The Company We Keep
The last part of Luke 17 is a long passage that we often interpret to be about the end of time and the coming of the Kingdom at last. It's much more likely that what Jesus said there triggered for Luke's audience memories of the fall of Jerusalem. Memories of utter devastation in which it seemed God was absent and did not help.
Then Luke goes on to today's reading which is an answer to that sort of despair where it seems God is absent, or unhearing, or just doesn't care. And he says, pray always and don't lose heart.
Gospel: Luke 18:1-8
Then 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.” ’ 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?’
Have you had the experience of discovering that someone you liked, even someone you looked up to, has "gone off the rails?" What causes that? Or have you been like a friend of mine who reminded me how we'd all been full of high ideals in Youth Group and we were going to change the world for God... and he said, "Most of us have decided to live in leafy green suburbs with two cars and a beach house and a boat! What happened to us!? Look how many of us don't even go to church!" he said.
What changes people? What goes wrong? How did I end up so comfortable? I don’t have a house and a boat, but I’m far less than what I hoped to be and I have far more stuff than I need. What happened to me?
There is a very uncomfortable truth here. We like to think that we are an independent being: I am me. I choose my course. I make my decisions. I am in charge. But it's not true... businesses pour billions of dollars into advertising... because it works... They know they can influence us and change us. —And we succumb....
And study after study shows how people who know they are being tested— they know this is a psychology experiment— are terrifyingly suggestible. To the point that people often seriously wonder if we have any free will at all.
We are creatures of habit, and our habits are largely dictated by the people around us... It takes a super human effort that most of us are not capable of, to be independent of the culture around us. The best most of us can do is make sure we have good friends, friends who live well. They keep us on track.
Have Jesus as a friend... pray because it opens us to God and lets us live by God's example and not Nike's example, and not by the dictates of the Adelaide Advertiser... It's that simple. That is this sermon in a nutshell.
When we have a different set of friends, the world looks different. With one group of friends it would never occur to us to drink and drive or to steal road signs and set fire to wheelie bins because nobody we know does that— you just don't do that! With another group of friends it's a case of why not fudge your tax return or take stuff home from work— that's actually stealing— because everyone else does it? Well, no, they don't. We only think that because the people around us do that.
This kind of influence goes deep into our ideas. It affects how we think about God. If we keep company with people who tell us that God doesn't listen to our prayers, if we don't pray, which means we don't listen to God and hear anything else... then it will seem that God is like the judge in the parable. God doesn't care. God doesn't listen. It might seem that if you pray long enough, if you badger God long enough, God will give in and give you what you want just to shut you up, just for the sake of a quiet life... but that's not the God of the Bible, who loves us.
Do you notice how the text works? Twice, we are told about the judge: he neither feared God nor had respect for people; it's there twice. Actually, we are told this three times... because Jesus calls him an unjust judge. That's the third time.
And it's not Jesus who says that— did you notice that Jesus' name is not in the reading? The Greek begins talking about he.... he told them a parable... But it is the Lord who says the judge is unjust. It is the Lord who tells us God is not like the judge, for the judge is unjust; God is not unjust. In fact, the Lord says God will grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night. God will not delay long in helping them. I tell you, says the Lord, God will quickly grant justice to them.
Is that our experience?
We are being challenged by this text. It is questioning our faith, our trust. Will we see only a world of scarcity, of savagery, and of decline? Will we see only unjust judges like Trump who appears on a whim to make decisions that result in the suffering of thousands. Will we see only leaders who trumpet their religion but live as though their religion was a lie? Will we see in this only a God who is silent?
Or will we see the people who work tirelessly for refugees, who go without their lunch to feed a homeless person, who stop their work and talk with a lonely person off the street and then work late to catch up? Will we see the folk who are gentle to the suicidal person in hospital and walk with them on the long road back to healing? Will we notice my aged colleague— she can barely shuffle across the road— who has befriended the Sri Lankan students across the street and plays scrabble with them to help them improve their English? Will we hear in all this... the ever-present whisper of God, changing and healing people, and changing and healing the world?
Will we see a biblical text today which tells us the reality of God's ever-presence and constant love and entry into our lives, or will we see a foolish ancient text that never was true, because God does not answer prayer?
The evil of the world is there. It is a fact. It is our choice to see only that evil, or to change the company we keep and begin to see, and be enabled to see, another way of looking at the world. How much do we really want the love of God and answers to prayer, and how much would we rather have our beach house, two cars and a boat? Will the son of man find faith when he comes?
There is another text— not in Luke— about praying. It's in Matthew 6.
5 ‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
The particular room in that text is a tameion (ταμει̑ον) which was an internal room in the house, with no windows, where the food was stored. It was silent, and it was stacked with food that would keep better in the stable temperature. When we pray in a ταμει̑ον, with the door shut, we are surrounded by the bounty of creation instead of the frivolity of a materialist hedonistic culture that sometimes sits in our bedrooms. There is no sound, no pop music, no TV in the background, just God and us. And when we focus on God, when we take time to read our scripture— real time— and let ourselves be challenged, when we honestly talk to God about the deep needs and longings of our hearts instead of letting them be swayed by our envy of the person next door... then we begin to hear. And the world begins to change; we see a different world, we are changed, and our change... changes the world.
I can't prove this.
I can only tell you that eleven years ago I got back on a bike, pretty much by accident, and began to ride into the city each day. I found several things. The weight fell off. I got fit and healthy. I began to crave riding on the back streets, and I can show you every creek and alley and back street bike path between here and home.
And my spiritual life blossomed. It grew like crazy; I have been substantially healed of things I thought were unhealable. Because in the silence, in the hours on the bike instead of driving or being in the noise of trains and buses worrying about timetables, I began to spend ever more conscious time with God. I changed the company I kept, and it changed me.
Now maybe you can't be riding a bike... although I know a few grannies with eBikes who rack up the miles... but we can all go into a ταμει̑ον. We can sit out in the park away from everyone. We can go out into the backyard for the first half hour of the day. We can walk the long way to church. We can turn off the TV and sit with the discomfort of the silence. We can actually read the gospel texts and argue with them, ask the minister or someone else about the outrageous things they say. We can even enter something of the ταμει̑ον by not spending time with the people we know are perpetually grumpy or critical, or by not watching the trash TV like Married at First Sight... because all those people and shows work to make us like them. Trash TV is never only a trivial diversion; it inducts us into a trashy life.
What would happen to us if we hung out, instead, with the people working in volunteer jobs? When we live with friends who are about giving and generosity, and about serving, they induct us into that way of life. It's a way of life where we recognise, where we are taught to recognise, the God who gives generously and serves.
If you are not happy about life and about the apparent absence of God, look for a ταμει̑ον, an inner room, a separated place where you can withdraw from the noise of the world. Tough out the first feelings of discomfort and dislocation. Stay with the silence. Dive deep into it. And you will hear the whisper of the Spirit of the ever present God who loves us all. Amen.
Andrew Prior (2019)
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!
Also on One Man's Web
Luke 18:1-8 - Pray to be heard or to hear? (2019) This First Impressions is the basis for the sermon draft above.
Luke 18:1-8 - The Cost and Consolations of Hope (2010)
Luke 18:1-8 - Knocking on Heaven's Door (2013)