Widows and Judges and Saints
Ordinary Sunday 29: 17th October, 2010
Fr Ian Morrison
Assistant Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Don't feel bad about talking to yourself because you're not the first person to do it. You will notice that in today's Gospel reading, the judge does just that. And he comes to the correct decision, though not for the right reason.
In fact St Luke portrays a number of people in Jesus' parables as having conversations with themselves — like in the comics when there are some round bubbles leading to a balloon that contains the character's thoughts. The rich fool, the prodigal son, the dishonest steward — all of them talk to themselves. Not the same as hearing voices is it.
I found this particularly reassuring.
Only twice does St Luke state the meaning of the parable before Jesus tells it. It's a bit like reading the final page of the triller to find out if the butler did it. Once you know, is there any reason to read further? Let's see.
Luke states that the lesson from today's Gospel is: 'to always pray and not lose heart'.
Some rabbis taught that too much prayer annoyed God, though I think it is 'praise bands' with drum kits in the sanctuary and overhead screens in church, that have this effect.
But Jesus wanted the disciples to know that they should not be disappointed or disheartened if the kingdom did not come quickly or if their prayers were not immediately answered. They should not be discouraged by the trials that they would face — especially witnessing the injustice that was to befall him. Some may have lost heart.
But if a bad judge will finally relent and hear the woman's case, how much more will God. The point is that God is full of compassion, willing and ready to hear the prayers of the poor and oppressed. And we are counseled to be persistent in prayer, knowing that God will answer the prayers of God's children. It's an unclouded parable and a neat conclusion. And it is unbridled good news for those who pray day and night for justice, for it promises that their prayers do not go unanswered.
Of course, in reality this does leave us with a dilemma, if we are honest with God and ourselves. The dilemma is that nearly two millennia later the poor and oppressed are still calling out for relief and, for the most part, don't seem to be appreciably closer to a world of justice and compassion than they were when Jesus told the parable.
If one reads this parable as it has always been read, as a counsel to relentless prayer, there will always seem to be some lack of evidence that such prayer really makes a difference.
I do believe persistent prayer is very important, even when such prayers are not answered in the ways we think best. It is important to be unrelenting in our prayers...not only because of the changes our prayers may elicit in God's mind, but for the changes such prayers can work in our own hearts and minds. Persistence may be the key, "not because you have to beat a path to God's door before [God will] open it, but because until you beat the path, maybe there's no way of getting to your door." (Beuchner).
So, I wonder: if this parable offers a mirror for our lives, then maybe the face many of us will see when we peer into that mirror is the face of the judge who, as Jesus said, "neither feared God nor had respect for people." Is that not who we are in this story?
But, then, in the parable the judge does eventually reach the tipping point, and even if not for the best of motives and more from self-interest, does grant the widow what she wants. What she wants, of course, is justice and a fair shake. It's what the outcasts of the world most often want, and we know — from reading the Torah and the prophets and from listening to Jesus — it is what God wants for them as well.
Maybe the good news in this story for the non-outcasts — for the rest of us — is that God is like the widow — unrelenting, persistent, assertive.
God hasn't given up on us, even when we have acted as though we "neither feared God nor had respect for people." So maybe there's hope, not only for the widows and orphans and sojourners of this world, but for us. Maybe there is hope that we will tend to the shame we feel and allow it to break through our resistance and press us to open doors to those who knock persistently; maybe there is hope that we will hear their pleas at last and use our voices and our power to help shape relief and reconciliation and fairness in this world. Maybe there is hope for us.
"Behold," says the Christ, "I stand at the door and knock." Maybe today we'll open the door. Maybe. And what a good day that would be...for everyone!
Today we join with our neighbours in honouring Mary MacKillop, who was born within the original boundaries of this parish and was baptised, confirmed and had her first communion at St Francis' Church.
Mary MacKillop is being declared a saint by the Roman Church today. Some would argue that that this notion is flawed because it appears that she is being installed as a saint on the basis of merit — that is, on the basis of her good works here on earth and claims that she is responsible for miracles now she is dead. As a result of her canonisation she formally becomes a saint and can be the object of the prayers of the faithful.
As Anglicans we hold that people are, however, made saints by God through his grace alone. God chooses his saints from amongst us, even though we are not perfect. This is based entirely on whether we trust in Him. Many of those whom Jesus chose as his disciples did not lead exemplary lives beforehand.
They are saintly to us because particular aspects of their lives reveal the strength of the faith that they held.
St Paul referred to all the believers in the early church as saints. Indeed we may all be saints eventually through the grace of God solely because of our faith in him.
In the Anglican Church we do not need a legal process for determining who is a saint and who is not. Indeed, some prefer to drop the term saint when identifying those whom many of us think of as the traditional saints of the past.
Instead, they speak of Paul and Peter and Barnabas. In their egalitarianness, they don't wish to suggest that some are more 'saintly' than others, nor that there is some defined process for making a person's life worthy of commemoration. Each day in this church, on the anniversary of their death, we remember those of this parish who have gone before us in faith.
In addition, our lectionary sets out many people whose faith we can commemorate throughout the year. Some of them are Australians, so it would be a dishonour to their blessed memory to suggest that there is now only one Australian saint. They are not any less worthy of remembrance.
However, it would be wrong to allow criticism of the earthly process of canonisation (struggling today to catch up to the reality of Mary MacKillop's sainthood) to overshadow the role models that God has provided to us in all his saints. Their lives exhibit the outworking of their faith.
And those who have gone before us form part of that great cloud of witnesses (witnesses of faith) which we know as the communion of saints. They worship God with us. And we can ask them to pray for us, just as we ask to be remembered in each other's prayers.
Asking for prayer is quite different from worshipping an idol. We can ask each other to pray for us, just as we can ask any one in the communion of saints for prayer — whether that be the Blessed Virgin Mary whom we honour in our Lady Chapel, St Peter whom he honour in this church, or even Mary MacKillop.
What we are asking of them is their prayers for us to God through Christ. Luke wrote that "they ought always to pray', and so we ask for the saints to join us in our prayers.
There is a danger that the legalism of a canonisation process may deflect the attribution of miracles towards the one who was asked for prayer, rather than to the person to whom those payers are ultimately offered — God the Father through Jesus Christ his son. Even when they were alive, the early saints healed the sick, not in their own name, but in the name of Jesus Christ.
We can ask Mary MacKillop for her prayers, and we can rightly thank her for them, but we thank God for any, and all, benefits that we receive or miracles that occur.