First Congregational Church
October 16, 2016
22nd Sunday after Pentecost
“Not Just What Jesus Said”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
As many of you know, Mother Theresa was recently canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. Renown preacher, Tom Long, once told of a time when Mother Theresa was in New York City to meet with the president and a vice-president of a large company. Before the meeting, however, the two executives had privately agreed not to give her any money. Eventually the diminutive Mother Theresa arrived and was seated across from the two men separated by a very large desk. They listened to her plea but then said, “We appreciate what you do but just cannot commit any funds at this time.”
“Let us pray” Mother Theresa said. She then asked God to soften the hearts of the men. After saying, “Amen,” she renewed her plea and they renewed their answer that they were not going to commit any money. “Let us pray” she said yet again, at which point the executive relented and asked for a checkbook!
This morning’s scripture passage is not only absent from the top ten list, but from the top twelve of Jesus’ most famous parables. (That is not to imply that it is number 13, but that I didn’t take the time to investigate beyond that point.) But this passage is not completely foreign or fresh to most ears here today. Like most any parable, it would probably serve better as a Bible study than a sermon, because parables can have so many layers of meaning - intentionally so or not. And the exchange of understanding would be so interesting.
But for the moment, the parable follows Jesus’ healing of the ten lepers, one of whom went back for an extra blessing, and a little sermon from Jesus about the Kingdom of God.
Luke 18:1-8 NIV
1 Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. 2 He said, “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. 3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’
4 “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”
6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”
Thank you, Donna. Right off the bat, I’m guessing that most folks would say that the topic of this passage would be about prayer, since Jesus says that in the very first sentence. “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.”
That sentence could have been intended for the passage about his preaching on the Kingdom of God, in the chapter just before this one, and then maybe Jesus told a different parable, followed then by the one Donna just read. It’s easy for us to think that these “sections” follow one another, just the way they would have actually happened. And maybe we forget or don’t know that the original documents didn’t have verse or chapter numbers to help us in our understanding. So maybe the first sentence may not be a real clue - or the first one we should consider - in understanding this parable.
Way back in the book of Exodus, after the Ten Commandments were spelled out, there is a long section — several chapters — where Moses was being schooled on what those commands meant and how they were to be played out. In Exodus 22, God says, “Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless.” In fact, only orphans were more urgent cases than widows for considerations. And it says that God would go so far as to kill anyone who took advantage of widows and the fatherless, even threatening to kill that individual’s wives and children for their indifference. While it may sound like a harsh God, caring for the “desolate” the outcast, and offering hospitality to those in need were extremely high virtues in the Jewish world of Jesus’ day, so this widow’s request was not to have been taken lightly.
Because it is so easy to assign characters in parables, most times the judge is equated with God and the widow represents us. But assigning personalities paints God as an uncaring, indifferent, exasperated Judge, worried about his reputation, and turns the widow into a pesty stalker.
The widow went to the judge for justice, yet Jesus didn’t tell us why there was a need for justice. We don’t know if someone shortchanged her at the market or if another widow took her begging spot at the town gate or whatever thing it was that got under her saddle.
And yet, because it’s a parable, and there are layers of meaning, and we live in this day and age, perhaps there is the possibility that this is a case for peaceful, prayerful protesting, except that I’m not looking for any lawsuit about politics from the pulpit and try hard to avoid that whole scene. But maybe, for someone or some folks, this morning’s passage may be the “voice” we needed to hear to do something - for or about someone else, especially if that person or persons is or are outcasts for whatever reason - to do something beyond giving to the upkeep of this place and to the missions we support.
It’s been a while since I visited my old friend, desperatepreacher.com, and when I checked it out this week, there was a great illustration about the downside of this parable. Whoever Indy CLP is, he or she told this story.
A few years ago during the Harry Potter craze my son convinced his young daughters that if they believed hard enough and ran fast enough they could run right through the wall just like Harry Potter. They both tried once with predictable results but the youngest kept getting up and going at it again and again till they had to make her stop for fear she might injure herself, plus my son was having trouble breathing he was laughing so hard.
