Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Worst Times, Best Times

Worst Times, Best Times
Lk 21:5-19[1]
  I grew up in an era when everybody was asking about the “end times.”  Hal Lindsey’s book, The Late, Great Planet Earth was the handbook for interpreting God, the Bible, and the end of the world.  I guess he was the voice of the Left Behind philosophy in that day. [2]   The popularity of Tim LaHaye’s series only bears witness to the fact that this kind of thinking is still around.  People still view the “end times” with fear and trembling. Except that one of the main reasons why this approach to the Christian faith has been so popular is that there’s a huge exception clause.  Faithful Christians don’t have to worry about the trials and tribulations of the “end times” because they are going to be taken to be with Jesus in the “rapture.”  Hence the language of being “left behind”--it refers to the poor souls who haven’t yet embraced the Christian faith who are going to have to endure the “great tribulation.” 
  Besides the fact that this whole approach to the Christian faith is incredibly heartless when it comes to the fate of most of humanity, the problem is that it makes nonsense out of what the Bible actually teaches.  I think our Gospel lesson for today is a case in point.  Contrary to what the fear-mongers of our day have to say about the last times, Jesus said that his followers would be right in the middle of it all.  He said they would be arrested and persecuted (Lk. 21:12), that they would be betrayed even by members of their own family (Lk. 21:16), that they would be “hated by all because of my name” (Lk. 21:17).  It sounds like Jesus envisioned Christians enduring the hardships and trials of the last times along with everyone else--perhaps even more so.[3] 
  Unfortunately, our lesson for today is a bit confusing.  Some of what he says seems to refer to events that would happen in their lifetimes--wars and insurrections, the Jewish people falling by the sword and Jerusalem being trampled by the Gentiles (Lk. 21:23-24).  And, in fact, about 40 years after Jesus’ death the Jewish people fought a three-year war to throw of the yoke of their Roman conquerors.  It was a war, however, that they were destined to lose.  And as payment for their rebellion, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and its magnificent Temple.  And many of the people got caught up in the violence--Jewish people and Christian alike.
  But some of what Jesus refers to in our lesson seems to point to a time in the future--a time when there would be “dreadful portents and great signs from heaven” (Lk. 21:11) and the nations would see “‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory” (Lk. 21:27).  So it’s hard to know if Jesus was talking about something that was to happen in the near future or about the end times.  I think the answer is that he was talking about both.  He knew that the Jewish war would be just as devastating for his followers, and he used that catastrophic event to warn them about the hardships that they would face until the final cataclysm, the return of Christ.[4]  And so Jesus urged them to “be alert,” praying for strength, so that they wouldn’t be caught off guard when the day of his return actually would come (Lk. 21:34-36).  And he promised them that the final outcome of all of the trials and hardships would not be destruction but their redemption (Lk. 21:28)![5]
  In fact, it seems that the trials and hardships that were to come upon those who followed Jesus were to be intentional, not accidental.  Jesus said that the purpose for all of this was to give them “an opportunity to testify” (Lk. 21:13).  Now, if you’re like me, you might like to take a pass on that kind of “opportunity.”  But in fact it would seem that Jesus was trying to tell them that the hardships they would undergo because of their allegiance to him would actually give them the perfect opportunity to bear witness to their faith.  Think about it: it’s one thing to share your faith with someone over coffee at a local cafe.  It’s another thing altogether to bear witness to your commitment to following Jesus when your life is at stake, or you are threatened with bodily harm, or you are facing some form of attack.  Then your witness is backed up in a powerful way by your actions.[6]
  Part of the mindset that I learned growing up was that we lived in a country where nobody would be persecuted because of their faith.  We took great comfort in that, just like people take comfort in the idea that Christians will be spared from the hardships of the end times.  But the truth is that those who commit themselves to follow Jesus and to live out the values of God’s kingdom will always face trials and hardships in this life.  Just ask the people who were threatened and beaten and killed for standing up for justice during the Civil Rights movement.[7]   Suffering is part and parcel of what it means to follow a Savior whose path led him to the cross!  But trials and hardships are never the last word in our faith.  When we are overcome by the difficulties of the present life, we need to remember that “our redemption is drawing near”![8]  If we can do that, if we can maintain our faith in the face of the worst that our times can throw at us, then they can become the best of times for us, because we will have the chance to really show a doubting world what it means to be a Christian.[9]





[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/17/2013 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] This view, known as Dispensationalism, was first articulated by J. N. Darby in the early 19th Century, but it was popularized by C. I. Scofield in the “Scofield Study Bible” that has been a popular version of Bible among fundamentalist Christians for over 100 years.
