Sermon preached at the CR Mass on Sunday 17 October 2010

The Unjust Judge  (Luke 18:1-8)

At first sight this parable seems an easy one to understand. The woman asks and asks and asks and eventually gets what she wants. So too with us, in our prayers. If we ask and ask and ask we too will get what we want, or so Jesus seems to say. Yet he doesn't. This parable is not just another way of saying "Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find." That promise has difficulties enough. This parable of the unjust judge, or the importunate widow, is more specific than that. This woman is asking for justice. She wants her case to be judged and herself to be put in the right. That is what she gets. Jesus then says, "Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?" So let's be clear at the start. This story is primarily about justice. God is a God of justice. Luke, we know, cares passionately about the poor, the weak, the marginalised in society. They are the ones who suffer most injustice. Luke presents the Kingdom of God as a place where their wrongs are righted, where things are turned upside down. Right at the beginning of his gospel he puts this hope into the mouth of Mary: "He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly." Luke is not concerned with justice as an abstract virtue. He is thinking of the actual people who suffer injustice. He wants their wrongs to be righted and he believes God will do it.

Does God do it? Well that is the problem, because it often seems that God doesn't do it. Two thousand years after Jesus there is still huge injustice in the world. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, power remains in the hands of the richest. Countries suffer unjust rulers for decades. The nice democratic powers of the West oppress the rest of the world with their economic power. True, they often try to make things better but they often only make things worse, as in Iraq.

Perhaps it helps to take a longer view of history. Justice did not come as quickly as Luke expected, perhaps not as quickly as Jesus expected. Yet it has begun to be born. It is slowly finding its way into the world. The world in Jesus' time was a very unjust place. The Jews themselves had the law of Moses, which protects the weak, encourages humane values, sets up good societies. Yet the Biblical writings themselves show that this law never really was practiced. Jesus himself shows how his fellow Jews got obsessed with questions of purity and forgot about justice. Rome, too, had a law which people continue to admire. It was certainly better than what went before but it was still a pretty brutal law which favoured the rich and did not give much to the poor. For all the injustice in the world things do seem to have got a bit better. Maybe that is how we need to see justice, not as a virtue which can suddenly be put in place in the world but a long slow transformation of human society, a long slow transformation of human beings themselves. It is a long slow conversion process not the sudden, total conversion some of our Christian brothers and  sisters imagine but the transformation of life the conversatio morum of the monastic tradition. If we look with the eyes of Jesus we will see that this is happening all the time but those very same eyes of Jesus will make us see that there is a very long way to go. Those eyes of Jesus may also show us that there are things we need to do to make justice more real in our world. That will certainly be a very uncomfortable thing to see.

But we must come back to the parable. It is about justice and there are two characters in it: the woman who goes on and on asking and the judge who is unjust but eventually gives in. Now, it is always a bit risky to allegorise parables but Christians have done it from the very start and probably Jesus did it too, so we can take the risk. In this parable it is very easy to see ourselves in the place of the woman, asking and asking for what we want. The problem is that we can't simply put God in the place of the judge, for God is not unjust. God is the pinnacle of all justice. Or is he? There are at least two problems there. One is that God, in the Old Testament, is not always the strictly impartial judge he is supposed to be. God favours the poor, against the rich. God lets off the sinners. God overlooks the crimes of the wicked, if they repent. Over and over again we see God doing what judges are not supposed to do setting free the guilty and ignoring the sins of the wicked. Indeed, we thank God that he does it to us as well. If God judged us as we deserved most of us would not be here now. God is actually an unjust judge; or you may say that God understands a deeper justice than the one we humans normally see. Yet the problem of this parable goes deeper, because God does often seem to be like the unjust judge of the story. Why doesn't he answer our prayers? It seems we have to go on and on and on, nagging him for years, or decades, before he finally bestirs himself and acts. It's not just the things we want for ourselves. Maybe we can accept that he knows better and doesn't think it right for us to have them. What about Burma? Why doesn't he get rid of that awful military junta and set the people free? What about the Palestinians, Christian and Muslim? Can't he persuade his Jewish people to treat them according to their own law? How many millions of prayers were offered in Auschwitz, or Treblinka, or Ravensbruk and yet all those Jews died? What about the Sudan where Muslim people persecute Christians who worship the same God as they do. Can't God do anything about that? If we say he can't, we question his power. If we say he won't we question his goodness. It is all very well to say in the long run God's justice is done. In the long run these tyrannies come to an end. Well, yes. In South Africa it took 45 years but apartheid did come to an end. Communism collapsed in Russia after 70 years and in Eastern Europe after 40. The importunate widow doesn't get justice, though her grandchildren might!

So in the end we can't get away from the problem of that other text, "Ask and you will receive." Sometimes it is true, amazingly true. When we have the courage to place ourselves on the line and ask directly for what we want it can happen at once as our brother student Ben has discovered this week, with help from you.

Sometimes our prayer takes a bit longer. It may force us to think more deeply about a situation and realise it is more complicated than it seems. Why doesn't God knock off Robert Mugabe, or remove the Burmese junta, or stop the fighting in the Congo. Well, it is never just one man at the top; there are always others, vested interests, systems that have to be dismantled, thousands of stakeholders who won't let go, or a situation of chaos that can't be tidied up. Perhaps God does know best. God may know that knocking off Robert Mugabe would make the situation worse. Zimbabweans need to use this time to build something that will take Mugabe's place.

Sometimes we realise we must pray for something else. We may begin to pray for the recovery of a friend from cancer and then realise we need to pray for an end to pain, or a peaceful death, or a deepening of faith, or for the people left behind.

Sometimes praying makes it clear to us that God wants US to do something. We want to be involved in healing his sick world and he asks us quite simply to do it; not just pray for refugees in Zimbabwe but actually help them build a church; not just pray for a greater care for the environment but seek out more and more ways of not damaging it ourselves; not just pray for those suffering from drug abuse but finding ways in our parishes to get them off drugs. These are hard things to do, yet our prayers will not make sense until we start doing them. Then it really is amazing how prayer begins to work.

I think it was Alan Ecclestone who wrote once, "Prayer does not change God; it changes us." When our prayers do not seem to be doing anything we need to ask ourselves, is God asking me to do something? Does God want me to change? Perhaps our prayers do not work because we are not listening to God, or we don't want to hear what he says.

Nicolas Stebbing CR