Sunday, October 20, 2013

Work as Prayer

Luke 18:1-8


There is a traditional way of our reading our Gospel lesson this morning. This is the reading that you would likely get at most any church in most any city in most any state. It is a good reading. It is even perhaps an accurate reading. And it's the traditional reading, which means it has some power and must connect with people. 

The traditional reading goes something like this: when Jesus tells this parable, we as listeners are to identify with the widow. The widow's incessant approaching of the judge is the way we must approach God. We must keep seeking God, day after day after day. While God may deny for a time, eventually, God will grant us justice. If we cry out to God night and day, God will answer us so that we do not wear God out. So, pray always and do not lose heart, for if the incessant cry for justice can wear down an unjust judge, surely your prayers will wear down God and you'll get what you seek. 

There are a few problems with this traditional reading of this story.

To start, there is a tendency to read this parable and in comparing God to the judge, assume that God is stingy and not eager to grant us justice. And yet, Jesus tells us, God will grant us justice much more quickly than the judge; God will not delay in helping those who cry out for justice.

Secondly, to identify with the widow, we place ourselves in a position of feeling as though we might be able to "wear out" God with our continual pleading. 

Lastly, the traditional reading of this text completely ignores the whole history of Jewish law, and so, I'd like to offer an alternate reading of the text this morning. 

Jewish law stands on the side of the oppressed. Jewish law stands on the side of the downtrodden. Jewish law stands on the side of the widow, the orphan, the poor. Jewish law stands for justice for those who have no power.

Grant me justice. 

Jewish law is God's law. A law which God declares will be put into God's people, written into their hearts. When that law is written into our hearts, we are God's people and God is our God. The law of God which dictates justice for the widow, the orphan, and the poor is our law. 

If God's law is to seek justice, then in this story, it is the widow who most closely reflects the attitude, behaviors, and very nature of God. 

In a world in which self-interest trumps all, we (more often than not) resemble the judge who does not fear God, who does not respect people. Too often we place our own desires before and above the needs of others. Too often we seek our own comforts at the expense of others' survival. Too often we seek to do what is easiest rather than what is right. 

Too often, we are like the judge: with no fear of God, no respect for our fellows, and no desire to see justice enacted. 

It is God, in our lives, who petitions us to do justice. It is God who will wear us out with the cry for justice. It is God who will come to us day after day after day after day insisting that the law of justice be lived out.

In a society that is unjust, that cares not for the widows, the orphans, and the poor, it is God who cries out day after day for justice. 

It is easy to read the gospel lesson for today and identify with the most favorably presented character -- the widow. We all want to see ourselves as good people. It is natural to want to read this story and assume that we are told to pray continually and not lose heart as the widow continually petitioned the judge for justice.  
Helen Prejean who has spent the last 20 years working with death row inmates has this to say: 
I watch what I do to see what I really believe. 

Belief and faith are not just words. It's one thing for me to say I am a Christian, but I have to embody what it means; I have to live it.... 

"Love your neighbor as yourself," Jesus said, and as a beginner nun, I tried earnestly to love my neighbor -- the children I taught, their parents, my fellow teachers, my fellow nuns. But for a long time, the circle of my loving care was small and, for the most part, included only white, middle-class people like me. But one day I woke up to Jesus's deeper challenge to love the outcast, the criminal, the underdog. So I packed my stuff and moved into a noisy, violent housing project in an African-American neighborhood in New Orleans. 

I saw the suffering and let myself feel it: the sounds of gunshots in the night, mothers calling out for their children. I saw injustice and was compelled to do something about it. I changed from being a nun who only prayed for the suffering world to a nun with my sleeves rolled up, living my prayer. 

Helen Prejean gets it. She heard the word of God. The law of God is written on her heart. And the voice of God wore Helen out, until she could no longer sit idly by in the face of injustice, merely petitioning God to do something. Helen, instead, took her place alongside God in seeking justice. 

All of scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. All of scripture equips those who belong to God for every good work. And this is the good work of God: to seek justice. 

We are called to do the ministry of God, to seek justice for the widow, the orphan, and the poor. We are called to be persistent as we rebuke injustice and encourage God's justice. We are called to stand on the side of God who calls out for justice, who wears out those who do not fear God or respect people. 

When we work for justice, we stand on the side of God. 

We need to pray always and not lose heart. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time, we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Let our work be our prayer. And let our prayer be the prayer of God -- seeking justice in an unjust world. 

When we work for justice, our work becomes our prayer. In turn, we have the privilege of becoming God's answer to prayer in an unjust and hurting world. 

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