[3] Cf. Fred B. Craddock, Luke, 245, where he says that “Disciples are not exempt from suffering,” and that there is in this text “nothing of the arrogance ... born of a doctrine of a rapture in which believers are lifted above the conditions of persecution and hardship.”  Cf. similarly, R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” in New Interpreters Bible IX:402, where he acknowledges that “in every generation there are those whose religion is simply a form of escapism into the fantasy of futurism.”  Cf. also F. Dean Lueking, “Gaining One’s Soul,” The Christian Century (Nov. 4, 1998): 1019, where he says that in the face of speculation about “signs” what is needed is “Disciplined, enduring discipleship.”  He says, “The key to the End Time is the cross, not heifers and stones and rebuilt altars.”
[4] Cf. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Luke X-XXIV, 1329, where he said that the Gospel of Luke views the destruction of Jerusalem  “in a microcosmic view; it sees the crisis that the earthly coming of Jesus brought into the lives of his own generation, but sees it now as a harbinger of the crisis which Jesus and his message, and above all his coming as the Son of Man, will bring ‘to all who dwell upon the entire face of the earth’ (21:35).” Cf. also Ibid., 1349.
[5] Cf. Craddock, Luke, 248, where he points out that looking to the end time in the midst of suffering “should aid us in keeping gains and losses in proper perspective ... and cheer us with the news not only that today is a gift of God but also that tomorrow we stand in the presence of the Son of man.”
[6] Cf. Fitzmyer, Luke X-XXIV, 1340.
[7] Cf. Culpepper, “Gospel of Luke,” NIB IX:402-403, where he says that in spite of the escapism some have embraced, “every generation has also had its courageous and prophetic visionaries who devoted themselves completely to Jesus’ call to create community, oppose injustice, work for people and make a place for the excluded.  Every generation, therefore, is called back to the teachings of Jesus by the examples of those who have suffered persecution and hardship because they dared to strive to live out Jesus’ call for a community that transcends social barriers, that cares for its least privileged, and that confronts abuses of power and wealth.”
[8] Cf. Craddock, Luke, 247: “The final changes in heaven and earth are not ... to usher in a time of terror for the faithful; rather they are to realize that these are signs of the time of their redemption (v. 28).”
[9] Cf. Craddock, Luke, 243, where he says that the whole point of “apocalyptic” teachings that look to the end times is that it presents “a dramatic witness to the tenacity of faith and hope among the people of God,”  especially when they have to endure suffering.  Cf. also Culpepper, “Gospel of Luke,” NIB IX:411: “The message of the eschatological discourse, ... needs to be proclaimed in every time because it is one of hope: ‘Your redemption is drawing near’ (21:28). God’s word will never pass away (21:33).”

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Building the Church

Building the Church
Haggai 1:15-2:9[1]
  There are a lot of people wringing their hands about the church these days.  They are mostly concerned about the lack of participation on the part of younger generations in traditional churches.  So commentators of all stripes are weighing in about why younger people aren’t going to church and what we can do to reverse that trend.[2] While many are wringing their hands about the future of the church, I think there are just as many people actually in churches who are worried about the past.  Remembering “the good old days,” they are desperate to find the solution that will make it possible for us to re-create those days, when the pews were mostly filled instead of mostly empty.  Unfortunately, those days are gone for good.
  I imagine that our situation isn’t all that different from the way it was in the days of the prophet Haggai.  He was one of the exiles who returned to Judea from Babylonian captivity.  And when they returned, they found that Jerusalem, their cities and towns, and especially the Temple, were all in ruins.  There were those who looked at the ruins of their culture and their temple and who worried about the future: how would they survive?  And there were those who looked at those same ruins and grieved over past greatness that had been lost.  But for all their worrying and all their grieving, I’m not sure they knew what to do about it.  Ezra had restored the worship of God and the study of the Torah, God’s word.  Nehemiah had led the people to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem to protect them from their enemies.  But the temple itself lay in ruins. 
