Sunday, October 17, 2010

Proper 24

Luke 18
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” 6And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

There’s a familiar tune we all know, and I’m told it’s three simple notes: G, E, C (downward) You might know it as the TTC chime, alerting you that the doors are closing.
In London, a pleasant voice says "Mind the gap!"
In Paris there is an annoying buzzer, and the uncomfortable experience of needing to know how to work an awkward handle to get off the train. If the station was built on a curve (odd) and announcement comes "Attention à la marche en descendant du train"
In New York, the driver says, "Stand clear of the closing doors, please.”

Where I come from, please is the magic word, and also means whatever is being asked must be important. "Stand clear of the closing doors, please.” Manhattan is also the only place I know where people don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. The door is closing, and an arm appears. Now you have a stand-off. The train can’t move, because there’s a guy with his arm stuck in the door of the train. But the driver doesn’t want to reward such unruly behaviour, so he gives the door button a nudge, enough to say “remove” your arm. It has the opposite effect. Now the guy has his shoulder in too. These things can continue for some time, because after all, this is New York.

My favourite New York experience was the woman running down the platform, both arms weighed down with very large and very bulky packages, doors closing, and what does she do? She sticks her head in the closing doors. Same routine, the doors are nudging open and closed, slamming her head, until the driver relents, I expect, rewarding her for her persistence. Call it the parable of the persistent rider, or the parable of using your head, and I wouldn’t believe if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. Don’t try this at home.

Now, there were no subways in the Galilee, so Jesus told this parable instead: “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’”

So what is this parable about? Well, I started with a story about persistence because it’s most commonly called “The Parable of the Persistent Widow.” And that’s fair enough, because she sure is persistent. Tom Long, famous professor of preaching, frames it this way:

So she annoyed this judge constantly. She shouted aloud for justice in his courtroom: “Give me justice! Give me justice! Give me justice!” She knocked on his chamber doors, left messages on his answering machine. She probably even found him teeing off at the Golf Club shouting, “Give me justice! Give me justice! Give me justice!”

She is, if nothing else, the persistent widow. But some have turned this on its head, and called it “The Parable of the Unjust Judge.” He is, after all, the character in the story that has a change of heart, the character that bends under the pressure of the persistent widow, and the one who repents of his inactivity, even if it’s for all the wrong reasons. And maybe that’s enough meaning for those of us who choose to label ourselves sinners, that eventually we hope we can repent, even if it’s for all the wrong reasons.

Okay, so now we have two rival titles, so what about Luke? He recorded the parable, no doubt one of Jesus’ favourites, because like “the parable of using your head,” it’s just fun to tell. So you’ll notice that Luke also gives the parable a title, hidden in his introduction to the story. He writes “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” Call it “The Parable of the Need to Pray Always and Not Lose Heart.” No much of a title guy, that Luke, maybe he should stick to recording the story.

Notice how the title determines how we read the story. And how we preach the story, and how the story is made manifest in the lives of believers. I can guarantee you that in churches across the land, ministers who use the lectionary will say something akin to “if you pray hard enough…” Be persistent in prayer, they will say, and God will hear you and give you want you want.

Now we have two problems. The first problem is God already knows what you need, even before you ask it. And don’t take my word for it, listen to Jesus: (Matthew 6)

5"And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 6But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask.

And right after this he gives them the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer he introduces by saying, “this, then, is how you should pray.” You might be so bold as to suggest that this is the only prayer we need, that we pray to remind ourselves of the values of heaven such as “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us” and leave it at that. Sure we can add word or two after and before, but God knows what we need before we ask, so maybe that one prayer is enough.

Second problem: We don’t get everything we ask for, even if we do follow the example of the persistent widow. How many former believers list this as the primary reason they lost their faith? Many? Most? I can’t say for sure, but I can tell you that the promise that a prayer will be answered just because you ask earnestly and often enough will sometimes result in great disappointment and even loss of faith.


I’m sure you all know what to do if some one grants you three wishes. What do you do? (You ask for more wishes!)

Prayer is not asking for more wishes. We humans, frail creatures that we are, have an innate capacity to understand the secret of the three wishes. We hear about potential, and we want more. We know that God hears our prayers, but our mind goes to more. Persistent or not, we always tend to ask for more than can reasonably be given because it is the human way. We want more.

Now the third problem with prayer, since we’re making a list, is ‘what can we reasonably ask for?” God is infinite, God is all-powerful, God created the heavens and the earth, and logic would say we can ask for a lot. Maybe everything, or anything. Since we know that nothing is impossible for God, suddenly our mind goes to all those additional wishes.

So the believer says, “all things are possible with God,” therefore ask away. The non-believer says “unless God can answer every prayer, prayer is false and unfair. Why would God pick and choose.” And we feel stuck in the middle. I don’t think God can raise the dead (Jesus could, but Jesus is God). I don’t think God can change the direction of the tornado to spare my town if it means that some other town will suffer. But I do think God can heal, I just don’t know how, and I don’t know why. And it’s the mystery of some are healed and some are not that brings us back to problem number two, we don’t get everything we ask for. I wish we did, but we don’t.

For the preacher to now talk about the mystery of God and the need to stay faithful would seem lame. So maybe we should give the persistent widow a second look.

She’s at the door, she sends a fax, she sends a text, she has her people call his people, she sends a telegram: I need justice. Stop. He will not listen. But she carries on, maybe she sticks her head in his door, or maybe takes the ultimate step and follows him into the men’s room. Whatever she does, he has a change of heart. Now, granted it is not much of a change of heart, he only wants peace, but it is a change of heart nonetheless.

So let’s say that we can persistently pray that hearts be changed. Let’s say we pray too for the mysterious things that only sometimes seem to happen, because, after all, we live in hope and we do appreciate that God is a mystery to us. God’s ways are not our ways. But you never know.

So what if, the primary purpose of prayer is to change hearts. Like the persistent widow, we ask and ask that change comes to the hearts of those who have power; those who make decisions that impact the lives of others; those who have the power to go one way or another on an issue; those that know what is right but must constantly choose. Have I captured everyone?

Someone decided to rescue 33 miners when conventional wisdom held out little hope.
Someone decided to give Liu Xiaobo the Nobel Prize, knowing that hearts could be changed even among the most hardened.
Someone decided to release Nelson Mandela even though it meant the end of one order and the beginning of another.
Someone decided to lay down weapons in Londonderry and Belfast, even though it meant compromise with those they were taught to hate.

And wasn’t each the answer to a prayer? Abelard taught his students that even just hearing the story of Jesus willingness to go to the cross could turns hearts of stone to hearts of love. And isn’t that an answer to prayer? That Jesus, while innocent, would carry the burden of our heart-heartedness, and our neglect, and all our failures, and face punishment on our behalf? Jesus was persistent in his journey up to Jerusalem just as he was persistent in prayer, like the widow, seeking the justice of God, the justice that sins be forgiven and human hearts be transformed and people made whole. This is the Good News, thanks be to God, Amen.


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