October 20, 2013
Twenty-Second Sunday After Pentecost
“… I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts and to discover this gift, pray always and never lose heart so that you may be proficient and equipped for every good work…”
Jeremiah 31::27-34, Psalm 119:97-104, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, Luke 18:1-8
This how I would summarize our readings for this morning. In our first reading we heard the prophet, Jeremiah, reflecting on the terrible times his people have experienced: they have been beaten, overthrown, and uprooted. All this is understood as consequences of their sins – consequences for having fallen out of relationship with their God. But then we hear the prophet continue to foretell a reversal of this bad fortune. He speaks of a time when all this destruction will be reversed; a time when there will be building up and planting; a time when all the destruction and disappointment will lead to new life and new possibilities. At the time, this would have been beyond imagination because the people have been defeated and deported and are deeply immersed in this dark place of despair. So it would take a miracle to even imagine a time when things may ever be reconciled and made new.
Jeremiah goes on to promise a new covenant with God. A Covenant in which God’s law will be written on the hearts of the people. Because of this covenant, God himself will remember the sins of the people no more. This is a powerful promise: that God will write this gift on the hearts of the people. When we say we know something by heart, what we are really saying is that we now know it so well that it now dwells within us in a new way. Well, this is the nature of this promise.
Our psalm this morning offers an extended meditation on the meaning of God’s law; this law that is to be written on our hearts. The psalmist does not hold back on his emotions, “O how I love your law”. The psalmist recognizes the power of the law to transform us. The law makes us wiser than both our enemies and our teachers. The law has the power to advance our learning in spite of our age. The law is like a safety harness that keeps us from being pulled into evil. The law is sweet, like honey on the tongue.
There is an important point to understand in all this and that is the importance of a commitment to the law, a willingness to pursue the law and stand firm in it. And, indeed, we will not make much headway in any endeavour without commitment. The artist who masters the piano or some other musical instrument cannot do so without regular attention to the instrument. The athlete who seeks to compete at some high level cannot afford to miss a day of training and conditioning. The writer who would compose a masterpiece must sit with the words every day if the work is ever to be finished.
Similar comparisons could be made to other endeavours. If a married couple expects their relationship to survive and thrive over a number of years, they must be intentional about communication, conflict management, and nurturing affection. Parents who want to see their children grow and mature into fully functioning adults must commit the time needed to train and guide them. The psalmist shows us the wisdom of the passionate Godly pursuit. Whether it is God’s truth or a chance to perform at Carnegie Hall, it is disciplined and intentional attention to the task that brings about the desired result. In the case of the law, the result is wisdom and the doorway to a meaningful relationship with God and the world in which we live.
And, quite conveniently, our Gospel reading this morning offers a profound example of passionate pursuit. As Christians, we believe that Jesus is the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s promise; Jesus is the law of love that is written on our hearts. And in this morning’s Gospel reading Jesus explains what it takes for us to discover that gift and integrate it into our lives. He tells a parable about our need to pray always and not to lose heart. In other words, we will discover this gift through disciplined, constant prayer.
This parable involves a widow who unceasingly/relentlessly pursues a judge to grant her justice against her opponent. Jesus is making the point that through prayer we must pursue this gift that has been written on our hearts as this woman pursued the judge in this parable. After refusing for a while the judge later grants the widow justice so that she may not wear him out by continually pursuing him in this way. The parable ends with Jesus asking the question, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.”
So what is this about? Well, in the ancient Jewish law court, all cases were like the one described in this morning’s parable. If someone had stolen from you, you had to bring a charge against them; you couldn’t get the police to do it for you. If someone had murdered a relative of yours, the same would be true. So every legal case in Jesus’ day was a matter of a judge deciding to vindicate one party or the other: ‘vindication’ or ‘justification’ here means upholding their side of the story, deciding in their favour. This word ‘justification’, means: that the judge decides in one’s favour at the end of the case.
So this parable is about vindication. It offers an important reminder of Jeremiah’s words as he anticipates the coming of this new covenant, “… I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” But it is a bit puzzling, because although Jesus clearly intends the judge to represent God, this judge is not at all the way we imagine God to be. He has no respect for God, and he doesn’t care whether or not he does the right thing for the people. The point of the parable is then to say: if even a rotten judge like that can be persuaded to do the right thing by someone who pesters him day and night until it happens, then of course God, who is Justice, and who cares passionately about people, will vindicate them, will see that justice is done.