  And so the word of the Lord came to Haggai.  He rather pointedly reminded them that their efforts to restore their lives and to provide for their future had been in vain.  Apparently they struggled with crop failures, food shortages, inflation, and famine--not to mention the lingering threat of their enemies who would like nothing better than to see their restoration project fail.  And the word of the Lord came to them: “You have looked for much, and, lo, it came to little; and when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? says the Lord of hosts. Because my house lies in ruins, while all of you hurry off to your own houses” (Hag. 1:9).[3]  Apparently, everyone was devoting their efforts to ensuring and securing their own fortunes--rebuilding houses, planting crops, trying to maintain their feeble hold on the land of their ancestors.  And apparently, their efforts met with more failure than success.  Haggai basically asks them this: “Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?” (Hag. 1:4).[4]  And Haggai’s words had their effect: “the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel ..., and the spirit of Joshua ..., and the spirit of all the remnant of the people; and they came and worked on the house of the Lord of hosts, their God” (Hag. 1:16). 
  But even though the people set about the work of rebuilding the temple, there were those who remembered the former temple, Solomon’s temple.  And in comparison, this new temple looked pretty shabby.  It was a poor reflection of the original. Once again, Haggai came with the word of the Lord: he recognized that this new temple was “as nothing” in comparison with Solomon’s temple.  But his message was this: “take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts” (Hag. 2:4).[5]  Even though the results of their work may have been disappointing to those who had seen the original temple, the word of assurance that Haggai spoke to the people was that the “Lord of hosts” was with them.  That was the whole point of the temple: it was to be a place where the people could come to encounter the presence of God in a unique way.[6]  And so he told them to go on with the work despite their misgivings.
  I would imagine that there are many in our day who are saying similar things about the church--or about their church in particular.  Some would even say that the church as a whole is obsolete and it’s a waste of time to try to renew the church.  It seems that more and more people agree with that view, preferring to be “spiritual but not religious” because they don’t believe in any form of institutional religion.  And yet, I would ask them what specific form of “spirituality” they actually practice.  It’s one thing to say you’re “spiritual, but not religious.”  But the fact of the matter is that every form of spirituality takes place in buildings that house a community with specific rituals--whether it’s a Christian church or a Jewish synagogue or a Buddhist Sangha or an Islamic Masjid.  Human spirituality thrives only when we practice it together, and it thrives on specific practices, like praying the Lord’s prayer, or observing the sacrament of communion, or listening to the Scriptures read and preached.[7] 
  Regardless of the nay-sayers who pronounce the doom of the church, the promise Haggai made to the exiles in Judea applies to us today as well: we can do the work because God is with us.  The situation in which the church finds itself in the present may very well be disappointing in comparison with a former time.  Just as the people of Haggai’s day needed foundation stones and timbers to build the temple, so we have specific things we can do promote new life in the church today.  They aren’t secret: the means we use to build this or any other church are the same as they have always been: prayer, worship, studying Scripture, sharing our story, helping those in need, working for peace, promoting community, inviting others to join the community.[8] I think we can do this work to see the church thrive in our day because we know that we are not doing the work on our own.  The most important factor in renewing this or any other church is not that we are building the church, but that as we do our work, it is the Lord who is building the church.  And he has promised that it will not fail (cf. Matt. 16:18)!



[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/10/2013 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf., for example, recently Addie Zierman, “5 Churchy Phrases That Are Scaring Off Millennials,” 7 Nov 2013 blog on The Washington Post, at http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-faith/wp/2013/11/07/5-churchy-phrases-that-are-scaring-off-millennials/; and Rachel Held Evans, “Why Millenials Are Leaving the Church,” 27 July 2013 blog on CNN, at http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/07/27/why-millennials-are-leaving-the-church/.
[3] Cf. Hans-Walter Wolff, Haggai, 54, where he says, “The people say: ‘Because the times are hard there is no time for the temple’ (2b*, 9a*). Haggai counters: ‘It is because you have no time for the temple that the times are hard’ (9b*). The prophet reverses cause and effect, and thereby strips bare the truth.”
