Sunday, October 21, 2007

Do. Pray. Sermon on Luke 18:1-8

“Do. Pray.”
Luke 18:1-8
October 21, 2007

Beware the storyteller who tells you the ending first. Personally, I have never been one to peek at the last pages of a novel, though that last Harry Potter book was a little bit of a temptation. Nor have I been one to search the house for my birthday or Christmas presents, even as a little child. I love a surprise, and I do everything I can to cooperate with surprises! So I say, beware the storyteller who tells you the ending right up front. Question their motives. Ask why they feel it necessary to control how you hear the story.

Case in point: Luke’s parable of the widow and the judge. Luke inserts an editorial comment: “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” My reaction to a story that starts like that is something like, “OK then! We know the ending, so why go any further?” The thing is, that’s not how parables work. The last thing a parable usually does is to tell you the ending or the meaning right up front.

Parables are stories. Stories lie in the province of the imagination. Parables are stories that allude to other realities, and do so in an imaginative way that leads to illumination, enlightenment[i] … but also, more questions, and sometimes, confusion.

It may be helpful to say what parables are not: parables are not analogies. There is never an easy correspondence between the characters in a parable and those in “real life.” Though we might be tempted to say, for example, that the prodigal son ‘represents’ sinners, and the forgiving father ‘represents’ God, the parable resists any such easy answer, it’s more multi-layered than that. Parables are deceptive in their simplicity.

But this makes sense, given the kind of teacher Jesus was. To borrow a phrase from the era of “No Child Left Behind,” Jesus was not “teaching to the test.” He did not give his listeners clear, unambiguous answers. Mostly, he gave them questions… questions set aloft on an iridescent blue set of wings, ephemeral, here now, fluttering away in a second. The danger with a sermon on a parable is that we may just be trying to dissect a butterfly. Let’s hope that, when we are through, the beautiful creature is still capable of flight.

So let’s look at this story. In it there are two main characters. First we meet the judge. It must be said: the judge is the one with all the power in the story. He is the one who is able to grant or deny justice. But Luke tells us right away that the judge doesn’t fear God and he doesn’t respect people. Those are two powerful condemnations packed into just a few words, given what we know our disposition is supposed to be towards God, and towards our neighbor. These words are all the more troubling because of the judge’s position. With the power available to him, he is supposed to do what is just, what is right. We already know not to expect that from him.

Next we meet the widow. According to Psalm 68, God is the “protector of widows…” In a society in which women depended on the protection and patronage of fathers, brothers, husbands and sons, widows could be particularly vulnerable. Throughout scripture certain groups—we would call them “at-risk” groups—are specially singled out as being in need of justice and protection. Widows are among those with a strong claim on God’s justice.[ii]

In our parable, the widow is described as continually coming before the judge, seeking justice against her opponent. Her relentlessness gives us the feeling that this woman is desperate. Perhaps she is poor. Perhaps she is starving. Perhaps whatever her opponent is withholding from her means the difference between having a warm hearth sit beside and homelessness. The judge responds predictably at first: since he doesn’t fear God, and doesn’t respect people, it’s no surprise to us that he initially ignores the woman’s pleas. But eventually, he reasons with himself: ‘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.’ (Luke 8:4-5). The unjust judge goes against his own character… he grants justice… because he wants to be rid of a nuisance.

Jesus goes on to explain, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?” (Luke 18:6-7). The implication is, if this terrible judge, who is so corrupt, will grant justice to this poor widow, how much more will God, who is perfectly just, listen to the pleas of those who cry out? It’s an argument from the lesser to the greater. It’s an argument in favor of trusting in God’s perfect justice, even if we don’t see any evidence of it at the moment. And if we let the introduction inform our interpretation, it’s an argument in favor of taking our concerns to God, praying always, praying persistently, because surely God will respond.

If we are to take Luke at his word, and interpret this parable as being about prayer, that leads us to ponder a few things. As you all know know, I am in the midst of a series of children’s messages on prayer, using the fingers as mnemonic devices. This parable seems to be referring to intercessory prayer, prayer of petition, prayer for ourselves. In the case of the widow, the prayer seems quite urgent. Justice has been delayed, and we all know what that means: justice has been denied. And she is praying… which is to say, bothering, harassing, annoying the judge in hopes of having her petition answered.

