Sermon preached by Jeanne E. Gay
October 21, 2007
There was a time in my life, when my kids were young, when I sympathized with the judge in this parable. Mom, please can I have more candy … please can I get a tattoo … please will you buy me new sneakers … I imagine those of you who are parents have experienced some of the same, right? And when the judge finally gives in, we think, well, yeah, I can understand.
So … this parable is pretty easy to understand, right? Luke even tells us what it’s about: “Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” This parable is a bit like the one we looked at a few weeks ago, in which the point was that if your neighbor will finally give up and give you some bread in the middle of the night, surely God will do even better. Or the one where Jesus comes right out and says that if your earthly father won’t give you a scorpion when you ask for an egg, surely your father in heaven will do even better by you. Philosophers call this an argument “from lesser to greater”—if it’s true of this lesser thing, then it’s even more true of the greater.
There are a couple of problems with the parable, though. The first one is this description of the judge—a man “who neither feared God nor had respect for people”—a man who waited until he was afraid he was going to end up shamed—the Greek says with a black eye—to give in and give the woman justice. I understand the lesser-to-greater thing, but gee—that sure doesn’t sound like God, does it?
And the second problem is that the parable seems to tell us that if we pray consistently, constantly, then justice will be granted to the world right away. “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” the text reads; “Will he delay long in helping them?” Now, I know that we’re not all that good at praying constantly, but, you know, Christians have been praying for justice for the poor and oppressed for 2,000 years. And look around you, folks. The President vetoes the S/CHIP bill. Hundreds of thousands of people in this country alone are looking at losing their homes because of foreclosure in the next couple of years. Around the world over 10 million children under five die each year because their families can’t afford to feed them or care for their illnesses or give them clean drinking water. In the war in the
Surely, even as flawed as we are at praying constantly, surely we’d see some dent in injustice.
So let’s go back to this parable again and see what else might be there for us. In the Bible Study that we’re doing on Thursday mornings, we’re going to be talking about how parables can be looked at on several levels. First of all they’re interesting stories—Jesus understood about plot and conflict! Second, they’re ethical guidelines for us—in this one we learn that we are to pray unceasingly. Third, they tell us something about the
If we’re going to find those third and fourth levels in this parable, we’re going to have to shake up the way we understand it a bit. Did you notice when we went through it before that the story itself is only four verses long? Verse 1 and verses 6-8 are commentary. Let’s look at the story itself:
In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” (Luke 18:2-5)
What if … what if when we’re looking for the God-figure in this parable … what if we look at the widow as God? The widow who kept coming and kept coming and kept coming, saying, “Grant me justice.”
And if the widow is God, who is the judge? Why, the judge is us, of course. The judge is us flawed people, who at our worst, at our most sinful, have neither awe of God nor respect for people. People who, even at our best, find it easier and more comfortable to go with the flow, stick with our own lives. People to whom God keeps coming and keeps coming and keeps coming, saying, “Grant me justice.”
This is the God we know from the Old Testament who, every time
One of my favorite poems is John Donne’s “Batter My Heart, Three Person’d God.” Now I’m not going to even try to go through this whole early 17th century poem this morning, but what the poet is saying is, God, please keep coming after me. I’m not strong enough on my own to keep this relationship going and do what I know is right—I need you to chase me down, to batter the walls of my heart.
I think we all recognize this plea in ourselves, too. God, I see this injustice around me, and I don’t know what to do. I’m afraid to step out too far and maybe get myself in trouble. And this relationship with you, God, I want it, I really do, but I’m not strong enough to hold on to you.
We keep coming back and saying, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.” And God does keep on coming after us. God is the widow, who keeps pursuing us … and at the same time we are the widow, saying, “God, I can’t do this on my own.”
Perhaps we need to recognize in this parable that the roles aren’t fixed. God is the widow, and we are the widow. God is the judge who has the power to grant justice … and we are the judge, aloof and alone in our fears. But we’re not free to simply sit in the corner and ignore God and disregard the injustice and the hatred and the fear in the world.
We need to keep our hearts open … and we need to beat a path to God as well. How do we do these things? We pray.
We are called on to storm the seats of power. To pray to God, ceaselessly, for justice … and also to campaign and boycott and march and write letters and sign petitions—storming the seats of power on earth as well, fighting for justice and mercy for all of God’s people. And at the same time we are stormed by God’s power, being called on to open our hearts to God’s most merciful justice. And because God’s power is in us, we are powerful … and because we are powerful, our hearts can be opened. It’s a two-way street.
Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian minister and much loved author, tells us that in our praying we are to “be importunate” (and wow—I don’t know if I’ve ever used that word out loud before!—be persistent, be unrelenting) Buechner writes that Jesus tells us to “be importunate … not … because you have to beat a path to God’s door before he’ll open it, but because until you beat the path maybe there’s no way of getting to your door” (Wishful Thinking 71).
“Until you beat the path maybe there’s no way of getting to your door.” Beat the path to God … storm that mighty seat of power … and be opened to the storm and power of God’s love and merciful justice.
The hymn we’re going to sing in a few minutes speaks of the elements of our relationship to God within worship. The first verse talks about the Bible—God’s living Word. The second is about our fellowship with each other and how through it we can grow to be the people God calls us to be. The third verse is about communion.
And the fourth verse of this hymn is about prayer, and I think it says in different words some of what I’ve been trying to say. “Loving Spirit, praying in us,” it says, “Giving voice to all our sighs.” Loving Spirit, praying in us. When we pray, the path is beaten and the door to our hearts is open … and God keeps on besieging us, God’s praying is our praying.
Loving Spirit, praying in us,
Giving voice to all our sighs,
Show the wideness of Your mercy
To deaf ears and blinded eyes;
Free our tongues to come before You
With our neighbors’ joys and cries.
Batter our hearts, O God, and hear our cries. Be the prayer in our hearts and of our hearts.