When I was at college in the mid-1980s, I was a member of not one but two theater groups. The well-established theater group, the Fordham Mimes and Mummers, was where I got to act in Rostand’s The Romancers, play a campy Bob Cratchit (by way of Eric Idle) in A Christmas Carol, and play supporting parts in The Tempest and Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians (Yes, I was the murderer. Why do you ask?)
The newer, smaller one was the Fordham Experimental Theater, where I got to play the primary guard in Jean Anouilh’s Antigone—which meant I got to be the main collaborator with Creon, who Anouilh casts as the Nazi regime.
But the play that comes to my mind in respect to today’s reading is one we didn’t do, in either group: Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser. We didn’t do it, but this story of a World War II era acting troupe led by an aging Shakespearean actor and his wife, propped up by the backstage employee who props up the troupe by keeping the leading man functioning, was one that struck home with one of my friends.
What touched my friend most in the play was how, whenever disaster befell—or they were about to go on stage, which is not the same thing, the long-married couple would turn to each other, and one would say “struggle” and the other respond: “survival.”
Struggle and Survival.
Bear them in mind, because the appointed readings for today may seem ill-assorted, but if you look at them through the lens of “struggle and survival” you may see the common thread linking them all.
Jacob, wrestling with an angel, refusing to let go until he receives a blessing.
Paul, writing his protégé Timothy, urging him to “be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable.”
And Jesus telling the peculiar parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge.
These three stories give us the same advice, in very different ways, and I think in these chaotic times, it’s one we—us, gathered tonight in this chapel, need:
Endure. Don’t give up. Don’t leave before the miracle happens.
We are living in historic, if perverse, times. Impeachment of the President is stealthily brewing in the background, the United States House and Senate ring with denunciations of our abandonment of our Kurdish allies, and, all the while, we drift further apart from our fellow citizens, divided by clouds of distrust, and, all too often, of increasing dislike.
It’s a grey and cold time, this era of ours, whatever the weather. A time in which anxieties about our country’s very nature are muted, but always present. A time when we feverishly look for a solution, an answer, a way to find our way back to normal. We search the blogs, the tweets, hoping for something to resolve this long, tedious and yet fearful waiting process.
Or maybe you’ll like Churchill’s version better: Never give up, never give in, never surrender.
Persist, says St. Paul, and despite the dreariness of these times, we are called to persist.
Jesus’s parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge teaches us that persistence is necessary to gain justice. He describes for us an unjust judge, a man who fears neither God nor man, and has respect for nobody. A judge who rules by his own self-interest and profit, his own whim, who doesn’t care a bit for justice. And he rules in just that way until one day—poor man—he meets a certain widow.
Now, remember that in Jesus’s day, to be a widow was to helpless and vulnerable—not quite an outcast, but relegated to the margins of the community.
At first, the unjust judge ignores the widow with his usual contempt, and dismisses her cries for justice.
But, nevertheless, she persisted, and her loud cries of “give me justice against my opponent” began to grate on him. She got under his skin, and became a burden to her. Finally, simply to be rid of her, he grants her the justice she demands, and to which she is entitled—not because it’s his duty (though it is, of course), but because he can’t bear not to anymore. Even though he fears neither God nor man, and has no respect for anybody, he simply can’t go on.
So he does the right deed, for the wrong reason—which T. S. Eliot tells us is the greatest treason.
But is it?
Just why can’t the unjust judge bear her complaints any more?
It can’t be because she’s offensively loud—he could have her thrown out.
It can’t be because she’s yet another litigant who keeps pestering him, because the story only makes sense if it’s this one widow who keeps coming back.
And what about that? In ancient as in modern law, you normally only get one chance with any one claim. However it comes out in the first case is final, and forbids any further claims—what in Latin lawyers call res judicata—the thing has been decided. So just toss her out. As many times as it takes.
No. he doesn’t even try.
So what is it?
Isn’t it likely that she keeps turning to him as the just man he is supposed to be, and that her perpetual cries refuse to let him be the lawless, selfish man he has become?
Isn’t she calling to the depths of his soul, trying to awaken the younger judge, the man who wanted at some point to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with his God?
And doesn’t the shadow, deeply buried within him, of that idealistic younger former self, once awakened, call him back to himself ?
In other words, the widow won’t let the old rascal off the hook. She won’t accept the venal man he has become.
She won’t give up on him.
Jesus uses this parable as a metaphor for prayer, and the need to persist in prayer. He tells us that, unlike the unjust judge, God will grant us what we ask without long delay. God will grant justice to God’s children—those who choose to walk with God, who answer the call to become partners in the ongoing creation of God’s world.
And then Jesus hesitates—after assuring us that God will swiftly grant us justice, Jesus muses, asking quietly “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the Earth?”
What he’s really asking is can we—you and I—refuse to give up in the face of the silence of God, in the face of disappointment and loss. Can we trust in God so much that even as we wait, we refuse to believe that God can or will ever abandon us.
And if we can put our trust in God so firmly that we do not allow even for the possibility that God will break faith with us—as the Psalmist often accuses God—then our prayers return to us. Not with easy answers and wish fulfillment, but with the conviction that, just as we won’t entertain the concept that God will fail us, so too neither will God entertain the thought that we will fail God. That God will never doubt that we—yes, you and I are capable of persisting with the widow, and never accepting that those who oppose us are not worthy of love. That we are capable of wrestling with the angels, and finding that we are renamed, no longer merely Jacob, but the new creation Israel, maybe only a drop of water in the eternally rolling sea, but a drop that sparkles with the sunlight, and changes all around it.
We can, like Paul and Timothy, pray, act, teach and do what comes to hand, knowing that our work is never in vain.
In Susan Howatch’s novel Absolute Truths, the sculptor Harriet March—an avowed atheist—teaches Bishop Charles Ashworth, our narrator, a lesson about creation. Charles applies Harriet’s lesson to God’s creation, and realizes:
“Harriet had touched that sculpture with a loving hand long ago, and in that touch I sensed the indestructible fidelity, the indescribable devotion and the inexhaustible energy of the creator as he shaped his creation, bringing life out of dead matter, wresting form continually from chaos. Nothing was ever lost, Harriet had said, and nothing was ever wasted because always, when the work was finally completed, every article of the created process, seen or unseen, kept or discarded, broken or mended – EVERYTHING was justified, glorified and redeemed.”
We have to remember that, and be like the widow. It’s not enough to cry out for justice for ourselves. We have to recall oour opponents to their best, truest selves. We have to fight our own demons, our own anger, our own prejudices, and cry out for justice for all—even—no, especially for the other, the one we fear, the one we hate.
Our struggle, our survival, only comes with a blessing if everyone is included, if everyone is justified, gloried, and redeemed.
Nevertheless, she persisted.
May we go forth and do likewise.