How long will it take? (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Luke 18:1-8)
How long, Lord? I suspect we have all asked that question haven’t we? We may have asked that question after weeks or perhaps months or maybe even years of our own struggle or a loved one’s struggle with a serious illness. We may have asked out of the despair of a deep betrayal or a marriage or partnership driven and tossed upside down by one conflict after another. Or it may have been after months of trying to find work related to our skills and training. How Long, Lord? We cry.
The widow in our story who was a victim of injustice must have felt that way? “Grant me justice” she keeps crying out to the unjust judge. It’s interesting that Luke interprets this parable as a call to pray always and not lose heart, which reminds us of Jesus’ earlier teaching on prayer in Luke 11 where Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened.” Asking is an important part of any relationship and it’s an important part of our relationship with God. And just as we ask of God, God asks things of us. It’s a mutual relationship.
Now, I have to be honest with you. I don’t begin to know how this works. And no one else really knows either, though some may claim to know. I make requests of God. I intercede for others. As a church we pray for one another. We pray for healing and wisdom and all sorts of things. Sometimes we think our prayers have made a difference, other times we are not so sure. Why is that? I don’t know. What I don’t believe is that God hears some prayers and not others. I believe God hears all our prayers. I also believe (and this may surprise you) that there are spiritual, non-physical, maybe even psychic forces at work in our lives and in our world (maybe at the quantum level) that influence and impact our lives, and our prayers may activate these forces in some way. I am enough of a mystic to know that not everything has a rational explanation. But I also don’t think it is God’s practice to intervene into our lives in some direct way either. So, I don’t know how this works, but I still pray.
This story in its original form probably was not about prayer at all, but this is how Luke interprets the story and applies it. But it’s not just any prayer that Luke has in mind. It is a particular kind of prayer that is in view. It is a prayer for justice. “Grant me justice,” cries the widow.
Why do you think the one who is crying for justice is a widow? In that culture widows were extremely vulnerable. They did not automatically inherit their husband’s property, there were no social programs in place, and for the most part there were no opportunities for independent employment. Widows were easy prey for predators of all types. This widow’s cry is for justice.
By justice, I do not mean, “Getting what one deserves.” Unfortunately, that’s how many Christians understand it. Jesus’ kind of justice is restorative and redemptive. The biblical word can be translated either as “justice” or “righteousness.” To pursue justice or righteousness is to pursue that which makes for right relations and good will between human beings, between human beings and God, and between human beings and all creation. It basically means being in right relationship or pursuing right relations – with God, each other, and everything else. Justice is about making everything right, whole, just, and good. It’s about the healing and liberation of individuals, communities, societies, and putting in place structures and systems that truly advance the well-being of all people, not just a few people.
This is why, sisters and brothers, we must care about such things as basic human rights and freedoms for people of all countries (though there may be little we can actually do about it). But here in our country we do have a vote and a voice. So we must care about immigration reform, climate change, fairness laws, equality in the work place, bringing positive change to an unjust social and economic system that produces poverty and the huge disparity between rich and poor. We must care about fairness in our criminal justice system, and fairness in law enforcement. We must care about creation care, eliminating oppression in all its forms, and everything else that affects the wellbeing of individuals, societies, and planet earth. These are all issues and concerns related to the biblical concept of justice.
The logic in the story moves from the lesser to the greater. The logic is that if an unjust judge who does not fear God or have respect for people is compelled to act justly on behalf of a widow who pesters him day and night, how much more will God, who is compassionate and good, act justly on behalf of the oppressed? The point here is that God is not like the unjust judge at all. But if an unjust judge can render justice, how much more our good and just God.
Now the question is: How long will it take? The story teller asks: “Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.” In the historical context of the first disciples the coming of the Son of Man quickly probably reflects the belief that Jesus was going to come back in some fashion to bring this about. It’s also fairly clear from a number of passages in the New Testament that these first disciples believed this would happen relatively soon, very possibly in their lifetime. Of course, they were mistaken.
Some theologians believe God will intervene at some point in human history to bring about justice in the world. This is usually identified with the second coming of Jesus, which was clearly the dominant view of the early Christians. However, in light of some other documents that have come to light (such as the Gospel of Thomas for example) we now know that not all early Christians believed this. Many did, probably most, but not all. Other theologians believe, as I do now now, that God’s justice will come about in God’s way and God’s time at the end of human history after human evolution has run its course.
I am convinced that the future of human life on this planet resides in us. That is barring some unforeseen catastrophic event like a meteor strike. I believe it is God’s plan to work through human beings to save human beings, to bring peace and justice to all people and God’s creation.
I guess the big question is: Is this possible? Will we ever learn? Will we ever grow up? Will we ever realize our human potential? How long will it take? Hard questions. And when we ask, “How long?” we are obviously coming at it from a temporal point of view, rather than an eternal one. Most certainly, God has a different relationship to time than we have. I love the story about the economist who read the text in 2 Peter that says with the Lord a thousand years is like a day. He asked “God, wouldn’t it also be true that a million years to us, would be like a minute to you?” And God said, “Yes, I do not experience time the way you do.” Then he asked, “Wouldn’t it also be true that a million dollars to us, would be a like one penny to you?” And God said, “Well, yes.” So then the economist asked, “God, could I have one of those pennies?” And God said, “Yes, Wait here—a minute.”
