Unstoppable

May 8, 2016
Mother’s Day

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.

He said, ‘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.” ’

And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’

 

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Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.

My mother would fit that. She prayed always. She prayed before every meal. She prayed for every member of her family. She prayed for her friends. She prayed for strangers. She prayed in times of trouble. She prayed when she was grateful.

Can I say she never lost heart? No one could be in a position to decide that, but she prayed always, and prayed with a confidence that praying was important and that her prayers would be heard. She prayed all the time I knew her until the end of her life last August.

I can say with confidence that if anyone consistently obeyed a command of Jesus, my mother obeyed this one:

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.

She wouldn’t even need the parable that follows to encourage her. It would be enough if Jesus had just said to her directly: “Olive, I want you to pray always and not lose heart.”

“All right,” I can imagine her saying. “I’ll do it.”

In fact, I don’t think my mother would have ever thought of God like this judge, who doesn’t care, but only responds because she kept pestering him with her prayers. I don’t think my mother prayed to pester God. I don’t ever recall her thinking of God in that way. I am not sure what she thought she was doing when she prayed. She just did it and as I said, she knew praying was important and that she would be heard. In fact, she spoke often of times in her life in which she prayed and felt that God has been present with her and answered her prayer.

This sermon isn’t about prayer or about my mother, even though I could talk a lot about my mother. The sermon is about the parable of the widow and the judge that the history of interpretation has said is about prayer, beginning with the author of the Gospel of Luke, who tells us what the parable is about right up front:

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.

I would say that interpretation has served the church. It still does and still will. Praying always and not losing heart certainly is better than falling into despair. Prayer kept my mother hopeful and heart-full in all the circumstances of her life in her 91 years. The command to pray always and not lose heart has done the same for countless others.

I am not going to mess with that.

However.

I do wonder if the parable Jesus told as an example of prayer, is really the best parable to highlight the importance of prayer. There is just something off-putting about God answering prayer because he is tired of being bothered. Wouldn’t a better story be about a caring and compassionate judge who answers the widow’s call for justice? Even as it seems like it is taking a while? Hang in there, keep praying, keep the faith, justice will come, sooner than you may think, and for sure when the Son of Man comes at the end of time and wraps it all up. That is the message that either Luke or “the Lord” wants the parable to mean.

Yet the parable itself doesn’t quite seem to be about that. This judge is not an admirable God-figure by any stretch. The widow’s “prayer” doesn’t sound particularly pious, “Dear Lord, I love you, will you please, etc.” No she sounds like a protester outside the courthouse:

“What do I want! Justice! When do I want it? Now!”

What people have noticed over the years is that there is a disconnect between the parable and the explanation of the parable within the text itself. One answer is that Jesus really did say all of this as Luke presents it and really did mean that this parable is about the need to pray always, then the task of interpreters is to rationalize the characters with the widow as the chosen ones, the judge as God, and her persistent demand for justice as prayer.

Most interpreters have done that.

Another way of looking at it is to say that the author of the Gospel took various parables and aphorisms that were floating around about Jesus and tried to make sense of them by putting them in a narrative. It is the author of the Gospel of Luke who thinks that prayer is important and framed this parable in such a way as to make it about prayer.

If you bracket the first sentence, where Jesus says what the parable means and then the last several sentences that begin with “And the Lord said…” you end up with the parable itself. Those first and last sentences are the frame the gospel writer put around the parable. In this framing, the framer, has Jesus who is later called “the Lord” (definitely a theological title) say what the parable means.

To speak clearly: Jesus didn’t really say what Luke says he said. That is Luke putting words on the lips of Jesus.

When I had first decided to enter the ministry, I was the under the wing of Rev. Francis Horner at White River Presbyterian in Auburn, Washington. Boy was I green. I was working for the church as a parish visitor and going to college at UW and Francis told me to preach a sermon. I decided to preach on a passage in the Gospel of John and I went through the old Interpreter’s Series commentaries the church had.

I read that many of the words attributed to Jesus when he was in dialogue with someone fit a particular literary formula. I had to stop.

Wait a second. Here is a Christian commenter saying Jesus really didn’t say this? This isn’t an accurate account of what was spoken? Not all the red-letter sayings of Jesus were from Jesus? That the gospel author actually made stuff up? This is a commentary in a church?

It was my first experience of critical scholarship of the Bible. Before this moment everything I had read about the Bible and Jesus by church scholars was devotional. Those authors assumed that Jesus really did say and do all the things the gospels said he did. Any discrepancies could be explained away.

I was both disturbed and excited. It was as if a new world opened to me. One could approach the Bible critically and still be a Christian.

I share that little story because sometimes I jump ahead assuming that everyone has already gone through that process. It isn’t just an intellectual process. It is an emotional and spiritual one. Jumping ahead risks losing people, thinking that I am dissing the Bible or dissing cherished interpretations or dissing one’s faith. I don’t intend that. I just get excited.

