Sunday, October 20, 2019

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 18
Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. 2 He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. 3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’
4 “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”
6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

It all begins with Jethro.

No, not that Jethro—son of Jed’s cousin Pearl. Although he does drive them to California at the beginning of the show, so you could say it all begins with Jethro, but that would another sermon altogether.

Our Jethro, for the purpose of this sermon, is Moses’ father-in-law Jethro, who plays a small but critical role in the development of Jewish law. And it begins with an intervention. Moses, you will recall, led the people into the desert, helped them through some moments of great peril, and generally acted as the sole judge of these people. It was no small job.

In Exodus 18 we learn that Moses is adjudicating day and night, wearing himself out, trying to settle disputes between the people he is called to lead. Enter Jethro. Verse 14 begins with this: “When Jethro saw what Moses was trying to do, he took him aside and said ‘You idiot! (I’m paraphrasing here) Why on earth are you doing this alone? You should appoint some judges to do this work, maybe just after you teach the people how God expects them to live.’”

So Moses does. But before he does, Jethro has more advice, again from Exodus 18:

They must be God-fearing men who can be trusted and who cannot be bribed. 22 Let them serve as judges for the people on a permanent basis. They can bring all the difficult cases to you, but they themselves can decide all the smaller disputes. That will make it easier for you, as they share your burden.

Everyone who participated in our Lenten study should be feeling a flush of recognition, this description of the beginnings of the legal tradition in ancient Judea. Moses (on Jethro’s advice) becomes the High Court to these wandering people, with judges appointed to do the day-to-day work of administering justice. It’s the basis of a legal system that will feature in our parable, and it’s the basis for the legal system that exists in Canada today. Notice Jethro says ‘let them serve on a permanent basis,’ still a bedrock principle of the justice system, still protecting judges (and the system itself) from the ever-changing whim of popular opinion.

But before we move to the parable, a bit more on these judges appointed by Moses. At this moment in the story of Israel, Moses is the sole connection to God. He is the prophet who teaches God’s commands, interprets these commands in the administration of justice, and appoints judges. There are no priests at this stage (there will be soon) so the judge is a more religious figure than our modern minds might assume. They are appointed to carry out God’s commands, with Moses standing by to help.

And this got me thinking. What kind of person might fill this role? Interpreting God’s commands, settling disputes, seeking justice for the vulnerable. Then I remembered The List. But before I tell you about The List, you need a little more ancient history.

Back in my day, you could join the church on Sunday, meet the elders of the congregation on Sunday afternoon, go to presbytery on Tuesday, have an interview, and become a candidate for ministry the same evening. Obviously this rarely happened, but it was possible. The church, in its wisdom put the brakes on that path, and created something called discernment instead. But that’s not the ancient history that matters here.

The history that matters was a new process and the articulation (for the first time) of the attributes that a congregation should see if they think there’s potential minister in their midst. So here is the list:

A deep spiritual life
Personal integrity
An understanding of human behaviour
A passion for justice
The capacity for critical thinking
The integration of self
The capacity to be a life-long learner

I didn’t share the list so you could go ‘Michael, Michael, hmmm, let’s see, yup, yup, nope, maybe.’ I actually won a scholarship at Queen’s for being sixth place overall, a standard I strive to maintain. Don’t ask me how that fits with the list. Nevertheless, the list exists, and as congregations were compelled to see these attributes in potential ministers, they were also reminded that everyone is a minister, so the list applies to them (and you) as well. Again, that’s another sermon.

So assuming that the list also describes the kind of people that Moses might appoint as judges, let’s finally meet the judge of our parable:

“In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. 3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’ 4 “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice.”

You will notice that I have shared only the parable portion, not the frame that Luke provides. Yes, I think you should pray always and not give up, but I’m not sure that that is the point of the parable. And yes, I think God will attend to the needs of God’s chosen ones, but I’m not sure that’s the point of the parable either. All Luke was trying to do was provide some context to a difficult parable—so we might better look for meaning ourselves.

So first things first. We can agree that this is an unrighteous judge. The clue is when he says to himself “I don’t fear God or care what people think.” Clearly he would not find himself on The List, although he does have excellent self-understanding and an understanding of human behaviour. But two out of nine makes him unfit to serve as a judge, something that is so obvious that it may be extraneous to the point of the parable. I think Jesus was simply creating a foil for the widow, a character Jack Nicholson might play. (“You want the truth…”)

So that leaves the widow. What do we know about her? She seeks justice, she has an adversary, and she is relentless in her pursuit of justice. Having an adversary is a bit of a red herring in the parable, because the system was based on having an adversary—there were no prosecutors in the modern sense. All proceedings involved two parties, a detail we can set aside.

So the focus of the parable is a someone who seeks justice, and is relentless in the pursuit of justice. And who does that sound like? I’m going to suggest that God is the widow, constantly saying ‘grant me justice, grant me justice’ seeking it among creatures God created, seeking it for all the other widows, all the vulnerable ones who also cry out for justice. The unrighteous judge says he doesn’t fear God, but he sure does fear the widow and her constant cry for justice.

I’m going to let that settle in your imagination for a while, ever mindful that the preacher who made this suggestion finished sixth overall. I want to turn now to another topic that may be filling your imagination, a certain exercise in civic duty happening tomorrow. You will recall that we are non-partisan, strictly non-partisan and a law-abiding registered charity. We promote voting, we don’t suggest who to vote for.

A primary demand of Christian ethics is to pursue the common good. One of the most effective vehicles for this is voting, seeking to elect leaders that align with our sense of the common good. Put simply, we seek a “communitarian vision” (Anderson) where we live together peaceably, protect each other, and ensure that everyone thrives. Your tool to achieve this is your vote, cast for the person or party that (for you) best represents this vision.

But I also want to expand your toolkit, and for this, I think we need The List. Ignore that this as a list for potential ministers and eager lay people who take seriously the priesthood of all believers—imagine that this list describes someone who might be well placed to seek the common good. Let me walk through it once more, and add some annotation. I hope you vote for someone who has:

A deep spiritual life, not in the religious sense, but in the sense that they understand that life is more than the material or the tangible
Personal integrity, actions and word in alignment
Self-knowledge, especially a sense of their limitations
An understanding of human behaviour, and the way people can act against their own self-interest.
Intelligence, both smarts and emotional intelligence
A passion for justice, not just the charter, but justice for the most vulnerable members of our society
The capacity for critical thinking, seeing context and nuance, and the ability to see all sides
The integration of self, a sense of who they are and how they came to be who they are
The capacity to be a life-long learner, aware that there is always more to learn, that they don’t have all the answers.

May God be with you tomorrow, and may you join God in the relentless pursuit of justice, Amen.


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