Sermon for October 20, 2019
Audio includes readings, sermon and song by Handbell Choir, “Appalachian Sunrise”
Sacred refers to that which helps take us out of our little selves into the whole mountains-and-rivers mandala universe.
Praying Mary Oliver
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
O you who believe!
Seek help in patience and prayer.
Truly God is with the patient.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say:
‘The parents have eaten sour grapes,
and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’
But all shall die for their own sins;
the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
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?’
Where does the parable end and the commentary begin?
One of the most significant contributions of the Jesus Seminar in its deliberations since the 1980s has been answering that question about the teachings of Jesus.
(And I should take that opportunity to promote the Jesus Seminar on the Road conference here at Southminster, November 8 and 9. You have until October 25th to get the early bird rate. One of the important gifts Southminster has given the greater community is hosting these Jesus Seminars on the Road.)
One of the significant gifts that the Jesus Seminar has given is making the scholarship of the academy available to non-professionals.
What have scholars been saying about Jesus these past 200 years
that never made it to the public?
One of the things they have been saying is that the Jesus of the Creed is not the same as the Jesus who told those puzzling little parables.
These scholars also have been showing that the gospels, while preserving the teachings of Jesus, also painted portraits of Jesus and framed Jesus in certain ways.
Modern Jesus scholarship has been asking,
“What belongs to Jesus and what is later redaction?”
It is Jesus versus the editors of Jesus.
It is not a simple or easy task.
Sometimes the editors of Jesus put words in Jesus’s mouth,
so a casual reader thinks Jesus did say these things.
After all, the gospel says Jesus said it.
Who are you, scholar, to question the gospels?
The church as a whole was not pleased with the Jesus Seminar.
They didn’t like that these scholars messed with cherished belief systems.
Despite the opposition,
the scholars of the Jesus Seminar persisted,
like the persistent widow,
in searching out the voiceprint of the historical Jesus.
They discovered that this parable contains a bit of editing.
One rule of thumb is that parables are not allegories.
When you run into landlords, judges, kings, and Fathers,
don’t mistake them for God.
The later editors do that.
The historical Jesus did not.
Another rule of thumb is that a tidy explanation of a parable,
even if it appears on the lips of Jesus, is likely not Jesus.
He didn’t explain himself very well.
Jesus told parables to make people think.
Often to make people feel uncomfortable.
Often to make people challenge what they had learned from conventional wisdom.
Often to push against boundaries.
The Gospel writers didn’t like that and so they tried to explain his difficult teachings
and make what Jesus said fit their own portrait of Jesus.
In this parable of the persistent widow,
the editor appears both at the beginning and the end
to tell you how to read the parable and what it is all about.
The editor begins:
“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”
That is a nice sermon and kind of true about the parable.
Don’t lose heart. True enough.
Yet the parable itself, says nothing about prayer.
Even as prayer is a good thing,
and Jesus certainly taught his disciples about its importance,
that isn’t what this parable is about.
This parable is about widow who is fed up with injustice.
She isn’t praying to the judge.
She is demanding justice from the judge.
Then the editor appears at the end of the parable:
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?’
On its own, those rhetorical questions are interesting to ponder,
but they have nothing to do with the parable.
The editor turned the widow’s persistent demands for justice
against the judge as prayer to God.
The editors have taken a parable about the reality of injustice in the world
and turned it into a lesson in personal piety.
Don’t lose heart.
Here is the parable without the editing:
‘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.”
This judge is certainly not God.
The parable itself has him say he doesn’t care about God at all.
He doesn’t care about what it is right or wrong.
He doesn’t even care about people.
He represents the reality of what widows, the poor,
and the oppressed faced in Jesus’s time.
Jesus was speaking to those very people who know the experience of the widow
and who themselves experience this injustice,
this hopelessness, on a daily basis.
Jesus is affirming what everyone who is listening already know,
that there is no justice for the poor.
That the system is rigged.
Jesus is pronouncing an indictment upon it.
The system of so-called justice has nothing to do with kingdom of God.
In fact, it mocks it in the words of the unjust judge in the parable itself,
“I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone.”
Jesus is laying it out on the entire fraudulent system of justice
as against God and human decency.
Jesus is really saying that this system is demonic.
It serves itself not who and what it was called to serve.
Jesus is speaking to people for whom all the authority figures are against them.
The people Jesus speaks to are the rabble
from whom the well-to-do want to protect themselves.
This parable of Jesus is an indictment on systems of justice
that have been structured and maintained by the powers
that be to keep that imbalance of power in place.
The editors of the gospels,
or the gospel writers,
are removed from Jesus’s original audience and from Jesus.
The gospel writers, writing at least 40 years,
and in Luke’s case perhaps longer, maybe 60-70 years after the time of Jesus,
also represent a different class of people.
Whereas Jesus was likely in the peasant class, illiterate, and without property,
the author of Luke is not that at all.
The author of Luke is like the wealthy liberal
who likes Jesus but does not relate to the experience of the poor
and the systems that are built that have
“no fear of God and no respect for anyone.”
So Luke makes Jesus’s parable a story about prayer and personal piety,
something the well-to-do could understand.
What was Jesus’s original parable about then?
It is a parable about how to respond to a system that is rigged against you.
When you have no obvious power what are some ways to get justice?
One way is to do what the widow did.
Keep showing up.
Palestinians know this.
No outside power is there for them.
There is no appeal to justice that the Israelis will ever heed.
The Israelis do not care about justice for the Palestinians.
Palestinians know this.
They know that resistance is survival.
Survival is resistance.
They stay on their land despite all the violence and abuse and the indignities.
Each day of survival is in itself a victory.
In the parable,
the judge does not grant justice to the widow because he has a change of heart.
He doesn’t rule in her favor because of the evidence
or because she is in the right.
He grants her justice because he is tired of seeing her.
She has worn him out.
She keeps bothering him.
That is the weapon you use when you have no other.
You just keep telling the truth until the powers are worn out.
You wear out your opponent with truth and love.
Who has done this throughout history?
We can think of Cesar Chavez or Martin Luther King or Sojourner Truth.
Yesterday was Arba’een.
It was the fortieth day after the martyrdom of Hussain,
the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad.
Between 20 and 30 million people marched to Karbala, Iraq.
The largest peaceful human gathering on earth.
I walked in it last year.
They did it again this year.
Because there is still injustice.
The judge still has no fear of God or respect for people, so they walk.
Amidst the bombs and guns of the oppressors, people walk.
Amidst the threats and violence, people walk.
Amidst the scheming and the plotting, people walk.
Amidst greed and fear of the small minded, people walk.
Like the widow in the parable,
they keep continually coming.
They will not stop.
They will not be intimidated.
They will not be quiet.
They will keep going as long as there is oppression anywhere.
It was the most beautiful thing I have ever witnessed in my life.
It is in the spirit of Jesus and his parable of the persistent widow.
Eventually, the unjust judge will do the right thing.
He will do the right thing because he is worn out.
Until then, they walk.
One day says Jeremiah,
turning to the other text for today,
one day, says the Lord:
I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
One day, perhaps even the unjust judge will have a change of heart.
One day after the widows of the world have walked until their feet are bloodied,
Until every last ounce of energy has been used,
Until every tear has combined with every other tear to create a raging river…
One day, perhaps the scales will fall from the eyes of the powerful,
And even they will turn to God
and turn to respect other human beings…
And the law of love will be written on every heart.
Until that day,
Those who follow Jesus will walk with the widow,
They will persist.