Have you ever answered a rhetorical question the wrong way? I have. I did it with today’s gospel.
In our gospel, Jesus tells us a parable with a purpose. Not a hidden purpose, not one of those things you have to tease out and puzzle over. No, Luke makes it quite clear. Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. Why does he do this? Well, we’re not told explicitly, but it’s a pretty good bet that it was because his disciples were starting to lose heart and forget about their need to pray always. Does that ever happen to you? Sure it does. It happens to all of us. Life can be overwhelming at times. The world we live in can be unjust, we know that. Every day this week I saw stories of Aleppo, Syria in the news. I mean, they’re targeting the hospitals with their bombing runs. The blood on the ground screams injustice, and the people cry out. Closer to home, every day this week I saw stories of the nominee for President of the United States bragging about sexual assault. What sort of a world do we live in?
And our age is not an exception. In our Old Testament reading, the prophet Jeremiah is writing in the midst of the exile of the Jewish people to Babylon. They had been defeated in war, their cities destroyed and now they were living as exiles in a strange land. Oppressed. Depressed. How long, O Lord, how long? The disciples that Jesus addresses his parable to, they too were living under occupation, under a military regime that taxed them into poverty and used violence as a means of social control. They were on the road to Jerusalem with Jesus, a journey that Jesus had told them would end with his rejection and death.
And they were losing heart. And so Jesus tells them a parable, a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.
“In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”
And, Jesus tells them, if this unjust judge will grant justice in response to the persistence of the widow, how much more will God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?
And as I listen to Jesus, so far I’m with him. I think I get it. But then he asks that rhetorical question:
“Will God delay long in helping them?”
And I think of Aleppo. And I think of victims of sexual assault. And I think of the Jews in exile in Babylon. And I think of so many instances of injustice and suffering in the lives of those around me.
And I answer: “Yes, sometimes God does delay a long time in helping them.”
But Jesus answers, “I tell you, God will quickly grant justice to them.”
And that difference between my answer and Jesus’ answer to the same question is a problem, a problem for me. Because it raises the question of faith. Faith, at its simplest, boils down to whether I trust God. And the gap between my answer and Jesus’ answer puts a question mark next to my faith. It is a question mark that Jesus acknowledges in the very next verse of the gospel.
“And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
It is a question of faith. And it is a question of sight. What does Jesus see that I don’t?
It’s certainly not that Jesus lived in and saw some golden age of peace and justice in the world around him. Far from it. His life and his world was as rife with suffering and injustice as any other time and place. But somehow, in the midst of injustice, in the midst of the adversity of life, in the midst of personal adversity, Jesus was able to see; to see the active presence of God at work in the world, to see God working for redemption, granting justice, doing it with passion and urgency, doing it quickly.
Can you see it?
It’s hard to see. Sometimes the results are not immediate, at least not in the way I want them. For some reason that will probably be forever beyond my understanding, God has chosen to work through people like you and me, with all the messiness and complication that that entails, and not only has God chosen to work through people like you and me, but God has also given people like you and me the freedom to act injustly and to deliberately sabotage God’s redeeming work in the world. It is, to be honest, a mess, sometimes a tragic mess. No wonder it’s hard to see what Jesus sees, it’s hard to see God’s presence in the world. We need to own this, to be real about this as a problem, a problem that can cause us to lose heart, and put our faith at risk.
So what do we do about it? How do we begin to see the way Jesus does?
Jesus tells them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.
We need to pray. Always.
Many of us have been taught that when we pray we close our eyes. But I think it’s the exact opposite. Prayer is about opening our eyes. It’s about learning to see, learning to see God’s presence and action in a world in which God’s presence and action are so often blocked from our view.
And we need to pray with persistence, with the persistence of the widow, crying out for justice, advocating for justice. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll catch a glimpse of something.
Maybe we’ll catch a glimpse the way Jeremiah did. Jeremiah could see that even in the midst of the exile, God was at work to forge a new relationship with his people. ‘The days are surely coming’, says the LORD, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel . . . I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
Maybe we’ll start to see not just Donald Trump bragging about sexual assault and then dismissing it as locker-room talk, but also the people who have stepped forward to denounce him. The NBA and NFL players who insist that nobody talks like that in their locker rooms, who have called him out for his foul and demeaning statements. The women who won’t let him get away with lies and denials. People like Michelle Obama who was willing to put her emotions and her own vulnerability on display in order to make a powerful stand on behalf of women.
And if anything reminded me of the widow who kept coming to the unjust judge this week, it was the group Medecins Sans Frontiers who pleaded with Russia and Syria on Monday to be allowed to go back into Aleppo to treat the wounded and dying.
They haven’t been allowed back into Aleppo yet. Trump still sits at 40% in the polls. It took Jeremiah’s people sixty years to get back home and even then, when they returned, it was a wasteland.
Will God delay long in helping them?
Jesus says that God will not delay long. That God hears our cries. That God is acting as we speak. That God will grant justice.
Sometimes that’s hard for us to see.
Pray always, and don’t lose heart.
Homily: Yr C P29, October 16 2016, St. Albans
Readings: Jeremiah 31.27-34; Ps 119.97-104; 2 Tim 3.14-4.5; Luke 18-1-8
Image by Freedom House. Creative Commons License