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Inviting us to view the world through the lens of Christ.
Sometimes stories jar us. Things are clearly not the way they are supposed to be. Sometimes it’s an inner feeling we have that something is just not right. Sometimes there is a clear feeling that things are not the way they are supposed to be which is brought on by a memory. Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrentheit 451 about a dystopian society in which all books are burned. The people who are burning the books are, ironically, firefighters. At the start of the book, one of the characters asks “Is it true that long ago firemen put fires out instead of starting them?” As one writer puts it – “In some of the parables the same sort of perpetual displacement occurs: what is plausible becomes implausible, role reversals occur, and accepted values are turned upside down.”
Accepted values are turned upside down. “In a certain city, there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.” In a rare bit of parabolic inner dialogue, the judge repeats, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone…” Values are turned upside down. In ancient Israel, judges were supposed to dispense justice. They were to act on behalf of God. King Jehoshaphat gave these instructions to a group of judges he appointed – “Consider what you are doing, for you judge not on behalf of human beings but on the Lord’s behalf; he is with you in giving judgement. Now let the fear of the Lord be upon you; take care what you do, for there is no perversion of justice with the Lord our God, or partiality, or taking of bribes.”
God is justice. Here we have someone who is meant to act on God’s behalf with no fear of God and no regard for humanity.
Things are upside down.
I was talking recently about a song called “World Gone Mad.” A world in which we see the perversion of justice. A world in which might makes right. A world in which there are two sets of rules – one for the very wealthy and one for everyone else. We are living in an in-between time. A time of waiting. Waiting for the Kingdom of God to come in its fullness. Waiting for the day when injustice will be no more.
In Luke’s account, the parable comes after a question is asked (by the Pharisees of all people). When is the kingdom of God coming? It’s the same kind of question that was asked by the prophet Habakkuk. “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?” Too often we look at this world we’re living in and we see situations and we say “Where is God in this?” We ask the same question that the people for whom Luke was writing were asking - “When is Christ coming back?” was the question. Because it’s hard to live in the meantime. When it seems that God is absent and questions like “How could God let this happen?” abound.
It’s a universal situation. This is why the town’s not mentioned. The judge is not named. The widow is not named. We’re not in the genre of realism here. Leaving out details enables this story to apply to all times and all places. There is no talk of inner motivation. Georgia O’Keefe said this about realism – “Nothing is less real than realism… Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.”
So we have a situation where expectations are turned upside down. Where what we long for – a judge who exercises justice – is not forthcoming. We have a widow.
One of those who is among the least of these in Jesus’ day. A person without economic and social protection. She has been hard done by. An injustice has been done to her and she has no recourse except through this judge. This is her cry.
“Grant me justice.”
Because there is a parable within the parable here. This is not only a parable about prayer. It’s also about justice. God is a God of justice. God will not let evil stand forever. God will not let oppression stand forever. There will one day come a great reversal between the rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless, the oppressor and the oppressed. In the meantime, we are to cry out to God for justice. We are to cry out to God to make God’s justice known.
Are we ready to do this? What might this look like for us? Would this mean we would take part in a time of prayer before our service on Sunday? Would it mean we would take part in an all-day service of prayer on a Saturday? Would that be too much of a violation of our boundaries? Would we come to church the week before our summer camp to pray for the children and the volunteers and the people who are coming from Tennessee and New Brunswick? This woman is violating social boundaries, you see. Do we trust that God is a God of justice or do we say God is out of the picture? Do we act like God is out of the picture by not turning to him on our knees and with our knuckles bloody from hammering at the door? There’s a story I read recently about a group of church leaders in the US who were together to talk about justice. A black preacher stood up and said this – “Until you have stood for years knocking at a locked door, your knuckles bleeding, you do not know what prayer is.”
Are we prepared to get our knuckles bloody, calling out to God?
What would that look like? I wonder.
Look at some of the things that go in this world. This is the powerful thing about this parable. God is not put alongside or compared to a loving father here. God is not put alongside a caring shepherd. That’s not to say God is being likened to an unjust judge – not at all! It’s a case of “How much more?” How much more will God hear and act? This parable is for when God seems far away. We are called to remain faithful in prayer despite of this. Such prayer has been described as hurling its petitions against long periods of silence. If you’re wondering about the language of such a prayer, we have an example in the 44th Psalm – “Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever! Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? For we sink down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground. Rise up, come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.”
For the sake of your steadfast love. For God’s sake. Such an appeal to God’s sake would not have had an effect on the judge. He had no regard for God. This parable invites us to have regard for God. A regard for God in the face of the human condition. Frank Kafka – whose very name has come to describe senselessness and alienation - wrote parables about the human condition. About senselessness. About alienation. One is called “Give It Up.” In it, a man who is not named goes down a deserted street in a city that is not named. He compares the time on his watch to the time on a nearby tower clock and finds that it’s much later than he had thought. The shock of this causes him to forget the way he’s going. He stops to ask a policeman for directions. Things are turned upside down. The person from whom one can normally expect help answers “You asking me the way?...”Give it up!”
Give it up. There’s no meaning. No help forthcoming no justice.
Of course, the widow in our story does the exact opposite. Thank God for praying widows. Luke tells about another widow who prayed without ceasing at the Temple. Anna. She is bold. She is courageous. She is unrelenting. It would be like someone with a court case continually sending emails to the judge. Stopping him or her at the grocery store. In the parking lot as they’re leaving work. There would probably be a restraining order issued!
In the face of this the judge relents and says 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.” There’s no moral epiphany here on the judge’s part because this is not a morality tale. The judge is acting purely out of self-interest. The verb for “wear me out” in the line in “so that she may not wear me out” also means “to beat black and blue” or “to have one’s body buffeted like a boxer” or “give me a black eye”. This woman was serious.
Are we prepared to pray to the point where eyes are blackened? Maybe our own eyes because we’re praying instead of sleeping…
I believe that is what is at the heart of this parable. The need to pray always and not to lose heart. The widow’s unceasing prayer comes from a desire to see justice done. Our prayers to God should come from a desire to see justice done and a faithful trust that God is just. It’s about the faithful prayers of a people who ask “Your Kingdom come.” It is to remind us that persistent prayer is needed to maintain a healthy faith. As someone has said – “faith prompts prayer while prayer strengthens faith.” It’s a reminder that to follow Christ requires faithfulness and endurance.
Because there’s a question that comes from Jesus at the end of this parable and it’s a question for all of us. We live in a time of waiting. We await the return of Christ. No matter how we disagree on the timing or how we believe it goes down, it’s what all of Christ’s followers await. The question is this – When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Will you sit here this morning and say “He will as long as I’m around!” Will you make that affirmation of faith here today with me? To affirm that you want to be a part of a praying community that is willing to pray and hammer at the door until our knuckles bleed? Until our eyes are blackened? What might that look like for us here at Blythwood? This whole series is challenging us to dream of what might be.
Let the start of this be our commitment to be like this praying widow. To be importunate in our prayer lives both as individuals and together. Who else wants that for us here and in the different faith families of which we are a part? God grant this might be true for us all.