Last revised: October 22, 2019
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PROPER 24 (October 16-22) — YEAR C / Ordinary Time 29
RCL: Genesis 32:22-31 (Luth.); 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8
RoCa: Exodus 17:8-13; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:2; Luke 18:1-8
Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation
In recent years I’ve been blessed to learn a new way to pray — one designed to stay with you during the day (“pray always”) by keeping one’s ‘heart’ grounded in the peace of God’s Spirit (“not to lose heart”). A main mentor in the way of contemplative prayer has been Richard Rohr. Here is another opportunity to encourage a way of prayer that seems to have been pushed underground at the Reformation and is experiencing welcome revival in the New Reformation.
Rohr’s education/resource center, the Center for Action and Contemplation, brings together the two primary elements of today’s parable: prayer and justice. It begins with a call to prayer, and then tells the story of a widow seeking justice with an unjust judge. The vision of the CAC is:
Amidst a time of planetary change and disruption, we envision a recovery of our deep connection to each other and our world, led by Christian and other spiritual movements that are freeing leaders and communities to overcome dehumanizing systems of oppression and cooperate in the transforming work of Love.
Rohr likes to say that the most important word in the Center’s title is and. Contemplative prayer and acting for justice require one another; there is danger is pursuing one or the other rather than both together. Contemplation and Action. I highly recommend that readers avail themselves of the CAC’s valuable resources.
In 2016 I preached the last in a sermon series on Part 3 of Brian McLaren‘s just-published book, The Great Spiritual Migration. (Sermon: “The Great Spiritual Migration, Part 3: From ‘Organized Religion’ to Organizing Religion.”) The third part of his book — the missional element, “From Organized Religion to Organizing Religion” — emphasizes the merging of spirituality and action, even citing the Rohr riff on his center’s nomenclature:
The Spirit of goodness, rightness, beauty, and aliveness, Jesus said, is always moving. Like wind, like breath, like water, the Spirit is in motion, inviting us to enter the current and flow.
The problem is that we often stop moving. We resist the flow. We get stuck. The word institution itself means something that stands rather than moves. When our institutions lack movements to propel them forward, the Spirit, I believe, simply moves around them, like a current flowing around a rock in a stream. But when the priestly/institutional and prophetic/movement impulses work together, institutions provide stability and continuity and movements provide direction and dynamism. Like skeleton and muscles, the two are meant to work together.
For that to happen, we need a common spirituality to infuse both our priestly/institutional — and our prophetic/movement-oriented wings. This spirituality will often be derived from the mystical/poetic/contemplative streams within our traditions. Without that shared spirituality, without that soul work that teaches us to open our deepest selves to God and ground our souls in love, no movement will succeed and no institution will stand. Father Richard Rohr says it perfectly when he describes the Center for Action and Contemplation, which he founded: “The most important word in our name is and.” It is the linking of action and contemplation, great work and deep spirituality, that keeps the goodness, rightness, beauty, and aliveness flowing. (pp. 180-81)
The sermon in 2010 was pre-contemplative in my own journey, but wove together prayer and justice in ways that anticipate my journey further into New Reformation — “Praying for God’s Justice.”
1. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred, pp. 46-50. He highlights the importance of the words name and face in this passage, and takes on Roland Barthes’s structuralist approach to this passage that accepts a Freudian reading in terms of the Oedipal complex. Williams concludes his exposition of Jacob meeting Esau:
To conclude concerning the story of Jacob and Esau, the relation of the brothers is a model of mimetic desire and rivalry precisely because the brothers are twins, a factor that intensifies the rivalry and the need to differentiate the two. This need for differentiation functioned in Israel’s traditions as a story of Israel’s differentiation from its ancestral stock and relationships. At the same time it discloses that separation and identity can and should take place without violence. As already noted, in the Jacob model of origins, the hero’s injury or disability is not primarily a sign of his outsider status and an indication of his fate as a victim. The figure of Jacob is basically different from the expelled hero or sacred king. Unlike the blindness of Oedipus, Jacob’s limp is a sign of his success, a sign that he has been victorious without scapegoating or being scapegoated. The truth of the revelation to which the text bears witness (which, because of its debt to the myth of the unconscious and of endless signification, an analysis like Barthes’s will not touch), is that there is an Other whose providential reality is necessary to liberation from victimization because this Other is beyond differences and accepts human creatures in spite of the differences they make between God and man and between each other. (pp. 53-54)
2. Anthony Bartlett, Seven Stories, pp. 88ff., Story 2, “Violence and Forgiveness,” Lesson 3, “Prodigal Son,” reading the story of Jacob and Esau behind the Parable of the Prodigal Son. He writes of this story in Gen 32,
When Jacob wrestles with the man/God, God and the human are in conflict and it is the human that prevails. Jacob is given a new name and a blessing. He says, “I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved.” In Jacob’s mind it is impossible to look on the face of God and survive. Yet God has not overpowered him in order that this might happen. He names the place “Peniel,” meaning “the face of God.” (Remember that Jacob wants also to see the face of Esau.)
