SERMON 10-20-19 Pentecost 19C Proper 24 St. Monica’s Naples, FL
The Parable: Justice and Persistence
I used to travel quite a bit when I served on the Bishop’s staff. In five years, I put nearly 130,000 miles on my old Toyota Prius. Driving that much can be difficult, but it was a great opportunity for some prayer time along the way. However, I was usually distracted from prayer as I drove, because I knew exactly where every Starbucks was between North Tampa and Marco Island, and I often stopped. I was distracted from conversations with God, while I listened to a plethora of Audible books, and watched the roadside billboards pass every mile or so. I used to think, “Roadside signs will one day be completely replaced by social media ads, infomercials, blog posts, or cerebral implants.” Even so, those signs were for me, both entertaining and informative and often, they were helpful.
While driving down I-75 a few years ago, I saw a bright red and black roadside sign that featured an ad for a local law firm. It stated, “GET ME JUSTICE!” When I got home, I was curious about the advertisement, so I checked out the firm’s website, which featured a well-dressed man in a suit, and the caption under his picture that stated, “Justice is not easily granted, it is earned through hard work.” The law firms’ take on how justice works, seems to be similar to the concept of justice we hear about in Jesus’ parable today.
Luke, through Jesus’ teaching, tells us that we are not merely recipients of God’s justice, or mere grace bearers because of some perceived or entitled special status we have in God’s Kingdom, but God’s justice becomes real through our active hard work in persistent prayer. We are justice partners with God, and when hearts align with the heart of God, we join with God as co-conspirators in God’s abundant acts of mercy, healing, restoration, reconciliation, and justice.
“Grant me justice against my opponent,” was the widow’s cry from today’s gospel reading. She was a widow woman who persistently pleaded for help from a unscrupulous judge and like the billboard on the interstate, she cried, “GET ME JUSTICE!” Jesus chose a widow as the focus of the parable for a reason. In ancient eastern cultures, women and children came under the authority and protection of their male patriarch. If the patriarch died then the widow and orphans were left with no economic support, were most likely homeless and thus, dependent on the charity of the community. If anyone needed God’s justice, it was this widow. We do not know exactly what happened that caused her terrible circumstance, but we do know that her persistence was so sharp, that it was as if she literally beat up the unjust judge until he finally answered her plea. She definitely needed God’s justice, but what does that mean?
Justice: God’s vs. Human
Webster defines justice as “the maintenance or administration of what is just, especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments.” This definition of justice is transactional, and it is acts or decision meted out without preference to the individual, but focused on balanced circumstances of fairness and “what is right.” Theologian James Bruckner asserts, “God’s justice is not simply equilibrium, but restoration. To that end, it involves repentance. God’s transforming grace, mercy, and blessing are intended to flow from this kind of justice.” (1) He adds, God’s justice “goes beyond strict justice, implying kindness and generosity as justice is done. It means intelligent, loving reflection, and action that restores health and well-being to communities and individuals.” (1) God’s justice is restorative, reconciling, and compassionate and not merely punishment or retribution for crimes or sins committed.
In the parable, Jesus tells us of a system of injustice that was widespread in first century culture, and one personified in a judge who really did not care about others, because he did not fear God, nor did he have respect for people. The judge was not capable of real compassion, reconciliation, or justice, and the only reason he responded to the widow’s persistent request, was so she would leave him alone. Jesus used the negative metaphor of the unjust judge as a contrast to the compassionate, reconciliatory, restorative justice of God, a justice that may seem distant or even unfathomable for us especially in the midst of the trying circumstances we often face.
Have you ever felt in your prayer life that you are like the widow? Have you pleaded with God for help, support, a change of situation, or maybe you sought justice in those times and yet, it seemed like it all fell on deaf ears? I for one have prayed for situational realignments, clarity of discernment, retribution for wrongdoings, all through my incessant pleas to God. In some cases, the answers did not come, at least the answers I thought I wanted to hear.
