Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 20, 2019
Luke 18:1-8 Commentary
Most of us know the opening to the various iterations of the “Law & Order” TV series that has been running for years and is now streaming on various channels. We hear a two-note musical beat, the screen fades from black to reveal . . . a dead body on the floor, someone’s discovering a corpse in a trash dumpster, or some other result of a terrible crime. The then police show up, someone wonders aloud what in the world happened here, and we then go to the opening credits and the show is off. Whodunnit? How will the police solve this? Who will the suspect be?
That’s a fine way to open a TV mystery drama, and as many homileticians have been advising for years now, it’s not a bad way to open a sermon. Gone is the day when preachers could get away with sermons that open, “Beloved, today we are going to consider the theme of justification. We shall consider it in three parts: first, its biblical meaning; second, its role in the order of salvation; and third its forensic application. Firstly then . . .”
People today prefer inductive sermons. They like to enter a sermon through the doorway of a story to which they can relate on an experiential level. They want the sermon—and many times also what ends up being the core theme of the sermon—to unfold slowly, opening up like a flower, spooling out more like a poem than a dry set of instructions. Let your sermon hook listeners early on, the homiletician Eugene Lowry says, with an intriguing question or with a mystery that needs solving. Don’t tip your hand too early as to what you’re up to.
Good advice. Jesus himself usually followed it. “Once upon a time there was this farmer, see, and he was throwing seed all over the creation . . .” If having heard that much from Jesus you had no idea where he was going, that seems to have been the point. You’d just have to keep listening.
But then there’s Luke 18. “Beloved,” Luke seems to say, “this morning our theme is the need to keep praying and not give up. Let us now consider this theme . . .” and even though Luke then goes on to relay a parable from Jesus (which in and of itself did not state its theme at the outset), nevertheless Luke seems a little clunky here, a little heavy-handed on the didactic side of things. The opening of Luke 18 is a little like opening a “Law & Order” episode by announcing even before the opening credits, “And so we will eventually see that it was the ex-wife who dumped this man’s body into the dumpster where it was discovered by a homeless man.”
Why do it this way? If “Law & Order” did that, most viewers would change the channel. Given the nature of Jesus’ ministry, the explanation for this may be a secret hidden in plain sight in that there may well be more going on in this deceptively simple parable than meets the eye at first glance.
The first item to note is the oddity that the character who will later be made more-or-less analogous to God is not a nice character at all. He is a kind of anti-hero. This judge is a self-centered narcissist. He gives little or no thought to God in the course of his work and really does not much care for other people, either. It looks as though this is one judge who is very much in it for himself. He is proud and arrogant and does not typically see much farther than the tip of his own nose.
The only other character of the story is a widow with a complaint, an allegation, a legal case for the courts. As plaintiffs go, this widow should have, by ancient Israelite law, been able to garner the court’s attention more easily than most. There is even a law in the Old Testament that says that only an orphan could be considered a more urgent case than a widow. All along in the judicial codes given to Israel, God made it clear that the neediest and most vulnerable people were to be cared for way ahead of everyone else. So although not the most urgent of all possible plaintiffs, a widow did rank in the Top 2 categories of persons most deserving of very diligent judicial care.
We have no clue precisely what her case was about but it doesn’t matter–this unjust judge wanted nothing to do with her in any event. He wouldn’t even take the case. Lacking any other recourse, the widow pursued the only avenue open to her: becoming a public nuisance! Some commentators speculate that after a while, the woman did not content herself with standing in line in front of the judge’s formal bench at the courthouse. It’s possible she started essentially to stalk the man, approaching him in the marketplace when he was trying to buy a bag of onions, waiting for him outside his sports club and nailing him the minute he stepped out of the building, following him into restaurants and loudly inquiring after her case while the man waited to get seated.
Basically she hit him where he lived: in his public reputation. He maybe didn’t care about other people and had little or no regard for even God, but his own ego was another matter. He did care what others thought of him. Now, of course, a standard way to connect this unjust and dreadful judge to God is by way of the rhetorical move of what in Latin is known as “ad minior maius” which is the “how much more” line of thought we often read in the gospels. You read this in the “scorpion for bread” story.
