Staying Faithful in a Broken World

But when the Son of Man comes, shall he find faith on the earth? (Luke 18:8)

20 October, 2019; Proper 24C
Jer 31:27-34; Ps 119: 97-104
2 Tim 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8

The Rev’d Dr. Deborah Meister

I love this story. I love its audacity: for Jesus to compare God, not to an excellent judge, but to one who is corrupt or indifferent. Think about that. It’s as if a teacher today were to say, “There was a poor refugee, who had taken her children and fled a war with only the clothing on their backs, and longed to be admitted to a safe haven, but when she arrived at the border, the policies had changed, and the guards informed her that no one was to be admitted.”

Is that the image you have of God? A gatekeeper, harsh, unwelcoming, turning away those in need?

I hope not, but if it’s not, then how do you account for the shape of this world? How do you make sense of the millions of people just like that woman, people who seek for mercy and safety and peace, and find no welcome?

This parable, more than any other in Jesus’ teaching, confronts us with one of the most difficult challenges to our faith: how do we believe in and proclaim the gospel in a world which too often seems unredeemed? When the poor cry for help, and children are allowed to suffer, and cancer takes the very people who bring the most light to our lives, what does it mean to say, “you have been saved”? How do we keep our own hope alive, when so much around us suggests hope is foolish? It is the tension between the teachings of our faith and the evidence of our reason, the tension St. Anselm gestured toward when he wrote, “I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand.”

The challenge, of course, is injustice: Jesus describes the judge as “unjust.” The word he uses is adikaias — the negation of dikaiousoune, which describes the righteousness which is the fundamental response of each created thing to our God. Righteousness is our willingness to participate in the divinely-ordained order which sustains the world. So when Jesus describes this judge as adikaias, as a person who neither feared God nor respected people, he is saying that this judge is more than just a fink; he is one of the people who use their power to ruin this world for everyone else. He is a person who chooses to make this world tragic, when God intended it for joy.

And let’s be clear: the judge acts not from malice, but from indifference. He does not actively wish evil on others; he just doesn’t care. At the end of day, he takes off his robes, leaves his briefcase in his office, stops by a flower stall to get a bouquet for his wife, coaches soccer for his children and the other children from their chi chi neighborhood, shares an elegant supper with his friends, smokes a cigar, and never thinks about the people who cannot even dream of supper, or soccer, or cigars. They are fundamentally unreal to him, beyond the circle of his concern.

Hold him in your mind for a moment.

We are accustomed to thinking that the opposite of justice is mercy — not a harsh condemnation, but another chance. But within the pages of scripture, the opposite of divine justice is human injustice. It’s not a matter of the harm that God might do to us if we do not walk a straight line, but of the harm that we do to one another, every day, whether we intend to or not. That’s where the unjust judge comes in, the one who does not care: apathy or indifference is the great engine of injustice in this world, because it allows us to believe that the suffering of others is their problem, not ours. In the earliest pages of Scripture, Cain stands over the body of his brother whom he has slain and asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Desmond Tutu points out that that question remains unanswered until it is resolved in the life and death of Jesus, who shows us that we are not our brother’s keeper, but our brother’s brother and our sister’s sister (and our non-binary sibling’s sibling).

The action of God is always mercy — mercy shown in contrast to our too-frequent lack of it — but that begs the question, mercy given to whom? To those who cause the suffering? Or to those who must endure it? The answer, of course, is both: but the prophets and Christ make clear that the good news of the gospel must always be given first to those who suffer most, that the gospel must make sense from the side of the oppressed it if is ever to bring about God’s will for all.

And so, implicitly, Jesus places us with the widow, with the people who knock on doors and wait in lines and beg for justice, and who, too often, are not heard. The theologian Jon Sobrino writes, “we know well that in our world there are not just wounded individuals but crucified peoples, and that we should enflesh mercy accordingly….do everything we possibly can to bring them down from the cross.”[1] Sobrino does not intend to say that our individual suffering is unimportant; he would never say that. But he means to draw our attention to the fact that we are part of a world in which certain peoples — peoples we could all name — have been made to carry suffering in a way that nails the endurance of pain and shame to their very identity. To be black in the United States was, for too long, itself misunderstood as a mark of divine disfavor. To be First Nations in Canada is to be born into a set of circumstances that may well constrain and cripple your God-given human potential. To be anything other than a cis-oriented heterosexual is, in many parts of the world, to choose between concealment and death. In each of these instances, who you are has been made, by human agency, to be itself a crucifixion.

          That should be a deep offense to those of us who bear the name of Christ, because Jesus suffered crucifixion so that we would not have to. Let me repeat that: Jesus allowed himself to be abandoned and lifted on a cross and to suffer utter degradation and to die and to rise from the dead so that we would never again be able to deny what evil looks like when it is inflicted upon the powerless and the innocent. His example is meant to be a deterrent to our indifference.

Sobrino writes, “to respond to suffering with the desire to eliminate it for no other reason than that someone else is suffering is an option.” [2] When we choose to take this path, we enter into the very life of God, who put on flesh and blood for no reason other than his own compassion for us. It is to live by the spirit of God, who left heaven itself to share our pain and ensure that suffering and death would not have the final word. And while this embrace of radical compassion opens us in a new way to the suffering of the world, it is itself a form of strength; it impels us to continue in the love and work of God.

In Jesus’ story, the widow keeps knocking at the door, no matter how often she is rebuffed — and the result is that her cries are heard You can hear the exasperated judge: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”[3] Even so, St. Paul admonishes Timothy, “continue.” Just, continue. We do not control the timeline of God, but we do know God’s heart. We know that mercy will ultimately triumph, not only for the widow, but even for the judge — for in relenting, he has begun to save his own soul. For what does mercy look like for those who impose suffering, if not the chance to see what they are doing, to repent of their ways, and to begin again?

For us, the challenge is to do something — anything within our power — to help people down from the cross. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the suffering in this world, to believe that what we can do is too small matter. Steven Covey explains that we live within two circles: the circle of our concern and the circle of our influence. Our predicament is that the circle of our concern is so much larger than our circle of influence, the area in which we can actually make a difference. We need somehow to trust that God has placed each of us where we are for a reason, and to do what we can where we can. Martin Buber writes, “It is given to [us] to lift up the fallen and to free the imprisoned. Not merely to wait,…but to work for the redemption of the world.” Rabbi Tarfon adds, “The work is not yours to finish, but neither are you free to take no part in it.”[4]

So how do we sustain hope? By acting as if what we hope is true. It’s a divine pyramid scheme: we live as if we were already in the Kingdom of God, until we love so fiercely and act so truly that it begins to take shape around us. We open ourselves to the cries of the widow, even when we ourselves are in need, and God begins to heal the places in us that cry out through our very compassion. It is the young parent awake at two in the morning, tending a sick child and learning the depth of love. It is Jean Vanier choosing to open his home to three severely-disabled adults, and finding his own heart for the first time in their unrelenting demands and unintelligible cries. And it is, after all, St. Anselm, who wrote, in full, “I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe — that unless I believe I shall not understand.”

[1] Jon Sobrino, The Principle of Mercy, p. 10.

[2] Ibid, 37.

[3] U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell.

[4] Annie Dillard, For the Time Being.

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