Pentecost 22: 16 October Luke 18:1-8
Luke brings us a parable about not losing heart. The focus in the opening verse is on prayer. The closing verse, 18:8, concludes with a challenge about faith: ‘When the Son of Man comes will he find faith on earth?’ Given this framework, we might be led to expect that the teaching is a rather general exhortation about prayer and belief that prayer will be answered. On closer inspection, this proves to be slightly off target.
The parable is not unlike that story Jesus told about the rogue in 16:1-8. Here, too, we may be dealing with a story that was going the rounds at the time and which Jesus picked up and used. The woman was likely to be such a nuisance that the judge relented and dealt with her case. Good on her! In 18:6 Jesus turns the attention of the listener to the unjust judge and proceeds in 18:7 to make a statement about God. If this kind of judge was willing to respond to this poor widow, can’t you believe that God will respond to us? The point is not that God is also corrupt, but that God is likely to respond. The parable is playfully shocking in the way it is prepared to liken God to the judge. This enhances its effect.
We find a similar kind of argument in Luke 11:11-13, where Jesus argues that if unjust parents are still prepared to give their children bread, surely we can believe that God will be generous about our needs. It is a kind of argument from reasonableness. Surely God is going to be good and generous, if anyone is. If you can believe this story about that judge, then surely you can believe that God will care.
The obverse side seems to have attracted Luke’s focus: we need to be like the widow and persist in hope and prayer. Sometimes people emphasise this in a way that makes God just a little too much like the judge: not really caring enough to respond straight away, but needing to be irritated by much human effort in prayer before relenting. Some people do have an ‘unjust’ image of God, perhaps because they have only ever known those who can help them as at best aloof and superior and at worst mean. We create images every time we speak about approaching God. The style of our approach projects an image of the God whom we approach. And then we inevitably conform ourselves to God’s image. This in part explains cold and aloof attitudes in leadership. Greatness, God-likeness, as Jesus reminds us elsewhere in so many ways, is about self giving and responsiveness, about love and care.
Jesus does deal with the obverse side, the widow. He compares her approach with that of ‘the elect who cry out day and night’. This is traditional language. It is used of Israel, God’s people. The image of God’s people crying out in need belongs in the context of community lament and prayer. It may not be by chance that we find such language in the traditions linked with Daniel and the Son of Man (see 18:8). What is their cry? As in the days when the book of Daniel was written, the time of the Maccabean revolt, so also in the period of Roman oppression, the cry is for liberation. Luke is very aware of this when he pictures the faithful (elect ones) in the opening chapters of his gospel as those who were yearning for the redemption of Israel. It is a political yearning, but much bigger than that. It is the cry for justice, for peace, for the establishment of God’s rule in the world. It is the cry: ‘Your kingdom come!’ It is the yearning encouraged by the promise: ‘Blessed are the poor; for theirs in the kingdom of God. Blessed are the hungry for they shall be satisfied.’
So it is missing the mark if we treat the passage as a general teaching about intercessory prayer. It is primarily about the yearning for change. It was very appropriate that the story told of a poor widow. She represents a behaviour, but she also represents the poverty and vulnerability which is the point of the parable’s message. The story has been shaped in the cruelty of exploitation and the arbitrary abuse of power. It belongs in the world which Jesus is addressing. Jesus is reading the signs in the wounds of the people. The contours of their devastation shape the structures of his thought, because this is where he belongs and these are the people whose cries he hears.
Take some heart, even from the behaviour of a corrupt judge who has no respect for anyone! This is digging deep, scraping the bottom of the barrel in pastoral care. The alternative for many is despair, if malnutrition has not already dulled the senses to other possibilities. We know such corrupt figures exist. Does God? Does a God exist who cares? The paralysis of hope can occur at many levels. For many it plummeted with the towers of the World Trade Centre. Faith then retreats into survival mode or fences itself within petty concerns, loses its political and social edge in a sweet jellied peace of mind, or surrenders to the demagogues and demigods of hate.
People do not need to avoid pain. It is our role to be there with them in it and not to collude with the alternatives. It means being in touch with the struggles, with the poverty, with all that makes people cry out in our world. It also means living with the affirmation of a God who cares, even though, unlike the promise of 18:8, the solution does not come speedily. In that sense we are to be building supportive communities where people can sustain the crying day and night and not lose heart, where we do not tune out, but live in hope and with a sense of trust that does not make us feel we have to carry the whole world on our shoulders. For facing the pain of the world is, indeed, a crushing experience which most of us cannot bear and which, without support and acceptance of our own limitations, we will inevitably either deny or ourselves become part of the hopelessness. Finding a glint of God in the gray of corruption is a way of affirming we do not have to be God; we are not alone; faith and hope are possible.
Epistle: Pentecost 22: 16 October 2 Timothy 3:14 - 4:5