In the section of Luke’s Gospel leading up to our reading this morning, Jesus has been asked by some Pharisees when the kingdom of God would be coming. Somewhat startlingly, Jesus responds by saying, in effect, that the kingdom of God has come, and that it is among them already, though not necessarily easy to discern and certainly not welcomed by everyone.
Jesus then goes on to speak with his disciples about another event, the revealing of an intriguing character he refers to as the Son of Man. This revealing seems to refer to the conclusion of the present age, an age which has continued since Jesus’ time on earth, and which is characterised by the suffering and rejection of the Son of Man and of those who would follow him into the kingdom he has come to establish. The Son of Man is thus to be identified with Jesus himself, who is warning his disciples that there will be difficulties associated with following him under the prevailing conditions.
These difficulties will require perseverance in prayer and steadfastness of heart, and are such as to leave Jesus seemingly uncertain as to whether faith will endure until the end of the age. Jesus chooses to illustrate his point by telling a story about a widow and an unjust judge, a judge for whom the gospel of the kingdom would be anything but good news. There is humour in the story, which Jesus’ original audience might have appreciated more readily than we are able to.
Widows were understood to be among the most vulnerable people of that society, and the Hebrew scriptures make frequent reference to God’s concern for them, and to God’s expectation that they would be taken care of. A judge who disregarded God and people and who refused justice for a widow in distress would have been a scandalous figure, and there would have been much amusement at the image Jesus provides of the widow not only standing up for herself but even physically confronting the judge and giving him a black eye.
And so, we find ourselves at the intersection of faith and prayer and justice, and we are invited to ask ourselves what each of these means. How do they relate to one another?
I think Jesus is saying that faith has something to do with confidence in who God is and what God is like. Amongst other considerations, God is concerned about the wellbeing of his people and expects justice to be characteristic of life in the kingdom of God. All people should be able to access what they need in order to live their lives with dignity. We clearly have some way to go yet before that is true of life in this world of ours.
In the words of the prophet Jeremiah, we collectively have eaten the wild grapes and our teeth have been set on edge. But Jeremiah also holds out hope for a different future, a future of life in relation to a God who forgives sins and who invites us to be his people, a people who know God and who know what he is like, as God puts his law within us and writes it on our hearts.
I think this relationship is what prayer is about, and is how prayer produces the fruit of justice from the seed of our faith. Faith is not just about believing a set of precepts, but is especially persistence in reaching out to God. Prayer is faith in action, but is not just about talking to God. Prayer is at least as much about listening to God, learning to see what God sees and to care about what God cares about.
One of the ways this might happen is through the ancient monastic practice of Lectio Divina, or sacred reading, when the sacred writings referred to by the apostle Paul in his letter to Timothy are allowed to speak to us in a form of prayer, teaching, reproving, correcting, training in righteousness, so as to equip us for every good work. Such listening prayer is how God writes his laws on our hearts, and justice is what happens when we live in accordance with those laws.
While it might puzzle us that Jesus compares God to an unjust judge, seeming to say in effect that God is at least better than that, which is surely a rather low standard, it has been suggested that there is another way of reading the story Jesus tells. Sometimes, perhaps, we are the unjust judge, when our hearts become hardened and we become indifferent to the needs of those less fortunate than we are. Then it is that God comes to us in the guise of the most vulnerable, those we would rather not see and hear, persistently demanding justice from us, pummelling at our hearts until they are softened enough that God can write his laws upon them, and we can move together without fear more surely into his kingdom of lovingkindness.