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“Will There Be Faith on Earth?”
Sermon on Luke 18: 1-8
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
Is this a parable about prayer or about justice? Is it about God, or about us? It begins with an exhortation to constant prayer and ends with a question about faith, but gets there by way of a story about human justice.
“Pray always and do not lose heart,” Jesus says. What does it mean to lose heart? To lose heart is to be discouraged, cynical, even bitter. It is to feel that all effort is pointless because things seem to be stacked against you. To lose heart is to feel that God does not listen, or even hear. The widow in the parable has not reached this point.
This widow is full of heart, and full of nerve as well. Consider that in the ancient world widows were the most vulnerable members of society, and the least regarded as worthy of notice. Widows were people who had lost their life as they knew it – not only had they lost their husbands but they had also lost their social and financial standing. The laws of inheritance meant that when a husband died his assets did not go to his widow but to his sons or brothers. If the deceased man’s male relatives did not see fit to provide for his widow, she was out of luck, and widows were often destitute.
So it takes a great deal of courage, or “heart,” for this woman to go to plead her case in a public court. Every day she has to decide if it is worth the humiliation to go and pester this judge one more time. The fact that she keeps making this decision means she believes that her petition is worthy of respect, and that justice is possible. And she is right – the “unjust judge,” who respects neither God nor people, still grants her petition, if only to clear the court docket and be home for dinner at a comfortable hour.
“And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” In saying this, Jesus is not comparing God to the unjust judge – he is making an argument from the lesser to the greater. “If even this corrupt judge will grant justice to this poor widow, then how much more will God grant justice to God’s people!” God will answer the cry of God’s people for justice, for peace, for the establishment of God’s rule in the world.
It would seem that we have a fairly simple general teaching about the importance and effectiveness of petitionary prayer. But the teaching ends with a question that seems to take the parable in another direction: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
The Irish writer Colum McCann tells the story[i] of an aging Irish nun, Sister Beverly, who is tormented by memories of her service in Colombia thirty-seven years earlier. She was kidnapped and imprisoned by a right-wing paramilitary group. One of the group’s leaders routinely tortured and abused her in every way possible in his jungle hideout. Her body still bears the marks of the torture; even worse, in spite of years and years of prayer and therapy, she is still overcome by her feelings of shame, humiliation, and her inability to forgive. She can’t sleep, she can’t focus, she is anxious and nervous. She’s tried to build a “wall of prayer” around herself, but she hasn’t found peace. She has come from a girls’ shelter in Houston, where she worked until she collapsed from exhaustion, to a small retreat center on Long Island for healing of her body and soul.
One day at the retreat center Sister Beverly sees her abuser on TV, on a Spanish-language channel. He is representing a peace movement, working on the draft of a treaty. She observes that he “has taken on the aura of a diplomat…So well-dressed. So poised. So public. What right does he have to talk about peace? What had he done to achieve such grace?” She learns that he is in London, at some kind of peace institute, so she gets permission to travel there. Once in London, she goes day after day to the Institute, but she can’t make herself knock at the door and go in; instead, she retreats to a nearby coffee shop and “watches the front of the Institute [for hours], the quiet comings and goings, the shapes of shapes.” On the fifth day, her abuser walks into the shop and she addresses him, but he appears not to recognize her.
He nods as if about to leave, but she leans forward… [and silently prays]: Am I supposed to directly bestow my forgiveness, Lord? Am I to reconcile with evil? …Is that what you demand after all these years? Is there no wisdom? Is that what I have to learn? That there is finally none at all?”
She introduces herself, and again her abuser pretends not to know her; she calls him by his real name, Carlos, and he says that’s not his name. Finally, she unbuttons her blouse and reveals to him some of the scars on her body. He begins to panic: “What do you want with me?” he says. “Nothing, Carlos,” she says. “Nothing. I just want you to know that I’m here, I exist, that’s all.” He calls her the same terrible name he used to call her when she was his captive, and in that moment she knows he has not changed. There is “no peace about him. No great swerve in his life. He has [simply] polished all his lies.” And in the knowledge gained from this encounter she sees that he has lost his power over her.
“She could, now, do anything at all: arrange a conference, expose him to the newspapers, call him to task, let others know, create a revenge out of justice.” But she will do none of these things.
Does Sister Beverly find justice? Maybe not, but – almost ironically – she finds peace. God has granted her prayers. God has come to her aid. Like the poor widow, Beverly has been persistent and courageous, refusing to be defeated by her circumstances, and things change for her.
“When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” in other words, will God find strategies against hopelessness? Will God find people and communities committed to the persistence, resourcefulness, and faith of the widow?
It’s easy to believe in the corruption of judges, the heartlessness of institutions, the cold logic of systems stacked against the individual, the capacity for evil and deceit within human hearts. The parable of the widow and the judge asks us to believe that the goodness of God is greater than the evil human beings can do, and that God wants above all to give us what we most deeply need: the recognition that we exist, that we matter, that we are worthy of respect.
“When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Faith requires different responses of different people. What faith requires of the widow (and Sister Beverly) is courage and persistence in pursuit of justice and truth. What faith requires of the judge in the parable is acting justly toward the least powerful, least noticed members of society.
For those who have it in their power to relieve the distress of the widow or the orphan, the immigrant or refugee, the abused or neglected, the call to pray day and night is the call to reorder their priorities according to those of our compassionate God. For some, faith will be standing at the door and knocking until their knuckles bleed; for others, it will be opening their hands wide to relieve some of the “sorrows to which this world is still bound.”[ii]
What is faith for you? For most of us, I think, it requires a range of responses: persistence in prayer, strategies against hopelessness, generosity and openheartedness toward the most vulnerable among us. That is what “faith on earth” looks like. May the Son of Man find it in us.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
October 13, 2019
[i] Colum McCann, “Treaty,” Thirteen Ways of Looking (New York: Random House, 2015).
[ii] McCann, 214.