Proper 24 – 10-20–2019 – St. Paul’s
In the third quarter of the 1800’s an Englishman named Charles Thompson dreamed that his son Francis would become a priest. However, Francis flunked out of seminary. So he decided to study medicine at the institution that’s now known as the University of Manchester. However, that occupation never really captured his interest either, so he never actually practiced as a doctor.
Instead, he decided to move to London and become a professional writer. Apparently that field was just as hard to break into then as it is now and he so struggled to make a living by selling matches and newspapers. His health wasn’t good, and he soon became addicted to the opium he had been prescribed for his illness.
In time, things became so desperate that he started living on the streets, sleeping by the River Thames, with other addicts and homeless people. He applied to Oxford University in a bid to turn his life around, but they rejected him due to his addiction. He even contemplated suicide, but was dissuaded by a dream he had.
And then, at what may have been the utter bottom of his life — where he had no reason to see anything but pain and despair — that Francis Thompson wrote one of the most famous religious poems of all time, one he called The Hound of Heaven. That title refers to God’s relentless pursuit of him in spite of his failings. Francis begins the poem by saying of himself:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways;
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
In spite of his resistance, Francis describes God as following him with unhurrying chase, and unperturbed pace, deliberate speed, majestic instancy. That’s the image I want you to keep in mind as we turn to our gospel lesson today. It’s a story about the virtue of persistence in prayer. And Jesus makes his point in an odd way — by apparently contrasting the actions of a crooked judge with the responses of God to the prayers of God’s people.
Jesus says the judge didn’t respect people and he didn’t fear God. In other words, in a culture built on pride and shame, this was a man who felt no shame. He had no innate sense of good or bad.His goal was simply to use his position to line his pockets with bribes as quickly as possible before he could be removed from the bench. Yet, suddenly he’s faced with a widow who has no means which with to bribe him. So he simply brushes her off and goes about his business. But she won’t go away that easily.
One of the constant refrains of the Old Testament is that God is on the side of widows and orphans. Why? Because in ancient Israelite society, those are the people who have literally no one to watch out for their interests. There was no welfare, no Social Security and no Medicare. They were often exploited and abused. In fact, the Greek word for widow literally means one who is forsaken or empty. Widows and orphans are totally on their own, with few rights and absolutely no power. Therefore, God declares that he is on their side and God requires God’s people to be careful to uphold the rights of those on the margins of life.
However, the judge in this story couldn’t care less about that. The widow has nothing to offer him, so he refuses to hear her. Yet she comes back again and again and again. She starts to get on his nerves. Finally, he can’t take it any more, so he gives up and grants her request just to shut her up.
The point is that if a corrupt judge can be swayed by the sheer determination of someone with no power, how can we doubt that our requests will be answered by a God who actually loves us? Scholars call that an argument from the lesser to the greater. In other words, they’re saying that the parable shows that if even an unjust judge can be persuaded to grant justice, how much more so can the God loves us be counted on to right the wrongs of this world?
But that brings us to what seems to be a contradiction in the story: If God truly is loving, why do we have to badger God into giving us what we need?
In his commentary on the book of Job, Frederick Buechner puts that question this way: If God is all he’s cracked up to be, how come houses blow down on innocent people? Why does a good woman die of cancer in her prime while an old man who can’t remember his name or hold his water goes on in a nursing home forever? Why are there so many crooks riding around in Cadillacs and so many children going to bed hungry at night? Job’s friends offer an assortment of theological explanations, but God doesn’t offer one.
Suppose that God did explain. Suppose that God were to say to Job that the reason the cattle were stolen, the crops ruined, and the children killed was thus and so, spelling everything out right down to and including the case of boils. Job would have his explanation. And then what?
Understanding in terms of the divine economy why his children had to die, Job would still have to face their empty chairs at breakfast every morning. Carrying in his pocket straight from the horse’s mouth a complete theological justification of his boils, he would still have to scratch and burn.
