Luke 18 and 21 (Unsung Sheroes part 3)
For the past couple weeks we have been exploring the stories of Unsung Sheroes in the book of Luke. Stories about women in the Bible are a mixed bag and often times we find what we came looking for, whether that’s subjugation or liberation. But the gospel of Luke has more stories about women than the other gospels and I don’t want us to miss the wisdom they contain. The first week we affirmed that the women who funded Jesus’ traveling ministry and managed the logistics were following the pattern of service set by Jesus himself. Last week Jon Powers showed us how Jesus emancipated women who had been marginalized by physical illness, bringing them into the center of God’s divine activity.
This morning we are going to read a couple of stories about little old ladies. Little old ladies. When I say “little old ladies” what do you think of? Maybe of someone who needs to be helped across the street? Maybe of someone who is sweet and gentle, or maybe someone who is vulnerable and helpless? Maybe some of you think of yourself! I bet you don’t immediately think of someone who is powerful. Or someone who is highly influential. I know that the phrase “little old lady” is not very complimentary and I chose it on purpose to help make a point this morning.
Little old ladies are rarely the heroes, or perhaps I should say “sheroes” of the stories in our culture. We in the US are obsessed with youth and attractiveness and vigor and newness, and so we do not give much honor to the oldest among us. Which is a real shame. In not valuing our older generations, we hurt ourselves as much as we hurt them because we miss out on their wisdom and their humor and their love. They might not all know how to work the latest gadget and they might not always hear us clearly the first time we speak, but they have been around the block more than a few times and have probably encountered some version of whatever we’re currently facing. Older adults have invaluable insight gained from experience and perspective. And yet, as a culture, we often sideline them.
But not with Jesus. The two stories we are going to read this morning are stories of dignity and persistence and generosity, and the main characters in each are widows. Widows in the ancient world were even more vulnerable than they are in our culture. When a man died, his property went to his sons or his brothers, but not his wife. So widows were dependent on some man somewhere to provide for them. Which means that often nobody provided for them. We know this is the case because care of widows is a significant concern of the early church in the book of Acts. It was easy for widows to be treated unfairly, especially if they didn’t have adult sons, because they needed an advocate. The role of rendering a just decision, arbitrating in a property dispute, that was the job of a judge.
So, with the vulnerability of widows in mind, let’s hear these two stories. The first one is from Luke chapter 8 verses 1 through 8:
Jesus was telling his followers a parable about their need to pray continuously and not to be discouraged. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him, asking, ‘Give me justice in this case against my adversary.’ For a while he refused but finally said to himself, I don’t fear God or respect people, but I will give this widow justice because she keeps bothering me. Otherwise, there will be no end to her coming here and embarrassing me.” The Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. Won’t God provide justice to his chosen people who cry out to him day and night? Will he be slow to help them? I tell you, he will give them justice quickly. But when the Human One (aka Son of Man) comes, will he find faithfulness on earth?”
This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
OK, first of all, the unjust judge is NOT supposed to be an image of God. This parable is NOT about how if we pray long enough, God will get fed up and give us what we want. The unjust judge CANNOT be a picture of God because he’s a bad judge. By description and by his own admission he neither reveres God or respects people. That’s not supposed to be a God-figure. OK? OK.
This is a parable about the significance of being faithful in prayer. Specifically in our prayers for justice. Our prayers for the avenging of wrongs, our prayers for things to be set right. Our prayers for a renewed creation. If a judge who doesn’t care about justice will eventually give justice to a persistent widow, how much more will a God who does care about justice give justice to all people?
BUT. It probably won’t show up exactly how or exactly when we expect. This story is tied to the one before it by the phrase Human One (aka Son of Man) and the story before this one is about the end times. That’s shorthand for the final days before the Human One (aka Son of Man aka Jesus) returns to definitively restore the world. And guess what? Jesus says those final days will be like all the days before them. Then suddenly God will begin to remake the world.
The invitation for us in this story is to be faithful in our prayers for justice, even and especially when it looks like nothing is changing. We must not assume that God is delaying, like a judge who just doesn’t feel like acting. The book of Second Peter chapter 3 verse 9 says “The Lord isn’t slow to keep his promise, as some think of slowness, but he is patient toward you, not wanting anyone to perish but all to change their hearts and lives.” One of the reasons God may be delaying is to allow as much time as possible for as many people as possible to get on board with God’s plan of justice before Jesus returns to renew creation.
