Sunday 20 October, 2019
2 Timothy 3.10 – 4.5
But she persisted…. ©Sue Grimmett
My father used to tell the story of the first time he queued up for food in the mess tent after joining the army and attending his first training during the Second World War. Having been initially given a meagre amount of porridge, and being a young man of healthy appetite, he proffered his empty bowl to the kitchen staff and asked for some more. Like Dickens’ Oliver Twist who first made famous those words, “Please sir, I want some more…”, my father was indignantly told to go away and returned to his seat with an empty bowl and an empty stomach while the staff and those gathered around stared at him in stupefied astonishment. Dad laughed about this later, but says he learnt very swiftly never to ask for more again.
I think all of us have internalised narratives in our head that teach us to never expect or ask for more. These are the voices that we have been socialised into believing that say things like; “Better not want too much, or you will be disappointed”, “You are getting a bit above yourself aren’t you?” or “This is just the way things will always be.” But hope is an indomitable presence in every human being. Even in the midst of winter, as Albert Camus says, we can discover within us ‘an invincible summer’; but that very resilience of hope can be disturbing and in tension with our reduced expectations. We are hardwired in our desire for life and love, peace and justice, and yet also trained by our experiences and our woundedness to expect less for both ourselves and the society in which we live.
The first of the gospel parables we heard today tells the story of an unjust judge and a widow who persists in expecting more despite her inability to change the self-interested character of the man who holds the power to alter her situation. As usual we need to not assume we know what this parable is about, although to help us we are given the message at the start of the story, rather like hearing the punch line of a joke first. “Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” So we know it is a parable about prayer.
But is it saying that we just need to keep nagging God if we are to be given the desires of our hearts? To suggest that this is the intended meaning is to assume the unjust judge is meant to be God and to thus completely ignore the description of him being a man “who neither feared God nor had respect for people.” Clearly, this is not the God character in the story, although it may fit the personality we sometimes project on to God. It is also a dangerous interpretation for any of us- which is probably most of us- who have prayed earnestly for something to change and been faced only with the apparent silence of God. Have we not prayed well enough or long enough?
These are simplistic interpretations to place on the parable. The injunction to pray always and not lose heart has to mean more than being diligent in petitioning God over and again for things we want. This turns God into a cosmic fulfiller of our wish-list who only needs to be pestered sufficiently; and where do we go when despite our pleas, our desires for health or wealth or romantic fulfilment, remain unmet?
Huston Smith in his famous work, “Why Religion Matters” says; When the consequences of belief are worldly goods such as health, fixing on these turns religion into a service station for self-gratification and churches into health clubs. This is the opposite of religion’s role, which is to decentre the ego, not pander to its desires.
So this is a story about prayer, but not about a God who is prepared to gratify our needs because of the persistence of our requests. Maybe if we see it as a parable not about God, but about us, and consider the character and action of the petitioner, we might get closer to a fruitful reading.
The Hebrew word for widow means “one who has no voice.” The widow does not persist because it is a good strategy, she persists because it is all she can do. Widows are used throughout scripture and particularly in Luke to depict one who has no social standing or power. We are not told the details of her case in the parable, but we can imagine it is a financial matter with a male family member. She is powerless and the judge has no compassion. But because she continues to appeal for justice, her persistence will expose the judge as unjust. There is a hypocrisy and desire to keep up appearances that means that the widow’s insistence on better treatment will finally be heard. She knows she is deserving of more, so she continues to call out the behaviour of the judge. This is a parable about justice.
So which is it: a story about justice or about prayer? Yes, to both, really, but ultimately, I think this is a story about faith. God wants more for us than we would ever think to ask for ourselves and will draw us past the smallness of our desires to life in its fullness. The unjust and uncaring judge is not God but the voice we have installed in our consciousness- our collective limited expectation of what is possible- and our corporate tacit acceptance that injustice is just part of the way things are and have to be, forever and ever, amen. This tacit acceptance is what happens when we shrug our shoulders and accept unjust systems in our society, when we don’t bat an eyelid that our churches reflect those same fractured, graceless relationships, and when we expect so little of ourselves that we don’t see we have it in us to be God-bearers to one another.
Faith, however, is having the imagination to envision something better and persisting in striving to live into that vision. Such persistence and imagination characterise a life of prayer- the kind of prayer that is not asking for things but seeks resolutely to keep open the channel between God and the human person and human community. Our source for the energy to keep challenging injustice has its origin through prayer in the boundless passion and mercy of Christ that is extended always to us. Such a prayer life ultimately joins us to the God of all justice who engages us as agents to bring it about. The Rev’d Dr Barbara Lundbland captures beautifully these lessons of justice, prayer and faith in a sermon saying;
• If we pray without working for justice our prayers are empty • If we work for justice without prayer we will think it all depends on us • If we pray and work for justice without faith, we will fall to despair when justice isn’t done
• Prayer and justice and faith- what Jesus had joined together, let no one set asunder.
The widow expected more, but she knew she had no resources of her own to rely upon. Her persistence has its source in her hidden communion with God; the God who hears the cries of the voiceless and empowers the powerless. Her persistence is a metaphor for the prayer of faith that dares to keep on imagining and demanding more in the face of self-interest and apathy.
So as people of faith, we are to be steadfast in calling out injustice in all its great and petty forms and never cease to imagine a society that serves the common good of all people and the earth and holds our leaders to account. As a church, we are to have enough faith that we believe that we can live better and be a witness of unity to the world – not rushing to exclude others when the issues are complex but seeking to hold all together in the kindness of God. And personally, a life of faithful prayer means that we can ask for and expect more of God and of ourselves; more peace, more forgiveness, more joy, more hope and finally more love.
It takes faith in the character of God and communion with the Spirit of God to have the courage to keep asking for more. It takes faith if we are to ignore those voices in our heads which would tell us we cannot or should not expect anything better. It takes faith to trust God enough to die to ourselves, resist the temptations of mediocrity and let a new, wider imagination be raised up in us that we may, together, be agents of a better future.