[4] Cf. Elizabeth Achtemeier, Nahum-Malachi, 99, where she says Haggai insists “that not foreigner nor fate nor workings of nature control the Judeans’ lives, but God.  Human life in its context in history and nature is in the hand of the Lord of Hosts.  Therefore, beyond all other concerns, God’s people should be concerned about the relation with him.”
[5] Cf. Robert L. Smith, Micah–Malachi, 156–157, where he points out that this would have discouraged the work in general, and Haggai was effective at encouraging them to take up the work nevertheless.  Cf. also Achtemeier, Nahum-Malachi, 101: “The old ones forget that it was not Solomon but God who filled the temple with glory, and so they mourn the past that can never return.  Worse still, they obstruct the new glory that is arriving, for as long as God is on the scene his people may confidently expect things which eye has not seen nor ear heard.  The Lord who has done so much in the past an establish new symbols of his presence in the future.  The God who rules past, present, future can manifest himself in ways yet undreamed and unknown.  The future that Haggai holds out before his discouraged and sorrowing countrymen is nothing less than a universal reordering of all things and the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth.”
[6] Cf. Achtemeier, Nahum-Malachi, 97: “When God is present with his people, that presence is symbolized by concrete reminders of his actions among them: for Israel, by a temple with an Ark containing tablets of law, even by a pot of manna (cf. Exod. 16:32-34) and Aaron’s rod (Num. 17:10); for us, by a cross, a Bible, and a table set with bread and wine.” Cf. also W. Eugene March, “The Book of Haggai,” New Interpreters Bible VII:717 : “The Temple was a place chosen by God where human beings could expect to encounter God, to be challenged and renewed by the divine presence.”  Cf. similarly, Gerhard Von Rad, Old Testament Theology, II:281-82.
[7] Cf. Henri Nouwen, Here and Now: Living in the Spirit, 95: “We cannot live a spiritual life alone.  The life of the Spirit is like a seed that needs fertile ground to grow.  This fertile ground includes not only a good inner disposition, but also a supportive milieu.”
[8] Cf. Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us, 45; cf. also The Book of Order 2011-2013, p. 5, F-1.304, which summarizes the calling of the church in “The Great Ends of the Church,” which was adopted by the United Presbyterian Church of North America in 1910

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Foundations

Foundations
Lk. 18:9-14[1]
  It seems to me that we seek a wide variety of foundations upon which to build our sense of identity, well-being, and contentment in life.  For some of us, that foundation was laid by loving parents, and it has been a support to us all our lives.  Others, whether they had loving parents or not, choose to build their lives on foundations of their own making.  For many people it’s their appearance.  It’s not hard to see this in our culture that is so obsessed with youth and beauty that we inject toxins in our faces to remove wrinkles!  For others it’s achievement--whether they look to professional success, or wealth, or becoming a “mover and shaker.”  But life has a way of undermining these self-made foundations. Inevitably, they will all fail.
  Our Gospel lesson for today presents us with two men.  One man, a Pharisee, would have been a respected member of the community.  Pharisees were known for their devotion to studying and obeying God’s word in all aspects of their lives.  It’s no wonder they were viewed as godly leaders of their communities.  Now, in and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with the intention of obeying God in all aspects of life.[2]  We’re all called to that quest.  But the problem with this particular Pharisee was that he was very satisfied with himself.[3]  I like the way Gene Peterson puts it in The Message: Jesus told this parable about some who were “pleased with themselves over their moral performance” (Lk. 18:9).  Judging from his prayer, this fellow was very pleased with himself.  It’s hard not to think that he was bragging about himself to God![4]  But perhaps more importantly, that kind of spiritual arrogance always translates into looking down on others as inferior.  I would say that’s our first clue that there’s something wrong with this kind of religion.[5]
  The other man in the Gospel lesson is the exact opposite of the first.  In fact, as a tax collector, he would have been despised by more than just the Pharisee.  He would have been viewed as a traitor to his people and a thief.  Now, some of us might still think that way about tax collectors, but the situation in that day and time was very different.  In the ancient world, whenever a conquering power like Rome took control of new territory, they taxed the conquered people to pay for the war.  And essentially, they gave the right to collect taxes in that country to whomever was the highest bidder.  As long as he collected what he promised to pay, he could keep anything else he could extract from people.  And so he would hire a whole team of people who would work under him, each collecting a portion of the taxes.  And as long as they paid their quota, each one of them could keep whatever they could get.  So it’s not hard to see why this man would have been viewed as a thief and a traitor.[6]