Now Jacob is able to see the continuity between a nonviolent God and a nonviolent human. Esau receives Jacob not with revenge, but kissing and weeping. This releases in Jacob a new understanding of God. “For truly to see your face [Esau] is like seeing the face of God — since you have received me with such favor.” Favor here means non-retaliation, nonviolence. Jacob recognizes God in the forgiveness, kindness and grace of Esau, and vice versa.
It is also helpful to see how Bartlett sees this story behind that of the Prodigal Son, beginning with a comparison:
– Two sons and a father.
– The younger son seizing his inheritance/birthright fraudulently from his father. (It was extremely disrespectful/illegal of the prodigal son to demand his inheritance while his father was still alive. Similarly Jacob completely demeans his father’s honor.)
– In both cases the younger son leaves for distant lands (also present in the Joseph story).
– The character of Jacob and the prodigal son, both trying to talk and deal their way out of a deadly situation.
– Compare the stories of Jacob meeting with Esau (Gen 33.4) and Lk 15.20: here the father takes the place of Esau, repeating the very same actions. He runs, embraces, kisses — it is the same visual scene. The Greek of the Gospel even echoes the same Hebrew expression, “to hang on someone’s neck” (to embrace).
Jesus sees the character of God (the Father) in the nonviolence of Esau which Genesis already signaled as “the face of God.” Jesus was re-telling the truth already present in Genesis. What he adds is the explicit note of the Father “filled with compassion.” He is explicitly revealing the God of compassion.
3. Walter Brueggemann, in his Interpretation commentary on Genesis, notes that Frederick Buechner called this passage The Magnificent Defeat [the title of a sermon that lent its name to a book of sermons], but suggests instead, “The Crippling Victory.” He comments further:
Jacob is a cripple with a blessing. Israel must ponder how it is that blessings are given and at what cost. This same theology of weakness in power and power in weakness turns this text toward the New Testament and the gospel of the cross. This same dialectic stands behind Jesus’ encounter with his disciples (Mark 10:35-45). They want thrones, an equivalent to asking the name. Jesus counters by asking them about cups, baptisms, and crosses. Like Jacob, they are invited to person of faith who prevail, but to do so with a limp. (p. 271)
Reflections and Questions
1. I continue to find it important to talk about the prayer of Jabez phenomenon (see the Wikipedia “Prayer of Jabez” webpage). Dr. Bruce Wilkinson continues to make huge money from his series of books about praying for success, based on to short verses from 1 Chronicles (4:9-10):
Jabez was honored more than his brothers; and his mother named him Jabez, saying, “Because I bore him in pain.” Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, “Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from hurt and harm!” And God granted what he asked.
If we want to expand on these two verses, I would do so by noticing similarities to the more expansive sagas in Genesis. Jacob is a brother favored by his mother whose name comes from how he was born (i.e., at the heel of his twin, Esau). Jacob also strives for the bigger portion, the blessing from his father, and God grants it to him. But at what cost? He must run away from home in fear for his life. In today’s passage, he is finally returning home after many years, still fearing for his life. He gets blessed again, but this time it is with his brother’s forgiveness. Which is the greater blessing, the one he stole from his brother, or the one he receives from his brother by sheer grace?
At the Jabbok River, he strives with God and wrestles away the blessing of a new name, a new start. But is this only a precursor for the real blessing he would receive the next day through his brother? After a lifetime of rivalry with his brother, he is finally freed of that struggle by resolving the struggle with God himself and procuring the new start offered by forgiveness. Jacob, upon being welcomed by Esau, convinces him to take a gift:
Jacob said, “No, please; if I find favor with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God — since you have received me with such favor. Please accept my gift that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have everything I want.” So he urged him, and he took it. (Genesis 33:10-11)
Jacob recognizes what the true blessing is.
What about those who pray the prayer of Jabez? They may get what they are asking for, but do they recognize the cost? Continued rivalry with fellow children of God? When Jesus urges us to pray without ceasing, what do we pray for? What would it take for the Son of Man to come and to find faith on earth? Let us pray without ceasing, and let our prayer be the prayer of God’s kingdom, God’s justice. Let it be a prayer for the blessing of forgiveness.
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Reflections and Questions
1. This passage is about the “sacred writings,” but notice the phrase “knowing from whom you learned it.” Without the “sacred writings” as a living word transmitted through other faithful disciples, Scripture becomes “dead letters.” In recent years, some biblical scholars have approached Scripture without faith and often manifested what “dead letters” means.
