Saturday, October 19, 2013

Ever-Ready, Always-Listening, Endlessly Merciful

Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, Barnesville, MN
Pentecost 22-October 20, 2013
Luke 18:1-8

If the parables of Jesus don’t leave you chuckling with delight or shaking your head in bafflement or just a little hot under the collar… probably haven’t heard them in all their richness and glory.   Because—whatever else we may think of Jesus’ parables—in the first place, they’re simply “thumpin’ good” stories!

And the parables are proof positive that Jesus was willing to go to any length to get his point across.   Jesus was always ready to skate right on the edge of propriety, in order to draw our attention to what God is up to in our midst.

So this morning we have before us a parable inhabited by two indomitable, unforgettable characters.

First there is this judge who always, it would appear, operated as a law unto himself.   

This judge neither fears God nor respects people.   He is not bound by religious principles. Nor is he beholding to the latest opinion poll. 

This judge must have had a lifetime appointment!

He reminds me of the ruthless banker in a small town, who doled out loans with a legendary stinginess.    This banker took peculiar pride in the high-quality glass eye he had—a glass eye that almost perfectly matched his one good eye in both size and appearance.    

So one day a poor dirt farmer, hat in hand, humbly came to the banker’s office, seeking a loan so he could plant his spring crop.    The farmer, stammering, made his case while the banker idly stared out the window.

In response to the farmer’s plea for credit, the banker replied that he’d help the farmer out if he correctly guessed which of his two eyes was the glass eye.

After carefully studying the banker’s face for several moments, the farmer guessed that the glass eye was the banker’s left eye.

Amazed that he’d guessed correctly so quickly, the banker asked the farmer how he knew his left eye was the glass eye.  “Because when I studied your left eye—compared to your right eye—I thought I detected some compassion in it!”

Just so, in Jesus’ parable, the unrighteous judge was a hard-nosed, unsentimental bully, accustomed to having his own way, as he stingily doled out justice.   Folks hearing Jesus tell this parable would have had this man “pegged.”   Each hearer, no doubt, could think of someone they knew who was just as bull-headedly arrogant as the unrighteous judge.

And then there’s the pleading widow in this parable.    In terms of the power dynamics of this story, she clearly operated at a disadvantage, compared to the judge.  

This widow was utterly powerless.   She was a woman in a rigidly male-dominated culture.  Moreover, she was a widow—bereft of the husband who once provided her with standing in the community. 

This poor, pleading widow had only one trick up her sleeve.   She was utterly shameless in her persistence before the unrighteous judge.  If he turned her down one day, she was back again the next, continually knocking at his door.

Perhaps you have known such persons.   When I was senior pastor at Our Savior’s on the blue-collar north side of Moorhead, we had a steady stream of needy folks coming to our church office for financial assistance in making ends meet.   Some of their faces became familiar to us, and I grew to appreciate their tenacity--their utter lack of shame in pleading for help.   As our long-time church secretary once told me:  “These folks  are so focused on putting bread on the table for their children that they will do anything to piece together a living…”

So the pleading widow exercised the only power at her disposal—the power of persistence…

….and in the end, that proved to be enough to win out over the judge’s refusal to do the right thing. “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone,” the judge muttered to himself—“yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” ’

Sometimes even an utterly unrighteous judge will execute justice—despite himself!

And then who had the last laugh—the powerful man or the powerless woman? 

Now, my friends, that’s just a thumpin’ good story, told with an economy of language that makes the point unmistakable.

And what was that point?   More specifically, why did Jesus spin this particular yarn?

I think simply this:   to reveal God unfailing mercy by painting a vivid, memorable image of how God does not—never, ever, ever—treat us.

The unrighteous judge is the exact mirror opposite of our ever-ready, always-listening, endlessly merciful God.

When I was a seminary student many years ago I had two professors of preaching.  One of them had completed no formal graduate work in homiletics, the art of preaching.  But he was a great preacher, and we seminarians soaked up all sorts of learning simply by hearing him preach.

The other professor had a doctorate in homiletics but was abysmal in the pulpit.  He couldn’t preach his way out of a paper bag.  

And yet I figured out a way to learn from him nonetheless.  I found that if I as a budding preacher did everything the opposite of how he did it—I just might become a fairly decent preacher.

It’s been said that no one is utterly useless; you can, after all, always serve as a horrible example to someone else!

That would be the unrighteous judge here in this parable.  

Carefully trace the outline of this awful judge’s face—and then reverse that image, turn it around 180 degrees….and you’ll catch a glimpse of God, who doesn’t need to be brow-beaten into responding to us, who sits on the edge of his seat—eager to hear us, who starts to answer our prayers even before we give them voice!

Whenever you make your case before God, whenever you throw yourself “on the mercy of the court” before God--you will never walk away empty-handed.

And we’re talking about more than just your personal “wish list,” here.   We’re talking about the big, wide, deep prayers that bubble up from deep inside of us---prayers for God’s merciful, sustaining presence with us…pleadings for the advent of God’s peaceable kingdom among us….longings for God’s good and gracious will to be done “on earth as it is in heaven.”

The first century Christian community for whom Luke wrote his gospel probably knew what it was like to be backed up against a wall by persecution.   They no doubt lived with the nagging frustration of crying out to God and not getting the answer they sought as quickly as they wanted it.

Jesus told and Luke retold this parable to bring them—and us—the courageous trust we all need, sooner or later--to believe that God never turns a deaf ear toward us and that God will never leave us hanging high and dry.

In fact, our faith will run out long, long before God’s tenacious grip on us will ever give out.  (I take that to be the thrust of Jesus’ final question here in our gospel lesson.)

And even then, when our knuckles are bruised from knocking, when our voices have become hoarse, when laryngitis stops us dead in our prayers, another voice will pick up where we leave off--the gentle whisper of the Spirit who continually pleads for us “with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). 

My friends, when it seems that you and I just can’t pray any longer, let us remember Who it is we’re praying to--the One “who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us--will he not with him also give us everything else?”  (Romans 8:33)  

When we lose heart in our praying, let us not forget that Someone else will pick up our petitions and plead our cause before God the mercifully responsive righteous Judge who will never, ever, ever send us away empty-handed.

In the name of Jesus.


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