It is a funny and somewhat mean story, but it also is a lot of what prayer sometimes feels like. If we believe hard enough, if we do everything right maybe this time our prayers will make it through and each time we try and fail faith tells us to get back up and run at it again. But that is not what prayer is about, either.
Going back to what Jesus said, it’s interesting that Jesus doesn’t actually say anything about the widow - or the judge - doing any real praying. If you wanted to get technical about it, when the writer says that the widow was going to the judge with a “plea,” as it says in our pew version, the original Greek word doesn’t have such energy. She was simply “saying” that she wanted justice - something more like a conversational exchange.
In regards to prayer, just eleven chapters earlier, Jesus said, “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
In the Book of Dinah, which, as we know, didn’t make it into the Biblical canon, it would say, “If persistence can pay off with even a lousy human judge, how much more effective will our perfect, Godly God be to us? In the BoD - Book of Dinah - Jesus would have probably said something like, Who among you, parents, if your child asks for a sandwich, will give him or her lutefisk instead. Or if they ask for a fishing pole, will give them frozen fish sticks instead.”
While someone today may need to be reminded that ours is a good God, who loves to shower God’s children with blessings, others may need the reminder that lifting up our needs - and even our wants - to God is not about what God may think, but about doing what we need to do to move forward. Being the humans that we are, sometimes it may not occur to us to lift a particular item - a burden or concern - or even joy - up to God. So maybe, for someone today, maybe this is a message about getting to the business of prayer.
As I thought about this passage and a potential non-message about prayer, I got to thinking about what prayer really is - regardless of the actual words. It’s about relationship. Despite the assumption that neither judge nor widow previously knew each other, over the period of petition and refusal, they came to know each other - at least a little. The judge came to understand the widow as determined, and the widow came to know the judge as unencumbered with bias or judgment, and their relationship maintained a cloak of respect. What furthers the idea of this passage being about relationship is that Jesus goes on to talk about the relationship between God and God’s chosen ones, the ones that have a similar sort of relationship as that between the judge and the widow - those needing justice and the one that can grant it.
In checking out the definition of “justice,” there is - in ancient Greek - a sort of circular connection - a relationship, as it were - between justice and “adversary.” To get justice is to avenge a thing, and an avenger is without law or and justice. Whatever was against this widow, we will never know. But, then, again, this is a parable, a story made up by Jesus to help us understand a point, which may be one of many points, in the many layers of meaning.
It was while I was at desperatepreacher.com that Rev. Christopher pointed out something by one of my other favorite sermon guys, David Lose, that “prayer changes us.” That point seems relevant in completing the parable with Jesus’ last words, “However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” So we come back to that relationship idea again, that happens as we work toward becoming better followers of Christ and recognizing our ever increasing depth of faith - in God - with God - in our hearts and souls and minds.
In a goofy way, the word faith is not so much a noun as it is a verb, although we don’t say that we are “faithing” like we would say we are swimming or driving or any other “ing” word. But perhaps we get closer to the real practice of our faith, the real “faithing” when we don’t give in when it feels like no one is listening, when it feels like we are being ignored, that no one cares. Because God is there, listening, recognizing, caring, loving, strengthening, forgiving, in endless patience and compassion, mercy and grace.
For this blessing, and all that is dear, we do well to pray.
God, regardless of our age, our address, even our race or our color, you created us human beings with a hole in our hearts that is shaped like you, that can be filled only by you. So help us in opening our hearts to you and your Spirit, most especially as there are so many other voices competing for our attention - some of those voices needing justice and any other help we can offer. When we get tangled up in relationships that are not in our best interest, help us to untangle, and help us to move closer to you. When our thoughts drift from your truth, and fables and fancies begin to seem real, help us to realize the blessings that you constantly pour on us, blessings to help us in bringing about the justice that is needed in our own lives and in the lives of all your people. And all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.