How Long, Lord? (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 or debilitating pain. We may have asked out of the despair of a deep betrayal by a spouse or a friend. Or it may have been after months of trying to find work related to our skills and training. How long, Lord? The widow in our story who was a victim of injustice must have felt that way? She keeps crying out to the unjust judge, “Grant me justice!”
It’s interesting that Luke introduces this parable as a call to pray always and not lose heart. I very much doubt that in its original setting Jesus intended this story to be about prayer. Luke’s application of the parable as a call to persistent prayer is an example of how these stories can connect with us and impact us on different levels. How we understand and apply these stories depends a lot on our own context and what we are thinking and dealing with at the time we read them. I can read a parable, or some other passage of scripture and feel that I have encountered God through that scripture in some way. A year later, I can read the same parable or scripture text, and it speaks to me in a very different way. I’m sure many of you have had that same experience. Such is the nature of sacred texts and the way God can speak to us through them.
What Luke says about the need to pray always and not lose heart reminds us of Jesus’ earlier teaching on prayer in Luke 11 where Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given to 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. All healthy relationships are mutual relationships. It’s a dance. It’s a two-way street.
Now, if we follow Luke’s leading here and see this as a story about prayer, it is not just any prayer is it? When Luke says that we need to pray always and not lose heart it is a particular kind of prayer that is in view in this story. Luke is talking about prayer for justice. “Grant me justice,” cries the widow. The reason it is a widow in our story who is being treated unjustly is because in that culture widows were extremely vulnerable. The “widow” is simply representative of the most vulnerable people in any society. A widow in the patriarchal culture of that day and time could not inherit her husband’s property, and there were certainly no social welfare programs in place. For the most part there were no opportunities for independent employment. This is why some widows, without family support, turned to prostitution – simply to survive. This is a story about justice.
By justice, I do not mean, “Getting what one deserves.” Rarely, is the word “justice” used that way in the scriptures. I didn’t realize this during the early stages of my Christian pilgrimage. I thought justice meant retribution. If justice means getting what we deserve, then none of us should pray for justice; we should pray for grace. But that is not what is meant when the prophets and when Jesus talk about justice. The biblical term “justice” is equivalent to the biblical word “righteousness.” To pursue justice or righteousness is to pursue that which makes for right relations and good will between human beings and communities, between God and human beings, and between human beings and all creation. It basically means doing right so that we will be in right relationship – with God, each other, and everything else. Justice is about that which makes everything right, whole, just, and good.
The key elements in the kind of restorative justice that Jesus and the prophets talk about are compassion, forgiveness, and restitution, in contrast to retribution and vengeance. Restorative justice is about healing and restoring relationships that are broken and severed. At the center of restorative justice is love of neighbor and the golden rule – doing unto others as we would want them to do unto us. Justice involves defending and uplifting the poor and downtrodden, which is a theme repeated over and over again in the classic Hebrew prophets and in the teachings and actions of Jesus. It involves the pursuit of equality, inclusion, and the well-being of all people. It includes the minority as well as the majority. It involves basic human rights and freedoms. It also includes creation care. All that is central to the healing and wholeness of humankind and creation is included in the justice or righteousness of God.
This is why, sisters and brothers, we have no choice as followers of Jesus but to care about such things as: how we treat immigrants, what we do about climate change, fairness laws, equality in the work place, unjust social and economic systems that produce poverty and the huge disparity between rich and poor, and other justice issues related to how we treat one another and how we care for our planet. All of these issues have to do with God’s justice or righteousness.
The logic in the story moves from the lesser to the greater. The logic is that if an unjust judge, who, in the words of Jesus “neither feared God nor had respect for people” was compelled to act justly on behalf of the widow who pestered 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 so “unlike” the unjust judge that if an unjust judge can be persuaded to act justly, how much more will our compassionate and just God act justly toward those who suffer injustice.
In one sense the story is future oriented. The story teller asks: “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? The “chosen ones” are equivalent to the “little ones” Jesus talks about in 17:2. There Jesus issues a severe warning to anyone who causes offense to one of these “little ones” or “chosen ones” (these are interchangeable terms). Jesus says in his hyperbolic fashion: “If you cause offense to one of my little ones or chosen ones, if you cause one of these chosen ones to suffer injustice, it would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” (I wish our so-called Christian congressmen would read Jesus and take him sersiously. If we did we would have a country that cares about justice, rather than now have to be concerned if our democracy even survive. And it may not. It happened in Germany it can happen here.) This widow is one of these “little ones” or “chosen ones” whom God gives special attention. The story teller asks: “Will he delay long in helping them? [these chosen ones, these little ones, these vulnerable ones] I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
In its original or first setting, I suspect that this story reflects the belief of the early Jesus followers in the imminent consummation and clean up of the world. Many of them believed that Jesus was going to return soon to fulfill the kingdom of God on earth. We know from Paul’s earliest letters that the first followers of Jesus were expecting this in their lifetime. Now, they didn’t believe that Christians would be evacuated from the earth while the rest of the world destroyed itself in a global holocaust as some Christians today believe. They did not believe that, but they did believe that God would be wrapping things up fairly quickly. They believed that the resurrected Christ would return in some interventionist way to make the world right. Now, obviously that didn’t happen. So the church had to re-adjust its expectations. Many Christians are still waiting and expecting some kind of visible or personal intervention by Christ to clean things up and bring the kingdom of God to fulfillment. Personally, I don’t believe that, but I certainly don’t disparage those who do.
