Exodus 17:8-13, Psalm 121, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:2, Luke 18:1-8
Two weeks ago, the apostles said, “Increase our faith!” and Jesus said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed.” Last week, Jesus told the Samaritan leper, who knew to return to him, “Your faith has made you well.”
Interwoven with those exhortations to faith were warnings about meeting him when he comes again. Two weeks ago, it was, “Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’?” And between last week’s reading and this week’s, we skip a passage that says, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed,” “They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. . . . so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed.”
This week, he ties those two themes together: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
He does it with another strange parable. Luke has beautiful parables, like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. But also strange ones, like the dishonest servant, and perhaps the rich man and Lazarus.
Here, he wants to teach us that he will “give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night.” He could have used a straightforward story, like we have in our first reading: when Moses prays, the Israelites win.
Instead, he has the parable of the widow. Her insistent prayer makes sense. What is strange is how he portrays himself in the story: “there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man.” He says, “Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.” Why portray himself as the one “who neither fears God nor respects man”?
God is good. He is righteous, he upholds righteousness. The Psalms tell us, “he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.” “The LORD works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed.” “I know that the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and will execute justice for the needy.” He is not like that judge.
But as in the story of Moses praying for the Israelite army, he wants us to acknowledge that goodness. Ironically, that means we have to cry out.
We are tempted to say, “God is good, he’ll take care of it.” In practice, I think this thinking is more pervasive than we’d expect. Christians and non-Christians alike say, if God is good, I don’t need to pray, I don’t need to work, I don’t need to be righteous. God will take care of it.
But Jesus calls us to a relationship. And that relationship means that we do have to cry out, we do have to pray and work and beg for him to act. Ironically, the only way to know God’s goodness is to have to work for it. So Jesus tells this bizarre story where he compares himself to an unjust judge, one who doesn’t care about justice or about us. Ironically, it’s only when we beg like that widow, when we act like we have to convince God to be good almost against his will, that we discover that he really is good. That’s the mystery of prayer.
Of course, the widow in the story doesn’t get anything by her own works. She’s not able to secure justice for herself, and she’s not even able to earn the judge’s intervention. We’re not talking works righteousness here. Like the widow, we are helpless unless God acts. But ironically, we only discover that helplessness when we work to beg God to act.
Our second reading, from Second Timothy, tells us about another practice where we discover God’s graciousness: reading Scripture. Like the widow’s intercessory prayer, studying the Bible, searching the Scriptures, is a kind of proclamation of God’s goodness. In the Scriptures themselves we find that he is good. But even before we find him, the very practice of searching for him there is a confession of his goodness, a practice of knowing his providence for us.
And just as it makes sense to say we don’t need to beg God’s mercy, because he’ll do it anyway, so too it makes sense to say that we don’t need to look in Scripture, because God will speak to us anyway. And yet he wants us to search for him, because it is in searching that we find, in knocking that the door is open to a relationship, a real confession of his goodness, not just a passive expectation that he’ll care for us while we ignore him.
While we wait for his coming, he calls us to be eager and watch.
Do you search for God?