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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 10/20/2019

Last Monday morning I again found myself spending quite a bit of time staring at a blank computer screen as I tried to come up with something that made sense concerning another of Jesus’ difficult parables, this time the Parable of the Unjust Judge and the Persistent Widow. In my opinion, part of the blame in this case lies with Luke because he interprets the parable before he has Jesus tell it. Luke says it’s about the need to pray always and not lose heart. With that as the introduction you most likely are going to read the parable through the lens of “this is how prayer works.”

The trouble is, that introduction and that reading can leave you with an image of prayer that pretty much amounts to nagging and it leaves you with a God who gives you what you want just to shut you up and get rid of you. It’s too much like the parent who gives in to a whiny child rather than having to listen to continued whining.

That reading however is fraught with issues starting with the possibility of a God who really doesn’t want to be bothered, a God who really doesn’t want to be in relationship when we talk all the time about a God who does want to be in relationship. The one who is praying really doesn’t want to be in relationship either, seeing God mostly as a divine vending machine, instead of put in your coin and get what you want, it’s state your prayer and get what you want. If the parable is supposed to be about the need to pray always, that’s not what you get either. Instead you wind up with an end to the conversation, at least until the next whiny request comes along.

Also, like the parent giving in to the whiny child, you get a God who gives you what you want even if it’s not good for you, even if it’s not what you need. On top of that, you can be left with the notion that if you’re persistent, eventually you will get what you want but we know that’s not what always happens and when it doesn’t happen it can leave you with the feeling that I just didn’t pray long enough or hard enough; it’s my fault.

Issues all over the place; lots of bad theology at which point I have to catch myself and say maybe I should pay attention to what I always say about parables, namely that they are parables; they’re not intended as full blown, comprehensive theologies and if you start to interpret them that way, you will come up against pieces that don’t make sense, pieces that just don’t fit together. The plethora of issues surrounding an interpretation of this parable as a model of how prayer works suggests that Luke’s opening line is misleading and Jesus must have been up to something else. The question then is, what was that something else?

Part of my confusion with this parable did have to do with the introductory verse about the need to pray always and not lose heart but part of it also had to do with the last verse, “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” At first it seemed out of place; it didn’t fit as a conclusion to this text. Then I thought, that’s because I’m trying to make that statement fit in with the interpretation about how prayer works even though that interpretation is mostly a bunch of issues not easily resolved. Maybe though, the last verse is the key and what Jesus is addressing is some aspect of faith. Maybe this is more about the faith of the woman and about the faithfulness of God than it is about her prayer life and how God responds to prayer.

I talk a lot about hope as an aspect of faith, that despite how discouraging the state of the world might be, as people of faith we can’t lose hope in God’s ability to change things; we trust in the faithfulness of God. A positive interpretation of the woman in this parable would say that she was filled with hope. No matter what, no matter how many times her request was rejected she refused to give up, she continued to be hopeful. Seeing the woman as an example of faithful hope, the parable does then connect with Luke’s introduction; it is about the need to pray always.

Now in part, the source of her faithful hope could be because she was convinced that her claim was legitimate but it also had to have been about her hope and trust in the judge, trust that despite evidence to the contrary, despite his questionable character, regardless of whether or not he liked her, she believed that eventually he would rule in her favor. Prayer is based on that kind of hope and again, having that kind of hope, the woman can be seen as a model of faithful prayer.

Carrying that a little further, might it be that the point Jesus is trying to make with this parable is to say, if this woman continues to live in hope despite a judge who neither fears God or respects people, how much more should we have hope in a God who we believe is pretty much the exact opposite of what’s portrayed here? It’s not a vending machine God who will give you whatever you want, but it’s a God who does want to be bothered, a God who does want to be in relationship and stay in relationship and…it’s a God who is about justice, about just treatment of all people.

The fact that the word justice is used four times in this short parable tells me that justice is also an important issue here, one that Jesus wants his hearers to pay attention to. The fact that the one who pleads persistently for justice is a widow is also of note as both testaments of the Bible are full of verses about care for orphans, widows and strangers, groups who symbolized the marginalized and powerless of that time. The kingdom Jesus proclaimed was about justice for people such as these, people like the widow in the parable who the judge either wished she wasn’t there or that she would just go away.

That adds yet another twist to this parable. With parables we usually wind up identifying with one character or another and Luke’s introduction tends to lead us in the direction of the widow and the call to pray always and not lose heart. That’s the obvious direction to go; we identify with the widow. But then…we have to remember that Jesus can often be about that which is not so obvious.

Could it be that Jesus wants us to identify with the unjust judge? Could it be that he wants us to think about those in our world who we wish weren’t there or who we wish would just go away? Could it be that he wants us to think about ourselves as answers to prayer, calling us to be advocates of justice for the powerless and neglected in our world? Could it be that when Jesus asks, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” he’s talking about faith that isn’t just a warm feeling but faith that takes action on behalf of the least of these?

I think the answer is yes, yes, yes and yes. Approaching the parable this way made me think about who we are as the ELCA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I wasn’t expecting this, but it’s where I wound up this week. I don’t know how much you pay attention to the decisions that are made and the social statements that come out of our churchwide body, but I have to confess that even though I agree with most of them, I’ve sometimes felt like we’re becoming more of a social justice advocacy group than we are a church. I worry that the seminary on whose board I now sit is more concerned with producing community organizers who advocate for social change than it is about educating pastors who preach the gospel.

But then a text like this one today sneaks up on me and hits me over the head with the fact that this is what Jesus taught and lived. There is solid biblical and theological grounding for decisions that are made and statements that are issued, grounding that isn’t about any red and blue politics, but grounding that is about the gospel, grounding that is about Jesus, grounding that reflects the ethic of the entire Bible, grounding that is a call to care for the other, the orphans, widows and strangers of our world.

That biblical and theological grounding has to be the starting point. The Lutheran church is centered on such grounding and we have to make sure we don’t lose that, particularly that we don’t lose the Lutheran emphasis on grace. Biblical texts can be interpreted differently, and that too has to be acknowledged, but reading things through the lens of grace is going to land us on the side of a God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love; it’s going to land us on the side of Jesus and that’s where we want to be.

A church is still first and foremost about worship. Through word and sacrament it’s about an encounter with God, a relationship with Jesus. That’s what keeps us from being just another social justice advocacy group. But…it’s that encounter and that relationship that calls us to act on behalf of those who we sometimes wish weren’t there or who we wish would just go away.

As we act, we make it possible that when the Son of Man returns, he will find faith on earth.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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