If we look at this from God’s point of view we should consider that what we think of as a “delay” may not be a delay at all. God’s idea of “quickly” may be very different from our experience of “quickly.” 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 on earth to evolve to its present state. Surely, God experiences time differently than we do. The main point or truth in this story is not “when”; the main point is not the timing of it. The main point is that because God is the kind of God God is, there will be vindication for God’s chosen ones. Because God is just and good, there will be vindication for God’s little ones who are beaten down by the powers that be. These “chosen ones” or “little ones” are, from the world’s point of view, forgotten ones. For every murder or injustice that we hear about, there are thousands of others who suffer and die alone in silence. And the question is: Will they be vindicated? These who cry day and night for justice; these who suffer and die and are forgotten, will they be vindicated? This scripture text says: If an unjust judge can be compelled to execute justice, how much more will the loving, compassionate, just God of creation vindicate those who have suffered unjustly? It’s a shame that we were not taught that restorative justice is at the heart of what Jesus meant when he talked about the kingdom of God on earth. The vast majority of Baptists were not taught this. And we can throw up our hands and say, “Oh well” as if that relieves us of responsibility, or we can try to learn and grow and change.
The final question is where the rubber hits the road. “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Faith, in this particular context, has very little to do with belief. It is better translated “faithfulness.” When the Son of Man comes will he find us being faithful to the justice or righteousness of God? And when we say, “I wasn’t taught this” I don’t think God is going to buy it, because you are being taught this now. This is not about having faith in Jesus. This is about having the faith of Jesus. This is about being faithful to the justice or righteousness of God. To have the faith of Jesus means that we will love our neighbor as ourselves, even if the neighbor is a Samaritan, or someone we don’t particularly like, or even an enemy, that is, someone who wants to do us harm. To have the faith of Jesus means that we will be faithful to pray for them and do good by them, even as we speak against what they are doing. As a disciple of Jesus I have to stand up and speak out against injustice, even while I pray and seek the good of those who perpetuate injustice. To have the faith of Jesus means that we will trust God with our fears and insecurities and anxieties, and seek first God’s just world. It means that we will join Christ in his work to liberate the oppressed and set the captives free – whether it is a captivity to physical disease, or mental illness, or spiritual angst, or whether it is a captivity to political or social or economic or religious powers that exclude and impoverish and destroy life.
The question, “When the Son of Man comes will he find faith on earth?” can be translated into our time and context by asking: When the living Christ, when God, when the Divine (use whatever name you like) looks at our world, what does Christ see? Does God see people who are being faithful to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God and each other? Does God see people who are being faithful to God’s will by loving each other the way God loves each of us? What will God see?
In the movie, The Abyss produced in 1989, a US ballistic missile submarine, the USS Montana, sinks near the edge of the Cayman Trough after some accidental encounter with an unidentified object. With a hurricane moving in and Soviet ships and submarines wanting to get to the sub, the Americans decide that the quickest way to mount a rescue is to insert a SEAL team onto a privately owned, experimental underwater oil drilling platform called the Deep Core. The designer of the platform, Dr. Lindsey Brigman, insists on accompanying the SEAL team, even though her estranged husband, Virgil “Bud” Brigman, is currently serving as the platform’s foreman. As the SEALS and platform crew attempt to discover the cause of the Montana’s failure, they come into contact with strange creatures they cannot identify, which they later call “NTIs” meaning “non-terrestrial intelligence.” The heart of the story is about their interaction with the NTI’s and the renewal of the relationship between Bud and Lindsey, who had never stopped loving one another.
When one of the Navy SEALS goes crazy, they lose a live nuclear warhead that is timed to explode down the trough where the NTI’s live. Bud descends on a one way trip to disarm it. He communicates by means of a keypad on his arm. He says to Lindsey, “Knew this was a one-way ticket, but you knew I had to come.” The last thing he says is, “Love you, wife.” After he disarms the warhead, he waits to die. Just as his air is about to run out and he is about to lose consciousness, an NTI comes to his side and takes him to a massive NTI spacecraft sitting in the trench. In the ship, they create an atmosphere for him to breathe.
The NTI’s have created massive mega-tsunami-level waves that threaten every coastline, that are stalled towering and hovering above the coasts. The NTI’s show Bud images of humanity’s destructive behavior on a view screen, destroying and killing one another. And we have done a lot of destroying and killing haven’t we? But then they show him the messages of self-sacrifice and love he wrote with his keypad. The NTI’s conclude that there is hope for humanity and they cause the standing tsunami’s to recede harmlessly back into the sea.
I believe that in spite of all the ways we mar and malign one another and destroy our planet God sees the potential for goodness, for justice, and for love. I really believe that, even though there is a ton of evidence to the contrary. In the text we read from Jeremiah, the prophet envisions a day when the hearts of God’s people are so changed that they don’t even need laws to tell them what to do, because they instinctively know what to do, they intuitively know how to act justly, live mercifully, and walk humbly. I believe God sees what we can become. I believe God has great hope for humanity. Obviously God has great patience. We should be asking right now, “When God takes an inventory of our lives and relationships, when God’s looks at us, what does God see? Does God see us praying and working for justice on earth? Does God see us praying and working for a just world healed and made right? Are we becoming more of what God has called us to be or less?