Some Thoughts on God Bothering
On a recent holiday to Croatia my wife and I got to visit the small but ancient port city of Old Dubrovnik where our guide told us that despite being enclosed by less than two km of fortified wall, for several centuries the old city boasted of having 41 active churches. The guide suggested the reason for this incredible density of churches was partly because that the old city was the port city for the area and that countless sailors from the city were being lost at sea each year. The community evidently reasoned that if people prayed fervently and frequently, God would protect the men of the city. Again according to our guide, the churches were very well attended on a daily basis but despite the heartfelt and frequent prayers, in the last analysis the prayers appeared to be a pious irrelevance. Many were still lost at sea.
From the different sermons I have heard over the years on today’s reading from Luke, it seems one popular standard interpretation persists that just as the corrupt judge eventually responds to the continued pleas of the widow, so God will accede to those who continually pester him with their pleas. Well, if that is the case, at least for the God fearing people of Dubrovnik, was this simply a misplaced hope?
In the Gospel introduction to the story of the persistent widow we learn that this story has a particular purpose, namely to meet the fears of Jesus’ followers as they face the up-coming struggle against the adversity that looms.
Although the story might appear to refer to a relatively minor issue of justice for a wronged widow of no consequence, in verse one we learn that the real issue is staying true to the principles of God’s justice in the face of despair. To trivialise that interpretation to imply that any intercession will eventually be rewarded if whatever we mean by God is hassled enough by repeated requests, no matter what the requests might be, takes us into very shaky territory. In verse 1 Jesus seems to be encouraging his disciples to call upon God for the coming of his kingdom, which is somewhat different to the somewhat trivial prayers often heard in places of worship.
It seems to me that there are several problems for the alternate God bothering approach for trivial concerns. First, it paints a very unflattering picture of God, and in view of what little we know about the mysterious forces of the universe, a curiously irrelevant image of whatever might be behind this creation. What is more, it is one that does not seem to correlate with the world as we know it. Despite the needs of the Church picnic, what was it the prophet once put it, the rain still falls on the just and the unjust. Prayed for children still die when the earthquake flattens their house, or when terminal cancer defeats the efforts of the best nurses and even the efforts of the best of oncologists. Sailors can still be still lost at sea when the boat is leaky and the storm rages.
Second by taking the view that God behind our metaphors will eventually listen to persistent petitions about our wishes shifts the responsibility away from the people and divests it with God. We can pray for the safety of a fisherman, or we can also buy him a life jacket and insist he wears it.
I believe there are much more constructive ways to learn from this particular parable.
In the first place I have no problem with the notions that we should follow Jesus in drawing attention to the plight of the humble widow. In our attitudes to those on the edge of society, we can learn from Jesus telling his stories about needs of those caught in such situations. If the poor man at the rich man’s gate, the blind beggar, the tax collector hiding up a tree, the leper who was a Samaritan, or here, the widow seeking justice, all have a place in Jesus’ scheme of things, we as his followers should share his concern for the marginalised.
Second, whatever our preferred metaphors for the God we follow might be, to assume that an unjust judge is an appropriate image to represent a God associated with creation and the forces of Love does not suggest a good match. If on the other hand we were to turn the image around so that we, as representatives of the God encountered in Love, begin to see that our past actions may have found us behaving like the unjust judge, then perhaps the parable reminds us that eventually our unjustified deafness to the petitions of those like the widow must change.
In a way our chosen interpretation of this parable depends on our theology of prayer. We can hardly claim Luke’s Jesus did not think prayer was important in that in several places Luke talks of Jesus going away to pray. Yet Jesus himself did not use these prayers to transfer responsibility to God. Rather, and in the face of plenty of potential discouragement, and that even from those who he was relying on to help with his mission, he is recorded as using the prayer for strength for getting on with the task. For Jesus, prayer seemed to be the means of clarifying thought and seeking strength so that he might continue with his concern for the powerless, as well as persisting with his concern that society start to develop attitudes of forgiveness, humility and a desire for justice for the downtrodden.
This is very different from the easy out, the persistent asking for favours and the desire that our God will become the one to enrich us and solve the problems that are rightfully ours to face. Bill Loader in his commentary on this passage suggests that the way we approach God in prayer, and indeed the way we live out our faith, reveals what our image of God has become. Talking to God as if in our mind’s eye “He” has become a haughty distant ruler takes us further away from a Jesus who taught that we must be the message. The God-likeness that Loader notices in Jesus’ teaching and not just in this passage, is fundamentally about self giving and responsiveness to the needs of those around us, and above all, about love and care.
To focus on how God is expected to respond to our entreaties is probably less important than our choice of what we steadfastly yearn for. The focus for the widow was on nothing more, nor less than justice, and because she did not give up eventually even the hard hearted judge finally gave way. Working for justice is indeed a genuine concern of legitimate religion. I am reminded of John Morley who once made the observation that “religion has many dialects, many diverse connections, but it has one true voice, the voice of human pity, of mercy, of patient justice…”
There is of course a puzzle, particularly if we see the coming of God’s kingdom as an event – and specifically one on the verge of happening. And it is an issue that must be squarely faced. Despite Jesus words, the kingdom did not seem to arrive for his listeners at the time, and most certainly not in the form of a Hollywood type Armageddon. And in every generation since there have been some convinced that it is now to their generation he was referring – and in every generation there is disappointment.
On the other hand it does seem to me that in another context, that of the Lord’s Prayer, the line about the kingdom ran something like: Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done –and then the bit we sometimes forget, on Earth as it is in Heaven. Well, I can’t exactly justify what I am going to say next by reference to scholars I have read, but since I happen to believe it – and that somewhat uncertainly – I am going to say it anyway. I think for the justice to be delivered on earth, first we have to realise that ultimately justice is something which depends on those of us on earth.
Perhaps then this justice of the coming Kingdom is not an event for all at one instance, but rather something that can only begin to arrive as each one of us listen to the pleas around us and start to deliver the justice, not only to the widows but to all who cry out.
I used the example of an incident from some travel in Croatia at the start of this address. I would have to admit on our travels we encountered many historical examples of those who did not stay true to the principles of the Kingdom. We saw Churches in Scotland, in France and in Croatia destroyed as the result of what now appear to have been petty disputes between those with slightly different religious belief. We saw evidence that neighbours with different religious beliefs had been attacked, tortured or killed for different interpretations of the Bible. We discovered Churches which had taxed those they served to the point where they had accumulated vast wealth. In no way were those sad examples a steadfast seeking of justice, but rather an active denial of the very principles Jesus was seeking to instil.
On the other hand we also came across those who had retained their focus on principles taught by Jesus. Those religious orders who maintained a mission to the poor throughout the centuries, humble servants of the Christ they understood and followed, and those who brought peace to warring peoples. We encountered Church members who might not have even thought themselves to be religious, but who showed the true voice of that religion in their actions of pity, and the listening ear they lent to all they encountered in trouble. In terms of the principles Jesus taught as the Justice of God, we don’t gain credence by announcing to others which denomination or Church has our nominal affiliation. Rather we demonstrate our willingness to give priority to God’s justice by a steadfast holding to the course.
“Religion has many dialects, many diverse connections, but it has one true voice, the voice of human pity, of mercy, of patient justice…” What is still needed today is those who will patiently strive, and pray and work for this justice….and in so doing bring a fresh glimpse of the kingdom to all who will see.