When was the last time you gave up on something or someone? When was the last time you were so fed up with a situation, so exasperated, that you said or thought, I just can’t or don’t want to deal with this anymore?
I am sure all of us have experienced that, in little ways and in big ways. And sometimes, it’s good and healthy to give up. Especially when you tried and tried, and it didn’t lead to anything. Sometimes, the only right thing to do is walk away.
But I know from my own experience that sometimes, I am tempted to throw in the towel without really trying. Especially when the situation seems too big, too complex, too complicated, too frustrating. Just looking at homeless people tempts me to think: what can I do? What can anybody, for that matter, do? Can this problem that has so many layers ever be solved?
I am experiencing things in politics and in societal living that are abhorrent in my sight and from my perspective as a follower of Christ – but since nothing really changes anyway, on the contrary, things seem to get worse, and those in power turn the other way when blatant injustice happens, I rather become angry and cynical instead of wanting to deal with it. What can I do about it?
I admit it, with all the stuff that’s going on in this country and in this world right now, there are moments when I lose heart.
Now I just love this figure of speech: losing heart. When we lose heart, we are discouraged, we give up hope. I think that’s the first thing that comes to mind when we hear this expression, ‘losing heart’. But there is another danger. We understand the heart as the place where feel emotions. Among other things, we feel love in our hearts, compassion. With and in our hearts, we are moved. The heart makes us human, and more than that – it makes us humane.
We think of a heartless person as someone who is cold, detached, calculated, maybe even outright mean or evil. Or indifferent. Now the thing is: when we lose heart, we are in danger of being heart-less.
Today’s gospel starts with the following words, ‘Then Jesus told them (meaning the disciples) a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.’ Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.
Now the context here is quite important. Right before today’s gospel, Jesus talks about the coming of the kingdom of God and the ‘days of the Son of Man’ – and he says there will be suffering and rejection and division and loss. All this is quite unsettling and uncomfortable, to Jesus’ disciples back then as it still is to us today.
We are reminded that the coming of the kingdom of God is not just a glorious event, something that happens magically and effortlessly, but that there is struggle involved with that, that there is resistance against God’s kingdom of peace and mercy and inclusion, the realm where eternal life to the fullest for all is to be found.
We are reminded that the way through glory leads through the cross and death. And the shadow of the cross reaches through time and space.
As the kingdom of God already grows among us like a mustard seed, we are still wrestling with powers that seek to exterminate it.
And some of those powers hold sway over us. There is a reason why we confess our sin, our guilt, every week. We take part in so many systems in this world, systems which extort, demean and destroy. Often we are victims of and perpetrators in those systems at the same time.
It’s messy. It’s complicated. And the temptation is great to just give up, to just throw in the towel, so go with the flow, to take the path of least resistance.
But here Jesus challenges those who follow him. He challenges them – he challenges us – to not lose heart, to not be discouraged, to not become heartless. And how do we do this? Pray, Jesus says. Pray and be as persistent in your prayer as a powerless widow who has nothing but her persistence to make herself heard in front of an unjust judge.
Now the parable Jesus uses to make his point is multi-layered. The words ‘injustice’, ‘just’, and ‘justice feature prominently in it – I think that’s interesting in the context of ‘losing heart’ and ‘becoming heartless’.
First, we have an unjust judge, who obviously already lost heart a long time ago, someone who is heartless. We get the feeling that this parable is not simply a story that functions as an example for the life of the followers of Jesus – it is a biting social commentary as well.
Jesus talks about a widow – and that could have been a young woman. Many women, who lost a husband and had no other male protector in their lives, like a father, another relative who would take her in his house, or an adult son, were extremely vulnerable. If her husband didn’t leave her anything, she was literally penniless. If she had young children, they would suffer as well.
If she inherited something, like property, a conservator – accountants, scribes – might take over any assets she had and manage them, and sometimes would take advantage of the situation – Jesus talks about that some other place, alleging that those scribes sometimes would mismanage a widow’s estate and ‘devour widows’ houses’, as he says.
Especially widows with no or limited means had no power, no leverage. Things haven’t changed that much over the last 2,000 years, the poor are still grossly disadvantaged. It probably happened quite often in Jesus’ days that a widow, who was wronged, tried to get justice through the courts. And it also probably happened quite often that a judge, who might have been friends with those who wronged the widow, refused to rule in her favor.
The widow in the parable doesn’t lose heart – even though she’d have many reasons to just give up. What can she do against the powerful anyway? Maybe she is desperate. Maybe her life – and the life of her young children, if she has any – literally depend on her persistence. She refuses to throw in the towel.
And in the end, the unjust judge gives in – because he is annoyed, because she is grating on him, because he is inconvenienced. And, just by the way, if you are wondering if God is the unjust judge – I don’t think so. Sounds more like the judge has all the qualities of the devil, who doesn’t fear God or any human being.
In this parable, Jesus’ focus is on the nature of prayer – and on us.
Jesus says that we are to pray as if our life depended on it. And not only our life, but the lives of others as well. Prayer – the constant turn to God, be it in thanksgiving and praise, or in lament, confession, and seeking help and guidance, opens our heart wide – toward God and others, but then to our deepest selves as well. Prayer is something that makes us aware that we a part of something that is much bigger than we are. That we are surrounded: by God, by other human beings with their needs and joys and sorrows, and this amazing world God created. And this kind of prayer keeps us from losing heart and hope, it keeps us from becoming heart-less, indifferent as we see the plight of others.
German theologian Gerhard Ebeling said, ‘Prayer is turn to the future’. I have to say that I like that a lot. When we pray, we express our faith and hope that God is there, that God has a future in store for us and for all of creation, that going out and coming in will be blessed, from now on and forevermore – even though we may be in the midst of struggle, of suffering, of rejection, of division and loss, in the shadow of the cross.
And because there is this future in God and with God – because the kingdom of God is growing among us, despite all powers that try to eradicate it – , we are not to lose heart. There is hope. We are called to stubbornly live into our hope and defy all powers that seek to discourage us and make us heartless and tempt us to take the path of least resistance.
God chose the very narrow and difficult path. God went through suffering, the cross and death. God has never lost heart, God has never given up on us, even though God would have had many reason to do so. This God surrounds us with grace and love and is with us on all the narrow and difficult paths in our lives. This God blessed our going out and coming in, from now on and forevermore.
Picture by Kyle Johnson via unsplash.com
This post is also available in: German