Week of Sunday October 20 - Pentecost 22
Gospel: Luke 18:1-8
Then Jesus [he] told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” 4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone,5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” ’ [so that she may not finally come and slap me in the face] 6And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’
The Kingdom of God
This reading is about the Kingdom of God, not about prayer. I' m making this overstatement because too often I have launched into thinking about praying more constantly but forgotten the context.
Prayer is too often prayer for results for ourselves. If we learn that prayer is more than this, it is still altogether too easy to pray for others in terms of what we think they want or need, rather than actually engaging with them and finding out what their need is!
If we would engage with them, there might be many times we could stop praying and start doing, because it is not prayer the person needs but something concrete that we can provide.
I know a person who absolves themselves of a responsibility they wish to avoid by saying, "I will pray for you." They never ask the person they are praying for just what that praying might need to be, or if it is even prayer that is needed.
The context of the reading: The Kingdom of God
In Luke 17:20 Jesus is asked when the Kingdom of God will come. After answering the Pharisee who asked this question,
he said to the disciples, ‘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.
But as to the Kingdom of God:
The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; 21nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you. (Luke 17:20-21)
With regards to the Kingdom of God, there are
some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt... (Luke18:9)
Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ (Luke 18:17)
There was a ruler who understood that something was lacking in his effort to gain the kingdom. ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ (Luke 18:18) but could not face the cost of faith. That faith costs everything:
‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. 32For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. 33After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again.’
So when Jesus tells the disciples "a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart," it is in the context of the coming of the Kingdom of God, rather than getting the money to buy a new iPad. In our story this context is reinforced by the question,
And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’ (Luke 17:8)
The rescuing figure of the Son of Man drags this story into the context of the one previous: When will the kingdom of God come? And how do we persevere when we long for the Son of Man but do not see him?
The Lord is compared to a judge in Ecclesiasticus 35, where there is also a widow.
Do not offer him a bribe, for he will not accept it;
15 and do not rely on a dishonest sacrifice;
for the Lord is the judge,
and with him there is no partiality.
16 He will not show partiality to the poor;
but he will listen to the prayer of one who is wronged.
17 He will not ignore the supplication of the orphan,
or the widow when she pours out her complaint.
18 Do not the tears of the widow run down her cheek
19 as she cries out against the one who causes them to fall? …
21 The prayer of the humble pierces the clouds,
and it will not rest until it reaches its goal;
it will not desist until the Most High responds
22 and does justice to the righteous, and executes judgement.
Indeed, the Lord will not delay…
The figure of the Judge is also present in the great hope for the future of Israel in Isaiah 11. On the shoot from the stock of Jesse
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The judge in the story told is everything a judge should not be; he fears neither God nor people. So the widow comes and comes and comes, and eventually, just because of her persistence, he gives up.
He gives up because he realises he is beginning to look really bad. The Greek idiom; 'Though I am not fearing God nor respecting human beings, yet because this widow gives me trouble, I will avenge her, so that she might not come (and) give me a black eye unto the end,' is still clear. He is like the politician of today who stops feathering the nests of the rich and of himself and gives into persistent public protest because otherwise he will lose his seat.
To the people who are living in agony and injustice and whose only hope is for the kingdom of God to come not only among them, but to become actual in the wider society, Jesus is saying, "Look, if even a crooked judge like that can be persuaded, how much more easily do you think God will be persuaded? God will be persuaded quickly. He will grant justice." That's the nub of the parable.
Faith and Prayer
But then we face the question. "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" (Luke 17:8)
In particular, how do we who are rich, comfortable, and secure answer this question? People in trouble pray but...
What I think is more common is the lack of faith among those for whom life is going well. They don't need to concern themselves about the welfare of widows and orphans -- or the entire planet -- so they don't. When Jesus comes, will they have faith? (Brian Stoffregen)
I am constantly moved, and shamed, by the faith and the praying of friends who have escaped from places of war and persecution and who have left people behind.
For me, prayer is optional!
Sometimes in our studies and sermons prayer is almost theoretical. Fervency in prayer is too often encouraged with a kind of cargo cult mentality, also known as prosperity theology. Prayer is too often for us, or a measure of our faith— gauged by the audacity of our asking. And when it doesn't work, we hand out blame about the lack of somebody's faith... If the Son of Man comes among that, what faith will he find?
What is prayer for me, in my luxury where I do not need to pray?
There is asking, and to be able to pour out my soul, however 'God' listens, is healing and good. But there is also a constant appraisal of my life strategy, for I have choices and power! What is the Spirit saying to me? Where shall I use my time and gifts, given that I have a stipend and don't have to work every waking hour to survive? How little time am I mindfully working according to my insights of God's being, and how much am I simply living for myself?
Prayer is being reminded of who I am and girding myself to be faithful to my calling, rather than being scared into piety that comforts people with pap— "you should pray more, you should preach more on the bible, you should oppose..."
Prayer is sitting helpless and bearing the pain of not being able to help those who suffer in front of me, and knowing that my pain is nothing.
Prayer is doing what I can. I'm giving driving lessons to a young mum in my congregation. Some voices in my past tell me this is not what a minister should do.
When I am doing these things it is moral to cry out to God, and to ask for help. Otherwise I am not praying, and I do not have faith, I am simply avoiding faith and living in my comfort.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Online resources I found helpful for this study are:
Bill Loader: First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages from the Lectionary Pentecost 22
Brian Stoffregen:Luke 18.1-8 Proper 24 - Year C
John Petty: Lectionary Blogging, Luke 18:1-8
I have previously covered this text in Luke 18:1-8: The costs and consolations of hope. Since I begin fresh with each of these studies, I may even disagree with myself!
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