Faithful Prayer for Justice (mp3)
Text: Luke 18:1-8
The Parable of the Persistent Widow
1 Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. 2 He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. 3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’
4 “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care about men, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming!’ ”
6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”
The Theme of Faith in Luke’s Gospel
Not often does the gospel writer tell us the reason Jesus told a particular parable. But today, we have a very clear example of just that. Luke tells us, “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” Pretty clear meaning — always pray and not give up.
Today we continue our look at the theme of faith in Luke’s gospel. On October 7, we explored the idea that “You Don’t Need More Faith” but we might need more faithfulness.
Last week’s lectionary reading, Luke 17:11-19, was about the 10 lepers who cried out to Jesus, only to be told to go show themselves to the priests. Of course, the unclean — which included lepers — were only to show themselves to the priests at the Temple after they were cured or recovered from their uncleanness. Jesus told lepers who were not cured to go and show themselves to the priests. But “as they went,” Luke says, they were made clean. I’m sure they were all ecstatic, but only one of the lepers turned back, praising God, and prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet in thanksgiving. Jesus then asks, “Were not ten made clean? Where are the other nine?” Then Jesus adds, “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner (a Samaritan)?” Then Jesus turns to the Samaritan-leper-now-clean and says, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” Faith as faithfulness, again.
The Setup for Today’s Reading: The Coming of the Kingdom
But before we get to today’s text, we need to see exactly what comes before it because Luke18:1 says, “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.” So, this parable is connected to the text preceding it in Luke 17:20-37. And what is that about? The Pharisees asked Jesus when the kingdom of God was coming. Jesus answered — my paraphrase — “Not in the way you expect — it’s not going to be what you’re looking for.” Then he said, “For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” (The NIV says, “within you” but with a footnote acknowledging it might be “among you.”)
The Image of the Son of Man
Then, after saying that to the Pharisees, Jesus turns to the disciples and says, “The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it.” Jesus goes on to tell the disciples “don’t go running around looking for the appearing of the Son of Man, because it will be like the lighting — flashing here and there. But first the Son of Man must endure much suffering and be rejected by this generation.”
When Jesus uses the term, Son of Man, it is a term familiar to the disciples. The book of Daniel (7:13-14) first uses the phrase, “son of man” as he describes images in his dream. The dream is about God — the Ancient of Days — and this one “like a son of man” being given authority, glory, and sovereign power; and all peoples, nations and men of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”
Daniel continues to dream images of four kingdoms, which some biblical scholars believe represent the kingdoms of Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and finally, Rome. If the fourth kingdom is the kingdom of Rome, Jesus is reaching back into the Old Testament book of Daniel and identifying himself as the Son of Man, asserting his authority over the current Roman empire. “…his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” Keep that in mind.
Brian McLaren says, “…the fascinating and complex term Son of Man (used by Jesus 81 times in the Gospels)…evokes a dream of liberation from the book of Daniel…Later, significantly, this kingdom is identified as being “handed over to the saints” and is described as the kingdom of God in contrast to the Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek, and Roman kingdoms or empires. Each use of “Son of Man” nearly glows when this rich context is brought to it.” — Everything Must Change, pg 98
But what is happening in the first century under Roman rule? Continuing, Jesus says, “It will be like in the days of Noah — folks were eating and drinking and marrying until the day Noah entered the ark.” Which is bible-speak for “nobody was paying attention.”
Jesus throws in another example — the days of Lot. Again, eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. Then, after Lot is safely out of Sodom, fire and brimstone destroys the city.
Jesus paints two images — the first image of life as usual; and the second image of sudden, catastrophic disaster.
Jesus adds, “Those who try to make their own lives secure will lose them; those who lose their lives will keep them.” This idea of losing one’s life to save it is a recurring idea with Jesus. Jesus is cautioning his disciples that we cannot guarantee our own security. Only God can. So even if we lose our lives in the process of God’s kingdom displacing the kingdoms of this world, we are still safe.
So, the issues of the first century are still our issues today. Our federal government has a massive department devoted to….Homeland Security. And, guess what the issues are? We want to arrange our own security from Islamic jihadists and from illegal immigrants. Security is still an issue.
Tragically, in the first century, the worst was yet to come. Jesus warns his hearers that life will deteriorate into random, senseless tragedy. There will be two so close they share a bed, but one will be “taken” and the other left. Two women grinding together — a task that required close teamwork — one “taken,” the other left. Random, senseless violence that mindlessly destroys. Jesus warns that their chances of survival were dependent on the whim of the war machine — the Roman legions.
