Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, October 16, 2022

YEAR C 2022 pentecost 19

Pentecost 19, 2022
Genesis 32:22-31
Psalm 121
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:1-8

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Well, here we are once more back to looking at a morally ambiguous parable for our gospel text.  Special thank-you to the Lectionary Committee.  There are many reasons this text is troubling.  And a few reasons why this text often does more harm than good in the lives of Christians.  But my main goal this morning will be to get us to consider a different way of interpreting the parable we just heard from Jesus.

So first, beware the road of knee-jerk interpretation.  The typical way to read this parable is to see God as the judge, and see ourselves as the widow: and therefore, the obvious takeaway is that a life of persistent prayer wears God down into relenting and helping us.  That is, if we—like the widow in the story—will only pray without ceasing, then God will finally relent and grant us whatever it is we’ve been praying so hard for.

Two problems with that interpretation jump out, though.  First, and most obvious, it suggests that God’s response to us—and even God’s care for us—is dependent on our efforts at convincing God to notice us.  If you are a human being, you have already experienced some devastating loss and tragedy in your life.  You have probably prayed to God that something would or would not happen.  Something like praying against the death of someone who means the world to you.  Or praying that the loss of a close friendship or marriage would not come to pass.  Or praying that the financial hardship you’ve been going through might finally come to an end.  To be human is to suffer, it seems, and a good amount of our prayers to God really come down to asking God to make things turn out okay.  We pray that we would find that the patient had recovered, the workplace didn’t close, the relationship didn’t end.

And then, despite our fervent prayers, things don’t turn out how we’d hoped.  We might say to our friends, “My prayers were not answered.”  And we are faced with the horrible dilemma: has God abandoned me?  Or was it that I didn’t pray hard enough?  Or, to today’s point, should I have been more like the persistent widow in this parable?

Here’s the thing:  If we approach prayer in such a way that we imagine God sitting on a judge’s bench waiting to be convinced by our pleading to take some action . . . well, what kind of loving God is that?  That is how the ancient Greek gods act; it is not how the God who brought the people out of Egypt acts.  AND, it implies that when our prayers are not answered, it really was our fault.  We should’ve prayed more.  We should've prayed harder.  We should've enlisted more friends to help us pray.  As though God’s love for us were just some huge bolder we need to push by brute force to get moving.  But I want to tell you this: when tragedy strikes, when things go wrong, it is not at all helpful to think that it is all up to you to pray harder.  This is commonly called “blaming the victim.”  In very plain terms: A God who truly loves you does not play hard to get.

The second problem with this parable takes us back to our constant refrain over the summer with these parables in Luke: When you read the parables, do not automatically assume that God is the one in authority, or the one in power.  We tend to reflexively assume that God is the judge in today’s parable, right?  That’s why we think badgering God will get us what we want and need in our lives.  You just have to convince God to help you, like the widow did with the judge.  But I need to remind you how this judge is described in today’s Gospel: “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.”  That’s not God.  And here’s another way you can tell the judge is not God . . .

Over and over in the Hebrew scriptures, God insists that the people pay special regard to the widows and orphans.  Widows and orphans were powerless in that society—as they mostly are in our society—and, if those who had some means to help them did not care for them, the widows and orphans had nothing.  God does not hold out against the pleas of a widow; on the contrary, God has a special regard for them.  This judge in the parable is trying to ignore the widow, and is trying to deny her justice.  This judge is not God.

Which brings up another thing about this parable.  It is easy to misunderstand the word “justice” when it shows up in the scriptures, because we have a completely different understanding of, and approach to, justice.  We have ended up with the Roman method of justice, which is—essentially—retribution justice.  We make them pay—like in those Misny billboards—but often without regard to helping the victims.  The ancient Jewish understanding of justice is restorative justice, which is more like making sure the victim gets a just compensation.  So, in our time, if I steal from you, the emphasis is on making sure I am punished for stealing.  In the Jewish culture of that time, if I stole from you, the focus would be on making sure you were compensated.  Very different goals.

Jewish justice sought restoration, justice for the oppressed.  A judge would be, by definition, on the side of the widow.  So, with that understanding of justice, the judge in our parable is a pretty lousy judge when you think about it.  A judge without regard for the widows and orphans should not be a judge in the first place.  The whole point in having a judge was to set things right for those who have no voice.  This judge is dis-ordered, and not worthy of being a judge.  This judge is not God.

There is a great little gem, which is hidden from us in our English translation of this parable, and which I just find so amusing.  The judge says, “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.”  The part of that statement that gets translated as the very mild “so that she will not wear me out” is actually something more literally like “so she will stop beating me black and blue,” or “stop giving me a black eye.”  Poor old meanie judge, afraid of a defenseless widow, right?  This judge is not God.

So now you’re saying, “Okay, okay, we get it.  The unjust judge is not God.  So now what?”  I’m glad you asked that.  I’m going to tell you what I think this parable means, and—I admit—it might be very far afield from what you hear other people say about this parable.  But hear me out.

What if God is the widow in this parable?  What if the one who keeps coming back, pleading for attention is Jesus, seeking to set things right, and to get a fair hearing for a restoration of how things should be?  We like to think of God as all-powerful, all Zeus-like, throwing thunderbolts and taking names.  (But I remind you, our God chose to come to us as a defenseless baby in feeding trough behind a sold-out hotel.)  God is not above appearing in whatever form it takes to get us to pay attention.  To notice that things are not right in the world.  Seeing God as a defenseless widow is radical, yes, but we worship a radical God.

And as for the judge . . . what if you and I, deep down, are the unjust judge?  Maybe it is our own hearts that have no fear of God and no respect for anyone.  When we truly examine ourselves, we can see that without God in our hearts, we might just find this describes us as well, and our innermost attitude about God and our neighbor.  We are naturally people who have no fear of God and no respect for anyone.  We, by nature, consider ourselves above others.  We reflexively tell God that we can do it on our own.  We want to be in control of our lives— in a very uncontrollable world—and prefer to think that we are going to get along just fine.

And then along comes this widow, this Jesus, pleading for restoration.  Pleading for our attention so that he can change our hearts.  And, yes, we obviously can go about our business, having no fear of God and no respect for anyone, and get by just fine.  But, eventually, tragedy strikes.  Things happen.  We are, in a sense, beaten black and blue, and given a black eye.  And still, along comes this widow, this God in disguise, trying to get our attention.  This widow keeps coming back, day after day, and our black eyes mark us as people who need redemption.  People who need another way.  A better way.

And you and I reach the point where we say, “Enough!  I give up!”  And that is exactly when it all turns around.  Because in that moment, we are no longer the ones who have no fear of God and no respect for anyone.  Instead, we find ourselves promising to respect the dignity of every human being, with God’s help.  With.  God’s.  Help.

So, yes.  Left to our own devices, we are apt to have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, just like the unjust judge,  But with God’s help, we can turn this around.  And, somehow, we can find ourselves in the position of the widow in this parable standing before the Just Judge: pleading for justice, to the One True Judge, asking God—the One Just Judge—to hear our cries, and remind one another that God is on our side.  

Jesus is a widow, always pleading with our unjust hearts.  Reminding us that we don’t need to be beaten black and blue to find justice.  Today, God is meeting us in this place.  And, once again, God will send us out into the world in peace, to love and serve the Lord.  Thanks be to God.


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