Saturday, October 15, 2016

Can't You Do Any Better Than This?

Luke 18:1-8
Ordinary 29
October 16, 2016
William G. Carter

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘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.’”[bAnd the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”  (Footnote (b):  so that she may not finally come and slap me in the face)

The comment has surfaced more than once. Maybe it’s a conversation at the coffee pot about a political advertisement, or a debate performance, or a general dissatisfaction with the kind of candidates that have been running for office. Someone says, “I suppose I could make a choice, and I probably will. But I can’t stop wondering: can’t we do any better than this?”

Now I don’t say that to side with anybody. All of us have plenty of opinions about the important matters before our nation. What is curious to me is how many folks, if they had the choice, might say, “None of the above.” Without going into the issues, I sense a general disappointment with the quality of people who tend to run for public office, nearly every public office. So the critique comes: can’t you do any better than this?

But enough about the election. I think the same question can be posed of the characters in the story of Jesus tells. There’s a judge who has no respect for God or the people. There’s a woman who is a persistent nag. And are we supposed to choose one of them as the moral example in the story. Come on, Jesus, can’t you do any better than this?

How about that judge! He doesn’t “fear God.” In the world of the Bible, where a reverence for God is the beginning of wisdom, this is code language to say he’s a fool. He has no reference point in the law. He recognizes no authority greater than his own opinion. He is totally unto himself.

And he has no respect for people, either. Some preachers over the years have assumed the judge takes bribes, that his justice can be purchased for a bag of fifty dollar bills. But there’s no evidence of that. To the contrary, he is consumed by indifference. He doesn’t give a rip about anybody or anything. A woman comes to beg for justice and he ignores her. He doesn’t listen to a word she says. What kind of judge is this?

Not only that, he sits by the city gates and talks to himself. If you know the Gospel of Luke, that should be enough of a clue that he is totally wrong. Every time one of the people in one of Jesus’ parables talks to himself or herself, they roll of the tracks. The rich farmer convinces himself to hoard all his stuff in a bigger barn. The wayward son practices a repentance speech that he never gets to finish. The employee who has been robbing his boss creates a new scheme to get ahead.

Likewise this judge has an internal conversation when the woman keeps knocking at his door. He confirms, “I don’t care about her, I don’t care about God.” Yet he decides to give her what she wants, not because it’s the right thing to do, not because her case is clear. No, he gives in because he’s tired of her noise. Not much of a judge if you ask me.

And then there’s the woman. How about her? Luke says she is a widow. Again, in the world of the Bible, that’s shorthand for saying she is a person with great needs. All though the Jewish scriptures, God says, “Watch out for the widow! Take care of the widow.” The widow in the ancient world had no safety net. She had no means of income. She could not inherit anything after her husband died. And so, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Job, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Malachi, and the Psalmist all declare, “Pay attention to the widow. Make sure nobody takes advantage of her.”

But this particular woman is hard to ignore. She’s relentless. Worse than that, she’s obnoxious. Day and night, she’s hammering on the judge’s door. “Pay attention to me! Give me what  want!” No wonder the judge gives in. As he says literally in the Greek language, “I’m going to give in so she doesn’t punch me in the face.”

I mean, remember what it says in the book of Proverbs? “With patience a ruler may be persuade, and a soft tongue can break stone.” (25:15). Well, there’s nothing soft about her.

And listen to her complaint: “Give me justice against my opponent.” So who is her opponent? We don’t know. The opponent doesn’t dare show up in the story. And literally, she wants more than justice; she wants revenge. The English translation sands away the splinters. “Give me revenge against my opponent,” she shouts. Day and night, night and day, she pounds against his door until finally he gives in. Wouldn’t you?

These are the two characters in the story that Jesus tells. Both of them have their flaws. Even if one of them gets their way, it’s going to be an unsatisfying victory. The loser might even say the system is rigged. Not because it is, you understand, but when you are dealing with a contest between two imperfect people, one of them is going to be a sore loser, especially if one of them ends up being the loser.

Now I’m talking about the parable, you understand, and nothing else. In the parables of Jesus, he always uses imperfect people. I’ve mentioned a few of them already. Let me mention a few more. There’s the dreaded Samaritan that turns out to be a good neighbor. Or the king that invites everybody to a party; they refuse to come, so he burns down their village. Or the self-righteous man who won’t go to his brother’s welcome home celebration. Or his prodigal father, who was dumb enough to give a third of his fortune to the son who blew it all in Vegas. Or so on and so forth.