If 98% of the scientists in our world are right, it took approximately 13.8 billion years (give or take a few million years) for life to evolve to its present state. Surely, God has a much different relationship to time than we do. And I would guess that at this stage in our moral and spiritual evolution as a species we cannot be much past adolescence can we? I mean look at us. America is considered to be one of the most developed nations in the world and just look at the state of our democracy right now. The question is: Will we destroy ourselves before we wake up? Unfortunately our technological expertise has evolved faster than our moral will and spiritual wisdom. We have fashioned enough weapons of mass destruction to destroy all of life on this planet several times over. So, in light of our destructive capabilities and tendencies, this question of “How long before justice prevails on the earth?” is an extremely urgent one. How long will it take for us to wake up? To be enlightened? To be transformed? How long will it take for us to develop the spiritual wisdom and moral will to make the pursuit of justice for all our top priority?
Jeremiah envisions such a time. Jeremiah envisions a day when the law of God, the will of God, the restorative justice of God that brings peace and life to all people will be written on our hearts. We will not need written codes or legal rules and legislation to tell us how to live in right relations with one another and with creation, because we will just know. The knowledge will reside in our hearts and we will have the moral will and courage to act on that knowledge.
I’m sure you have all heard by now the recording of Donald Trump bragging about his sexual exploits, which, in the way he describes it amounts to sexual assault. Now the question supporters of Mr Trump have to ask is this: Was this recording of his braggadocios claims of sexual assault an exception to what is really in his heart or was it a reflection of what is really in his heart?
And we need to point this back at ourselves. What am I really like in the core of my being? Now, I believe we are all children of God. But that reality doesn’t mean we live like children of God does it? So the question is: Will I live out who I am? Will I incarnate that reality? And much of that depends on whether or not I am undergoing spiritual and moral transformation? Am I on a path that pursues compassion, equality, healing, and liberation for all people, not just a few people.
This passage in Jeremiah envisions a time when the people of God are truly transformed. They pursue justice, they pursue the good, they love God and love neighbor, they express empathy and compassion, they give of themselves in service to others, not as an exception to who they are, but as an expression of who they are. They seek to live in right relations with all people. They pursue what is right and good and loving and just, because this is who they are, it’s what’s in their hearts. They pursue God’s dream for justice in the world because this is what is in their hearts.
The final question posed by Luke in response to the parable of Jesus is an important one: When the Son of Man comes will he find faith on the earth? This, of course, as I mentioned earlier reflects the belief of the early Christians that Jesus is going to come back in some sense to bring justice to the world. But what I want emphasize here is that faith is better understood as faithfulness – it’s the same word in the Greek. This is not, “Will he find people who believe in God?” That’s not really the question. Rather, the question is, “Will he find people who are acting, living, and thinking like God?” Will he find people who are being faithful to God’s calling to pursue what is right and good and loving? Will he find people committed to the healing of the hurting and the liberation of the oppressed? Will he find people living out God’s justice? That’s the issue.
One of the great teachings that Christianity has given to the world is the teaching of incarnation. And the teaching of incarnation at its best says that God dwells with and in the creation, especially his human creation. Much privilege and responsibility has been given the human creation to care for the rest of creation and to care for one another in order to fashion a world of justice and peace.
Now, if you don’t get anything else out of this sermon I hope this will stick with you: I have very little doubt that God intends for humanity to be the answer to the prayer of humanity. God intends for us to be the answer to our prayer. We pray for justice, and God says, “Act justly, pursue mercy, live humbly.” We pray for justice, and God says, “Love one another and do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” We pray for justice, and God says, “Lay down your lives for the liberation of others.” God lives and acts through people committed to justice.
How long will it take? I suppose as long as it takes for us to wake up and realize who we are and to live out our calling as God’s daughters and sons in the world. God has given us models. We have living examples and incarnations of divine justice. For those of us who are Christians, Jesus is Lord. Jesus is our primary embodiment of what God’s justice looks like. Jesus is our model. God’s justice looks like the grace, compassion, mercy, generosity, and sacrifice of Jesus.
Let’s keep praying for justice, let’s keep praying for peace on earth, for reconciliation of enemies, for equality, for the elimination of poverty and oppression, for healing and liberation. Let’s keep praying. But how long will it take for us to realize that we are God’s answer to that prayer?
Our good God, help us to wake up. Help us as a species, as a people created in your image to live more true and faithful to our calling to bear and reflect your image. Our world desperately needs more image bearers. There is so much potential for good all around us. Help us to live out that potential. Give us a passion for your kind of justice. Not the selfish kind that seeks revenge or retribution, but the kind that seeks redemption and healing and restoration. Empower us to be the answer to our prayer. Amen.