The disciples are anxious — “Where, Lord?” Where will this happen? Obviously, they are fishing for a geographical answer. Their thought is possibly, “He can’t mean here!” But Jesus gives them an non-geographic answer when he says, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather?” In other words, “The place is not so important, but the person is. It will all revolve around me.”
Jesus has just told the Pharisees and disciples several very important things —
- The Kingdom of God is here now. Among or in you or both — the kingdom is here now.
- The Son of Man has to suffer and be rejected by this generation. But his kingdom will never be destroyed.
- Life will appear to be normal, and few will pay attention to the impending disaster, as in the days of Noah and Lot.
- Disaster is coming. In 70 AD, the Romans would sack the city of Jerusalem, destroy the Temple, and displace all the Jews.
- All of this is happening around the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.
There are some who believe that this passage from Luke 17, and the passages like it in Matthew 25, are all future. But, tell that to the Jews of the first century. We cannot imagine the savagery, injustice, and slaughter which took place under the banner of the Pax Romana. Rome created peace worldwide. But it was peace through domination and the rule of terror. There was little diplomacy, and scant mercy. So, the first century Jews understood the Daniel-language Jesus is speaking. And, for those who think this is future prophecy, let me say that just because it has happened once, doesn’t mean it can’t happen again. Much of biblical prophecy is a warning, not of a one-off event, but of a repetition of disobedience and tragedy that God’s people can avoid. So, if anything, we should learn the lessons of first century Judea while realizing that we are caught up in a similar downward spiral.
Back to The Parable of the Widow and The Unjust Judge
So, now we’re back to the text we started with a few minutes ago. Which now makes much more sense. In light of the impending disaster about to befall the nation, the disciples “need to pray always and not lose heart.”
And what are they praying for? Justice. God’s justice for God’s people. God’s help for the nation. And, Jesus says, “I tell you, God will quickly grant justice to them.” There is no doubt that God’s people needed help then. Generally, the entire region of Galilee and Judea, and even Samaria, could be considered God’s people. They were reeling under the boot of the Roman occupation. It was another Babylonian captivity, another exile in Egypt, only this time in their own land, on their own sacred soil.
But, God’s remnant people — those who really followed God — also needed God’s justice and righteousness. People like Mary, a poor young girl who was open to God’s will. People like Simeon and Anna, latter day prophets, who recognized even in the baby Jesus the Messiah of God. John the Baptist, an iconoclastic firebrand who drew the attention of great crowds and the ire of Herod Antipas, who beheaded him. The religious leaders of the day had either been reduced to legalistic hypocrites like the Pharisees, or corrupted by power like the Sadducees, or turned into a seditious mob like the Zealots. But, the remnant of God still existed, and it was this faithful remnant that was caught between a rock and a hard place. And this is the remnant of whom Jesus was speaking. These are the people who must pray persistently for justice.
But, what kind of justice? The justice of the flood? No, God has said that never again will the earth be destroyed by a flood. So, even though Jesus uses the analogy of the “days of Noah” God’s justice is not the destruction of the earth.
Is it the justice of Sodom, destroyed by God with fire and brimstone? No, Jesus attributes that kind of destruction — sudden, complete, and fiery — to the Roman legions. One of their favorite weapons was catapulted fireballs, lobbed over the walls of a city. No, the justice of God is life-giving justice, not life-taking justice. It is justice that is distributive, not retributive, according to John Dominic Crossan and Johnathan L. Reed in their book, In Search of Paul. In every instance where Christ encounters death — the death of children, the death of his friend Lazarus, and his own death — death is never the victor. Death is always defeated. Life wins, the resurrection changes everything. And at Pentecost that Spirit of the resurrection, the Holy Spirit, breathed new life into discouraged disciples. So, when we speak of God, when we talk about God’s justice, it is a life-giving justice.
There is a wonderful legend of St. Francis of Asissi. Walking in the woods in the dead of winter, St. Francis encounters an almond tree. He calls out to it, “‘Speak to me of God!’ and the almond tree breaks into bloom. It comes alive. There is no other way of witnessing to God but by aliveness.” — Brother David Steindl-Rast, in the forward to Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh.
Praying for Kingdom Justice
If we are speaking of Jesus, we are also speaking of the one who said, “I am come that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” So, the justice that Jesus says we should pray for is not destructive justice, but kingdom justice, life-giving justice. The word translated here “justice” is also the same word for “righteousness.” Justice is the end result of laws fairly applied. Righteousness is living by will of God. So both justice and right-living (righteousness) are tied together — two sides of the same coin.
God’s justice — God’s righteousness — is God’s will done perfectly. As in heaven, so on earth, Jesus taught us to pray. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” But, Jesus asks, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Will there still be someone who prays, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth…now…here…today?”