And that’s hard. When it looks like nothing is changing, eventually we give up. Regardless of what the project is. If we can’t see results, we assume that what we are doing is not working, that it doesn’t matter that we are doing it, and we quit. This story challenges us to press in. To keep praying for justice, calling out to God, specifically because it looks like nothing is happening. That’s what it means to have faith, to trust. Remember how Jesus ends this story? By asking, “When the Human One (aka Son of Man returns) will he find that God’s people have been faithful, have been persistent in the prayers and work for justice, even when they couldn’t see what was happening?”
That’s the first story, where a little old lady is the model of fierce persistence. The second story is even shorter, from chapter 21, verses one through three.
[One day while teaching in the temple], Jesus saw rich people throwing their gifts into the collection box for the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow throw in two small copper coins worth a penny. He said, “I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than them all. All of them are giving out of their super abundance. But she from her lack of abundance has given everything she had to live on.”
This is also the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
The first widow was a model of fierce persistence. This widow is a model of abundant generosity. The collection boxes at the temple were for voluntary offerings, just like the offerings we receive here at church. The money that went in was used for supporting all the stuff and people that were necessary in order for worship to happen at the Temple, and for supporting the poor. Again, very similar to offerings in our church.
This is another of Luke’s challenging teachings on money. Jesus doesn’t condemn what the rich people are giving. He doesn’t say it’s not needed or not welcome. But he takes time to highlight the gift of the widow. Which first of all means that Jesus noticed her. In the midst of all the business and activity and well dressed folks, Jesus noticed one woman’s small gift. And instead of calling it small, he called it the biggest gift given that day.
Now we are tempted to criticize this. Why doesn’t Jesus also affirm the gifts that the other people are giving. After all they are actually giving more. Why would this widow give everything she had? That’s not very responsible! Maybe. We don’t know for sure. What we do know is that Jesus honors her willingness to give sacrificially. For her this is an act of worship of God, giving to support the Temple where God’s presence is most strongly felt. And it is an act of compassion, giving to support others who are in need, maybe even more need than she is in. This is another case of gratitude and compassion leading to generosity. And who are we to criticize? The greatest poverty is when you feel you have nothing to give. If someone wants to be generous, we must receive it. We dishonor them when we assume we know better than they do what they should be giving. If we trust the generosity of the community, then all can give and all can be provided for.
What Jesus is highlighting here is the level of her generosity, not the amount of her gift. She gave much of the little she had, whereas the others that day gave little of the much they had. This is why the Bible recommends tithing, or giving 10 percent of our income. Percentage giving is proportional giving. Percentage giving allows everyone to have the same stake in what happens in the community. When we encourage percentage giving, we encourage everyone to make an equal sacrifice, to be equally generous, regardless of the actual amount. Percentage giving neutralizes the temptation to compare ourselves with others. It is more just to encourage percentage giving than to ask everyone to give the same amount. And God’s Kingdom is all about justice.
The sheroes in these stories are not the rich and powerful, the judges and the titans of industry. When telling stories about persistence and generosity, about fierce courage and rock-solid trust, Jesus chooses to honor little old ladies. Which brings us to the Lord’s Supper this morning. Last week I had the honor of attend Anita Sparks’s mother’s funeral where Anita and her sisters sang a beautiful old gospel tune called, “The Ground is Level at the Foot of the Cross.” In God’s Kingdom, no one has more status than anyone else. Jesus’ table is a round table and there’s room enough for everyone. Titans of industry do not get a bigger bite of the bread than little old ladies. At this table we remember that on the night Jesus was betrayed, his best friends were arguing about which one of them was the greatest. And Jesus shut their mouths by telling them that he came among us to be the one who serves. It is good to be at a place where we don’t have to suffer other people’s judgment or prove our worth. Which is why for hundreds of years, our ancestors in the faith have insisted that this is the joyful feast of the people of God, where people of all ages, all races, all abilities and all genders come from the north, south, east and west and are welcomed by Christ, who is the host at all our tables.