QUITTERS NEVER WIN
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
September 20, 2015; Non-Lectionary Sermon
Psalm 130; Luke 18:1-8

“And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones
who cry to him day and night?”
Luke 18:7a

I have a dim recollection, from my high school days, of a hand-lettered sign one of the coaches had posted in the locker room. It was meant to be inspirational. The sign said: “Quitters Never Win.”

On one level, that sign said nothing at all. Of course quitters never win! It’s perfectly obvious. How can you possibly win a game if you’re no longer in it?

On another level, the sign speaks a deeper truth. If the goal of starting a game is to win — which is not true for everybody, but let’s assume it is — then to leave the field before the game is over is to toss that goal out the window.

Jesus tells a parable about a woman whose goal is to win. Some call it “The Parable of the Persistent Widow,” others “The Parable of the Unjust Judge,” still others “The Parable of the Widow and the Judge.” If there’s one thing this woman is not, it’s a quitter.

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The woman’s a widow — which means she may have had some trouble being taken seriously by people in power. The very word for “widow,” in the Hebrew, literally means “one who is silent.” In that place and time, men were usually the ones who spoke before a judge, in the law-courts.

It was not unheard-of for women — especially women of a higher social class — to own property. It was just a bit unusual. Generally, if a man had sons, his property went to his sons when he died (and they were under solemn obligation to take care of their widowed mother). If there were no living sons, the widow might return to her father’s family (that’s what happens to Naomi, in the book of Ruth). If that was impossible, there was a lot of social pressure on a new widow to quickly marry again. What you didn’t see, so very often, was a widow like this one: standing on her own two feet, strong and independent.

Jesus never reveals the nature of the legal case — although most court cases had to do with property ownership. Most of his listeners, upon learning that the woman’s a widow, would have assumed that was it: the case had something to do with inheritance.

All the woman says is, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” Now the Greek word, here, isn’t the usual one for justice. It can mean that, but just as often it has another translation. That translation is vengeance: “Grant me vengeance against my opponent.”

No, this woman doesn’t fit the stereotype of a widow meek and mild — and silent. She’s prosecuting her own claim with a vengeance. Most listeners would have understood her to be a bold, brassy, uppity woman: pushing the boundaries of conduct considered normative for her gender.

As for the judge, he’s not exactly a nice guy. Two times in this story he’s described as a man who “neither fears God nor respects people.” The first time, Jesus says that about him. The second time — incredibly — he describes himself that way (in his own inner monologue). No rationalization here: this guy’s in it for the money.

It wasn’t outright bribery. The judges still had to decide cases with a modicum of fairness, applying the law of Moses. What your thoughtful gift bought you was a favorable place on the court docket. Cross the judge’s palm with a few silver coins and your case might be heard that very day. Neglect the financial consideration, and it could languish for months.

If this case does have to do with inheritance — as seems likely — the widow may not have had the luxury of time. She’d probably been separated from whatever financial resources her husband once had. She may have been thrown out on the street. She needs vindication, and she needs it now — but she doesn’t have any money to make it happen faster.

The widow may be lacking in money, but she has one other resource in abundance: let’s call it chutzpah. She starts badgering the judge day and night. When the judge leaves his house in the morning, there she is on the front step. When he sits down in the judgment-seat, she’s there in the first row. She follows him all the way home at the end of the day, and just when he’s about to lay his head on the pillow at night, she starts pounding on the door.

She drives the man crazy. Finally he says to himself: “Because this woman keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” The word for “wear me out,” here, is a vivid term. Literally it means: “so she will not give me a black eye.” That’s how tough and persistent this woman is. She won’t leave the judge at peace until he pays her the attention she deserves.

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So, what does the parable mean? Luke provides a suggestion, as he introduces it. He says “Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.

The Gospel-writer is relying on a method of interpretation you already know about, if you’ve heard the other sermons in this series. It’s called an allegorical interpretation, and it’s nearly always the wrong way to go. In an allegory, each main character exactly symbolizes someone else. The widow, according to this line of thinking, is a person at prayer. The judge is God, the recipient of prayers. Just as the woman wouldn’t let the judge alone, so too we ought to just keep on hammering away until we get what we want.

There’s only one problem. The widow — while she may have been wronged — is thoroughly obnoxious in the way she pushes her case forward. (Remember, the judge describes her bullying approach as giving him a black eye.) Is that how we’re supposed to pray — bullying and badgering God until we get what we want? And what about the crooked judge? He doesn’t have an ethical bone in his body. He frankly admits he has no fear of God and no respect for people. Is this the sort of character Jesus picks out to tell us what God’s like?

Of course, the answer is no. These two are scoundrels: a pushy widow seeking vengeance and a judge who lines his pockets with bribes. Maybe the parable, as Jesus originally intended, isn’t about how to pray at all. Maybe it’s about something else.

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It’s always a good idea, when studying a Bible passage, to pay attention to its context in the book: to what happens before it and what comes after. It’s also important to pay no attention to the chapter and verse divisions in our English translation —because the earliest manuscripts contain no such mileposts. The chapter and verse numbers weren’t added to the Bible until the Middle Ages.

In this case, what comes before this parable — in chapter 17 — is a series of dire warnings about the coming of God’s kingdom. Some Pharisees have asked Jesus when, exactly, they may expect the coming kingdom, and he answers them by saying, “It’s already here among you” — at least, it’s started to arrive. When the kingdom comes in full force, Jesus goes on to predict, there will be no mistaking what’s happening.

