Sermon St. Mary's Nanoose October 20, 2019. Luke 18:1-8
Why are some of us born into wealthy families and others into families that struggle to put food on the table? Why do some of us seem to have an easy time in life while others go from hardship to hardship?
Obviously we cannot know. But it is good to remind ourselves that our seeming successes or failures are not fully of our doing. There is a lot more at play.
What comes at us is rarely in our control. And as followers of Jesus we are not so concerned with trying to control the world but rather with our willingness to work with life as it unfolds - putting our energy and intention into our response to the ups and downs, the challenges and delights of life.
Last Sunday in my sermon I referred to Victor Frankl’s proposal that our freedom exists in the space between a stimulus and our response – for we always have the choice as to how we respond in any given situation.
Consider this story: There was an emperor who spent most of his days with a faithful manservant who responded quirkily to everything with “It’s alright, it’s all right.” When the two went duck hunting and the morning ended with no ducks to bring home, the emperor was frustrated and disappointed. His manservant reassured him, “It’s alright, it’s all right.” The next time they went duck hunting, the skies were full of ducks and the emperor was thrilled. “Hurry, hurry, reload the gun,” he cried. The manservant worked as hard and fast as he could. But in a moment of distraction, he put the gunpowder in incorrectly and there was a small explosion and the emperor’s thumb was blown off. The emperor snapped at the manservant, don’t you dare say - ““It’s alright, it’s all right,” so the young man held his tongue. Later that night, after being looked after by the royal physician, the emperor called the manservant into his chamber. “I need to punish you. I cannot let people think someone can blow off the emperor’s thumb without consequence. I hereby sentence you to a year in jail.” The young man simply smiled at the emperor and said “It’s alright, it’s all right.” And he was led away to jail. Now soon after, the king decided to go and attack a neighbouring kingdom of cannibals. He took his men and marched into battle. He and his men were captured and condemned to die. Cauldrons of water were heated up and when boiling, the soldiers were lowered in, screaming. The emperor was saved to the last and just as he was being lowered in, the chief of the cannibals yelled, “Stop!” and he came closer to investigate. Seeing the emperor was missing a thumb, he set him free, “We don’t eat imperfect meat.” And so the emperor headed back on foot, naked, to his kingdom. This could segue into another story. But no, let’s stay with this story! On the long walk home, the emperor had a lot of time to think. “My manservant was so loyal; and I, so harsh.” So when he reached his kingdom, he went directly to the prison and had his manservant released. “I’m so sorry I treated you so poorly and you’ve been made to languish in this abysmal place,” he said. The manservant gazed fondly at his emperor and said, “It’s alright, it’s all right. Just think, your majesty…… if I had been with you at that battle, I would not be here today!
Short-term judgments rarely serve us. They are reactive. We need to hold out for the bigger view of life. That there may be a purpose beyond our comprehension. Everything is always changing. How do we hold ourselves lightly in view of this? How do we develop patience and persistence and discipline and faith? That life is fluid and change is constant is certainly true and how we ride that is what I think today’s gospel reading is all about.
In the reading from Luke, we meet an unjust judge, a person in a position of power who “had neither feared God nor had respect for people.” The other character Jesus’ story is a widow. In the gospel of Luke we hear a lot about widows because they represent one of the most vulnerable people in ancient Israel. But in the stories in Luke’s gospel, widows also represent people with great faith.
So in this parable, the widow comes to the judge for help dealing with her opponent. Who is her opponent? The parable doesn’t tell us… it’s obviously not important. What is key is that the judge has no interest in dealing with the widow. He keeps sending her away. He reacts to her for reasons we aren’t told. But perhaps it’s because she has no status so is of no interest or purpose to him, perhaps he thinks poor people aren’t worthy of justice, perhaps he doesn’t like assertive women. Who knows?
But the widow returns over and over to plead with the judge. He becomes irritated and maybe even publicly embarrassed and he finally agrees to help her, just to get her to leave him alone and in peace.
It’s been suggested by some scholars that the unjust judge is God. But it states clearly in the passage that the judge is someone who doesn’t fear God. So he is other than God. So that interpretation doesn’t work too well.
It’s also been suggested that this passage is meant to encourage us to persist in nagging God to get your way.
I’m not fond this interpretation either because in the second to last verse we heard “Will God not grant justice to his chosen ones? Will he delay long in helping them?”
Earlier in the gospel of Luke, in chapter 11, Jesus states: “10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12 Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?”
So I think this passage works more effectively if we think of Jesus comparing the unjust judge, or the Pharisees –the religious leaders who use their power to serve and institution with all its rules, with God, who cares for individuals and wants us to as well. Jesus is comparing the unconditional love of God with conditional and random human behaviour.
Might not Jesus be saying, “On earth you’re going to have to be deal with the powers that be. Don’t give up hope; persist. Don’t be discouraged when others fail you. Don’t be naïve and expect fairness. That’s the way of the world.”
On the other hand, concern yourself with what is in your control. Choose your battles; don’t engage in the same way others do. Develop your own character; pray, and act with kindness. Don’t get caught up in short term, reactive living…..because in the long run – as Jesus asks today, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith of earth?” Will He find changed hearts or will he find institutional structures? Will He find people living out their values and calling others to justice and peace, or will He find people vying for power, money and prestige?
“Pray always, and don’t lose heart,” are Jesus’ first words in today’s reading.
In contrast to the unjust judge, the God Jesus comes to reacquaint us with is gracious, giving and forgiving. A God we do not have to nag. God who knows what we need and want. Our part is to articulate what it is we want. Not things or outcomes but qualities like wisdom, insight, patience, compassion, trust. And the openness and attention to realize when God is responding to us because what we receive is rarely what we expect. As we stay connected to God through prayer, we are better able to hold our human interactions in the correct light. We will not be so easily discouraged. We will not let people have power over us. Others cannot determine our worth. Our worth is given by a God who created us, delights in us and loves us unconditionally.
This morning gospel reading begins with prayer and ends with faith and sandwiched in between is this story of justice. Our time here on earth is our opportunity to practice - speaking out for justice, keeping our hearts open, moving beyond fear and our comfort zone - to step out into the unknown in faith.
Life is challenging. I don’t have to tell you that! There is so much injustice, pain, suffering, brutality. Our only choice really is how we respond to all this. To become free in this space between stimulus and response.
Can we trust that this is God’s world, that God has a plan and that we are an integral part of God’s plan?
Can we respond with Julian of Norwich who said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well,” or as the manservant in the story I told earlier said more simply, “It’s alright, it’s all right!”