This is something we find throughout the gospels. There is a parable or aphorism of Jesus that is framed by the gospel writer. The gospel writer wants the parable heard in a certain way. The gospel writer adds stuff at the beginning or end. Sometimes this explanation is like a narrator speaking to the audience or the author uses Jesus as a mouthpiece. All the parables I am preaching on until summer are framed in such a way.

What if we could extract the parable from the frame and re-frame it? We don’t know the context in which Jesus told these parables. He may have told them several times. He may have told them differently each time.

What if we just looked at the parable itself and invited reflection not only on how it might have been heard then, but now as well?

What if the parables of Jesus are not so much, “This parable means this so therefore do that.” Instead,

What if the parables of Jesus were invitations to reflection on what the world is like and how we might imagine it differently?

What if we framed this parable as Jesus speaking to a gathering of people and these people are of the 90% as opposed to the 2% of the ruling class and another 8% who make up the retainer class, that is stewards, managers, judges, priests, etc.

What if Jesus was speaking to the vast majority of people who barely make it? Fishermen, day laborers, beggars, the sick, outcasts, and widows.

Jesus says, consider this story:

‘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.” ’

You can imagine a few snickers about the judge who makes no pretense of being just by even saying to himself: “I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone.” It’s a cartoon character, “I represent evil. Ha, ha ha!”

The parable is about justice. The judge is not God, nor is the widow’s demand for justice, prayer. Let’s extract ourselves from that frame. The parable immediately makes us think of the difference between the ideal of justice and the reality of the institution of justice. Ideally, Justice is blind. Justice shows no partiality for the wealthy or for those in power. We have a constitution and a set of laws and precedents and the judge interprets them. In first century Palestine, it would be the Torah, the five books of Moses and the precedent of interpretation. When the judge says, “I don’t fear God or people” It is as if a modern judge were to say, “I don’t care about the constitution or the law, I do what I want.”

That is the comic element here. The brazen admission of a judge’s lack of concern for justice. The judge makes his rulings on other interests.

Jesus is describing a rigged system that is so corrupt that it doesn’t even pretend to be just. It’s Gotham where every cop is on the take and every judge makes decisions based on bribes and self-interest.

Jesus’ parable is an exaggeration of something that his audience would know. Laws and those charged with interpreting them were created by the ruling class to serve the ruling class. Not ideally. The ruling class would never admit it, perhaps not even be aware of it. But it always seems to shake out that way.

Jim Wallis in his book America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to A New America, writes about “the talk” that black parents have with their children.

For the past decade I have coached my sons in Little League baseball. All the dads and moms of our black players have had “the talk” with their sons about how to act, and how not to, in the presence of a police officer — or any white man with a gun. But the parents of the white players have not had such a talk with their sons, and most don’t even know this talk is going on. Should it be acceptable to white parents that their kids’ black teammates’ parents—many whom they would consider their “friends”—have to tell their children that those responsible for law enforcement in their communities are not to be trusted? What should the lament of white parents be, alongside the fear of black parents?

That is today in 21st century America after the enlightenment, after literacy, after the rise of the middle class, after so many things that have moved us toward justice. Imagine 1st century Palestine.

The adult education committee selected for Southminster Reads Linda Tirado’s book, Hand to Mouth: Living In Bootstrap America. What it is like to be poor in America. Alongside it, I would recommend Matt Taibbi’s book: The Great Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap.

Those books show in painful detail what the poor know all too well and what African-Americans know all too well: you cannot trust the justice system. Not that the justice system is always wrong, of course, but that trust in it varies upon one’s demographic.

When we had our protesters, people asked me to call the police. Why? Because we trust the police at Southminster. We are in the burbs. The police are helpful. The police are trustworthy, not just individual police officers but the police as a whole.

When I had mentioned on Facebook, that the police were here to make sure everything was cool, I was challenged by a minister who serves a poor, African-American community. She said the last people they would call in a similar situation would be the police. Police were not trusted to be helpful.

What if this parable of Jesus was an invitation for us to talk about justice, ideal justice and justice as to how it often works itself out? What if we were to use these parables of Jesus to honestly expand awareness of how things work in our world and for whom?

It is one thing to become aware of what the world is like–to open our own minds and hearts to the reality of racism, white privilege and to the reality of the wealth gap. It is another step to respond and to require the ideal of justice in the midst of what is not ideal.

The widow is the heroine in the story. Why? Because justice in Jesus’ parable of a rigged system comes not by giving up and being silent and accepting your fate, but by courageous pestering.

I began the sermon with the first verse of the text:

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.

I will frame it slightly differently from Luke:

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pester always for justice and not to lose heart.

Amen.