sermon: the answer to our prayers
In light of today’s Gospel reading, I’d like to pose to a question:
Is God calling us to be impartial or partial?
It seems like a trick question, but it’s really not.
You see, we’re taught in our tradition to be impartial and unbiased.
In Galatians 3.28, the Apostle Paul tells the church for whom the letter was written, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
In Acts 10.34, the Apostle Peter, after being given a vision by God, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality.”
And in the book of James, 2.8, James writes, “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well.”
That last one, James is quoting a commandment. Mark does, too.
See, we’re called to be impartial. But what does that look like?
In journalism, reporters, editors and visual artists are called to be impartial.
There is a great philosophy that’s put into newsroom practice regarding this: It’s that you simply check your beliefs — your politics, your religion, your traditions — at the door. You simply cannot be objective otherwise.
Our courts of law are built the same way. We often hear that justice is “blind.”
What does that mean? Well, that blindfold represents objectivity.
Justice should be delivered fearlessly, and it should be delivered regardless of money, influence or identity.
I think we can all agree on those principles.
But what this parable we just read in Luke 18 seems to tell us is something different.
In fact, it’s telling us “be partial.”
Today, I’d like us to consider how God calls to be partial — and why.
I have a confession to make.
The very first car wreck I ever covered as a young journalist happened off the Taconic Parkway in Upstate New York.
It was toward the end of the day, and I was the only reporter in the newsroom at the time when the call came in on the scanner.
My editor directed me to go out and take as many pictures as I could, then talk to the police and emergency workers about it.
It was a slippery and snowy late autumn evening, and as I approached the accident scene, I noticed that a car had slid off a the far embankment, down the side of a steep 30-foot ravine, and crashed headfirst into a large pine tree.
Through the shattered windshield, I could see the rescue workers trying feverishly to extract an elderly woman from the sedan.
I had climbed down the embankment on the opposite side, attached a zoom lens, and began taking pictures.
As I was taking the pictures, I could hear two things in my head: One, the barking commandments of my editor, telling me not to mess this up.
And the second, what I imagined she would say to me when I came back with these great pictures of this dramatic accident.
I knew she’d be happy with me, which was infrequent for a cub reporter on his first assignment.
But instead, here’s what happened:
I looked through the lens of the camera, zoomed in on the rescue workers helping the bloodied driver, and through that lens, the woman pinned in the vehicle, looked straight at me.
And she had a look in her eyes that seemed to be saying, “Why are you doing this? Why are you exploiting me?”
I stopped. And I sat down. Then I remember getting very shaky.
Back in my warm car driving back to the newspaper building, I began to cry. I asked God to forgive me for being so callous.
…For being impartial.
I gave the editor my film, and quietly went and began writing up the story. I called the police chief who informed me that the woman in the wreck had died moments ago.
I thought about the phone call her husband or kids would get.
I thought about my own parents.
Now, it was newsroom policy that we would never run photographs of a victim who died in a crash, so we didn’t. I was thankful for that, although, honestly, the damage was deeper.
Thirty years later, and I will never forget how that woman, in her final moments, looked at me.
I could have tried to bring her comfort. Dignity. Respect. Prayer. Anything…
It changed me. And it changed the way I reported forever.
I would no longer be impartial.
And you can bet I fought some big battles with editors and publishers over that principle for the rest of my career.
You see, this is what the unjust judge was all about in the parable Jesus tells to a group of Pharisees.
This widow had been wronged somehow. And she was seeking justice.
She was seeking justice adamantly.
A widow in that society — in Jesus’s time — had no leverage. She was considered the bottom rung of society.
She had less power than a slave.
The only power she had — if you can call it that — is that she is relentless in her seeking of justice. She’s not going away!
And so, right off the bat, Jesus gives us this great worldly contrast.
A righteous judge and an unrighteous widow.
But she wears him down, we see. And finally, the judge — who flat-out admits in Verse 4, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, I will grant her justice, so she that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”
What do those words of the judge mean, “I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone”?
What they mean is that no god is going to reshape his impartiality. And because people cannot affect his judgment — it’s as if he doesn’t care about what happens to them either way — his reputation will remain unblemished.
His very position as a judge is to be impartial.
If he “cares” about anyone or “fears” God, he loses that impartiality. He no longer is objective.
So, I’ll ask again, Is God calling us to be impartial or partial?
To what is this judge faithful?
Certainly not God. You can be faithful to things other than God, amen?
He’s faithful to his position, his ego, his ethics, what’s expected of him…
Who sets those? Not God. No. The world did that.
What was expected of me on that riverbank 30 years ago?
What the world told me to do. Certainly not what God was telling me to do.
Jesus calls the judge unjust for this very reason. He’s not really doing justice.