  Two very different men who came to the temple to pray.  Both of them had built their lives on shaky foundations.  The Pharisee went for the goal of becoming a respected leader of his community by following the letter of the law.  The Tax Collector had thrown virtue and decency to the wind, and was basically robbing his own people, compounding the poverty and the oppression they already endured at the hands of their Roman masters.  And he had done so because he knew this career would be a fast-track to getting rich.  And I have no doubt that he had succeeded.  Two men came to the temple to pray.  Two men not so different in their attempts to build their lives on foundations of their own making, although the paths they took might seem to be on opposite ends of the scale.[7]  But I think the real difference was this: one of them was thoroughly satisfied with the foundation he had built for himself.  He was quite convinced that his life was right and righteous and even pleasing to God.  The other one apparently felt that the foundation he had built for his life had crumbled.  He came to the temple not satisfied, or pleased, or confident, but broken.  He was so broken that he wouldn’t even look up and he kept beating his chest in contrition. 
  And while the people to whom Jesus told this story would have expected him to say what a good man the Pharisee was and what a rotten scoundrel the tax collector was, he surprised them. In fact, I would say he shocked the living daylights out of them.  Speaking about the tax collector, he said, “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other” (Lk 18:14).  I would venture to say that every jaw in the audience hit the floor.  What he said was the exact opposite of what they expected.[8]  But he was pointing them to something important: the shaky foundations we tend to build our lives on tend to fail.  The only foundation that we can ultimately know will never, ever crumble or falter or fail is the mercy of God.  And the tax collector, in his brokenness, cast his lot and his life on that unshakeable foundation with his prayer: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Lk. 18:13).
  I think we all need to learn the lesson this broken man learned.[9]  The other foundations that we try to build our lives on may succeed for a while--even for a long time. But they will ultimately fail.  Because there is only one foundation upon which we can build our lives that will never fail: God’s mercy.[10]  The Psalmist says it this way: “The steadfast love of the Lord endures forever” (cf. Ps. 136). There is no place you can go, never a time when you are outside the reach of God’s unfailing mercy.  And when we find our identity, our well-being, and our happiness in God’s mercy, we are building our lives on the foundation that will last forever.



[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/27/2013 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. F. C. Holmgren, “The Pharisee and the Tax Collector,” Interpretation, 48 (Jul 1994): 256-60.  He points out that the Pharisees were concerned with maintaining the health and well-being of the community through traditional religious practices like those elaborated in Deut. 26:1-15.
[3] Cf. Fred B. Craddock, Luke, 210: “Theologically, verses 9-14 present in parabolic form the central doctrine of God’s justification of sinners and the ultimate failure of self-righteousness.  This doctrine is most often associated with Pauline theology, but in fact, it is as old as the Garden of Eden, the tower of Babel, and Jonah’ mission to Nineveh.”  Cf. Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, 141: “the Pauline doctrine of justification has its roots in the teaching of Jesus.”  Yet, as Joseph A. Fitzmyer warns (Luke X-XXIV, 1185), while it does echo “the spirit of justification” in Hebrew Bible passages like Psalm 51,  “one should beware of reading this parable with all the connotations of Pauline justification.”
[4] The phrase is translated differently: like the NRSV, some say that he was standing “by himself.”  Others, like the NIV, say that he was praying “about himself.” There is actually a textual variant in the Greek New Testament that alters the word order to emphasize the latter interpretation.  Cf. Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 168.  Fitzmyer, Luke X-XXIV, 1186, differs from the majority view and supports the variant because it has some of the most important early witnesses to the text of the New Testament in support.
[5]Cf. R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreters Bible IX: 343: “Those who trust in their own righteousness will regard others with contempt, and those who regard others with contempt cannot bring themselves to rely on God’s grace.”  Cf. also Holmgren, “The Pharisee and the Tax Collector,” 253: “Prideful performance of one's religious obligations, combined with contempt for others, is no way to be righteous before God.”
