Jeremiah 31:27-34 Psalm 119:97-104 2 Timothy 3:14–4:5 Luke 18:1-8
Never Give Up
by Sherman Hesselgrave
The parable of The Persistent Widow (or the parable of The Unjust Judge, as it usually called), like the parables of The Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son, and The Rich Man and Lazarus, is unique to the Gospel of Luke, and I have to confess up front that it is probably my favourite parable. I’m sure we have all, at some point in our lives, heard one of Winston Churchill’s speeches in which in exhorts his audience to “Never give up” or “Never give in” followed by several repetitions of the word “Never.” Well, that is today’s gospel lesson in ten words or fewer. As I surveyed the appointed readings for today, I saw a never-give-up thread running through them. In the Jeremiah reading it is God who never gives up; in the Epistle, Timothy is urged to never give up turning to the Scriptures for wisdom; and in the gospel we are urged never to give up demanding justice.
Taking a closer look at our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, we are once again reminded that the people of God addressed by the prophets were people in a covenant relationship with God. First, there was the covenant with Abraham and later, the covenant with Noah after the Flood, and further on, the covenant God gave to Moses on Mt Sinai, the Ten Commandments. One can visualize a covenant by imagining the two parties gripping the forearm of the other. If one party lets go, the other party continues to hold on. And this is how it went, as we read in the Hebrew prophets how time and again, God’s people did not hold up their end of the covenant. Yet God never let go, and today we heard about another way that God never gives up on us. Jeremiah, speaking a message of hope from Jerusalem to God’s people, many of whom have been taken into exile in Babylon, a message of a new covenant that will not be inscribed on stone, but on their hearts, so it will be with them wherever they may be. The God who never gives up shows how to create a fresh start by offering forgiveness, a model that still works to this day, despite the tired old model of retributive justice that our civilization seems unable to shed. An eye for an eye, a missile for a missile—or closer to reality, 20 missiles for one rocket. God holds on, never lets go, even when we refuse to live into that new covenant we were given so long ago.
Looking next to the reading from the Second Letter to Timothy, the writer of this pastoral letter reminds Timothy that, here paraphrased by Eugene Peterson [The Message Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language. (NavPress, 2003]:
why, [Timothy,] you took in the sacred Scriptures with your mother’s milk! There’s nothing like the written Word of God for showing you the way to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Every part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another—showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God’s way. Through the Word we are put together and shaped up for the tasks God has for us.
The never-give-up piece in this reading comes in the next sentence where Timothy is given this charge: “proclaim the word, be urgent in season and out of season;…” In other words, never cease to find nourishment from Scripture and never miss an opportunity to pass along the insights you have discovered.
Now, I know, of course, that in our post-Christian age we have bones to pick with the Bible because it is a book that came to be over many centuries, and out of cultural contexts very foreign from our own. But in story after story we recognize the human tendencies that are familiar to us even today: the lust for power, rampant greed, trampling on the poor and marginalized like widows and orphans, lack of trust in the ways that God has instructed us to live our lives: loving God with all we have, and loving our neighbours as ourselves. And THESE stories and values we can regard as ethical standards that we embrace, defend, and invite others to join us to live by.
There are some in this room who, like Timothy, have known the Scriptures since childhood, and I know there are others, because you have told me, whose familiarity with the Bible is not where they wished it were. It’s time for us to offer an opportunity for those who would like to fill in the gaps or build a foundation. Maybe the group meets here or maybe it meets in a home at a time of convenience for the group’s members. In Advent we are planning two forums that address the challenges and responses to Biblical Interpretation, but the real meaningful work happens when people engage the texts and discuss them with others. One of the ways I stay in touch with large swaths of Scripture is to read the Daily Office readings over breakfast. There is a reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, the Epistles, and Gospels for every day of the year, and they can be easily found online or in the Book of Alternative Services. There are plenty of fringe benefits to becoming better acquainted with the Bible. In The Great Code, Northrop Frye writes about a discovery from his “earliest days as a junior instructor”: ”I soon realized that a student of English literature who does not know the Bible does not understand a good deal of what is going on in what he reads: the most conscientious student will be continually misconstruing the implications, even the meaning.” // I independently came to the same conclusion when I was studying Shakespeare in university. My professor was the son of a Methodist pastor and I had grown up in a Lutheran parsonage, marinated in Scripture from the crib. The works of Shakespeare presuppose a knowledge of the Bible, for there are countless scriptural references throughout, which many only discover if they read the footnotes.
After moving to Toronto, I added a number of other Northrop Frye books to my library, most recently his 1962 Massey Lectures, The Educated Imagination, whose opening lines go like this:
For the past twenty-five years I have been teaching and studying English literature in a university. As in any other job, certain questions stick in one’s mind, not because people keep asking them, but because they’re the questions inspired by the very fact of being in such a place. What good is the study of literature? Does it help us to think more clearly, or feel more sensitively, of live a better life than we could without it?… What difference does the study of literature make in our social or political or religious attitude? In my early years I thought very little about such questions, not because I had any of the answers, but because I assumed that anybody who asked them was naïve. I think now that the simplest questions are not only the hardest to answer, but the most important to ask,…
It occurred to me that you could substitute the word ‘Scripture’ for ‘literature’ and ask the same questions: What good is the study of Scripture? Does it help us to think more clearly, or feel more sensitively, of live a better life than we could without it?… What difference does the study of Scripture make in our social or political or religious attitude?
Every Sunday we hear snippets of readings from the Bible and some kind of commentary on them in the homily, so I expect that it is possible that we are being shaped by these encounters with God’s Word. But I also know that it is difficult to grasp a sense of the whole by only looking at the puzzle pieces out of their fuller context. So, one more reason for a more in-depth study of the Book that is central to Christian belief and living.
Finally, we return to the Persistent Widow. Our reading begins this way: “Jesus told his disciples a parable about the need to always pray and never to give up.” The example Jesus goes on to give is a case study about a widow (read: woman in a powerless social position) who has failed repeatedly to be granted justice against someone who has wronged her in a court of law. Yes, it is about prayer, and that God will grant justice, but we can also relate to the parable as a community that has, like the persistent widow, struggled for social justice for decades—whether it was around housing and homelessness, LGBT or refugee issues, or economic justice. Well, a lot longer than that, actually—this parish is coming up on the 166th anniversary of practicing a ministry of social justice on October 28th, the feast Day of St Simon and St Jude. The issues were different in 1847, like a potato famine in Ireland, and rampant prejudice against certain immigrants to Canada, but Holy Trinity was open to all, and has honoured that part of our DNA ever since. There is no better summary of the message of the Parable of the Persistent Widow than Sir Winston’s words: “Never give up. Never. Never. Never. Never. Never.”