Lent Devotions: Losing and gaining heart

Design by Doug Puller/Bread for the World.

Editor’s note: This Lent season, Bread Blog is running a series of devotionals written by staff, alumni, and friends of the San Francisco Theological Seminary, which is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).           

By Dr. Elizabeth Liebert, SNJM 

Luke 18:1-8

“Then Jesus told them a parable about the need to pray always and not to lose heart. . . ” So much for any koan-like aspect to this parable! Luke tells us exactly what message he thinks we should take from it before we even hear the parable.

The parable itself introduces rather unlikely characters: a persistent woman demanding of a callous judge that he actually hear her plea and grant her justice. The judge, who “neither fears God nor had respect for people,” does actually grant her justice, despite his callousness, just to get her out of his hair. We are asked to pay attention, and to recognize that even the callous judge grants justice, albeit for a pretty poor reason. So much more will God grant us justice if we persist in our prayer. Indeed, we are told that God will quickly grant justice to God’s chosen ones who cry out to God.

Now things get interesting. What if I pray and pray and pray and nothing happens? What if I see no justice on the horizon for me or for those for whom I am praying? Am I not a chosen one? Or is my request beneath God?

Do I then simply quit praying?  Do I conclude that God is too distant? That I am too insignificant for God to grant justice in my case? Maybe it is simpler to quit believing in a God who intervenes and grants justice? Maybe quit believing in God at all? Maybe it really is all up to me.

But parables are notoriously slippery (even ones where we are told the moral upfront!) What if I don’t see myself as the persistent woman and God as the one outperforming the callous judge? What if I am the judge in this parable? What if I am the one whose heart is hard and callous, and who only does justice to get some peace from the begging woman? A small heart indeed, so focused on my own comfort, desires, power. Look deeply at the parable again. We see a woman who keeps on begging, and a judge, grudgingly, does grant her justice. His feet begin moving toward justice, although his heart has not yet done so. But next time it is infinitesimally more likely that the judge might do the right thing. Miraculously, something can happen in that little space between where the judge’s feet are moving though his heart has not yet budged, all because the woman is so persistent as to be annoying. When grace shows up in the person of the persistent woman, the judge’s heart can expand and he can become a bit more human. 

Our hearts too: We can “not lose heart;” indeed, we can actually gain heart, even when our hearts are as tightly closed as this unjust judge’s. When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith in us trying to get bigger hearts, even if we are sometimes not able to do it for the right reason? And when we, like the persistent woman, are the ones pestering for justice, do we believe that our hearts can also grow in the act of persistent clamoring for justice even when nothing seems to happen? When the Son of Man comes, will he find the faith of insisting that justice be done?

Dr. Elizabeth Liebert, SNJM is professor of spiritual life and director of the program in Christian spirituality at San Francisco Theological Seminary.

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