Don’t Quit

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Throughout Lent, we’re exploring the parables of Jesus – the two dozen or so stories that were his chief means of describing the reality of God’s rule on earth. 

Legendary boxer Muhammad Ali made a lasting impression with his fists. 

He also made quite an impression with his mouth.  Ali was famous for his mocking bravado:

I’m the greatest thing that ever lived!
I’m the king of the world!
If you even dream of beating me you’d better wake up and apologize. 
I’m so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and was in bed before the room was dark. 
I should be a postage stamp, because that’s the only way I’ll ever get licked.

One of Ali’s most famous quotes may be apocryphal.  But it’s entirely consistent with his spirit. 

The fighter had settled into his first class seat before a flight, but chose not to buckle his seatbelt.  A female flight attendant gently reminded him that buckled belts were non-negotiable.  “Superman don’t need no seatbelt!” Ali announced loudly.  To which the flight attendant replied:  “Superman don’t need no airplane.”  Ali buckled up.

As racial barriers began to come down in the major American sports leagues in the 1950s, white fans gradually acknowledged high-achieving black athletes like Hank Aaron, Bill Russell, Jim Brown, and Willy Mays. 

But Ali was different.  The self-proclaimed “Greatest” was harder to applaud.  His supreme confidence seemed overbearing, even threatening. 

When he declared himself a conscientious objector in 1966 and refused in to serve in the military – just as the Vietnam War was ramping up – Ali was convicted of draft evasion.  The government stripped him of his boxing titles and threatened him with imprisonment.  The Supreme Court ultimately ruled in his favor in 1971, but by that time he been marooned outside the ring for almost four years.  He had not been allowed to fight between the ages of 25 and 29 – typically prime years in the life of a professional boxer. 

Historians suggest that in the late 1960s Muhammad Ali was the most hated man in America. 

By the end of the twentieth century, however, he was widely respected – even loved – and was regarded as a global representative of our nation’s most cherished values.  

How in the world did that happen?

Ali was resilient.  He never compromised his convictions.  He watched and waited as the nation gradually came to respect and even embody his views.  And of course he never stopped talking:

Hating people because of their color is wrong. And it doesn’t matter which color does the hating. It’s just plain wrong.
A man who views the world the same at fifty as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life.
Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.
It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe.
Only a man who knows what it is like to be defeated can reach down to the bottom of his soul and come up with the extra ounce of power it takes to win when the match is even.

William Rhoden, columnist for The New York Times, concluded:

“Ali’s actions changed my standard of what constitute an athlete’s greatness.  Possessing a killer jump shot or the ability to stop on a dime was no longer enough.  What were you doing for the liberation of your people?  What were you doing to help your country live up to the covenant of its founding principles?”

Jesus also valued resilience, something evident in what has come to be called the Parable of the Unjust Judge: 

“Jesus told them a story showing that it was necessary for them to pray consistently and never quit.  He said, ‘There was once a judge in some city who never gave God a thought and cared nothing for people. A widow in that city kept after him: ‘My rights are being violated. Protect me!’ He never gave her the time of day.  But after this went on and on he said to himself, ‘I care nothing what God thinks, even less what people think. But because this widow won’t quit badgering me, I’d better do something and see that she gets justice – otherwise I’m going to end up beaten black-and-blue by her pounding.’”  (Luke 18:1-5, The Message)

Judges in the time of Jesus were notoriously corrupt.  It was widely understood that justice was for sale. 

Whenever a judge conducted public hearings, plaintiffs would hurry to hire an intercessor – a paid middleman, essentially – who would receive their bribes and then approach the judge, hoping to purchase a favorable verdict on some matter.  If you had money, power, and status, you had a pretty good shot at coming out on top. 

Widows were typically bankrupt when it came to money, power, and status.  They couldn’t afford to hire advocates.

But the woman in Jesus’ story has plenty of resolve.  She won’t stop shouting.  She won’t be shown the door.  She knows she is in the right, and keeps reminding the judge she is in the right – even though he could care less about what is right.  In the end, she simply wears him out.  “OK, you win!  Now leave me alone!” 

Jesus concludes his parable with a powerful statement:

“Do you hear what that judge, corrupt as he is, is saying?  So what makes you think God won’t step in and work justice for his chosen people, who continue to cry out for help?  Won’t he stick up for them?  I assure you, he will.  He will not drag his feet.”  (Luke 18:6-7)

In other words, don’t give up.  Keep working and praying and struggling for what is right in this world, even when it seems that others turn a blind eye to justice.  

Muhammad Ali said it well:    

I hated every minute of training, but I said, “Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.”

Don’t quit.  Keep praying.

Our lives will be infinitely richer if we resiliently entrust ourselves to the One who is truly The Greatest.