[6] Cf. Craddock, Luke, 211
[7] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.2:385: “The parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (Lk. 18:9f.) speaks of two men who are both equally shamed before God but who are completely different because of their knowledge or ignorance of the fact. ... The shame of both is already disclosed. But the one knows that this is the case and the other does not. The one can only humble himself whereas the other sees many things which encourage him to exalt himself.”  The “shame” he refers to is the response of fallen humankind to the encounter with God who is completely holy and yet comes to us as “Immanuel,” God with us.
[8] Cf. Craddock, Luke, 211: “If anyone within the community of Judaism would not go home from the temple justified, it would be a tax collector.”
[9] Cf. Holmgren, “The Pharisee and the Tax Collector,” 251-52: “As history has shown, this ‘Pharisee’ of Jesus' parable has proved to be no stranger to the Christian community of faith!” Cf. also Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” NIB IX:341: “Disciples and believers are just as vulnerable to pride and self-righteousness as the Pharisees.”  I would add “or anyone else, for that matter.”
[10] Cf. Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” NIB IX:343: “grace partakes of the nature of mercy and forgiveness. Only the merciful can receive mercy, and only those who forgive will be forgiven [Lk. 6:36-38].”

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Can We Pray?

Can We Pray?
Lk. 18:1-8[1]
  There are some people in this world who have no problems maintaining their faith when it comes to prayer.  I’m not one.  In fact, I have often referred to myself as a “believing agnostic.”  There is so much about faith that is beyond our ability to understand.  How do you really grasp the mystery of “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”  It has challenged the greatest minds of the church throughout the centuries.  How can we explain that God actually entered our experience as a human being in order to restore us all to the kind of life he intended for us.  It’s baffling.  We can come up with words that help us touch the “hem of the garment,” but I doubt we’ll ever fully understand these things.  And yet, we believe.
  When it comes to prayer, I have tended to be a “believing skeptic.”  I believe that God loves us all, that God is as close to us as the very air we breathe, and that God is concerned about us--to the point of counting the hairs on our head (cf. Lk. 12:7)! And yet, many times when we face a crisis and we pray, we run up against the silence of Heaven.[2]  If we have the faith to continue praying even when it seems that our prayers hit an impenetrable wall between us and God, there comes a time when our ability to keep on praying is diminished and we simply “run out” of prayers.  Some of us know the truth of the saying that “Until you have stood for years knocking at a locked door, your knuckles bleeding, you do not really know what prayer is.”[3] I think we could also add that until you have stood for years knocking at a locked door, your knuckles bleeding, you do not really know what faith is. I know what that’s like, and yet I keep praying.
  But that’s really the question: how do you keep praying, how do you keep trusting in God enough to keep praying, when all you seem to get in response is silence? Our Gospel lesson for today contains a parable that is meant to encourage us “to pray and not to lose heart” (Lk. 18:1).  At least that’s what Luke’s intention was in re-telling the story.  We’re familiar with the situation: a woman who was a widow, very likely in danger of losing her livelihood because women could not inherit property, who seeks justice from a corrupt judge.[4]  This judge is the opposite of what any judge is supposed to be.  He doesn’t care about God’s justice, and he doesn’t care about justice for people, either.  Apparently he does whatever benefits himself the most.
  But this is no ordinary widow.  She’s called the “importunate” widow in the title that’s traditionally assigned to this parable.  That’s a word most of us don’t use these days, but it means “persistent,” “demanding” “unrelenting,” and even “annoying.”  And that’s precisely what she was.  She persisted relentlessly in demanding that this judge grant her what was rightfully hers, and she kept doing so until he was definitely annoyed.  He confessed, “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” (Lk. 18:4-5)!  She simply would not give up until she got the justice she deserved.
  In Luke’s Gospel, this parable is a story about prayer that doesn’t give up. But perhaps more importantly, it’s also a story about faith that doesn’t give up.  I think that’s the point of Jesus’ somewhat strange question at the conclusion: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Lk 18:8).  I think what Jesus was asking was whether anyone would have the faith to keep knocking on closed doors, even though their knuckles might be bruised and bleeding.  You know, it’s painful to keep knocking on a door when your knuckles are in that shape.  And it can be painful to keep believing and keep praying when your faith and prayers are met with silence. 
