10/16/16: Into the Silence, Luke 18:1-8
Into the Silence
First Lesson: Psalm 121
Second Lesson: Luke 18:1-8
This is a curious little parable of Jesus here in the eighteenth chapter of Luke. We’re not given any context to speak of, just that Jesus was on the road to Jerusalem and “told them a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart,” though we’re never told exactly who “them” refers to.
We’re simply told that in a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected anybody—not a favorable description for anyone, let alone a judge. And then there was a widow, who keeps coming to this judge and saying to him, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” For a while he refuses even to hear her, it seems, but finally he relents, though in a less-than admirable way, saying to himself, I don’t really care about the right thing to do or about what happens to this woman one way or another, but, boy, is she annoying. I’m going to go ahead and give her what she wants so she won’t wear me out with her constant visits. It’s funny, another translation, which I think I prefer, reads: so she won’t finally come down here and slap me in the face—we underestimate Jesus’ sense of humor, sometimes. But in either case, this judge finally grants her justice, and Jesus says to all those gathered and to us, If this terrible judge would grant this woman what she asks, won’t God do that much and more for you? Won’t God, too, grant justice to his little one’s who cry out day and night.
We can see the humor here, and should, but that doesn’t change the fact that the truth of this story is really no laughing matter. In fact, if you’ve ever found yourself in the position of this widow, pleading for justice, pleading for a cure—heck, even for 6 more months, pleading that he, she, they would come to their senses, pleading that somehow, someway God would make things right again, pleading for any response at all, day after day, you know how accurate a description of prayer this parable is—and we can’t rush ahead to the answer she received. Yes, she received what she wanted in the end, but after how long? After how many days and nights wondering if anyone was listening at all?
Despite how prayer is most often described or imagined in the rows and rows of devotionals at the book store, the name and claim it pastors on TV, or the tired and easy assurances of well-meaning friends, the only thing we’re guaranteed to hear when we pray is silence.
The question of faith is whether or not silence can be enough, and for how long. This is a harsh, but very real part of the Christian life that no one dares tell you at your baptism, let alone your dedication, which is that faith is more often a matter of endurance than affirmation.
And this is hard because our world seems to operate in a constant feedback loop, of likes and shares and emojis and gifs—we’re an instant gratification people. An immediate results, same day shipping, “what have you done for me now,” if the election were today, God help us, people. But this is not how God works. God moves at a different pace, keeps a different time, operates not in the echo chamber of endless feedback, but in the arc of history—that’s why Jesus, when he talks about the Kingdom of God, usually describes it in terms of plants growing out in the field, we know not how. Or of yeast rising—knead the bread, put it in a bowl over in the corner of the kitchen with a towel over it, and let it be. Don’t fuss with it, just let it do it’s thing. There’s not a thing in the world you can do to make a plant grow or bread rise but give it the best conditions you can, but after all that’s been done you wait.
We’re not promised to hear anything other than silence, but that’s not to say that there’s nothing happening that we cannot hear or see or know in the moment, and this is the other truth about prayer that’s described in this parable, which is that God is indeed listening.
This is one of the deep and abiding truths of Scripture, that God listens, that God is attentive to our prayers, the longings of our heart—a truth described no where more beautifully than in our first lesson this morning, Psalm 121.
1 I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
4 He who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
6 The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
7 The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
8 The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time on and forevermore.
Ours is a God who keeps. Who watches over, who never slumbers nor sleeps, who is utterly present and involved in our lives—this is one of the most basic truths of Biblical religion, but it’s also one of the most offensive or embarrassing to the modern mind. What are we to make of this idea that the God of creation, who hung the sun and moon and stars, who set the planets in orbit, who knows the expanse of the universe, with all it’s 2 trillion galaxies—you may have seen in the news this week that this is our new best guess at how many galaxies are, 2 trillion, which is about 10 times more than previously thought, which was frankly a very pedestrian 200 billion—what are we to make of this biblical promise that this God of such a cosmic scale would be so available as to listen to your prayer for your mother-in-law? That this God would share in your worries, your struggles, your hopes?
And besides, there are all those times when all we heard was silence. What good is God hearing if this hearing isn’t followed by action, and for every story that we could tell about God so clearly acting on our prayer, there are 5, 10, 20 more we could tell that as far as we know are still floating around in the silence.
Is it offensive to say that God hears our prayers? I think it should be.
There’s more to say about this, but for now we’ll take Jesus at his word and say that God does indeed answer prayer—or is that what he says?
6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
This wasn’t just any prayer that the widow offered, this was a prayer for justice. This was a prayer for wrongs to be righted, for the lowly being lifted up, perhaps even the proud being "scattered in the thoughts of their hearts," as Mary sings earlier in Luke before Jesus is born. Widows are biblical shorthand for the marginalized and infinitely vulnerable. They were utterly subject to the graces of the men in their family who were commanded by Scripture to care for them and provide for them, so the very fact that the Bible speaks so openly and often about the need to care for widows is an indictment on God-fearing men through the generations for failing to do what they are required to do.
So I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the characters in this little parable are a powerful, disconnected, disrespectful and oblivious man—this judge isn’t just any man, he’s meant to be The Man, or the man behind the man, the Powers That Be, the ones that pull the strings, that remain faceless and nameless but whose effects are well-known. And then this widow, who represents all those who are subject to the graces of these nameless, faceless powers. And it may be that Jesus is telling us here that the real question isn’t whether or not God will act—but whether or not we will act.
Why is it that the vulnerable must plead their case alone? Why does the call for justice always fall to the ones at the bottom—why must they lead the charge? Who will be their advocate? Who will stand beside them?
Will it be the followers of Christ?
Is the real message here to be persistent in our own prayer life, or is it yet another Scriptural call to care for the vulnerable among us? Or even more, might these two be connected?
Fred Craddock tells a story about the first time he was invited as a friend to spend the night in the big house, God’s house. He was, of course, excited as a new friend of Jesus and a first-time visitor to the House of Many Rooms. Angels showed him around and answered his endless questions. The food was heavenly, you could say, and at bedtime he was shown to a room of his own. With a, “Goodnight, sleep well,” he was left there alone. The excitement of the day finally resolved into weariness and weariness into rest. His bed was a cloud. To the soft sound of music coming from everywhere, he drifted into sleep.
But sometime during the night his sleep was interrupted by sounds from the next room. He didn’t know who was in that room, but somebody was having a bad night. The noise was not snoring, nor did it seem to be sleep-talking. He listened more carefully; maybe it was groaning or moaning made worse by tossing and turning. He thought once to knock on the door, but was afraid to do so. He dared not call out lest he add to that person’s discomfort and perhaps wake others. So he tolerated it till morning, catching only snatches of sleep. At daybreak he heard the person next door move about the room and then step out into the hall. He did the same, wanting to see who it was, and, if appropriate, express regret that the night was so restless.
It was God.
He was shocked; God restless and unable to sleep? The God who blesses with peace beyond understanding, the God who hushes even a whimpering child? God looked at him and said, “I’m sorry if I disturbed your sleep. I know my groaning was a disturbance, but I couldn’t get my mind off all my hurting children down there.”
"Oh my,” Fred asked, "Is there anything I can do.”
"Yes," said God. "Yes, there is,”
(1) Special thanks to dear friends Courtney Allen and Greg Dover for sharing this story with me.