The Shape of Our Hearts
The Rev. Jennifer Adams – October 16, 2016 – Proper 24, Year C: Jeremiah 31:27-34, Luke 18:1-18
I’m so very glad for the timing of this parable because it explains something unexpected and surprising that happened in the world this week. Confusing to some, absolutely fabulous to others and this parable helps me understand how it happened. Someone must have been praying everyday for the last fifty years for Bob Dylan to win the Nobel Prize for Literature! And after 18,250 days of praying without losing heart, it finally happened. The judge granted the prayer.
My work here is done.
OK, not really. If for no other reason than odds are good that other things were prayed for the past 18,250 days and they didn’t happen. So sorry, to those of you fans who came looking for more; I won’t be able to determine in the course of the next few minutes whether or not that awarding involved divine intervention or not, because while we have this beautifully simple parable on the one hand, it gets complicated pretty quickly if you hang in there long enough to look at the other hand.
Let’s see what more we can do.
Here’s what we’ve got: According to the gospel of Luke, “Jesus told them a parable about how to pray always and not to lose heart.” So right away we’re given the context, even the whole point for Jesus telling the story. He was offering some basic teaching about prayer to his disciples.
And this was how he put it: There was a widow and there was a judge. And this judge, “neither feared God nor had respect for people,” Jesus said. And the widow (which I learned a few years ago also means “voiceless one” in Hebrew) had been done an injustice. We don’t know what the injustice was, but that didn’t seem to matter to this teaching. The point was that a wrong had been done her, “Grant me justice” she said – over and over and over again – she had gone to the judge to set things right.
And the judge kept brushing her off (because as you heard, “he neither feared God nor had respect for people”) and she by virtue of her status as a widow was in that day near the bottom of the societal heap. He didn’t have to listen to her. There was no gain for him in granting her any attention – so at first he didn’t. But that didn’t stop her. Because the widow was relentless. She continued to ask for justice because she knew somewhere in her heart – which she refused to lose – that she deserved it as much as anyone else and she trusted again somewhere deep inside because there were very few outward signs to support it – that eventually justice would come her way. And so she kept going to the judge and crying out.
And eventually, the judge granted her justice. Not because he “saw the light” or because eventually his heart broke for this woman. The judge granted justice simply because he wanted to get her off his back and get on with other things. As Luke put it, the judge granted her justice so that the widow would not continue to “wear him out.” End of parable.
Then Jesus added a bit of explanation for the sake of the disciples learning, “If even an unjust judge eventually acted this way, of course God will. And it really doesn’t get much more simple than that. Our role then is to pray with everything we’ve got, without ceasing. To never lose heart, to help one another keep heart and to dedicate our hearts and our minds and our souls to continually offering our prayers to God whom the gospel promises is listening. And while sometimes that persistence can itself be exhausting, like the widow, we’re invited to trust that God will answer, in God’s time, in God’s way, with God’s care. God will respond. If you leave with only one thing today, please make it that.
Now I do wonder if it might have mattered a little bit what the widow was asking for. I think we need to consider that when applying this parable to our own prayer life. She wasn’t praying for lots of new stuff, or to win the lottery, or to have lightning come down and strike her enemies. (Not than any of us would ever consider such a prayer. . .) The widow wasn’t praying for an overabundance of anything or for harm or loss to anyone else. According to the parable, the widow wasn’t even praying for a miracle. She was praying very simply for justice.
And so part of the point of the parable might have to do with the fact that the substance of her prayers were in full alignment with the hopes and dreams of God. A God through whom justice will roll down like a river, flow like a stream, and rain down like water say the prophets.
Now I often encourage people to just let it flow when it comes to prayer, to not censor or edit when talking to God because so often we block ourselves in that conversation. And being as open as possible with God unblocks us, frees us to be our honest, broken and hopeful selves with the holy One.
But on the other hand (of prayer) I believe that what we pray for also shapes us and I think this parable is about that too. And the concept itself is actually very Anglican – the belief that we both individually and also as a community are shaped by what we pray for and how we pray it is woven into our identity as Episcopalians. Notice that our practice of prayer isn’t focused primarily on proving an outcome – it’s grounded in the power of prayer itself, the power of prayer to form us and even unite us. So, while we let it flow before God, it also serves us well to be intentional about what we are praying for.
Because praying for things like justice, love, forgiveness, compassion really does help those things rise up in us or at least makes us more aware of the possibility for those kinds of things to be so. And we were never more in need of such things than we are now. And so prayer is part of the gift we have to give this world.
Maybe that’s what Jeremiah was getting at when he talked in the first reading today about the law being “written on the hearts of the people.” To pray for something over and over and over again means to allow that something to play a role inside of us too, to allow that something that is of God to shape us in word and even action. Do not lose heart, people, instead allow your hearts to be shaped by the visions and hopes of our God. And trust that God is working to make it so.
This is exactly what the widow did. Somewhere along the way, probably through her own communal faith experience and knowledge of the prophets, she had picked up that the “voiceless” weren’t voiceless after all and that part of God’s dream for the world, part of God’s ultimate promise to the world was for justice and mercy to reign even for people like her, maybe especially for people like her. And so the widow didn’t give up. And when she wanted to, maybe her community prayed her prayers for her. And when the community needed a nudge she reminded them that the promise of justice was to be a part of the faith community’s focus in prayer and action too. While the outcome is mercifully, in God’s hands, the widow allowed that vision of God to shape her heart, to shape her action, to shape her approach to her world and her faith.
And that, Jesus said, is how prayer works on us. Turns out that “the answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind,” a wind that is among us in love, and is ultimately merciful and justice bearing for all.