Maybe we all have misconstrued this whole intercessory prayer thing a little. Maybe when we pray incessantly and we do not get the answers we seek, then we decide God is unjust and that God turns a deaf ear to our pleas. Theologian Dorothy Weaver writes, “Jesus’ message, and that of Luke behind him, is unmistakable: God is a God of justice. And God will not fail to bring that justice into being for God’s chosen ones. Injustice is not the final word.” (3)
What is really going on in this whole intercessor prayer thing we do. The truth is our pleas to God, and in God’s hearing of our cries in response to our pleas has nothing to do with the idea that when unanswered, God does not want to hear from you nor is “God just too busy for me.” I believe that when we experience unanswered prayers, God may be waiting for our hearts to align with his, and God is waiting for our prayers to become pleas for God’s justice to abound. I believe God is often waiting for us to take justice action as a result of our prayers, because we have a part in answered prayers. We ask, “why does God allow children to go hungry, war atrocities to happen, mass shootings to occur, and all the other atrocities around us?” The answer may be that through prayer, our hearts may be changed so much that we begin as a common humanity to take action to bring God’s desire for justice to a reality. We have a part in prayer beyond the words.
Praying for Justice
Prayer is a conversation with God, and not a one-sided dialogue in which, we ask and a God responds. Prayer requires us to listen and to act as well. Prayer is not petitioning to change God’s mind per se, but it is a dialogue in which we are changed. Maggi Dawn writes, “Constant prayer shapes the person who prays. Repeated, habitual prayer gradually tests and sifts what you believe is really important, and what is of (fleeting) value.” (2) Let me explain.
The Latin phrase Lex orandi, lex credendi “ is a motto in Christian tradition, which means that prayer and belief are integral to each other and that liturgy is not distinct from theology.” In other words, the phrase means “Prayer Shapes Believing,” but it also means what we believe shapes how we pray. We are called to not only pray for God’s justice for ourselves and for others, but by our prayers, we are to be changed so much, that we begin to take action to bring that justice we seek to fruition. The widow did just that. She went to the unjust judge and persistently pleaded with him for help. She took action.
Dawn writes, “We aren’t called to pray passively, hoping that God will change the world on our behalf. Prayer may be the wind at our backs, but sometimes we need to track down the answer in person. As the African proverb says, ‘When you pray, move your feet.’” (2) Dorothy Weaver adds, “Prayer is no sedentary, cerebral, or even safe activity in the eyes of Jesus or the mind of Luke. Rather prayer is those sturdy audacious perhaps even outrageous acts that go by the name of faith.” (3) God answers prayers, and if we believe that to be true, then through faith we must rely on God to keep God’s promises, hear our cries, and respond.
The “GIVE ME JUSTICE” road sign I saw on I-75 a few years ago is a reminder that people need God to respond, and God needs us to respond ourselves to the cries of those who suffer in this life. Those who need the mission of the church are people, who are striving to find peace, joy, reconciliation, mercy, and justice, and they are both inside and outside the four walls of St. Monica’s. Yes, we need to pray for them each day, but God’s mission for justice for all, cannot end with our Godly petitions alone.
Jesus asked, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Jesus asks, “does the faith you claim, lead you to trust God, and in your pleas for God to act, will you seek God’s peace, mercy, reconciliation and justice through your own ministry?” Jesus seems to be posting for us, a big roadside sign along our road of faith. I think that sign clearly states that for we people of justice who seek God’s justice, “Persistent Prayer in Action is Required.” So, if we have faith enough to pray persistently about what is really important, and then we act in mission for change from out of those prayers, then our hearts will align with God’s, and it is only then that circumstances will be changed.
So, when the least, lost, and lonely, the outcasts of society knock on our doors relentlessly demanding from us, “Get me Justice,” we followers of Jesus must answer those cries both in prayer and in action. There are people in our mission field around this church who definitely need our prayers, but they need so much more. We have children coming to this church every day of the week who need mentors. We have people in our neighborhood who are hungry and need us to help bring nutritious food to them. We have multiple ministries going on in this church now, that need ministers in which to serve.
The ministry of this church requires us to cry out to God in prayer, but our witness of God’s grace, demands we make sure that our supplications lead us to act, lead us to serve, and lead us to bring about the Kingdom of God in our very midst. Now that my friends is something we all can pray about.
(1) Bruckner, James K. “Justice in Scripture.” Ex Auditu, vol. 22, 2006, pp. 1–9.
(2) Dawn, Maggi. “Prayer Acts.” The Christian Century, vol. 124, no. 20, Oct. 2007, p. 19.
(3) Weaver, Dorothy Jean. “Luke 18:1-8.” Interpretation, vol. 56, no. 3, July 2002, pp. 317–319