  I think the test of prayer that goes unanswered for months or even years is perhaps one of the most difficult tests of faith we may face.  It’s at that time when our fundamental faith in God is put to the ultimate test.  How we see God has a powerful influence on our ability to keep believing and praying.  If we see God as a distant, uncaring, heartless despot whom we have to beg endlessly before we get even a scrap of mercy from him, that’s not going to encourage us to pray and not lose heart.[5]  But if we can see God a loving Father who knows what we need, who wants what is best for us, and who is working constantly for our good, despite our inability to even have the slightest clue what God is doing, then I think maybe we can pray.[6] 
  Jesus told this story to emphasize the point that God is not a cold and distant tyrant before whom we have to grovel in order to have any hope of getting an answer to our prayers.  In fact God is the complete opposite of the judge who is depicted in that way in the parable. [7] God is the one who is very much aware of the hardship and suffering his children have to endure.  God is the one who cares very deeply for us all, and so we can freely “cast our cares on him.” And God is the one who works to bring our “vindication” speedily--in other words, to make things turn out right--as fast as possible.[8]  I think if we can hold on to that view of who God is, if we can maintain our faith through all the thick and thin that this life brings to us, then we can pray.  And we can keep praying, trusting that the answer will come when the time is right.[9]





[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/20/2013 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Source of Life: The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life, 136: “Prayer doesn’t come easily to the lips of some people, let alone spontaneously. Of course in every life there are heartfelt sighs and cries from the depths.”
[3] Fred B. Craddock, Luke, 210.  Cf. also Moltmann, Source of Life, 137, “Faith deepens prayer, and prayer strengthens faith, until we reach the point of ‘praying always and without ceasing’ (Luke 18:1), whether consciously or unconsciously.”
[4]Widows in the biblical perspective were to be the objects of special provision and were to be protected from their oppressors (cf. Deut. 26:12; Jer. 22:3).  On widows in the biblical world, cf. Darrell Bock, Luke 9:51–24:53, 1448; and John Nolland, Luke 9:21–18:34, 867.
[5] Cf. Ronald Goetz, “Petitionary Prayer,” The Christian Century (Jan 29, 1997): 99: “We have a right and a duty to pray... lest by our silence we would seem to abandon the world to the suspicion that any God who could exist, given such a world as ours, is either utterly aloof, or cruel, or impotent, or perhaps all three.”
[6] It is in this respect, I think, that Barth says of the one who prays, “No more is required than this, but this is required, namely, that he shall speak as he is able” and adds, “It will be God’s affair, and he can leave it confidently to God, to hear and understand him.”  Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 3.4:90.
[7] Cf. Donald Penny, “Persistence in Prayer: Luke 18:1-8,” Review and Expositor, 104 (Fall 2007): 741: “Unlike the judge who grew weary with the widow's pleading, God listens tirelessly to our prayers. God is not reluctant. He listens patiently and he answers willingly.” Cf. also Bock, Luke 9:51–24:53, 1450; Nolland, Luke 9:21–18:34, 869–70.
[8] The word translated “justice” can also be translated “vindication.”  Cf. Dorothy Jean Weaver, “Lk 18:1-8” Interpretation 56 (Jul 2002): 319: As Luke sees it, justice is the name for God's action in the world to make right what is wrong. And prayer is the name for the collaboration of humans in that act of God (emphasis original).” Contrast those who see this as a promise of vengeance for those who have been persecuted, cf. Bock, Luke 9:51–24:53, 1451; Nolland, Luke 9:21–18:34, 869.  Weaver also comments (ibid., p. 318), “Jesus' message, and that of Luke behind him, is unmistakable: God is a God of justice. And God will not fail to bring that justice into being for God's chosen ones. Injustice is not the final word (emphasis original).” 
[9] Cf. Penny, “Persistence,” 741, where he reminds us that “Jesus does not promise instant gratification of our requests.”  He adds, “God's answer may not come chronologically soon, but as we pray and wait, we can be confident that his justice will come surely and swiftly. But the most important thing, whether our wait is long or short, is that in the end we may be found faithful, looking to God for our salvation.”