Jesus says in verse 6, “Listen to what the unjust judge says.” Then in Verse 7: “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?”
Who are the chosen ones?
Yes, those who love and serve the Lord. Those who confess their sins to him and ask Jesus to be their savior.
You and me.
And so what God is modeling here and what Jesus is teaching us is that God is partial toward those who love him.
In this parable, we are the widow. By the measure of the world, we should have accepted our lots and gone our way never to be heard from again.
God says “No!” No. You are his beloved. He is partial toward you.
The widow, in her revolt, shows us what faithfulness on earth looks like.
It’s relentlessly seeking justice.
And so if we’re to act as the widow, what are we to do when we are in the seat of the judge?
The same. We’re to be compassionate to those who need our help.
We are to be helpful to those who can benefit from what we can do for them.
We are, as Jesus says, loving our neighbor as ourself, and as James adds, then we know we “are doing well.”
Henri Nouwen puts it this way:
“Compassion is born when we discover in the center of our own existence, not only that God is God and humans are humans, but also that our neighbor really is our fellow human being.”
He adds: “For a compassionate person, nothing human is alien: no joy or sorrow, no way of living and no way of dying.”
Faith on earth
But we’ve left off two very important parts of this parable.
The first is beginning, and the last is the ending.
Let’s jump to the ending first.
In Verse 8, after telling us that God is partial toward us and we should be partial to the needs of others, Jesus adds:
“And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
There is nothing oblique here. It’s just harsh.
It’s like when you’re a kid, and your dad says to you before he leaves, “I expect this all to be clean when I come back.”
I don’t know about you, but when I was a boy, you had better believe I had my room cleaned up before I heard that old Impala pulling into the driveway.
I didn’t want to know what would happen if I didn’t, and I never found out.
Jesus, here in this parable, is modeling what the earth might look like when he returns — what he hopes it will look like, which is nothing less than an image of the love he gives to us.
You can say, like cleaning your room before dad gets home, that he’s laying out his hopes and expectations for us all.
And we should be blessed to have a savior who models just how to do that.
The second part is the way Jesus opens this parable.
Again, he’s on the way to Jerusalem, heading south, and Luke tells us Jesus begins to tell a parable “about their need to pray and not to lose heart,” verse 1.
Why is this important? Again, at the time this was written and when Jesus was preaching — First Century — there were the roots of persecution happening at the hands of the Roman occupation.
There wasn’t a whole lot of justice going around.
Jesus is saying “Heave heart,” and he gives this great example of what faith looks like in the example of the persistent widow.
Don’t give up when the world seems unjust.
Don’t surrender when you’re once again turned away.
Don’t lose hope just because the world doesn’t agree with you.
These are very real circumstances for Jesus’s day, and you know something? They are very real circumstances for us today, too.
We hope the judge will be compassionate and sympathetic to our cause.
We hope the world would soften a little bit around the edges.
We hope that our own hearts wouldn’t be so reactive to what the world wants from us, but instead, reactive to what God wants from us.
In our quest to please this world, our impartiality breeds apathy.
To not react to injustice is not impartial; it’s cowardice.
Creating a safe place for yourself often creates a dangerous situation for others.
Jesus Christ never stood in the middle of the road; that is not where he lived.
“My ways are not your ways,” he reminds us.
We need to be partial to what Christ wants from us, then we’re able to go out and change the world, to transform others and in doing so transform ourselves!
Faithful. Not just in our praying, but in our doing. In the way we treat one another. In the way we reach out to others. In the way we follow Christ.
How intentional are you in prayer, in acts and in living like Christ?
Am I saying that if we aren’t doing these things, then we’re not the kind of faithful people Jesus expects to find when he returns?
I don’t know, but here’s the thing about that: All these things transform us.
Maybe the point isn’t that if we just pray hard, we’ll get what we want, but maybe it’s more that if we pray hard, if we work hard, and if we try hard to emulate Christ’s example in this world, we will be transformed into the kind of people Jesus hopes to find when he returns..
Regardless of whether our prayers are answered.
So maybe it’s not about the receiving, but in our giving — in how faithful we are in these things — that we are transformed into people who are ready to receive what Jesus has for us.
That’s what transformed is.
When he comes back, he wants our rooms cleaned.
He wants this world transformed.
If Jesus came back today, right now, is that what he would find?
Again, we talk a whole lot about how to transform the world, we preach it, we study it, we quote it. But do we do it?
We’ve got some cleaning up to do, friends.
And look, it’s not out of fear. Because what he gives us is nothing less than the best gift you could ever dream of receiving.
Eternal life. Eternal love. Eternal joy. Eternal reunion.
I want to please my heavenly Father. With a clean room. I want to stand proud when Jesus comes back. “I did just what you told me to do!”
This transformation is the answer to our prayers.