October 21, 2007
( Jeremiah 31, 27-34, 2 Tim 3, 14-4.5, Luke 18,1-8)
You get some very strange heroes and heroines in Jesus’ parables. A verse in the Book of Proverbs says “It is better to sleep on the rooftop than to live in a house with a nagging woman” and yet in the parable we heard from Luke’s Gospel today, the character we are supposed to admire and imitate is a women who virtually stalks a judge, and who goes on and on nagging, until she gets what she needs.
What we are supposed to learn from this parable ( a theme which runs through all our readings today) is the value of persistence in faith. The focus in the parable from Luke is not just on the persistent petitioner – it is also on the contrast between the unjust judge – who eventually grudgingly gives in to the persistent widow, and the good judge – God – who is happy to answer our prayers.
We believe that Luke’s community was composed mostly of the poorer and less influential members of society. They were waiting and praying eagerly for the Second Coming of Christ, when they would be given relief and justice. To them, as to most humans, God seemed to move very slowly. Some of them may have given in to despair. The parable assures them that God is listening, and will respond to their prayers, and so they must not be discouraged. They need to keep on praying, so that, when the Son of Man eventually comes, he will find faith among his followers.
The letter to Timothy is also a letter to someone going through hard times. It is a letter from someone who is being persecuted for their faith, to another who is finding life difficult, encouraging him to persist in following his calling to teach and evangelise, and in particular to continue in his study of the scriptures. Timothy, we know, came from a family where the women were Jewish, but had become converts to Christianity. Timothy, like Paul, had been taught the Jewish scriptures from childhood. In this passage he is being encouraged to continue to study them, not as an academic exercise, but as an essential part of his ministry, for, he is told, the scriptures are full of useful practical guidance for living the Christian life.
The passage from Jeremiah is also a message of hope, and an encouragement to persist in faithfulness to the covenant. Jeremiah is usually thought of as a prophet of doom and gloom – and that is true of the prophecies he gave before the conquest of Judah. Once the disaster has happened, the land laid waste and the people in exile, however, he speaks a message of hope and restoration. God, he says, will be faithful to his promises. He will restore the people to their land, and fruitfulness to both them, their animals and their crops. What is to come is better than what went before, because instead of a formal relationship – a covenant written on tablets of stone – there will be a covenant of love between God and his people – a covenant written on their hearts.
Jeremiah speaks of the relationship between God and those who belong to the covenant as a marriage relationship; God is their husband, and in the new relationship they will know God as a husband knows his wife. There are echoes of the marriage covenant also in Timothy, who is encouraged to remain faithful to his calling whether the time is favourable or unfavourable – for better, for worse. In Luke’s parable, the relationship between the judge and the widow is a formal one – but Jesus contrasts this with the attitude of God to those who pray to him – people he regards as his chosen ones.
All these passages encourage us to live in an attitude of trust in God, the sort of attitude that exists between faithful spouses. The message of the Old Testament and the New is that God is working for our ultimate good, whether we can see it or not. Our part in bringing about that good is to persevere in prayer, in study, and in worship and live our lives in partnership with God.
Do we do that? Do we see God as a loving parent, eager to give us what we really need – or as a stern judge, always ready to condemn? Do we recognise God’s generosity? Or do we see God as a someone who must be nagged and persuaded to give us the goodies we want – whether they are good for us or not? Is our prayer a bargaining process, or a last resort when all our own efforts have failed to get what we want? Or is prayer an integral part of our Christian life, a cumulative building up of an intimate relationship with God?
I don’t know whether many of us are actively awaiting the Second Coming of Christ. Two thousand years have gone by since Luke and Timothy’s communities prayed fervently for it to happen during their life times, and it seems further away than ever. The world has improved in some ways since their time – but in other ways it has become much worse.
Today marks the beginning of one World Week, when we remind ourselves that rich and poor, advanced and less advanced, producers and consumers, we share this world, and everything we do affects other people. Many of us, and many of our communities, have been working for years to try to make the world a fairer and more united place. But it does sometimes seem that we take one step forward and several steps back.
The world is largely rid of the problems of European colonialism – and then a new sort of threat arosefrom the spread of Communism. Communism falls apart – and then the world is split by conflict between fundamentalist interpretations of the major religions. We begin to see results from our campaigns for fair trade – and then we are faced with new problems affecting the developing and the developed world because of climate change. So much of this seems to be beyond our ability to change – and it is easy to conclude that God is absent and doesn’t care.
The verses from Psalm 146 that we read together earlier – verses that are part of the service drawn up for one World Week – remind us, like our readings, that we must continue to trust God, and be faithful in building our relationship with him through worship, study and prayer.
God’s time is not our time. We are reminded in the psalms that a thousand ages of our time are like an evening to God. Many of life’s problems have no immediate or easy solution. Sometimes they can only be lived through, in patient trust that we are not in this alone. Sometimes our efforts to build the Kingdom don’t seem to make much difference. All we can do is to co-operate as far as we can in God’s purpose of love.
Our study of the Scriptures gives us a vision of what our world could become if we truly submitted to the sovereignty of God. Our readings today encourage us to persist in pursuing that vision, through prayer, through study, through worship until we can truly see God’s Kingdom come among us.