What earthly father, if his son asked for a piece of bread, would give the boy a scorpion instead? And so if even you imperfect earthly fathers know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more so with God who is perfect and loving, etc. In the case of Luke 18, you thus expect the line of thought to be, “If persistence can pay off with even a lousy human judge, how much more effective will not we be when we pray to a perfectly just and loving God!?”
But notice that Jesus doesn’t quite say that, does he? Instead he says “Listen to what the unjust judge says.”
Well, OK, but what are we supposed to hear from him other than sheer exasperation (and self-centered exasperation at that)? Are we supposed to make God exasperated, too? Are we to imagine that even God worries about getting a black eye, a bad public reputation and so gives in to us on that basis? And what about verse 7 when Jesus asks, speaking of God, “Will he keep putting them off?” Why doesn’t Jesus say flat out that God will never put us off in the first place when we pray to him? Throwing in the word “keep” makes it sound as though God does sometimes put us off but that the good news is that he won’t keep doing it. So does God put us off sometimes, even for a little while?
These are difficult questions. By implication we can assume that God’s character is the opposite of the unjust judge. Maybe that is so obvious a point that Jesus scarcely needs to mention it directly. Even so, there is a curious implication that there is some point of contact, some point of comparison, between the how and the why of this judge’s having given in to the widow and God’s giving in to us when we pray.
But this passage makes clear that in the end it’s not about whether, or to what extent or in what manner, God will rain down justice on the earth. It’s not about whether God wants to do that or even whether or not there are seasons when for some inscrutable reason God has to put us off for a while. There are countless unknown variables that go into God’s providential maintenance of the world. We cannot see all ends and so there are prayers that go unanswered–not unheeded perhaps but unanswered in the sense of our not receiving what we wanted or what we deemed the best outcome. That kind of disappointment usually leads us to begin wondering what God is up to, what is on God’s mind, what kind of a God he is.
In Luke 18 Jesus turns the tables on us and puts the focus back on our faith. We have to assume the best about our God’s goodness, love, justice, and mercy. By faith we hang on to our belief in all that whether we are awash in answered prayers at any given moment or not. But in the end we should worry less about the character of God and more about the strength and the persistence of our faith. God may well be, as Christians say he is, the most generous source of grace and light in the universe. But if people stop praying to him, how can they expect ever to help display God’s hidden kingdom to the world? How can those who will not pray access and tap into the power and love of God?
In verse 5 the unjust judge complains that the woman is “bothering” him. In the original Greek, however, the word translated here as “bother” literally means to give somebody a black eye. It wasn’t just that she was bugging the living daylights out of him, she was doing it in such a way as to damage his reputation. It was embarrassing finally! So purely out of a sense of self-preservation, the judge gives in. It’s difficult to imagine a worse motive, but there it is. Persistence, the willingness to badger somebody and give him a public black eye, paid off in the end.
Over the years of her work among the poorest of the poor in Calcutta—and her many trips to raise awareness and money for the cause—many stories have been told about St. Mother Teresa, of course. In a sermon on this passage, the preacher Tom Long once told of a time when Mother Teresa was in New York City to meet with the president and a vice-president of a large company. Before the meeting, however, the two executives had privately agreed not to give her any money.
Eventually the diminutive Mother Teresa arrived and was seated across from the two men separated by a very large mahogany desk. They listened to her plea but then said, “We appreciate what you do but we just cannot commit any funds at this time.”
“Let us pray” Mother Teresa said. “Dear God, I pray that you will soften the hearts of these men to see how necessary it is to help your needy children. Amen.” She then renewed her plea, and the executives then renewed their answer that they were not going to commit any money.
“Let us pray” she said yet again. “Dear God, I pray that you will soften the hearts of these men to see how necessary it is to help your needy children. Amen.” As she opened her eyes, she was looking at the now beet-red face of the executives even as the lead exec reached for his checkbook.
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