Will you use the faith you’ve found to reshape the world around?
Sermon by Andy Wurm, Pentecost 19, 20th October, 2019
Recently there has been criticism of (Prime Minister) Scott Morrison for encouraging people to pray for rain. Some critics say there’s no point in praying for rain because God doesn’t go against the laws of nature and praying for rain is failing to accept what we can’t control. Praying for rain, or asking God for anything else for that matter, is treating God like Father Christmas. The problem with this criticism is that it assumes there is only one purpose of praying, which is to get what you ask for, but there are other reasons for praying.
If you take today’s gospel story at face value, it seems that Jesus sees prayer about getting something from God, because, in order to illustrate the importance of prayer, he tells a story about a woman pestering a judge until she got what she needed. The pestering seems to imply that the more we ask God for something, the more likely we are to get what we ask for. But that’s not right.
Jesus is talking about how to get justice from God. It is about having prayer answered, but in this case, it’s about having THE prayer answered, as in the big prayer, that his people have been praying for a very long time, which is: free us from our oppressors. Jesus’ people had been oppressed for seven centuries, by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Syrians and finally the Romans. For generations, they had not been in charge of their own land, economy or justice. Jesus was teaching his disciples how to get justice from God, and it had to come from God, because all the military and political means they had tried, which various prophets had condemned, had ended in disaster. In fact, even Jesus’ warnings that resorting to violence in an attempt to free themselves from the Romans would end badly. And it did. In 70AD the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and its temple.
Jesus tells his followers that there is no question that God will grant them justice – for God is love, but God will do it through them. And God can only do it through them, if they want it, which is where prayer comes in. His story of the widow, relentless in her demanding of the judge, shows how it comes about.
In Jesus’ day a widow was a powerless person, because women depended upon their husbands for permission to act and for affirmation of who they were. A respectable woman went about with a veil covering her face. If a woman’s husband died, and she had no sons to care for her or speak for her, she was voiceless, socially isolated and vulnerable to exploitation. The Hebrew word for widow even means ‘one without a voice’, and the Greek word for widow denotes a chasm, indicating separation from mainstream society. There were numerous laws to protect widows because they were so powerless and vulnerable. But in Jesus’ story, we have a judge who ignores those laws. In the end, the woman gets around the judge’s resistance and gets her justice, because she was relentless in her campaigning, but she could only do that because she had been persistent in prayer. In this story, God is not the judge who gets worn down by the widow’s campaigning. God is the source of her power to do so, or God is the One who plants the desire in her, or the One who strengthens her desire for justice.
Before his crucifixion, in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed for strength to endure his ‘time of trial’ – which would include when he faced Pilate, an unjust judge. His disciples still hadn’t got what he was on about, so they slept rather than prayed, and so when the ‘time of trial’ arrived in the form of soldiers to arrest Jesus, they resorted to violence, with Peter wielding a sword. The disciples hadn’t understood that justice cannot be achieved through violence, but only through prayer, which is opening up to God’s Spirit.
The unjust judge for us is not Pontius Pilate, but the judge who resides in our consciousness. The internal judge is the voice or voices we acquire as part of our socialisation and like the judge in Jesus’ story, cares little for what is best or fair for us. When we want something which we’re passionate about, often what we hear from our judges are messages such as ‘that’s wanting a bit much isn’t it?’, ‘what gives you the right to want that?’, ‘it’s best not to want too much, or you’ll be disappointed’, or ‘I shouldn’t want that if I were you’. The point of these messages is to shut down our desire and get us to mask our discontent by falling in line with what others do. This is conveyed brilliantly in Peter Weir’s film Dead Poets’ Society, in which a school and parents have a teacher removed for encouraging boys to let poetry unleash their passion.
We must pray, Jesus teaches, so that God can stir up our passion, our desire, for what we need, for what is good for us, which in the case of this story, is justice. But what Jesus teaches here applies to much more, for he’s really showing us that everything we do can go wrong if we can’t get around the unjust judge. In the case of his disciples, the unjust judge dictated the terms of battle, which was violence – a means of dealing with conflict that has no winners. We too need the ability to get around our unjust judges, which is by having our desires stirred. And that stirring is the action of God. God stirs and our imagination is fired, and the more we imagine something becoming possible, the more our desire for it grows and then we find ourselves able to imagine it even more fully. In this way we gain the vision, and our passion energises us to act.
Some ancient scriptures suggest that God brings justice by destroying oppressors, but we see that view evolve through the bible, as our spiritual ancestors came to see that God’s justice does not work that way, because God loves all people. In the same way, whenever God stirs up our desires to create new things with 0ur lives, it will not come about at others’ expense. In fact, the ways God stirs us up to, relentlessly if necessary, pursue new possibilities, will benefit the wider world as much as ourselves.
The second story told by Jesus in today’s gospel passage of two men praying in the temple, is related to what he says about prayer. The difference between the two men is one of them is run by the desires he has been socialised into accepting, like if a widow is run by the desire of the unjust judge, getting her to be quiet and not pursue justice for herself. The proof that the Pharisee is run by voices outside of himself, is that he compares himself to the tax-collector. In other words, he values himself according to the degree to which he is socially acceptable. His worth comes from others’ judgment.
Rather than being free and energized to follow his desire for whatever is life-giving, the Pharisee has his desire (that is, what he wants) given to him by others, so that he wants, he desires, whatever delivers approval from others, or approval from his religion, which he falsely interprets as approval from God. In contrast to the Pharisee, the tax collector, opens his heart to God, and acknowledges himself to be a sinner, for the purpose of receiving his worth from God and allowing his desire, (i.e. what he wants in life), to be given to him from God. He goes home justified, that is, he goes home right with God, because he is not run by any desire society might want to give him. The absence of any comparison of himself to others demonstrates his freedom from other influences and his willingness to let what he wants in life to be given to him by God, which happens to be the most important purpose of prayer.