Proper 24, 2019, C
Luke alone among the Gospels relates today’s incident. “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” Having told the parable of the self-serving, unprincipled judge and the plucky, persistent widow, Jesus concluded His thought saying that God will quickly grant justice to those who cry to him night and day. If today, sitting here, 2000 years later, after millions of prayers by thousands upon thousands of saints and sinners alike have wended their way heavenward, you find yourself satisfied that justice has quickly come, you are excused from the rest of the sermon. And while you are not listening to the rest of the sermon, please, please, pray for those of us who harbor some doubt at this point about the swiftness of justice. (paraphrased from J. Hugh Magers, Sermons that Work)
An e-mail made the rounds a few years ago describing a sign seen posted in a hospital cafeteria: NOTICE: Due to the current budget cutbacks, the light at the end of the tunnel will be turned off until further notice. In a world governed by money and power, administered by individual interests, entrenched anger and fear, and capitalized by the seemingly endless exploitation of our most vulnerable citizens and of the earth itself, sometimes light and justice seem far away and our prayers as unheard as those of the widow. Which begs the question, is God really any more sympathetic to the cause of justice than that corrupt judge? If the moral of the story is just keep prayerfully pestering God like a toddler in a cosmic candy store until He provides us our spiritual sweeties, then what is faith really beyond an endurance contest? What is prayer beyond an itemization of desires and demands?
Biblical Scholar Raymond Bailey describes the immense power of a judge in Israel saying: “In Israel, the judge was the final arbiter. There was no jury, no court of appeal. . . The judge in the parable is a law unto himself, who has no sense of accountability to persons or God. He shirked his duty by not bothering to even hear the case . . . . . The widow throughout the Bible . . . was a vulnerable victim . . . a symbol of helplessness.” (The Lectionary Commentary, The Gospels, p. 429) With that kind of power accountable to no one, naturally we place God in the place of the judge. But what of Jesus?
Before the Soviet Union collapsed, Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn served years in the Soviet prison camps of Siberia. Along with other prisoners, he performed hard labor day in and day out, in all seasons, summer and bitter winter. Eventually he could see nothing more to life than backbreaking labor and slow starvation. The intense suffering reduced him to a state of despair.
One day the hopelessness of his situation overcame him. He saw no reason to continue his struggle, no reason to keep on living. His life made no difference in the world. He gave up.
Leaving his shovel on the ground, he slowly walked to a crude bench and sat down. He knew that at any moment a guard would order him to stand up. When he failed to respond, and the guard would beat him to death, probably with his own shovel. He had seen it happen to other prisoners.
As he waited for a violent but swift death, head held down, he felt a presence. He looked up and saw a skinny old prisoner squat down beside him. The man said nothing. He picked up a stick. He traced the sign of the Cross in the dirt. The man then got back up and returned to his work.
As Solzhenitsyn stared at the Cross drawn in the dirt his entire perspective changed. He knew he was only one man against the all-powerful Soviet empire. Yet he knew there was something greater than the evil he saw in the prison camp, something greater than the Soviet Union. He knew that hope for all people was represented by that simple Cross. Through the power of the Cross, anything was possible.
Solzhenitsyn slowly rose to his feet, picked up his shovel, and went back to work. Outwardly, nothing had changed. Inside, he had received hope. [Paraphrased from Luke Veronis, “The Sign of the Cross”; Communion, issue 8, Pascha 1997. Via Charles Hoffacker, Sermons that Work]
God is all powerful, but what of Jesus? Jesus was born in a stable, an itinerant preacher without means or power and nailed to a tree as an ignominious criminal. But He came. To be here. With us. For us.
“As Brené Brown puts it, “I went to church thinking it would be like an epidural, that it would take the pain away . . . But I realized that church is more like a midwife, standing next to me saying push. . . I thought faith would say, ‘I’ll take away the pain and discomfort, but what it ended up saying was, ‘I’ll sit with you in it.”
What if the judge is not meant to represent God at all, but the worst of our humanity – ruled by our own wants, our own desires, caring not for God nor fellow man until we have to, until we’re pestered into change. And the widow? A reminder of Jesus, vulnerable but steadfast. Fighting, nudging, pleading, persisting for the cause of justice. Standing with those in need. Drawing crosses in the dirt of our lives. Teaching us what it means to pray.
Soon we will pray together over the bread we break, the wine we drink, the spiritual meal that we share. God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, we will entreat – open our eyes.…Jacob is, I think, my prayer hero. Jacob is not much of a moral example – he lied to his dying father, cheated his brother out of his birthright, ran away in the night, fooled his uncle – but he accepted no half measures in relationship with God – he fought, and struggled and insisted on relationship. He became Israel – one who strives with God – and his people became Israel, and we are, spiritually speaking, descended from those people and we forget sometimes to strive with God. To come to the table for strength, as well as solace; for renewal as well as pardon.
“Prayer,” a dear friend once told me, “does not change the circumstances of our lives, it changes us! Which, by coincidence, changes the circumstances of our lives.” (Rev. Dr. Stephen B. Smith, personal communication). AMEN.