“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” Did you know that the Bible sometimes makes editorial comments on itself? This parable from Luke is a good example. The story that Jesus told begins with the line, “In a certain city there was a judge…” We don’t have any of the background that led up to his telling this parable. Luke apparently didn’t think that part was important. We do know, however, that Jesus did not say, “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” Obviously, this is an editorial comment. Luke begins this section of his gospel by telling us that Jesus told the people a story. But if you’ll notice, Luke is also telling us, in advance, what the story means. It is a parable, he says, “about their need to pray always and not lose heart.”
Now, when we’re reading the bible, the easiest thing to do is to simply take it at face value. Luke says this is a story about being persistent in prayer so that’s what it is. Right? However, while it may be that Luke was right, it may also be that he was missing the point. Maybe this story isn’t about the need to pray always and not lose heart. Or maybe there’s more to it than that.
What makes me wonder is that usually, when Jesus tells a story in the Gospels, the point he’s trying to make is not altogether clear. When he tells about the prodigal son for example, there are a number of possible interpretations. Are we to understand that we’re like the younger son that ran off and wasted his father’s money? Or are we more like the older son? Are we the father, or is God the father? Is the story about sin and repentance? Or justice and mercy? Or jealousy and self-righteousness? This one parable, all by itself, could easily be worked into a dozen different sermons.
Another example is the parable of the sower. The sower scattered seeds in different kinds of soil, but the only seeds that grew and thrived were the ones in the good soil. What does it mean? Jesus doesn’t say, at least not in front of the crowd. Later, we’re told, Jesus does explain it to his closest disciples, but he makes a point of saying that he did not explain it to the general public because they don’t really listen or understand. Really. That’s what he said. So, in the parable of the sower, we have one story that Jesus did explain, but it stands out as the exception that proves the rule. Usually, Jesus didn’t give simple explanations for the stories he told. So, when Luke tags a simple explanation on to the story about the judge and the widow, we should probably wonder if that actually was what Jesus had in mind.
Listen to the story again. In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had any respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent. Grant me justice.” For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps pestering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”
Now, Luke says this is “a parable about [our] need to pray always and not to lose heart.” But if that’s true, doesn’t it mean that God is playing the role of the judge, and we are being asked to follow the good example of the widow? We’re supposed to wear God out by continually coming to God in prayer; crying out for justice until God gives in to us; not because we deserve it, not because God is good, but just so that we will shut up and go away. Do you see any problems with that? Maybe it’s just me, but I have a hard time believing that’s really what Jesus had in mind.
Sometimes people say, about this story, that Luke is using a literary technique called, “from the lesser to the greater.” The idea is, if even an unjust judge will eventually break down and give justice, how much more will God grant justice to those who are faithful. This is the same technique as when Jesus said, “If you then, who are [human], know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will [God] give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” That’s the idea of “from the lesser to the greater.” The judge gives what little justice he humanly can, but God will bring the full and complete justice we’re all praying for.
This is probably a better way of looking at the story than simply taking it at face value. But it still leaves us with a problem. Despite all the faithful people, down through the generations, who have been unswervingly persistent in prayer, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the world is not appreciably more just than it was when Jesus first told the story. So, it seems that simple equation––continually pray for justice and God will eventually make it happen––hasn’t really worked out all that well, which suggests to me that, probably, this also wasn’t what Jesus had in mind when he told the story.
For me, this parable does what every good parable does; it defies simple explanations. It pulls the rug out from under our easy assumptions. Jesus was a master at this, which is why I think Luke was missing the point. Of course, it’s always a good idea to “pray always and not lose heart.” But I believe Jesus had a deeper message in mind. Walter Wink used to say that parables are like diamonds. They have lots of different facets. If you hold them up to the light and turn them around, you’ll see different things. What seems to be the obvious meaning of the judge and the widow––that the judge is like God and we are like the widow––is only one possible reading of the story; one facet.
So, what if, just for fun, we turned it around? What does the story say to you if God is the widow, and we the judge? God is the one who is persistent. God is the one who nags at us, who won’t leave us alone, who endlessly begs us for justice. We, then, would have the far less flattering role of the judge, who doesn’t fear God, who has little respect for people, and who finally tosses out a few crumbs of justice only for the sake of silencing our nagging conscience. That paints a whole different picture doesn’t it.
When I look at the parable as a story, not about God wanting me to pray, but about God wanting me to be just, and work for justice … honestly, I find it much more uncomfortable. My thoughts immediately turn to how unfair everything is. We have so much, while so many have so little. We are safe and secure, for the most part. We have abundant food and water, access to all the training and education we could ever want, good health care, heat, lights, electricity, high-speed internet and an endless supply of goods and services to address our every need or whim. Most of us don’t think of ourselves as rich. In our minds, rich is those one percent people who have more money than they could ever spend. But when you think of all we have, all we take for granted, it’s pretty obvious that we’re far better off than all those people who are living right on the edge of survival; hungry, homeless, abused and, mostly, forgotten. That’s not a guilt trip, it’s just the truth. And it’s a hard truth to hear.
I remember a church Pam and I went to a few times when we were in college. Every Sunday for about four weeks, the pastor’s message was basically the same. “We’re not doing enough. We’re not doing enough.” The last Sunday we were there was Pentecost. When the minister got up to speak, she started out by saying, “Today is the birthday of the church. This is a great day to celebrate all the good things the church is accomplishing in the world, but … we’re not doing enough.” Right then, I turned to Pam and said, “this is the last time I’m coming here.” And we never went back.
It is, of course, absolutely true that we are not doing enough. It is also absolutely true that, no matter how much we do, it could never be enough. The need for justice is too big, too overwhelming, too all-pervasive. One of the first really hard lessons we learn as children is that life is unfair, and as we grow and learn, it only seems to become more unfair across more dimensions. As Jesus himself once said, “the poor will always be with you.” I don’t think he was saying that to let us off the hook. It was just an acknowledgement of the way things are.
It’s true that we never can make the world completely fair and that simply saying we’re not doing enough isn’t going to help very much. But it is also true that both our Christianity and our humanity depend on our doing what we can, wherever we can, to move in the direction of greater fairness for a greater number of people. That understanding is woven right into the heart of our faith. According to the church covenant we all just read together, we are laboring together for the promotion of justice … working and praying for the transformation of the world into the Kingdom of God.
Yesterday, at our New Hampshire Conference Annual Meeting up in Concord, we heard some very powerful expressions of our need for justice. The keynote speaker, Rev. Traci Blackmon, gave a powerful witness for racial justice. Rev. Gray Fitzgerald spoke about justice in relation to nuclear weapons. Other speakers brought up Homelessness, Immigration, the Environment, and the LGBTQ community. We don’t all have the same opinions about how to solve these problems, but we know that they are justice issues. The room was filled with people who care about justice.
Working for justice is critically important to a faithful life as Christian people. Simply telling you we’re not doing enough doesn’t help. I know that. but I also know the nagging voice of God, who persistently begs us to do what we can, to give what we can, to help where we can, and to keep our hearts open and our hands reaching out.
What is our ministry? Certainly, we’re here to provide a place of sanctuary to all those who would come here for healing and peace. But no less certainly, it is to gird ourselves up for our work in the world. And much of that work is to align ourselves with the causes of justice. That is the message brought to us by the persistent and nagging voice of the God. What does the Lord require of us, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.