For those of you who are new here – I consider myself in good company. I, too, am new here – this being my second Sunday to worship with you all – and I am grateful for the opportunity to share a little bit about myself with you as well as delve into this interesting parable this morning.
A little known fact about me is that when I went to seminary, I had no intention to end up in congregational ministry. I had a passion for mission, social justice, and I wanted to spend my time working diligently to those ends. But, you know the drill – the moment you say some kind of declarative statement about something you would never do, you end up eating those words and doing exactly that?
My turn around experience – from not wanting to serve in a congregational setting to really loving the church and, in fact, wanting most to serve in a church setting – was at Lake View Presbyterian Church in Chicago. I was a field studies student there and here’s what happened:
You see, growing up, my family had always gone to church on a pretty regular basis. Maybe not every Sunday but most, for sure. We also did mission trips and service projects and attended peacemaking conferences and I really enjoyed those activities. Sunday mornings, I remember sitting with my parents for the first part of the service and then heading off to Sunday school. Then, once I was in high school, I would sit with my friends in the back of the congregation and we would pass notes to one another – I suppose I was never really engaged in the worship service so, my experience up to my second year of seminary, had led me to believe that the worship and the mission/action of the church, were not really all that connected. Up to that point, I hadn’t really engaged in worship and didn’t really understand the value of it when what I really cared about what serving God’s people well.
Then, in my second year of seminary, I learned something new and this lesson has crept up inside my heart and has opened my mind to a whole new experience. I learned that worship and mission are intimately intertwined with one another. Worship is needed to feed the spirit – to shore up ones understanding as to why it is important to serve others. In worship, we are encouraged to pray, to have faith and to persevere by those who have come before us, as we find that our stories have all been told before in the Scriptures. In worship, we develop a habit of hope in God’s macro level justice and love for the world so that when it comes time to go out to do the work, we have sustenance for the journey to continue to labor. Both are needed to heed the call of the gospel to love God and to love one another.
So, this morning, we turn to the Gospel of Luke, chapter 18, where Jesus tells a parable of two characters – an unjust judge and a persistent widow – with the hope of articulating the intimately intertwined existence of prayer and justice.
Let us pray: Holy and Gracious God, startle us with your love. May our ears be open to hear Your Word for us today and may our hearts be turned towards you in awe. Amen.
Luke 18: 1-8
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.2He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone,5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’”6And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says.7And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
This is the Word of God for the people of God.
Thanks be to God.
Now, before we get into the meat of this parable, I want to give you a little background to help give some context. Though it is not conclusively known when and where the Gospel of Luke was written, scholars place its origins towards the end of the first century and agree that Luke’s view of truth and history are thoroughly theological. Meaning, the plot of the gospel is driven by the divine necessity of Jesus’ mission and that God’s will and reign are at work in human history. It is important to remember that the chapter breaks and verse numbers were added to the text long after it was written. Therefore, when we read our particular text this morning, we have to be mindful of the fact that the parable that Jesus tells in our passage today was originally heard by a group of folks back in chapter 17 who are engaged in a tense struggle to figure out when the day the Son of Man will come – people who were actively looking for the end of times and expected it to be in their lifetime.
Let’s be mindful when approaching this text that this is a parable. It is not a text on which an entire theology is or should be defined. It is meant to describe an element of faith – a part of the Christian experience. So, let’s get to it. The parable of the unjust judge and persistent widow: though just 8 verses and vulnerable to easy interpretation, this text is one of those that peels back, just like layers like of an onion – each time you read it there is something else to learn, bringing you closer to the core of the parable. It begins with a bracket on the front end of Jesus talking about prayer. Then, it goes into the brief parable about a woman who refuses to be silenced as she seeks justice from an unjust judge. The closing bracket of the parable loops back to the notion of prayer and speaks directly to the population awaiting the kingdom of God. And, as we hear it this morning, what rises to the surface for me is that the practice of prayer is to be intimately intertwined with the practice of being a persistent voice of God’s justice in the world.
Let’s start with the notion of prayer first. This is one of the few parables where Jesus articulates what we should be listening for – “Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” Though we want to get sucked in to the juicy story of a widow and an unjust judge, we must also listen for a lesson on the meaning of prayer. As he concludes the story, Jesus, then, articulates further meaning of the parable by telling us that if a judge, who cares nothing for people or God, can grant justice for the reason of simply saving face, wouldn’t God, who does care and love God’s children, grant that justice which is needed. He relates prayer to faith – or, not losing heart – and asks the reader if we are simply waiting for what we want or, if we are prayerfully mindful of the God’s presence in the world.