Let me read you some of what Jesus says, just before this parable:

Just as it was in the days of Noah, so too it will be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking, and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed all of them. Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot: they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day that Lot left Sodom, it rained fire and sulfur from heaven and destroyed all of them — it will be like that on the day that the Son of Man is revealed. On that day, anyone on the housetop who has belongings in the house must not come down to take them away; and likewise anyone in the field must not turn back. Remember Lot’s wife. Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it. I tell you, on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken and the other left.” Then they asked him, “Where, Lord?” He said to them, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” (Luke 17:26-37)

How’s that for an uplifting biblical passage? Corpses and vultures. Sounds more like Halloween than Easter, doesn’t it?

Now, when Jesus talks, here, about one being taken and the other left, he’s not talking about people being whisked away in what some call “the Rapture.” He’s talking about death. This is clear from his comment about the corpse and the vultures. What he’s saying is that all of us have only a limited time on this earth. So, we’d better be about the business God has put us here to accomplish.

The overwhelming emphasis of this apocalyptic passage is persistence. Jesus is encouraging a sense of urgency about the practice of faith. Don’t let up! Don’t slack off! The days will soon come when you’ll have need of that faith. So don’t make prayer and the practice of religion a lower-level priority in your life. There is nothing, but nothing more important than your relationship with God. So, attend to it now.

The big give-away about the meaning of this parable is its very last line. Unless you’ve got the previous chapter in mind — the apocalyptic warnings — Jesus’ concluding line sounds like a non sequitur — an unrelated statement dropped randomly into the mix. The last line is this: “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Jesus hasn’t been talking explicitly about the coming of the Son of Man in this parable, but he’s been talking about it plenty just before. Read the parable in light of what precedes it, and it begins to make sense.

The widow demonstrates one character trait above all others: she’s persistent. Because of her single-minded commitment, the crooked judge becomes persistent, too. She recruits even this scoundrel to join her in her quest for justice. Whatever it takes, Jesus is saying, do what is right — and don’t rest until you’ve done it.

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How many times, in life, do we get ourselves into trouble because we’re not persistent enough? Our instant-gratification society notwithstanding, nothing that’s really worth having or achieving in this life drops into our laps without any effort. Yet, because we’ve been told we can have it all, and we deserve to have it yesterday, you and I so often find our confidence lagging when it comes to sustaining hard work over time.

There was a TV commercial a few years back, put together by a well-known athletic-shoe company. It was back when the basketball player Michael Jordan was the hottest thing in sports.

In the commercial, Michael’s talking about his athletic career:

“I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost more than 300 games. Twenty-six times I have been trusted to take the game-winning shot…and missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Spoken like a true champion. When you and I watch sports heroes like Michael Jordan at work, and marvel at how effortless they make it all look, it’s really not that way. Behind every stellar performance on the court or the field, there are countless hours of drills and practice. There are successes, yes — but also a great many failures.

Maybe it’s true that superior athletes are born; but in a sense, they’re also made. And what makes them is persistence.

Very likely there have been other athletes — maybe not many, but some — with the strength and intelligence and eye-hand coordination of a Michael Jordan. But they never made it. They never broke through. They never succeeded at the sport. And the reason they didn’t was a lack of persistence.

They allowed obstacles to defeat them. Every person who takes on a difficult task, one that must be sustained over time, can be certain of crashing up against some obstacles sooner or later. It goes with the territory.

The auto-maker Henry Ford had a good perspective on this. He once said, “Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal.” He knew it’s all a matter of focus.

Jesus said something similar. Earlier in the Gospel of Luke, he says “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (9:62)

To understand that statement you have to know a little something about the art of using an old-fashioned plow. Imagine a farmer standing there with both hands on the plow-handles: letting the ox provide the power, but steering the contraption with his hands. The task is simple: to plow a straight furrow. But it’s not easy.

The ox doesn’t know anything about walking in a straight line. That’s up to the farmer. And the only way the farmer can do it is to keep his eyes fixed on some landmark — a tree, say, or a large rock — at the far end of the field. He has to be absolutely single-minded about it, or all his efforts will be for naught.

The widow in Jesus’ parable has that kind of laser focus. She keeps just one thought — justice — at the forefront of her mind. Because she is absolutely unrelenting, even the corrupt judge will give in at last, pronouncing a verdict in her case.

Sojourner Truth, a former slave, was one of the most famous abolitionists of the 19th century. She toured the country — especially the northern states — agitating for freedom for her fellow African-Americans who were in bondage.

Not everywhere did she encounter supporters who encouraged her in her work. Even in the north, she had more than her share of hecklers.

On one memorable occasion, while she was lecturing, a man in the audience shouted out: “Old woman, I don’t care any more for your talk than I do for the bite of a flea!”

Sojourner Truth stopped her address, looked the man directly in the eye, and replied: “The Lord willing, I’ll keep you scratching.”

Sounds like the persistent widow, doesn’t she? Prophets of justice like Sojourner Truth know the battle will not be won in a single day. Only a sustained effort over time will lead to victory.

The same is true of just about anything in life that’s worth doing. A venal, corrupt and self-satisfied judge may seem like a formidable obstacle in the search for justice, but our Lord teaches us that even one such as he will yield, sooner or later, to sanctified persistence. It’s a lesson we all do well to take to heart — and start living out in our own lives, for we never know when the kingdom of God is coming.

Copyright © 2015, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.