Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 16, 2022
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
In order to more deeply understand the parable of Jesus we hear this morning, we need to hear what Jesus said right before this parable. In the verses leading up to today’s gospel reading Jesus tells his disciples that dark days are ahead. He tells them that days are coming when they will “long to see the days of the Son of Man,” and they will not see it. He says there will be days like the days of Noah, when there was widespread immorality and lawlessness and rejection of God. He says there will be days like the days of Sodom, when Lot and his wife fled the violence-plagued city as fire rained down. The disciples were understandably shaken by what Jesus was saying, and so they asked him: “Where, Lord?” And Jesus replied cryptically and ominously: “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.”
I imagine the disciples sitting there, pale and sweaty, ready to buy a bunch of canned goods and head for the hills. But then Jesus goes on, and that’s where our reading picks up for today: “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”
In this parable there is a judge. In the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, there are special mandates for the judges of Israel to give special attention and care to widows. But this judge, Jesus tells us, neither feared God nor had any respect for people. And so, when a widow kept coming to his court, asking for justice, he ignored her. But this widow kept coming back again and again and again. She knew what the scriptures said about how judges are supposed to treat widows. She was persistent. She didn’t give up. She knew what the judge was supposed to do and she held him to what the scriptures demanded of him.
Finally, the judge relented. He said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice so that she will not wear me out by continually coming!”
Some parables Jesus tells are allegorical, with God usually being represented by the powerful figure in the story. An example of this is the parable of the prodigal son, where the main point of the story is that God is like that loving, forgiving father. Other parables, however, employ a teaching method used by Jewish rabbis to make a point differently. Rather than using allegory, they make an argument using a lesser example to illustrate something greater. We see this method being used when Jesus was teaching on prayer and said that if even evil parents know how to give good things to their children, how much more will a good God give good things to you!
This teaching method of using a lesser example to illustrate something greater is the kind of parable we have before us this morning. God is not represented by the unjust judge! The unjust judge is there to provide a contrast to the qualities and character of God. Unlike the unjust judge, God cares deeply for widows and others who are vulnerable or needy. Jesus is saying that if even a godless, heartless judge will relent at the persistence of this widow, how much more will a good and loving God respond to you! “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night?” Jesus asks, rhetorically. “Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.”
Just prior to this parable, Jesus was painfully honest with the disciples about the difficult days ahead of them. But he then tells them this parable about their need to pray always and to not lose heart. He encourages them by giving them a parable with a promise. Through this parable, Jesus assures them that God will respond to their prayers. God will hear their cries and respond quickly. God will be there to help.
Like the disciples, we too experience dark days and hard times. Like the disciples, there are times when we long to see the Son of Man, but we have a hard time seeing him. Like Jesus said, there are days when we seem to be surrounded by immorality and lawlessness and violence. There are days when hope seems to run pretty thin.
We live in a time when our culture is cratering, when wickedness and confusion and godlessness do indeed seem to be as rampant as they were in the days of Noah. We live in a time of economic anxiety, when investment accounts are in the toilet and basic necessities like gas and groceries are through the roof. We live in a time when the political climate is so toxic and divided that our national problems seem unsolvable. We live in a time when regional violence around the world threatens to spiral out of control, threatening to usher in scenarios which are too horrible to contemplate.
And as if those meta, large-scale problems facing our world weren’t enough, there are the smaller scale struggles people face, those personal apocalypses that come with a scary diagnosis, or a lost job, or a broken relationship, or the loss of a loved one, those times when life gets completely upended and the future is frightening.
I don’t mean to paint to bleak a picture of life these days, but can you see the all-out assault on hope that we face? Can you see why anxiety and despair are rampant and hope is in such short supply, even among Christians?
A bit of practical advice in dealing with all of this would be to turn off the 24-hour news channels and quit doom-scrolling on the internet and get outside for a walk once in a while. But as helpful as that can certainly be, we have an even better corrective in this word we hear today from our Lord Jesus.
Jesus calls us to “pray always and not lose heart.” What does it mean to “pray always”? Does it mean we should all become monks or nuns and head off to a remote monastery somewhere where we can cloister ourselves off from the world and literally pray all day long? It sounds tempting, I know! But this isn’t what it means to “pray always.”
Does praying always mean closing our eyes and folding our hands twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week? That’s not a bad prayer posture. It is how I teach our preschoolers to pray. It can help us focus. But we can’t hold that posture all day long, right? So what does it mean to “pray always?”
To pray always is to constantly keep a God-centered perspective on things. To pray always is to constantly entrust ourselves to God even when everything around us seems to be falling apart. To pray always is to constantly take all our concerns to God in prayer, who promises to hear us and help us. To pray always isn’t just to fold our hands, it is to open them up to God, ready to receive the future God promises he has in store for us.
This is what it means to pray always, and praying always will help us to not lose heart. It is the means by which we hang on to hope.
As we experience hard times and dark days, Jesus has given us a parable with a promise. The command implicit in the parable is to be persistent in prayer, immersing ourselves in the reality of God’s promises, day by day, minute by minute. But there isn’t just a command here. There is also a promise. Jesus promises us that God is no unjust judge. Instead, God is standing by, even now, to hear our plea, to listen to our cry, and to respond. While worldly justice is a perpetual struggle, God quickly grants justice to his chosen ones. God justifies us by his grace. God makes things right with us by giving us his mercy, his love, and the promise of his coming kingdom.
And so, my dear friends in Christ, pray always. Do not lose heart. Remember that God is in control, that God will always be there to hear and to help us. There might be dark days, but God’s kingdom will come. In fact, in the death and resurrection of Jesus, the glorious kingdom of God has already begun. Sin, death, and the devil, though they seem to rule the day, have already ultimately been conquered by Christ Jesus.
And so as we look to the future, we pray, trusting that God will come to make things right once and for all, to complete what he’s begun. As we look to the future, we do not lose heart. For even now he comes to us, speaking to us through his word, feeding us at his table, giving us a foretaste of what is in store when things are made right once and for all.
In the meantime, as Jesus’ disciples today, we don’t run to the hills when hard times come. We don’t close ourselves off or retreat to our enclaves in fear. Instead, we go out into the world to share the hope that is in us with a world that desperately needs it.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church