A tempting interpretation of this parable is that if we pray hard enough for a pony, God will give us a pony. Or, to hit a little closer to home, if we pray hard enough for an illness to not win its battle or for fairness, as we define it, to triumph, that it will because we asked. But, what we are encouraged to understand here about prayer is to take the long view – not the short, more immediate one. We pray daily for all kinds of things – prayers of thanksgiving and lament. We are happy to give God credit for the good things in life – declaring wealth and education, good news on a report, a good grade, or someone smiling at you on the metro as a “blessing”. But, when something bad happens, thinness of faith shows and we ask, ‘why would God allow bad things to happen to good people?’ ‘If God is so powerful, how can God allow for things in this world such as cancer or slavery, abuse or loss?’ Or we might say, ‘God must not be there because I don’t feel heard right now.’ These questions and thoughts are real and difficult and trying. But, in this parable, Jesus is challenging us to pay attention to the actual, prayerful relationship with God on a deeper level rather than being focused on what is on the surface, or in the here and now. If we were to get into the habit of praying continually and, therefore, developing a sense of hope habitually, then we might find confidence that God has not abandoned this world, even in the trying times. And, if we live in hope regularly, then we work, in whatever ways we can, for the justice and peace that is coming.
Which brings us to this widow. In the ancient world, widowhood is tantamount to destitution. A woman is reliant upon her father until he finds a husband for her. Then, the husband is responsible for the woman and should she not bear a son of her own to take care of her after her husband passes, she is left alone, with nothing. We don’t know what claim this woman took to the judge or whom her opponent was – it doesn’t really matter, if you ask me. What is important is what she represents. She represents those who are witnesses of injustice with the strength and motivation to stand up and say something about it until something changes.
We don’t know much about the judge either – but, we do know that he does not fear God, nor does he have respect for those who approach his court. We can see that he doesn’t grant justice to this woman because he had a change of heart. The judge is unaware of a sense of justice, seemingly – he needs something outside of his ownself to act towards justice. In fact, the more literal translation of the Greek for verse 5 is that the woman ‘is giving me a black eye’ which indicates that she was not only just a pest to him personally, but he was feeling subject to public embarrassment. He was not converted to justice because his heart was changed. The widow stood and used her voice as a witness to God’s justice until the whole world could see.
As mentioned before this parable has layers like an onion – layers that build upon one another to create a complex narrative. It was intentional that Jesus used a theme of justice in this parable – for one of the characters to be a widow and the other to be a hardened judge. The juxtaposition of the powerless persistently speaking to the powerful is intentional. And, while listening to the story of an unlikely voice for justice, we listen for the role that prayer has to play. Jesus encourages us to pray with the persistence modeled by the widow and the widow teaches us to continue to seek God’s justice.
Both prayer and voice are needed and are intimately intertwined in the Christian experience. The voice will perish, or become prone to weariness, without the sustenance of hope through prayer. The early church, which first read this parable, undoubtedly prayed for many things that it did not receive: safety, protection from persecution, among other things, I imagine. But, God’s loving presence and attention remained and they received the strength and fortitude to survive – what was needed for truly flourish. And today, through a persistent and prayerful relationship with God, we are called to be the voice of justice in an unjust world, to bear witness to God’s justice and love – not justice that we want as individuals, but justice we need as a community.
As you walked in this morning, you, hopefully, received a piece of twine with your bulletin. Go ahead and pick that up and take a look at it. Do you notice how twine is simply made up of a bunch of littler strings? I want to use this as a reminder to us about our Christian faith. The twine, or, rather, the witness of our Christian faith, is stronger as the layers of faith and practice increase. Imagine one, or even a couple of those strings represents your voice for justice. Strong as it may be, it is made stronger and more meaningful with strings of persistent prayer added. As they wrap around one another, they can bear more weight together and become more powerful. And, imagine if we were to weave each of our pieces together. With our collective prayers and voices intimately intertwined, what injustice will we point to, pray for and raise our voices to change?
May God’s justice roll down like waters and may the whole world be at peace.
Sermon was preached at Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC on 10/20/13.