Proper 24 Year C 2019
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
The 1994 movie ‘The Shawshank Redemption’, based on a short story by Stephen King, features a banker named Andy Dufresne who is convicted of murders he didn’t commit. While in prison, he begins to work in the library, though it is woefully empty. So Andy asks the warden for money to purchase books. The warden tells him that there is no funding available and there never will be. In response to that, Andy asks the warden for permission to write the state senate for funds. The warden agrees and even offers to mail the letters himself. Andy writes those letters every week, and six years go by. One day crates of books and check arrives from the state. They thank Andy for his persistence and communicate that they believe the matter closed. Andy says, “It only took six years. From now on I think I’ll write two letters a week.”
Andy’s story is one of hope and persistence, as is our Gospel lesson today. Jesus has been teaching the disciples about what to expect after he is gone. It will be a hard, difficult time full of confusion and persecution. False prophets will prowl around and then when Christ returns the eschaton will be fully realized. It makes perfect sense that Jesus would find it necessary to then talk about hope. Our reading starts by explaining what this parable will be about, so I think it’s safe to assume that Jesus sees the disciples struggling to maintain hope in the face of what is to come.
Jesus tells them a parable of a judge. This judge has no regard for people or for God. This judge seems to care only for himself. He’s probably corrupt, using his position to gain extra wealth through bribes, which wasn’t necessarily uncommon. He’s only going to do what is in his best interest. This guy is no Judge Judy. Then we have a widow. It’s important to remember that in Jesus’ time, widows have absolutely nothing. If there is no male heir to inherit the estate or no one to take care of her she is on her own with no financial support. She occupies one of the lowest places in society.
The widow continues to bother the judge to rule in her favor. She has persistence and maybe even a little hope that this will work. Or perhaps she has nothing left to lose so this is the route she takes. Through her persistence, the judge finally decides to rule in her favor just so that she will leave him alone. The unjust judge knows that the widow will not relent unless she wins, so he gives her the outcome she desires to save his own piece of mind.
So how do we take this parable and apply it to our lives? This is the sort of parable where the imagery is so applicable that we can interpret this a few different ways. The first is to see ourselves as the widow, compared to God, the judge. Now that isn’t to say that God is unjust, but rather that we are cosmically like the widow in our standing. We have no right to ask God for anything. We have no standing; we are in the lowest caste compared to God. Which is to Jesus’ point that if an unjust judge, the worst power abusing judge you can think of, would be willing to grant a request, how much more is God willing to offer us, regardless of how deserving we are?
I’d say that I also see God in the widow’s persistence. Just as much as the widow does not relent, so God does not grow weary of pursuing us. God continues to be faithful to us, to sometimes even chase after us even though humanity again and again turns it’s back on God. So this persistence in seeking out justice, regardless of how little regard the other party has for it, is not unlike God’s relationship to us.
It seems important to also clarify something about persistence. I do not want you to hear from this story that God is like a genie that can be worn down to granting any wish you request. Jesus is not saying that. I think we are all too aware that isn’t the reality with God, and sometimes that realization can be hard. What we are to hear in this is that we must not lose hope in God’s promise. We should ask for those things we need. Prayer is an important part of our spiritual life. But it is not to wear God down.
In fact, our persistence, our faith, instead is shown throughout our prayers. We hope for God’s reign to be fully realized and we pray, “thy kingdom come.” We keep hoping that there is good in a hopeless world. We keep striving to live out the values of that Kingdom in the face of an existence that values self idolization over obedience to God. We persist and hold faith that God’s justice will prevail.
Finally, Jesus wraps up this parable, after making it clear that God’s justice will be granted, by asking a question. ‘When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’ Jesus is referring to his return, his second coming, and he asks this knowing how hard it is to hold that faith and persistence. It is a question worth asking ourselves exactly how faithful we are. Jesus is not asking us about works. Having faith is not the same as doing good things. We are not justified by our works. Having faith isn’t living by a moral code. Having faith is about belief in God.
Don’t misunderstand. Growing up as a Baptist, I have some strong negative reactions about saying having faith is about belief in God. What I am not meaning by this is that there is some perfect, full belief in God. I am not saying that the only way you hold to faith is by mindlessly forcing yourself to state a creed in order to show off your belief. What I do mean is that having faith allows us to hold to our hope in God’s promise. That is belief in God. Having faith allows us to walk out of here, assured of God’s love for us and everyone else and to live a life that exemplifies that. Having faith means that we live without fear in the face of a dark, evil world because we believe that God’s reign awaits us no matter what.
So ask yourselves. When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth? Will we hold with persistence the hope that drives the widow to keep asking for justice? Are we able to see that God’s justice and promise are there for us, and we must hold fast to that kingdom to come? Our work as followers of Christ is often marked in many ways by the values and actions that Jesus teaches us and calls us to. But at the cornerstone of all the life we live must be a persistent faith in God. That is what is most asked of us. God remains steadfast in grace for us, and we in turn must doggedly pursue faith in return. Let us then be about our task. We will hold to the hope of God’s kingdom to come, of justice flowing like a river, and most of all have faith in the grace that God pours out on us always.