I read story this week. There was a large gathering, it might have been a conference, of people concerned about inequality and oppression in our society. At a certain point an elderly black minister stood, and opened his bible, and read this parable. He then gave a one-sentence sermon on it: “Until you have stood for years knocking at a locked door, your knuckles bleeding, you do not really know what prayer is.”[iii]

Pray. Pray without ceasing. Pray as if your life depended on it, and God, who is loving and just, will hear your prayers. That is one interpretation of this parable.

And it is a good one, it is one that has been preached for close to two thousand years. But there is another interpretation of this little story that has begun to take hold as well, and it is one that I just can’t seem to put out of my mind this week. I suppose this alternative interpretation finds its seed in something troubling. The judge. He is unjust. Would Jesus really represent God in a parable as this corrupt, self-involved official? There is something about this that irks. It seems somehow wrong.

The other little seed of doubt comes about when we consider the widow. I’ve already mentioned how widows have a special claim on God’s justice in scripture: God was always on the side of the widow and the orphan, and the poor one and the immigrant, the slave, the prisoner. And what is it the widow wants? Justice. “Grant me justice against my opponent,” she says. She doesn’t say, “I want my money,” or “Give me back my house”, or, “That plot of land has been in my family for years.” No. She says, “Give me justice.” Pure justice. Come to think of it, isn’t the character of the widow closer to that of God than the judge is? And the judge… well, doesn’t he more accurately represent human beings? Slow to give justice, concerned most of the time with only what affects him directly, making decisions more out of expediency than out of altruistic motives?

This is not a very pretty picture of humanity, I realize. But it is one on which our Presbyterian, Reformed tradition is founded: the flawed nature of human nature. The fact of sin.

“Sin” is not a very popular word these days. I don’t much like it myself. And I think, truthfully, that many of us grew up with unhelpful notions of what it meant to be sinful. We may have gotten the impression that we were “all bad,” or that we should be in a constant state of shame. That’s not what I’m saying at all. In fact, that is a profoundly unscriptural understanding of human nature. I think it’s important for us to look at human nature with open eyes, and if we do, we will see an awful lot of brokenness in the world side by side with an awful lot of goodness and beauty… what one author has called “original blessing,” right there beside the “original sin.” We Presbyterians believe that we were made in the unspeakably beautiful and noble image of God, and that at the first possible opportunity we took a rock or a can of spray paint to that image and defaced it. But God’s image is far more beautiful than any power we have to do it injury. This is the paradox of our flawed and beautiful human condition.

And God’s response to the brokenness of the world? Well, God has given us the way of Jesus. And here, in this parable, it may just be that Jesus gives us an image of God, bothering, harassing, annoying us, knocking on the doors of our hearts, crying “Justice! Give me justice!” After all, we are the only hands God has on earth; we have, like the judge, the power to do it. And if we look around our world, I think you and I can both agree, we have a long way to go to answer God’s prayer.

About 400 years ago an English clergyman was writing both sermons and poetry. His poetry included gorgeous, sensual love poetry to his wife and also to God, some of the most exquisite religious poetry ever written in the English language. Here is the first stanza of a poem by John Donne.

BATTER my heart, three person'd God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow mee, and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new…

In Donne’s poem, he recognizes that God has been trying gentle persuasion, breathing shining, and it may well be time for God to resort to stronger methods. He is inviting God to batter his heart, to overthrow him, to make him new, by whatever means necessary. Be careful what you ask for. Is this what Jesus is getting at in this parable? That God, as the widow calling out for justice, is battering at the doors of our hardened hearts, hoping we can recall our fear of God and our respect for our fellow human beings and do something about the sorry state of our world? Is God hoping to overthrow our unjust ways, so that we might help at last to usher in God’s reign? Is this a parable telling us to “do,” just as much as it’s telling us to “pray”?

