SERMON PREACHED AT ALL SAINTS’, CHARLEVILLE
TWENTIETH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST (17th October) 2004
2 Timothy 3.10-4.5
It is easy, in an era of instant answers, to take particularly the first of these two parables, as a “how to do it” instruction on the processes of prayer. If this is the case, and we are invited to take the usual parabolic leap from unjust judge to loving God, then we have in this parable permission to badger God endlessly, earning with some justification the title “God-botherers” that we are sometimes given.
To some extent that is a fair response to this parable. But, before we make that extrapolation, we need to remember that Jesus has already given his one and only answer to the question “how do I pray.” The answer to that all too human question is that prayer that we incorporate, in one translation or another, into our every liturgy: “Our Father …”. It is a series of approaches and petitions addressed to the Creator, addressed quite formally as “pater”, not the familiar “Abba” with which Jesus approaches the Creator. Amongst the five petitions, only one is for the speaker’s own material needs. That one, “give us this day our daily bread” limits itself only to the most basic of needs. There is no petition for this week’s lotto numbers, or for good rains, no petition for my team to win the election, not even a petition for church growth and wondrous impact on the community. It addresses only the basest of human needs: basic belly food.
That in fact we have all received immeasurably more than that places us well and truly into the realms of underserved bonus. The rain often, or at least sometimes, falls not only enough to give us our bread, but to top up our bank accounts as well. We sometimes have a holiday, sometimes have cake, sometimes own a television. Few in the world are so lucky.
In fact our two parables this day are not primarily about prayer at all. They are known only to Luke, and are dislocated from their original context: we don’t know when or in what context Jesus originally used them. But Luke places them into the context of teaching not on prayer but on the second coming of the one he calls “the Son of Man.” That longing too has been one of the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer: “your kingdom come.” Here it is expounded.
The key word by which it is expounded in Luke’s method is lost to us in translation. It does not immediately leap at us from the English text, but each of these two parables centres on the word ἐκδικήσω, a word that means “to grant justice.” In the two parables, first the persecuted judge of the first parable, and then the prayer-answering Creator of the second are concerned to “set things aright”, to justify or ameliorate the situation of their central characters. The persistent woman and the self-aware tax-collector are set right before the God who brings all things to their close.
This question of being right with God in the close of time is, therefore, the central issue of these parables, rather than the subject of prayer per se. The first parable as retold by Luke assumes that the audience knows the “thy/your kingdom come” petition of the prayer of Jesus. It assumes also, however that the Jesus-community of Luke is losing heart. It has prayed for the coming of the kingdom, but continues to be persecuted, to see its members suffer and die. There is and will continue to be much of the same in the history of Christianity, not least in the present day. With two thousand years of praying for the kingdom, we may indeed be all the more tempted to lose heart.
The widow, who is the central character in the first parable, is a symbol of powerlessness and helplessness. As her persistence demonstrates, she is a seriously un-nice person to boot! Widows in Luke’s time were utterly without formal support, and largely without hope of family support either. They were on the edge of society, desperate to survive. Her desperation is our message.
For our human experience is of a delayed end to human history, and, in passing, often of unanswered prayers for lesser longings, too. In part we must allow ourselves to be answers to our prayer: can we pray for rain? But what of our environmental errors that are altering the globe’s climates and making the weather patterns that were known to our forebears no more than a fading memory? Can we pray for rain while we desperately alter the environment that God gave us? Can we pray for peace? Peace in the Old Testament scriptures is never merely the absence of war, but always the presence of justice. What of international monetary imbalances? Can we pray for peace when so much of the world’s opportunity is in the hands of so few, and you and I and our nation are in the top rungs of world wealth? Can we pray for peace when our lives continue to perpetrate economic injustice on a local and a global scale?
A black American pastor once said of the widow in our parable, “Unless you have stood at the door and knocked until bleeding, you do not know what prayer is.” It is a brutal image, and not one that it comforts us to hear. But we must ask the question that originally spurred our imaginary widow into action: what action can we take to provide the answer to the prayers and longings of our hearts?
Our second parable was deeply shocking to Luke’s audience: a tax collector was, at the time of Jesus, an utterly unjustifiable human being. The equivalent in our society is more likely to be the sexual predator that we hear so tragically much about. Could we face the implications of this parable if the second character in this parable was a sexual opportunist, downloading child pornography, and yet now making full public confession of his sin? Could we forgive? We should remember that Jesus nowhere offers cheap grace, a pat on the back and an issue-avoiding “never mind.” Always this is the proviso: go and sin no more. When the tax collector Matthew in another scene seeks to follow Jesus he offers to make full reparation of the damage he has caused before he does so. Yet even with those requisites fulfilled would we allow the sexual predator the grace of God, or would we flog him or her (the latter increasingly apparent as social power imbalances shift) and execute them outside the city walls? Can we be the answer to our prayers?
For our response is not to be “thank God I am not like the Pharisee” of the second parable, but to wonder where in us the Pharisee is dwelling. Do we dare to offer ourselves, as we will at the end of this liturgy, as “a living sacrifice” in the service and the message of the gospel of grace, justice, forgiveness, reconciliation and judgement?
The persistent woman and the tax collector are seriously un-nice people. Yet each is crying out of their brokenness for the encounter with grace. Do we risk the same? Do we dare to offer ourselves as the answer top our own prayers, even when we pray for daily bread and for the coming of God’s Reign?