For Jesus, this is his basket of deplorables. Some of his characters are seedy and corrupt. Some of them are violent. Some of them are dumb enough that they won’t come in out of the rain. Some of them are completely self-absorbed, like the pious Pharisee in the story we will hear next week. Some of them are downright wasteful. They are wasteful, like the farmer who goes out to sow the field and he throws the seed all over the place – on rocks, on well-worn paths, among the weeds - he doesn’t care. That’s wasteful.

To listen to these stories, these parables of Jesus, you have to ask, “Lord, can’t you do any better than this?” And I imagine him smiling or smirking, and saying, “I guess this all I have to work with.” Imperfect people, inconsistent believers. Maybe they are momentarily irrational or temporarily insane, or just stressed out by life.

Like the widow in our story. She pounds on the door, “Judge, open up. Open up right now. I want revenge! I want you to give me revenge.” And she keeps knocking, and she keeps pounding, and she wears him down until he finally gives in. What kind of judge is that? A judge that grants revenge? That’s no kind of judge. Life is not a Mel Gibson movie. And asking for revenge is really not all that good for our souls.

Luke says this is a story about prayer. He says it’s about prayer. Jesus doesn’t say that about the story, but Luke does. Jesus just tells the story. It’s Luke who adds the frame around the picture. Luke is the narrator who inserts verse one: “Jesus told them this parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”

What’s Luke trying to say? That prayer is wearing down the patience of God? That prayer is acting obnoxiously toward heaven until heaven gives you what you want? That prayer is persisting until you get whatever you want, even if what you want is revenge? I don’t think so.

I know the Bible says “pray without ceasing,” but prayer is not pushing God until God gives in. In my experience, prayer is pushing God until we give in.

When my 21-year-old daughter was four months old, she almost died in her crib. I believe it was due to the intervention of an angel that her mom found Meg had stopped breathing, shook her awake, and we got her checked out. It turns out the circuits in her brain weren’t quite finished growing, and at any moment, she might stop breathing.

Needless to say, it was a time of great prayer, because it was a time of great stress. Ever notice how we tend to pray more when we are feeling stress? We don’t pray as much when life is going well, only when there’s trouble.

So I was praying and praying and praying that my daughter would get through it, that our family would get through it. In the middle of the night, I’d roll over, my eyes would pop open, and I’d start praying. “Lord, get us through it.” The prayer never seemed to settle in. Never seemed to fit.

One night, tossing and turning, in near desperation, I blurted out another prayer: “Lord, I don’t know what you’re doing . . . but I trust you. It’s in your hands. My daughter is in your hands. We are in your hands.” Suddenly a deep peace came into the room, and I gave in to it.

The work of prayer is a mystery. If you want to believe that you have to keep knocking, knocking, knocking until God gives you what you want, well, go right ahead. Let me know how that works for you.

I believe there is another way to go, and that’s to consider what kind of God we have. God is not the Old Man behind the counter of the candy store, waiting to give you whatever you want. God is the One who rules over the world and all within it.  And the gift of scripture, to say nothing of our whole tradition of faith, is that we have a very consistent record of what God is like and what God cares about.

A lot of scholars, like Ken Bailey and others, remind us that Jesus didn’t invent all of his stories out of thin air. In the time of Christ, there was a two hundred year old text from a wise Jewish teacher named Ben Sirach. Drawing from all the texts about widows, he told us what kind of God we have:

He will not ignore the supplication of the fatherless,
nor the widow when she pours out her story.
Do not the tears of the widow run down her cheek
as she cries out against him who has caused her to fall?

He whose service is pleasing to the Lord will be accepted,
and his prayer will reach to the clouds.
The prayer of the humble pierces the clouds,
and he will not be consoled until it reaches the Lord;
He will not desist until the Most High visits him
and does justice to the righteous and executes judgment.
The Lord will not delay . . . [1]

“I tell you,” added Jesus, “he will quickly grant justice to them.”

So maybe it is about prayer, especially prayer offered by the likes of us, imperfect people and inconsistent believers. In this head-scratching parable, Jesus points us beyond the likes of us to the God who is greater, infinitely wiser, and much more responsive. God wants us to say what is on our hearts when we pray, because prayer is fundamentally the expression of a relationship. A relationship in Christ is a praying relationship.

Yet ultimately, it is God’s will that counts, not our will. And if there is any magic in prayer, it comes when our desires intersect with God’s desires. That’s when God not only grants us his will, it’s when God can work through us. And that’s the magic, the deep magic, when we know in our bones, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

For our part, we keep praying. In our prayer, we seek to align our prayers with the work that God wishes to get done. And we know what some of that work is. As someone has said, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27)

(c) William G. Carter

[1] Ken Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009) 261ff.

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