Jeremiah 31:27-34 2, Timothy 3:14-4:5, Luke 18:1-8
I don’t know what to do with these texts. In some ways, they seem a straightforward call to persistent, patient, pious living. The days are surely coming when God will bring restoration. Until then, keep doing what you’ve learned: study Scripture, preach, endure hardship, pray and don’t lose heart. These are passages that call us to faithful action coupled with trusting patience. I gravitate to this interpretation. Given our culture’s propensity toward instant gratification, instant communication, instant everything, the message of faithful patience feels needful. We don’t build cathedrals anymore. The idea of contributing to an effort that will not be completed in our lifetime is a tough sell. We have a difficult time thinking past the next year, let alone past future generations.
I find it freeing to let go of the need to see the results of my discipleship. I have, in fact, found it too freeing. There have been times when my call to let go of success in the name of faithfulness has been an excuse to not do the hard work of justice to which we are all called. There have been times when I have called for trust in God’s promises of surely coming, building and planting justice as an excuse for the paltry fruit I or the faith community of which I was a part had borne. As one wise Baptist pastor I know says, “I don’t judge, but I am a pretty good fruit inspector.” I have failed to inspect the fruit and leaned heavily on that fig tree that gets a reprieve, forgetting that the reprieve isn’t forever.
These texts about confidence in God’s promises, and faithful pious living in the meantime, are easy for me to preach, because, really, what is at stake in the waiting for me? In this parable of Luke, I would much more likely be cast as the apathetic judge than as the persistent, wronged widow. For me to proclaim “don’t lose heart” or “pray always” or “continue what you’ve learned in Scripture” could devolve quickly into spiritual platitudes devoid of meaning.
I recently watched a video of James Baldwin on the “Florida Forum” in 1963. The two panelists asking questions were a white journalist and a white professor of history. There were questions from the audience as well. The journalist pushed the question, “Why does it have to be violent?” Baldwin, eloquent and remarkably poised replied, “For a hundred years the American public has ignored or denied … the oppression.” He went on to say what was remarkable was not the then-prevalent level of violence, but the lack of violence up until that point. He said that white people were surprised, but it hadn’t caught any Negro by surprise. The whites could say “the days are surely coming” because for them, and for him, the days were already present and had always been.
As Martin Luther King, Jr’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” noted: “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘wait” has almost always meant ‘never.’”
That’s my concern with preaching these texts this week. That we will preach “don’t lose heart” without an antiphonal cry of “How long O, Lord?” I fear that I would be tempted to proclaim “pray always,” without also walking with the widow to the judge’s bench.
In that 1963 forum, the history professor asked about Baldwin’s critique of liberals. Baldwin replied that, with some exceptions, “Liberals have the proper attitude with no real convictions.” He had observed, he said, that, “when the chips are down,” they “don’t come through.” I wonder if that couldn’t be a critique of the church, too. I suspect the backlash against “thoughts and prayers” is grounded in this very reality.
My less than courageous self, which is pervasive, wants badly to make these passages about piety and devotion and faithful, patient living. I want to say: “See? God says we should take the long view. Preach, pray, endure, encourage, don’t lose heart, because justice will come.” But that is easy for me to say, and the church has said it too often in the face of great suffering and pain. We’ve played it safe while claiming to follow the one who tells us to lose our lives in order to save them. We’ve prayed but not then not gotten off our knees in the garden and gone to the cross. We’ve said the days are surely coming to those who’ve endured long nights alone. We’ve thought we were the widow in the story, when most of the time we’ve been the judge.
Mychal Denzel Smith writing in The Nation a few years ago said: “You don’t get to define progress in a struggle that is not your own. It’s really that simple. You inevitably bring to that analysis an outsider’s perspective, and from that vantage point, progress of any measure looks astounding. It’s particularly awe-inspiring if it allows you to feel less implicated in the reason for that struggle. But that’s what we call privilege: the ability to observe ‘improvement’ because you’re not experiencing the ever-present oppression. It clouds your judgment. It deludes you into believing you have the authority of objectivity. It breeds self-righteousness. It impedes true progress.”
If we are going to let go of our delusions, then these biblical passages about faithful waiting must prod us to an honest assessment of who we are in Luke’s parable and what we need to say and do as a result of that assessment. We can only preach “don’t lose heart” if we are day in and day out going to the judge and pleading for justice with the heartbroken.
The power of the promise of Jeremiah is that, in knowing the ending is unquestionably one of God’s redemption and restoration, we can be bold, not timid. It is that, in knowing our pleas for justice will be heard, not only by God, but even, eventually, by the unjust earthly judge, we can come through when the chips are down, and our attitudes can match our convictions and our actions.
I believe that prayer is powerful. I am certain we cannot live a Christ-like life without being shaped by the study and proclamation of Scripture. Gathering for worship is a witness to the world, and continuing in these things we have learned is what opens us to the world. These duties of ministry are what keep us from losing heart as we await the days that are surely coming. However, as Jacques Ellul writes in “The False Presence of the Kingdom,” properly fulfilling these duties “requires a preaching which is the vent and the intervention of the Wholly Other and which, in consequence, is inevitably strange, not adapted to the world’s aberrations; a preaching that is surprising and not in accord with the world’s habits; disturbing and not reassuring.”
As we anticipate the days that are surely coming, while we discharge the duties of ministry, pray always and do not lose heart, let us be sure we preach not only a reassuring word this week, but a disturbing one, that acknowledges our propensity to say “wait” to the widow when we really mean “never.” Then our attitude and convictions will have the chance to align, and the days of anticipated restoration turn into the days of justice realized.
- There are several connections with this parable of the unjust judge and the one a few chapters prior of the dishonest manager. What do these two parables have in common?
- When we say we will pray for someone or about something, do we? What difference does it make if we do or don’t follow through on our promise to pray?
- When have you lost heart? Were you able to find your heart again? If so, how?
- How do we balance faithful patience with faithful action? When have you been persistent in seeking justice?
- What do you know by heart? What does it mean to have God’s law written on your heart?
- Take a look at the “Justice and Reconciliation” section in Glory to God, hymns 749-774, and see if you find one that resonates with this week’s texts.