The parable assumes that God’s people are like those involved in a lawsuit, waiting for God’s verdict. But it urges the people of God is pray unceasingly, to pursue God relentlessly as we wait. For some, this lawsuit may be about the Roman occupation: please God, grant us justice against our opponents.” (This of course is a timeless prayer.) For others it may be a more individual request about their own internal struggles with love / forgiveness / reconciliation: Please God, grant me justice over my struggles with seeking to do that which is pleasing in your sight.” (This too is timeless.)
Jeremiah spoke of a new law that is to be written on our hearts. Our psalmist recognizes this law is that which transforms us into a Godly people, fills us with wisdom and learning. In our Letter to Timothy it is that which equips us to live a Godly life; ‘equips us for every good work’. Jesus is both the fulfillment of that law, written on our hearts AND the judge that grants us justice against whatever opponents with which we may struggle, reconciling us with God. The justice we are granted is reconciliation with God, not necessarily having things turn out as we would wish. And we are to seek this justice unceasingly. We must pray for it continuously and not lose heart.
In a story by Wendell Berry, Pray Without Ceasing, Ben Feltner, a good man, salt of the earth, reliable, generous, wise, deeply loved and trusted by his community is shot to death by a sad, unstable man by the name of Thad Coulter. Townsfolk are furious and his family is devastated.
The evening after he is shot those who are furious go to the home of Ben Feltner. They gather outside the house until Nancy, Ben’s wife and Mat his son go outside to greet them. They say to Mat, “ we’re here as your daddy’s friends. We’ve got word that Thad Coulter’s locked up in the local jail. We want you to know that we won’t stand for the thing he did.” All the others chime in to support what was just said (there is a sense of an angry mob hysteria beginning to gain momentum…). Then, the gathered crows says that they are on their way to the jail house where Thad Coulter is currently being held in order to deal with him themselves; they want to do this as a gesture of love for Ben and for his family, Nancy and Mat.
But Ben’s son, Mat responds, “No, gentlemen. I appreciate it. We all do. But ask you not to do that.”
Then Ben’s wife, Nancy said, “I know you are my husband’s friends. I thank you. I, too, must ask you not to do as you propose. Mat has asked you; I have asked you; if Ben could, he would ask you. Let us make what peace is left for us to make.”
Mat said, “Come and be with us. We have food, and you all are welcome.”
The one telling this story is Ben’s great grandson – Mat’s grandson. He goes on to remind the reader that in time, there was a marriage to take place between the Feltners and the Coulters and he is the child of this union. He says, “My grandfather made a peace here that has joined many who would otherwise have been divided. I am the child of his forgiveness.”
It is interesting to me that the title of this short story is, “Pray Without Ceasing.” Perhaps, in that darkest of moments, after Mat’s father / Nancy’s husband has been shot, when they choose to speak against vengeance… perhaps this decision is the consequence of ceaseless prayer, relentlessly pursuing the God of Love in the midst of such a hateful act. Perhaps the decision to choose love over vengeance is the outward manifestation of that relentless pursuit. Perhaps what led them to persist in finding this God of Love and forgiveness was the Law that had been written on their hearts. I think that is what these readings are attempting to convey.
The God we worship – with Jesus – has written the Law of love on our hearts. Through our baptism we know it by heart, and yet we must remain steadfast in remembering it. Just the other day I sat down to play a piece on the piano that I used to be able to play ‘by heart’, but I haven’t played it in a long while and I couldn’t remember the notes. And the same goes with this law that has been written on our hearts. Through daily prayer, lifelong study, and constant worship we must pursue this God as the woman in this morning’s gospel pursues the judge. When we are faithful in this pursuit, our lives will be transformed, we will be rich in wisdom and generous in acts of love and forgiveness. Whenever we see love in the midst of hatred; forgiveness in the midst of hurtfulness; generosity in the midst of greed…. Whenever we see this in an individual or community we see this law written on the hearts of the people.
“… I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts and to discover this gift, pray always and never lose heart so that you may be proficient and equipped for every good work…