Stubborn for Justice Jeremiah 31:27-34 & Luke 18:1-8
CMF October 20, 2013
The gospel lectionary text for this morning is a familiar one. A persistentwidowcontinually confrontsa judgewho neither feared God nor cared aboutpeople.She keeps pursuing her goal until she receives justice. I tend toget a bit cautious and maybe even anxious when speaking on a text that we might have heardmany times.Maybeit is because I think we heard the story so often thatwhat new can be said?…or on the other handmaybewe have built a familiar shell around a text that needs to be cracked openedso that we can seeanewthe transforming word. During these days of watching the news in Washington…if you are like me, you turn it on with some glimmer of hope that something orsomeone might be moving toward breaking the deadlock. Then you turn it off witha certainheaviness in your chest and loss of hope in our governmentwho are supposed to be working for the good of the people. (Yes, I wrote this Wednesday morning before they finally came up with a partial plan to avertdisaster. I decided to leave thesewords offading hope forWashington in the scriptbecause I am still mad at them for acting like a bunch of kids.
There isstubbornnessover paying for health care for everyone. Yes, it will cost those with wealthmore money to pay for health care of those who cannot afford it.Sure,the Affordable Care Actis not flawless, but we need to move ahead and start with some reform.We have the bumper sticker, ``God loves the whole world no exceptions''. Now we need one, ``God wants health care for the wholecountryno exceptions''. It seems like it should be so simple that as a nation we agree on such a need. Yes, there will be complexities in implementing such a program, but people of power and resourcesneed a greater visionto see beyond themselvesfor the good of all people. I also believe that at the heart of this stubbornness in addition topride,greed and power is racism. I know that we are 150 years past the Civil War that freed the slaves and the CivilRights movement is 50 years old that outlawed segregation.Nevertheless, one doesnot have to look far to seesome of the outcomes of continuing racism.Medium salaries in 2011 were:
Medium salary of men White - $44,512 Black - $33,956
Medium salary of women $36,556 $30,940 Blacks make 20-25% less than whites.In terms ofaccumulatedwealth the discrepancies are even greater. Also black men are6 timesmorelikely to beimprisoned than thatof white men. There are victories to be sure, but the wheels of justice seem to turn slowly at times.While many in our nation celebrate the election of a president of color…it seems like racism has not made the leadership role easyfor him.The persistence or stubbornness of the widow in the parable is a quality that people of colorhaveneeded to rely onin their struggle for justice. I am sure they understand this parable better than most of us. The parable before us is not so much about racism, even though the judge is probably Roman and the widow Jewish.Widows in the Bible are objects of pity, recipients of favors. Living in a patriarchal society without a male to protect them and to be their point of reference, widows were victims of injustice. They were outsiders, no provisions were made by society for them; they were helpless and defenseless. Widows were overlooked in the Israelites' system of inheritance. They could remarry. Their hope was that their deceased husband hada brotherwho was called uponto marry them and give them some standing in society. This parable is only found in Luke and is unique in comparison to other parables. It begins with Jesus explaining the point of the parable in the opening line.Itis about the needto pray always and not to loseheart…where many parables leave the listenerto ponder the meaning, Jesus says right up front what the point is.Luke focuses on prayermorethan the other gospels. This call to prayis akinto chapter 11that opens withthe disciples askingJesus to teach them to prayer and Jesus responds with the Lord's prayer. That chapter continues withvs.9"So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you''.And it closes invs.13 with the words,``how much more will the heavenly father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!''Not unlike this parable of the widow closes,``And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night.'' What does it mean to ``pray always'' asJesus mentions in the opening of this story? Does it mean to pray every morning when you wake? Or how about prayer before every meal? Maybe a prayer before we fall a sleep at night…or in the middle of a restless night. In pondering our various states of prayer it reminds me of thehumoristold story years back or howvarious Mennonitesprayed whentheywere out in arestaurant…Mennonite Brethren sang, Old Mennonites prayed out loud, and General Conference Mennonites bowed their heads and adjusted their napkins. ``Prayalways'' certainly can mean prayerson a regular schedule of morning, noon, and night.I remember being awaken with the call to prayer early in the morning from the nearbymosquein Jerusalem some years ago.While I didn't understand the sing song wordsfrom the loudspeaker,I knew the message…it was a call to prayer.The Islamicfaith may have something to teach us in the regular calls to prayer each day.``Pray always'' as Jesus opens the parable, can also be akin to a constant and ongoing state of awareness of who we are as children of God.