The persistent widow was relentless in her petition to the unjust judge. The judge granted her justice because of her persistence. The Revelation of St. John the Divine is the pinnacle of hope for God’s people. Justice is coming, righteousness will prevail. God’s kingdom — present now — will come in power for all to see.
And the end result? No doubt there will be disasters, tragedy, insecurity, war, famine, and apathy. But Jesus is looking for those who will pray that God will bring justice and righteousness to his creation. That God will indeed make all things new.
John Howard Yoder, in his book, The Politics of Jesus, says —
“The triumph of the right, although it is assured, is sure because of the power of the resurrection and not because of any calculation of causes and effects, not because of the inherently greater strength of the good guys. The relationship between the obedience of God’s people and the triumph of God’s cause is not a relationship of cause and effect, but one of cross and resurrection.” — The Politics of Jesus, pg 232.
Our prayer of faith, prayed persistently, prayed from the life of the resurrection cooperates with God to make that promise a reality. Will Jesus find faith — faithfulness in praying for the Kingdom to come fully — on the earth? Is it here now? Are we praying now for God’s justice and righteousness — God’s kingdom — to be manifest? God’s people to be vindicated? Are we faithful to the plan of God, to the purpose of God, and to the presence of God in all of creation?
A Prayer Altar So We Can Always Pray and Not Lose Heart
So last night Debbie and I created a prayer altar in our den. I’ve been thinking about this for some time, but never seemed to be quite ready to actually do it. Plus, the stereo fit perfectly on the top of our built-in cabinet and bookshelves. But tonight I decided I had to do this. Amazingly, Debbie said she had been thinking of a place where we could focus our thankfulness. You can see a photo of our altar on my website, Amicus Dei; or, better still, come over and we’ll show it to you in person.
On the altar we put a lot of stuff that we pray for and are thankful for:
- Our Celtic Daily Prayer book, that we use in our morning prayer time.
- Photos of our family — our daughters, and their families, plus an extra photo of our three grandchildren together on the swing on our front porch; and our parents.
- An old Indian grinding stone we found in the Pecos River near Santa Fe over 20 years ago. When we touch this stone we touch the earth and those who cared for it long before us.
- An arrangement of zinnias from Debbie’s garden. How appropriate that churches place flowers on their altars in tribute to the God of Creation and the beauty of the earth.
- A handpainted verse from a friend in Nashville, Mary Kay. It reads, “May God’s love and the Holy Spirit’s friendship be yours.”
- A basket made by a German Baptist basketmaker, Mrs. Bower, given to us by her son Donnie. We put handwritten notes of things we’re thankful for or praying for in the basket.
- A tiny oval frame containing Salman’s famous, Head of Christ. Debbie found it among the things that her great Aunt Lora left her. Aunt Lora died last year at the age fo 97.
- A Celtic cross from Laura Adcock’s shop. Debbie surprised me with it last month. It’s made of pressed glass and catches the light wonderfully.
- A stack of Bibles that belonged to members of our family. The oldest is a Bible presented to my father in 1928, when he was 8-years-old; the next belonged to my mother’s mother; an old Sword Drill Bible presented to me when I was about 10 by my family; and, a Bible I gave Debbie when we were dating. These remind us of the faith that has dwelled in our family over the generations.
- A tiny bluebird from Debbie’s other great aunt Ruby who died the first day she spent in a nursing home, no longer able to live at home alone.
- A photo of Main Street in our town.
- A plaque that hung in our kitchen when our girls were little. It begins, “God Made Us A Family.” It’s grease-stained and faded, but we cherish the memories of lots of dinner times as the girls were growing up.
- A print of Debbie’s painting, A Gift of Love. She painted this to celebrate the gifts that God gives us everyday. You’ll have to visit her website to find out why there’s a giant bluebird in the painting.
- A photo of our church, Chatham Baptist. We pray for our church and its 150-years of faithfulness, that God will keep us faithful for the next 150-years.
All of this rests on a handwoven silk rug given to me by Tom, an enthusiastic Chinese rug salesman from Kunming, China. It’s a reminder of the wonderful friends we made in China over the years.
We’ll add more things, maybe rearrange everything later, but for now we have an altar. The stereo is in the dining room, waiting for a new shelf to call home. I couldn’t help thinking that we had replaced a modern device with an ancient devotion. I don’t know why we didn’t do it sooner.
Last night, after everything was in place, we lit two small votive candles to bring the light of God into this small space. As we placed the first of many notes of thanks in the basket, we read Psalm 107 together, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, his love endures forever.” Amen.
“Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.”