Rev. Stacy Swain
October 17, 2010
“What does the LORD require?”
Micah 6: 1-8; Luke 18:1-8
Sometimes, I find Jesus’ teaching methodology, his love of story telling and parable, to be rather taxing. Why doesn’t he just come out and say what he means? Why does he seem to prefer nuance to clarity, paradox to ready answers. Have you noticed that upon reading a parable the first time through, it is rare to come away sure of what it says? Jesus’ teachings, if we are to take them seriously, require some serious engagement. They take rolling up one’s sleeves and digging-in in order to uncover the truths they offer. But I guess, why would I expect anything less from Jesus. Serious engagement is what following Jesus is all about, anyway. Jesus wants us, mind, body, soul, — all of us all the time. Being a disciple of Jesus means getting on your feet and walking with him. It means engaging what he says with our whole selves. And so it is with today’s texts.
On first reading, the parable of the persistent widow seems to be a pretty straight forward teaching on persistence and justice. After all, look at the widow. I imagine her to be old, with a face weathered by hardship and hands raw with the endless work of just scraping by. Widowhood, gender and age have pushed her to the very edge of relevancy in the eyes of those around her. She has no power, no standing, in fact she doesn’t really matter at all. But the remarkable thing is that she does not seem to know this. The judge does, of course. He is a self made man who is so confident of his importance that he “neither feared God nor had respect for people.” He is a go it alone kind of guy who called the shots. And yet the widow is un-intimidated. He tells her to go away time and time again but she just “kept coming to him and saying ; “Grant me justice against my opponents.” In the end, the judge grants her request not because he sees the truth of her claim, but because he realizes that she has more endurance than he does. He cannot hold up in the face of her unrelenting persistence. He says, “I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming” (Luke 18:5). The verb translated as “consistently coming” in the original Greek carries an undertone of being repeatedly struck in the face, like a boxer who just keeps coming at one and won’t go down.
This parable seems to be a message of reassurance that God’s justice will be done even in the face of what seem like insurmountable odds. We, like the widow, are to persist in our clamor against injustice knowing that, with God, all things are possible. But things get more nuanced when we notice that the parable is framed by two sentences that seem rather unrelated to a teaching of justice. The parable is introduced with an explanation of Jesus intent – Luke tells us that “Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” What is the relationship between prayer and a demand for justice? And then, why does Jesus end the parable with a question –“And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Why wonder about faith? What does this parable have to say about justice and its relationship to prayer and faith?
For many of us, there may be a tendency to think about faith and prayer and justice as really rather distinct. Faith and prayer are all about what we do in worship, prayer group, and bible study – Faith and prayer are personal and private. They are about a vertical relationship with God. Just us and the divine. We tend to see faith and prayer as introspective soul work.
Justice on the other hand, is out there. Justice is the stuff of the town square. It is public. It is horizontal – us and the wider world. It brings us out of the sacred space of this house of God and into the secular. Whereas prayer and faith are safely tucked away in the realm of religion, justice is more messy for it demands engagement with economic, political, and social structures that frame society. Living in a pluralistic and secular society, we may even consciously refrain from speaking about any justice oriented work that we do in religious terms. It somehow seems more palatable to talk about the issue of undocumented people living in the US in the sterile terminology of “immigration reform” rather than in terms of “God’s radical hospitality to all people” or as “God’s call to welcome the stranger.”
This tendency to secularly sanitize the work of justice would be absolutely bewildering to Micah. In Biblical times, it was understood that the judge was one who arbitrated God’s justice. The court room, so to speak, was God’s court yard. To bring a complaint to a judge for arbitration was akin to bringing the complaint before God. “The judges’ responsibility within the covenant community was to declare God’s judgment and establish shalom, God’s peace among God’s people.” Injustice was identified as those transgressions that deviated from God’s commandments and promise of peace.
It is no wonder then that Micah uses the metaphor of the court room in the passage Cate so ably read for us today. Micah cries out against the transgressions he sees all around him, for as Marcus Borg in his book “The Heart of Christianity” writes, the prophet was that “God intoxicated” voice of protest that could not help but cry out against the human suffering created by the unjust societal structures. So Micah, seeing unjust societal structures, takes the people to court. God is summoned to presents God’s claim against the people; and the mountains and hills, the enduring foundations of the earth who have been around for a long time and who have witnessed the transgressions of the people, are the jury. God’s claim is that the people have not been faithful to the covenant established between them. While God has been hard at work keeping up God’s side of the agreement, the people have “wearied” of God.