I leave it to you. Why did Luke tell us the ending right at the beginning of the parable? Why do you think Luke preferred one interpretation over another? I believe with all my heart that the story of scripture is our story, and one consequence of that is that the Word of God whispers in each heart differently. So I invite you to hear the Word of God to you this day, telling you to “do” or to “pray” or maybe both or maybe neither. This is the word of the Lord. What did you hear today? Thanks be to God. Amen.


Here is the full text of the Donne poem:

BATTER my heart, three person'd God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow mee, and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new…
I, like an usurpt towne, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely I love you, 'and would be loved faine,
But am betroth'd unto your enemie:
Divorce mee, untie, or breake that knot againe;
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.

[i] Robert C. Tannehill, “The Gospels and Narrative Literature” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 60.
[ii] Wayne A. Meeks, General Editor, Associate Editors, Jouette M. Bassler… [et. al.], The HarperCollins Study Bible (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993), 1994.
[iii] Fred B. Craddock, Luke (Lousiville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1991), 209-210.


Mother Laura said...

Hi Mags! I love your point about God being a lot more like the widow than the judge...the only place I have seen/heard the same move made in one of Colleen Fulmer's early songs. This interpretation has probably been neglected because of the automatic equation of God with male power figures in parable interpretation and elsewhere.

I am a little concerned about the Donne poem though because of the sexual violence aspect--"ravish" sounds innocent to us as in "you look ravishing tonight darling." But historically it very frequently meant rape and the convergence with the battering images places the use in that poem, to my mind, firmly in that camp. Disappointing because there is much appealing about Donne's work....He reflects his time, of course, but IMHO we need to be very careful of which aspects of tradition we hold up for approval.

Magdalene6127 said...

Thanks for this Mother Laura. I deliberately did not use the rest of the poem in the sermon proper for that very reason... the language went beyond what I was comfortable with. Yet, I love the poem for all sorts of complicated reasons. I decided to give the full text at the end of the printed version of the sermon we make available to the homebound, in case anyone was interested.

Your comments are making me reconsider that decision.



Diane said...

I hear what mother Laura is saying, but I still retain an affection for the poem. I think context and voice make a difference, but I do think that Mother Laura is right as well, that we need to be careful what we use.. and how we use it, too?

I think the poem might still work in certain contexts, where it could be carefully explicated...

but I actually have some issues with most poetry in worship. The aural aspects are perfect for worship, of course, but sometimes poetry bears more readings, and isn't so accessible on the first reading/hearing.

I remember getting really excited about George Herbert's poem Love III when in college and reciting it to a couple of friends, who gave me a really blank look. They obviously thought I was crazy. But I was living with this poetry, and "got" it right away.

Just a thought.

how did it preach?

Diane said...

p.s. re: the sermon scripture interp...
I do think it could be a case of both/and
you know, the "surplus of meaning" in scripture.

Magdalene6127 said...

Diane, I am with you on the surplus of meaning... that's where I come down.

It preached oddly. This was the first Sunday after my installation, and the numbers in the congregation were down from the past few weeks, and the congregation felt oddly wooden while I preached. Someone even mentioned it to me (and someone else said, "Oh no, we were concentrating!"). All comments on the sermon itself were strongly in favor of the second interpretation, which tells me things I like to hear about this church.

So... I liked the sermon a lot, but I had an odd experience with it. Also, I hadn't slept well the night before... which may have had something to do with my preaching experience.

Thanks for commenting, both of you!



Diane said...

Mags, re: you "we were concentrating" comment, there used to be a woman in my country congregation who always looked like she was frowning. I was sure she never liked what I was saying until one Sunday she had a very positive comment.

Later on she mentioned something very similar, how she was always concentrating while I preached.

I may have to file your interpretaiton of this parable, liked it very much and haven't heard it before!

Magdalene6127 said...

Thanks Diane... I have looked through a few of my commentaries to see where that idea surfaced. I believe it was in an online discussion group, Midrash. But I can tell you definitively, it was not my original idea!



Diane said...

Midrash! I love midrash!

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