Friday, October 18, 2013

October 20, Proper 24: Contradictions 8: The Unjust Judge

Genesis 32:22-31, Psalm 121, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, Luke 18:1-8

We have two contradictions today. The first one is forthright: that God is compared to a judge who is unjust. Jesus compares that spiritual being who is most righteous to a human official who is not. Such a comparison is offensive in Islam, but the parables of Jesus force us to get used to Our Lord doing this, using contrary characters. Not just to make his point, but to shake us up, to open us up.

Of course we often do find God to be unjust, both philosophically and personally. Philosophically, if God is responsible for the world as we know it, and if God is all-powerful and omnipotent, then the fact of so much unrelenting injustice in the world must finally be God’s fault, and it therefore follows that God must be unjust. 

Speaking personally, how much of my own experience as a Christian, as a pastor, has felt unfair, and even if I do confess the faults of my own, and my own responsibility for most of my losses and my suffering, still there is a surplus of unfairness in the lives of those I care about. And God just lets it go unanswered. I can testify that there were many years of my life when I felt God was being unfair to me.

Wisdom would say, Buck up and bear it. Get over it, get on with it. When I was a kid I used to get lots of trouble from my older brother. I would go to my dad, and he would say, “Fight your own battles.” Which meant, implicitly, don’t be like the widow in the parable.

None of you wants to be like her either. We’d call her shrewish. Not shrewd, but shrewish. A nag. A cry-baby. Who wants to keep crying to God day and night? Who wants to be so tiresome? Get real. Accept the realities of life. If you expect justice all the time you’re asking for constant frustration and you’re no fun to be with.

In America our justice is relatively good. In much of the world a bribe is just assumed. When Jesus told his parable, the obvious solution was for the widow to pay the judge the money he was waiting for. Which, in other terms, is the basis of so much religion. You want something from God, so you offer something in exchange. “Dear God, give me this, and I promise I’ll be a better person, or I’ll do this or that, whatever.”

But in the parable the widow offers nothing to the judge beside her pure demand. So when you pray to God for something, it doesn’t help if you offer something back. That would be a bribe. You should just ask for it and ask for it and ask for it, for no reason other than that you think it’s right for you to receive it. But even that gets tiresome. Who wants to keep on praying like that?

Now let me ask you this. Why do you come here on Sundays? Do you come here because you’re looking for justice? Likely not. In other times and places that is what congregations were praying for. Like in Montgomery, Alabama, in the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Or like in Syria right now, in the Syrian Orthodox Church, that most ancient of Christian churches, whose members are in danger of their lives from either side. For thirteen centuries these people have been crying to God for justice day and night.

Do we ask enough of God? Do we demand enough of God? Do we expect enough of God? Do we keep our expectations minimal, limited, and well-controlled? If we don’t ask much, we won’t be disappointed. We are modern people after all, we are not superstitious, nor fundamentalist, we don’t go round saying “God did this for us” and “God did that for us.” We know what life requires and what life offers and we deal with it. So we do not ask enough of God, we let God off the hook. We want to be respectable, we don’t want to come off like that widow.

So you need this balance: You should allow yourself to make every request of God that seems right to you. You should not filter your requests to God. If it seems right, ask it. But, at the same time, commit yourself to long-term learning of what it is that God desires to offer you. For example, if you want to be wealthy, ask for it. Be true to yourself and be honest in your relationship with God. If you want justice, ask for it. And if you are doing the long-term learning of what God desires to offer and expect, then you learn that God is a lot more interested in giving you justice than wealth. Your goal is that by long-term spiritual training your deepest requests begin to conform to what God offers and expects. Your honest and candid prayers are balanced by humble and costly learning.

Which brings us to the epistle, Second Timothy. It is recalling us to scripture, to the trustworthiness of scripture, the necessity of scripture, and the discipline of scripture, for our proficiency and our equipment in the world. The epistle reminds us that there is sound doctrine and bad doctrine, and the bad doctrine is often more attractive and appealing than the sound doctrine. And a great deal of bad doctrine purports to tell you want God offers and what God expects, and what you should pray for and what you might as well forget about. You need to learn what’s right in this and what is wrong, and the way to learn it is through the mature and patient study of the public documents of scripture. Pray for what you want, and study to learn what God wants.

The gospel lesson tells you to pray exactly what’s on your mind, and do not filter it. But we’re not talking about a couple of prayers, or what you are asking for this week, we’re talking about long-term prayer, we’re talking about months and months of prayer, years and years, we’re talking about prayers that wear God out, like the Civil Rights Movement, and like the churches in Syria, who have been praying for justice for 1300 years. If that’s what you’re willing to do, and stay at it, then go ahead, tell God exactly what’s on your mind.

So then, is it possible that the prayers you offer have an influence on God? That’s certainly what Jesus seems to say. Your prayers do have an influence on God. Not based on how long you pray or how often you pray — it’s a parable, it’s comic, you can get past that overly literal conclusion — but based on the character of the teller of the parable, the nature of the God who became incarnate, the God who allowed his person to be taught by a mother and trained by a father and surprised by a leper and moved by Mary and Martha. In Jesus we see that God is taken by your prayer. Not by how often you pray it or how long, but by who you are and what you ask. You have an influence on God.

And that’s the second contradiction. How can that be so if God knows everything already and has chosen already and predestined already and elected already? This contradiction is one that Our Lord himself will not resolve. Not logically, and certainly not philosophically, to the frustration of theologians over the centuries who have wrestled with the problem of God’s sovereignty and our freedom, God’s predestination and our free will, God’s omnipotence and our responsibility.

What I like about Reformed Church doctrine is that we don’t let the obvious reality of our freedom and our free will and the evident necessity of our responsibility diminish the less obvious promise of God’s predestination and the less evident truth of God’s omnipotence and sovereignty. These two truths have a difficult marriage, but “What the Lord hath joined together, let not man put asunder.”

The resolution has to be in prayer. The wrestling you do with God in prayer. The back and forth you have with God in prayer. The resolution of the contradiction is not in the logic on the page but in the wrestling of your heart. Like Jacob in our first lesson. You have to grapple the contradiction in the dark night of your soul and in your darkest passages of grief and loss. God will surely bless you, but it will surely cost you, and you’ll be limping in the morning, but don’t let go of God.

God wants you in partnership. You have to consider your influence on God. But even more, you have to accept God’s influence on you. Keep at it; your long-term praying works back on you to shape you and transform you, so that your mind begins to merge with God’s mind, and also that you yourself become part of God’s answer. The answer to your prayer begins to flow back through you into the world. You will discover that what you get from this is hope. Hope. Real living hope. You will feel that the God who is gripping you in your struggle is the God who is embracing you in love.

Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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