One scholar of a recent bookentitled,Salty wives, spirited mothers, and savvy widows,was a bit put off with this opening call toprayalways and not lose heart. She thought it tended to minimize the strength and character of the widow in the parable who as a first century widow was already minimized.Her view reflected a notion held by some that what could bemoreapolitical or benignthan a widow whoprayed?She felt it did an injustice to the strength ofthe widows character and powerful persistent action she took. However, I think that Luke was alluding tothedepth of her character and faith in God and her tenacious and brave action were the result of her life of prayer. It took suchprayfuldevotion to act as she did. This widow believed in herself, in her cause, and in her God. From the storyone mightconclude that she went far beyond prayer in her actions andprotest.Orcould it be thatshe had a definition of prayer that is far beyond what we typically understand prayer to be about.Her prayers and the action that flowed from that life of prayer were one and same. They were so connected and integral to each other that one could not exist withoutthe other. True prayer and action are one. We read that she kept coming to the judge and said, ``Grant me justice against my opponent. It was likely over some financial matterthat was due her. However he kept refusing her. Finally she worehim down and was granted her justice. We do not have to think long about the character and gutsiness of this widow. She was one with little or no social standing, no man to represent her in this patriarchal society. She was a Jew going before an occupyingRoman court.If she hadhad a vehicleitmighthave bore the bumper sticker, ``Question Authority?'' of past decades.
As I wasthinking about thismessage I needed to give it a title for the bulletin. Of course the word persistence immediately comes to mind. Then if you take the opening words of ``prayer always'' one can comeup with a title of ``Persistence for God''. Then to be a bit more definitive one can get to ``Persistence for Justice''. At that point I had to pause to ponder the interchangeability of God and Justice. I really think thatinterchange can work. We don't hesitate to think thatGod is Love. Godis also Justice and we might add,a Justice transformed by Love.We don't want a God that is only justice or we would have to pay for all our short comings which Jesus took for us to the cross. Like the big letters that use to be on the side of a dry cleaners building in the town square of Blufftonread, ``Jesus paid it all''.(It was always fun picking up my dry cleaning and asking if it was paid for)We find comfort in those wordseven while they do not speak to the tenacious character and action of the widow in the parablewho also paid a price. Thus I think the widow deserves astronger wordthan persistent and I came to like and respect her stubbornness.Yes, it can have a negative qualitywhen we have the wrong purpose inmind, but it also means standing firm.Thus Stubborn for God or Stubborn for Justicewas where I ended up.I think she wasmad at the system and determined notto be denied.May such righteous angerbe a motivator for us today. Weonly have time fora quick peek at the OT reading of Jeremiah 31.He was another patient and persistent person of faith in hard timeswho stood firm.This passagein some waysisan apex of the Old Testament salvation story. John Bright, one of the leading OT scholars of the 20thcentury described this passage as, ``one of the profoundest and most moving passages in the entire Bible''. The Sinai covenant has been broken (first by the people and now terminated by God) and a new arrangement is about to take place.
It is a new covenant and the promise isthat itno longeriswritten on tablets of stone, but written on their hearts. In the midst of exile and the fall of Jerusalem …God is going to do a new thing. It is a new and intimate relationship, a relationship of personal responsibility, mutuality, andpromise,``I will be their God and they shall be my people''. It is this new covenant and new relationship that empoweredboththis widow seeking justice and Jeremiah seeking hope for a people in the midst of chaosand exile. These texts on prayer, patience, persistence, and pursuing justice in spite of great odds brought to mind both persons of the past and presentwho found themselves in such a place. I guess it is a confession, but this message caused me to pull my Martyrs Mirror high off the shelf where it has sat untouched for years, dust it off and read about those who suffered and died for their persistence in the faith. It is not easy reading in the cruelties they endured.I thought about Martin Luther KingJrwho seemed to know where the road he was on would take him, yet he was stubborn for justice, for God and did not look back. I thought of Nelson Mandela who persisted for 27 years in prison and surely God heard his cry for justice in South Africa. Thelast lineafter theparable is: ``And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth''.It is an eschatology note, an end time note when justice will come to the entire earth. There is a similar word of looking toward the future in Jeremiah 31 when he says,``No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ``Know the LORD,'' for they shall all know me from the least of them to the greatest''. Jesus was asked by the Pharisees in the section just prior to the widow's parable, when is the Kingdom of God coming? He responded that it is not coming in an observable way. For the Kingdom of God is among you.
Could it be that our present life of ``pray always'' and act daily (as it seems the widow did) are both present and future?Future and present are one in the same way that prayer and action are one. We really only havethe present. The future is fully in God's hands. And yet as we pray and act in the present the Kingdom of Godcomes in our midst. The joy and peaceof the Kingdomthat we often think is off in the future is present with us now. May we have the courage and the hope of the widow and Jeremiah topursue lives that areabundant andfearlessas we pray always and act out of our stubbornness for God.