The Cost and Consolations of Hope

Week of Sunday October 17
Gospel: Luke 18:1-8

Then Jesus 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.” ’ 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?’

I’m tired- really tired.  It’s the continuing uncertainty over my employment, and it’s hay fever season,  which always exhausts me, and I rode a 24 hour endurance event last week.  It all adds up to tired and a bit depressed. Yet here in this little story there is great comfort.  Look at the unjust judge. If we can wear down people like him, what a hope we have in God who is willing to help us and who has chosen us!  The simple message of comfort is clear and obvious, and I feel it.

A second reading begins to raise the questions.  The subtleties become apparent.  Jesus tells the parable, but the Lord draws the conclusion with a command to “Listen!”  And then speaks of himself in the third person; “When the Son of Man comes…”  There is hint of something here. Is it threat? Is it doubt or despair?  “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

What does it mean that God has “chosen ones” and grants justice to them?  Does not God bring rain on sinners and the righteous alike? What does it mean to “pray always”?  Does that mean repetitious asking for the same thing, badgering like the widow- or is there something more subtle and less self focused than many of our prayers?  These are some of the questions to unpack.

Because of our common preoccupation with whether prayer even works we may miss something obvious. The widow persists in hope and prayer, not just prayer . (Bill Loader) “So it is missing the mark if we treat the passage as a general teaching about intercessory prayer.” I have a memory of the text being used as an exhortation to “pray without ceasing” which ignores the context of the reading, and some of its content.

One aspect of the content is neatly summarised by Brian Stoffregen’s commentary this week.

Besides the topic of prayer, our text and the following parable are also connected by a number of words with the Greek root -dik- = generally referring to "what is right".
a-dik-ia -- unjust (18:6)
a-dik-os -- evildoers (18:11)
anti-dik-os -- opponent (18:3)
dik-aios -- righteous (18:9)
dik-aioo -- justified (18:14)
ek-dik-eo -- grant justice (18:3, 5)
ek-dik-esis -- grant justice (18:7, 8)

This is unmistakably about doing what is right. It is about justice in the true sense of the word, whereas the unjust judge dispensed rulings that were expedient and not based in the justice of God.

So this is the context: the parable of Jesus is followed by the story of the man Zacchaeus, who like the judge, “neither feared God nor had respect for people”, but who repented when he met Jesus.

The parable of Jesus, remaining with context, is preceded by a question, in Luke 17. The Pharisees asked when the kingdom of God was to come. And Jesus replied (20,21)

‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’ John Petty points out that we then have an extended passage (17: 22-37) about “the suffering and rejection of Jesus, which provokes an eschatological crisis, out of which comes the New Day of the Lord.”

This passage, apocalyptic in tone, does not reflect some abstract idea of “end times.” It reflects the actuality of people’s lives. There are hints of the destruction of Jerusalem (17:31) which would be in people’s memory as well as a looking forward to some future event (17:34) But it all comes, this  “eschatological crisis,” out of the experience of the endless, almost hopeless suffering of the poor trying to survive either during war, or in the grinding oppression of the Roman Pax.  The widow “represents … poverty and vulnerability”. (Loader) As Loader says

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.

Thus, says Bill, the parable is “primarily about the yearning for change.” It is not about whether, or how, prayer works. It’s not about keeping a list of prayers to tick off when they are answered; a kind of proving our faith because we prayed enough that things happened, which I encountered and was a part of in my youth. Such things trivialise the suffering of the people of God.

Stoffregen says

there is a sense that our parable deals with the question raised by the Pharisees in 17:20: "When is the kingdom of God coming?" Or, in the language of this parable, "When will this widow receive justice?"

Could it be that the answers to both these questions are the same-  live in hope? Live in hope by seeking to live justly, and then you will find the kingdom of God and justice for widows, among and within you.

Stoffregen quotes Jensen’s Preaching Luke's Gospel

When is the kingdom of God coming? That was the question of the Pharisees. Jesus' answers was that the kingdom is both present in his life and yet to be revealed in public for all to see. We are not to be discouraged or lose heart as we live out this paradoxical Christian reality. We should, rather, look to the example of a woman who did not lose heart. Her persistence evoked a response even from an unrighteous judge. God is not unrighteous. God will come and grant justice to the righteous ones. God will grant justice to those who stand firm in their faith. Faith is strengthened through prayer! Will the Son of man find faith on earth when he returns? He will if we have been faithful in prayer that our faith not lose heart. [p. 191]

He also quotes Craddock:

…an elderly black minister read this parable and gave a one-sentence interpretation: "Until you have stood for years knocking at a locked door, your knuckles bleeding, you do not really know what prayer is." ...pp209-10

If there is any sense that this parable “teaches” about prayer, it is teaching that prayer and hope are to be shaped by persistence in the search for justice.  On this reading, prayer and hope, it would seem, might very easily lack a dimension, or a depth or maturity, where life is easy. No wonder it is hard for a rich person to enter the Kingdom!

My experience of theology, as I worked my way through college and later, is that there has been theology and commentary which has engaged and nurtured me, and theology which has left me unmoved. The powerful stuff is always written by people struggling for justice, or struggling to make sense injustice and suffering. People writing from a position of privilege, or essentially bolstering the status quo, left me cold. There was something sterile about their text.

It always puzzles me when people get into conspiracy theory. Why do we need such things? The real conspiracy has  obvious since before the time of Jesus. The rich wish to stay rich, fearing neither God nor respecting anyone else.  We see it in Amos, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals (8:6), and we still see it today; eg Fear and Favor. (Perhaps conspiracy theories are a safe way to remain blind to the obvious, and justify what privilege we have.)

I mention this because in Luke’s Gospel there is essentially a “conspiracy theory” about the rich and privileged. It is not popular, because if we subscribe to Luke’s theory / theology, and we do fear God and respect people, we must side with the widow.  To truly advocate for her means we must begin to let go of whatever privilege we have ourselves. Maintaining privilege inoculates us against the experience of the Kingdom. It insulates us from the call and the experience of God.

Yet in a strange inversion of what we might expect, the loss of privilege is enlivening. “Those who try to make their life secure, will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.” (Luke 17:33) Safe, and unencumbered with the threat of unemployment, what need have I to hope?

I grew up in a time of plenty, and in a time when growth and increase in wealth seemed assured. Things are much less assured today.  I am among those in Australia whose affluence has been “losing ground.” I have had the opportunity to reverse this loss, by working in the corporate sector. I couldn’t maintain the interest and the energy!  In some small ways I have also begun to side more actively with the widow; in actions as well as in sentiment.  Let me be clear, this is no boast; my “small ways” are small indeed, and I remain rich compared to most of the world. But I have been stunned by the consolations of hope and the increased riches of my experience.

Andrew Prior Oct 13 2010

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!



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