments of deepest need and darkest difficulty that our illusions about our self-sufficiency and our presumed ability to make it through life unscathed and on our own are wiped away; and we discover our need, our trust, indeed our faith, in the love God shown to us in the cross of Christ. We will not come through such times unhurt and unafraid, but we will emerge from them with a deeper faith, with a kinder heart, and with arms opened wide to embrace a hurting world with a gentler love.
Amen and amen