When the people realize they are at fault there is immediate discussion as to what ought to be the settlement. What ought to be the payment for an offense of this magnitude. What will satisfy God? How about burnt offerings with year old calves? How about a thousand rams? Ten thousand rives of oil? What is the most precious and valuable sacrifice that can be made? “Shall I give my firstborn for the transgression, the fruit of my own body for the sin of my soul?” The people assume that God’s claim for justice will be satisfied only in the way that they themselves would be satisfied if the transgression had been against them. If they had been wronged they would only be satisfied if the one who wronged them were made to pay, big. They seem to think that God’s kind of justice is their kind of justice.
But that it not at all what God has in mind. The diminishment of humanity is not at all what justice means to God. God’s justice is much broader and deeper than the people’s limited understanding. And so, in one of the most moving statements in all the Bible, Micah steps in and reminds the people what it is that God wants. “He has told you, O mortal what is good and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" The Lord requires not some kind of payment, and then for you to go on your way. No the Lord requires a new way of living, living in accord with the Lay of the Lord. God wants not a piece of something important to you, but instead God wants, the most important thing of all, You. The beginning and end of justice is relationship with God. God says, do what I do, love what I love, walk with me with an open and willing heart. That’s what I want from you. That is the justice I seek.
In the parable, Jesus tells us twice what it is that makes the judge unjust. Did you catch it? Jesus introduces the judge by telling us that “in a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.” And then in the judge’s own interior musing we overhear him saying “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice.” What makes the judge unjust is not necessarily that he makes bad decisions though I imagine that he does, but what makes the judge unjust is that he has “wearied” (to use Micah’s words) of God and of the people. He has has cut himself off from covenant.
Not so the widow. The early church saw the widow as someone who placed all her trust in God or as Paul states in 1 Timothy “the widow, left alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplication and prayers night and day” (1Time 5:5). Her persistence in the face of the indifferent judge stems not from her own will power but because through her prayers, night and day, she is alight with faith, knowing that she is doing what God does, loves what God loves and is walking with God with an open and willing heart. Maybe she has the strength and persistence to keep knocking the door of that self satisfied old pain in the neck judge because she is absolutely “God – intoxicated.”
So perhaps what Jesus is driving at in the parable of the unjust judge is that prayer and faith actually have everything to do with justice. When I see that the widow’s plea for justice arises inextricably out of her prayers and her faith, when I hear her plea as a God-intoxicated cry – I cannot help but think of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It is clear, that like the great prophets before him, King was, in fact, absolutely God-intoxicated. His claim of the injustice of segregation was not one he was making on his own behalf but instead he was making that claim on behalf of God. His was not a legal claim but a moral one. His words are not sanitized by the secular but instead are through and through – spirit soaked. For King, God was as much in the courthouse, in the streets, on the Washington mall as God was in the Ebenezer Baptist Church. God was as much in King’s hands, in his feet, on his lips as God was in his heart. Listen to King’s words: “Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town.”
Jesus tells the disciples the parable of the unjust judge right after he has spoken to them of the coming of the kingdom. There will be a time when the son of man comes in his glory and the kingdom of God is realized on earth as it is in heaven, when the Shalom of God will prevail and the widow will be granted justice. But in the meantime there will be very difficult times. Jesus knows that in a short time, he will turn his steps towards Jerusalem. Jesus sees that the road between where he is now and that day of deliverance when the tomb will be found empty will be a very hard one to walk. And those that first listened to Luke, heard the Gospel in the midst of a tremendously difficult time of their own, a time just after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, where the injustice of Roman persecution seems unrelenting and insurmountable.
It is with this wide view of what is and what is to come that Jesus tells the disciples to pray always and not to lose heart. It is with this wide view of the coming of the kingdom in the midst of such hardship that Jesus tells the parable of the unjust judge and asks, “and yet, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Right after worship, we will have an opportunity to put these teaching from scripture into practice. We will gather together to begin to discern what it is God is asking of us through the money tithed to mission and outreach from the capital campaign. We will have an opportunity to take our prayers and our faith out into the public square and be the God intoxicated people we are called to be. People who can no longer tolerate transgression of God’s moral law – who can no longer tolerate injustice and the corruption of Shalom.
Will Jesus find faith on earth? Let us dare to answer Yes! Let our lives be about doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God so that times of hardship may be transformed into an eternity of shalom, where injustice is no more. Amen.