And that raises an important point about the nature of prayer. Prayer isn’t a matter of persuading God about whatever it is we want or need. God already knows both. In fact, God knows what we truly need better than we do.And prayer certainly isn’t a matter of God taking our orders like some hard-working waitress scrambling for a tip. Instead, prayer is a matter of opening ourselves up to listen to God so we may begin to understand God’s will for our lives. Prayer helps us align our thoughts with God’s thoughts. And persistence in prayer allows time for our hopes and dreams to coalesce with hopes and dreams of other Christians so we can help bring about change in the community and the world.
But, as Paul Kabo wrote a number of years ago, This all sounds good, but how do you continue to pray about suicide bombing in Iraq when the bloodshed doesn’t stop? How do you manage more prayerful words when the screams of a rape victim are not heard? How can you talk with God anymore when the disease never stops destroying healthy tissue? How can you return to conversation with God when everything you held as decent is despised? How do you say any prayer, when God is silent?
Paul went on to provide one answer to that by talking about persistence in prayer even in the face of divine silence. Ignatius, a second-century bishop from Antioch who was martyred for his faith, gave a second answer when he wrote: You’ve got to live as if everything depends on God and pray as if everything depends on you.
And that’s where an interesting modern interpretation of Jesus’ parable comes in. Here’s how Kathy Donley describes it, What if the parable is not an argument from the lesser to the greater at all? What if we throw out that interpretation and start over? The repeated testimony of the Old Testament is that God loves justice, that God is concerned for the well-being of the stranger and the outcast, the marginalized, the mistreated. […] So, what if, in this parable, we were to see the widow as being God?
Suppose God is the widow who pleads for justice. God is the widow who just keeps showing up, in every time, in every place, in each generation, a pest, a nuisance, a bother, for the sake of love and justice. And if God is the widow, then who is the unjust judge? Could that be us? Could it be that God keeps showing up, pleading with us to act? And some of us will respond, if only to keep God from wearing us out.
There’s that strange last line of the parable, ‘And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’ What could that mean? Maybe it is asking ‘when God the widow appears in our time and place, will God’s people be there too? Will God’s people order the priorities of our lives to satisfy the widow who simply wants justice to be done?’
Near the end of the gospel of John the author tells us:Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
Among other things, that passage tells us that the stories that have been preserved about Jesus were selected for a reason. Many scholars believe that the parable of the unjust judge was preserved to encourage the early Christians to keep the faith in the midst of persecution. And how did they do that exactly?
Certainly, they told the story of Jesus, actively trying to convert new members. But just as importantly, in a culture with no social safety net — in which members of one’s family were expected to care for them and in which those who had no family were entirely on their own — Christians chose to act as family for everyone.In times of plague, it was said that when the whole world ran out, Christians ran in. They cared for the sick even at the risk of their own health. And you can be sure that that level of compassion was noticed and won them many converts.
To use the modern interpretation of our parable, those early Christians were like the judge who ultimately listened to God’s impassioned pleadings and brought justice. Over the centuries, other Christians have founded school, built hospitals, ended slavery and helped to bring a previously-unknown level of equality across racial, religious and gender barriers.
The torch of justice has now been passed to us. God pleads with us to help make this a better world. Do we believe strongly enough that we’re willing to expend our prayers — and roll up our sleeves — to make them happen? Are we willing to persist until we achieve God’s goals or will we give up before the finish line?
Will Jesus find faith in us when he comes back? Amen.
God of love and justice,
we gather together to worship you:
to offer our thanks and praise
and to proclaim your goodness and mercy.
Meet us here.
Breathe your Word into our souls;
engrave your covenant of love upon our hearts.
Teach us faithfulness and compassion
so that our lives may reflect
your love and justice to the world.
We give thanks for the planet
we share with all of God’s creation
and for imagining a world-made-new.
Let us share what we have as one way of creating a world
free from hunger, poverty, and oppression.
May you continually wrestle with prayer.
May you beseech the door of heaven with shameless boldness.
May your prayers produce, in you,
a countenance of joy,
a gracious demeanor,
and a peaceful heart
And may the God of hope, fill you with all peace,
that you may abound in hope,
assured that your prayers are heard