A sermon, based on Luke 18.1-8, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, October 20, 2019.
“In a certain city there was a judge…(and) a widow…”
Jesus tells a “David and Goliath story.” The part of David played by a seemingly powerless widow. Goliath, the all-powerful judge who “neither feared God nor respected people” and for whom justice was a commodity for sale to the highest bidder.
The widow, unable to buy justice, seems to be without recourse. However, like David, she has a “stone,” her unwavering sense of fairness and a “sling,”(1) her persistence, for she “kept coming to (the judge).”
Though Jesus gives us no details, I imagine the woman catching the judge as he entered and exited his judicial chamber, clamoring, “Give me justice!” Chasing him down the street, calling out, “Give me justice!” Standing under his bedroom window through the night, crying, “Give me justice!”
Finally, he grants her request, her demand. Not because his conscience is troubled. Not because his heart is contrite. Not because he seeks forgiveness from God, much less, the widow. But rather…only because he wants peace. “Alright, woman, I’ll give you justice! Now, please, leave me alone!”
“Pray always and not lose heart,” Jesus says, for as persistence coerced a dishonest judge to render justice, “will not God grant justice to those who cry day and night?” Jesus answers his own question: “God will quickly grant justice.” But if Jesus had waited for me to reply and honestly, I might say, “I’m not sure.”
For when the hungry cry for bread, the thirsty for water, refugees for security, the innocent in war-torn lands for safety, when we cry for relief from our worries and woes, whate’er they may be and there is no release, no relief, no resolution, then where is justice? Where is God?
Countless are the examples in the annals of human history and in the chapters of our histories of pain and pathos without obvious purpose and persistent prayer empty of promise.
Yet, as Jesus told this parable, it is incumbent on us, his followers, to search for its sense and substance for our living. And I suggest that we do this by looking through the lens of a mystery.
For the one who told this parable is the same one who, on the night before his crucifixion and death, prayed mightily to God to be released from his coming suffering.(2) And he was not.
Dying on the cross, he cried, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”(3) And the heavenly response was silence.
This is the mystery of the injustice of the suffering and dying of the innocent.
A mystery, a riddle, a reality unresolved that fights and defeats our every attempt to make sense of it, for it always remains beyond the reach of our reason, beyond the grasp of our fullest comprehension.
In this, perhaps, is the point of prayer. In expressing outwardly our inward desires, we acknowledge that we do not possess all power. The power to change adverse circumstances. The power to stop suffering and dying.
And in this, perhaps, is the point of persistent prayer. In repeatedly expressing outwardly our inward desires, we, reflecting on our place in the cosmos, reminding ourselves of who we truly are, recognize and reclaim the wisdom that life demands faith.
Faith. Not blind belief, but trust in the existence of God, therefore, confidence in this truth of life itself. That as long as we have breath, we can live as greatly, grandly as we dare. Thinking and feeling, loving and losing, laughing and crying. Fully enjoying the bright moments of our lives, though knowing they won’t last and engaging the dark moments though we fear they will last.
And when we arrive, however infrequently, however fleetingly, at this place, this attitude, this disposition of mind and heart, soul and spirit to live freely, fully, faithfully, come what may, come whene’er, then we will know that our prayers have been answered.
(1) “Stone” and “sling” are references to the David and Goliath story: When the Philistine (Goliath) drew nearer to meet David, David ran quickly towards the battle line to meet the Philistine. David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground. So, David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone, striking down the Philistine and killing him (1 Samuel 17.48-50a)
(2) Jesus prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground (Luke 22.42-44)
(3) Matthew 27.46
Parable of the Unjust Judge, Eugène Burnand (1850-1921)
Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, James Tissot (1836-1902)
Crucifixion (c. 1618-1620), Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)