2. On the other hand, there is the approach of the biblical literalists who seem to want to reduce the words on the page to “dead letters” by emphasizing the literalness of the words, elevating the text itself over the “living word” as it has been faithfully transmitted to us via the faithful. With every word being literally true in their eyes, they are able to lift verses, or even phrases, out of context to justify their own versions of the truth.
3. The warning in 2 Tim. 4:3-4 thus takes on an ironic twist against those who seek to be faithful by literalism. The writer of 2 Tim. warns us,
For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.
Many fundamentalists see themselves as defending sound doctrine from those who have itchy ears. But the tragic irony, I think, is that their literalist method leads them to be precisely those folks they aim to defend against. Taking every word literally allows them to lift verses and phrases out of their living contexts such that they can make these verses and phrases bend to their desires. Most especially, they fall back into the myths of sacred violence that Christ came to liberate us from.
How can this be? By making the text itself an idol. The value of Scripture is always an offshoot from the Living Word, that came most especially through the Word incarnate in Jesus Christ, and then has been transmitted through the ages by the breath of God, the Spirit of God, the Paraclete.
4. The Greek word translated as “inspired by God” (NRSV) is theopneustos, literally “God-breathed,” “God-spirited.” The Holy Spirit is the breath of life, the giver and sustainer of life, and it also keeps God’s word alive. It makes sure that it always remains a living word.
1. James Alison, Jesus the Forgiving Victim, pp. 415-17. In an essay on prayer, he devotes several pages to the “importunate widow.” Prayer is learning to ask God in spite of the “unjust judges” that live in our thoughts:
Does Jesus really think that God is like an unjust judge? Indeed not. But he knows how all of us are inclined to have an unjust judge well installed into our consciousness. In fact as part of our socialization we acquire a voice or set of voices which seem to be completely impervious to anything. This voice or voices, should we be so bold as to want something, will quickly send down little messages to us: “Shouldn’t want that if I were you — better not to want much, so as not to be disappointed,” or “Getting above our station are we?” or, as in the famous Oliver Twist scene, “More?!!” And the point of these messages is to shut down our desire — to get us to mask our discontent with remaining mere puppets of our group. Our unjust judge is internal to each one of us, a glowering “no” in the face of our potential happiness.
Yet what Jesus recommends is a long-running, persistent refusal to have our smelly little desires put down. Instead we are to engage in a constant guerrilla warfare of desiring, so that eventually even the block in our head starts to yield, and what is right for us starts to become imaginable and obtainable. God is not like the judge, a hermetic block, he is like the irritating desire which gets stronger and stronger. It is only through our wanting something that God is able to give it to us.
Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?
Curiously, at the end of this teaching Our Lord shows a certain ambivalence about us. Imagination and desire feed each other positively, and this is a vital element of faith: becoming able to imagine something good, and so to want it, and then as one wants it more, finding it more possible to imagine it more fully. Here he seems aware that despite what he is attempting to implode in our midst, we are frighteningly likely to be content with far too little, to go along with our internalized unjust judges, and so not to dare to imagine a goodness which could be ours, and thus not dare to want it, let alone become crazed single-minded athletes of system-shattering desire. He wonders whether we will really allow ourselves to be given heart. (pp. 416-18)
2. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” offers this blog on the text, “Unjust Judges and Widows.”
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2016 Brian McLaren‘s extraordinarily important book The Great Spiritual Migration had just come out, which elaborates three essential migrations for the Christian movement at this point in history. I decided this book is so important that I’d like to try a three week series that fits each of the three migrations to three consecutive sets of readings, beginning two weeks prior. So this is the third sermon in the series, “The Great Spiritual Migration, Part 3: From ‘Organized Religion’ to Organizing Religion.” (Link to Part 1, Part 2)
2. The passage begins with Luke telling us that it’s about prayer, but the parable, and Jesus’ questions after the parable, are more about justice — with the Greek root word for justice –dik– appearing five times. And the irony of Jesus’ questions after the parable is that the prayer of God’s chosen ones for justice against their enemies had gone unanswered for centuries. So this passage isn’t just about not losing heart with any prayer; it’s about losing heart praying THE prayer, the one God’s people had been praying ever since the Exile. And the double irony is that, if THE prayer was to be answered quickly by Jesus’ death and resurrection, then for most Jews it was still an unanswered prayer. The Son of Man would not find much faith among God’s people. In fact, Jesus ends up playing out the parable: he takes the position of the powerless widow and appears before the unjust judge, Pilate. Yet it’s not the unjust judge who finally vindicates him. Only the Father does that in the resurrection. It is not a great scenario for producing faith, in the face of a prayer that’s gone unanswered for centuries.
The key is that God’s justice ends up being world’s apart from our human justice. Our justice based on force, ‘right-handed power,’ is always against some enemy. God’s justice based on love and mercy, left-handed power,’ includes one’s enemies. The latter is the fact that our typical human faith cannot accept. Will the Son of Man, the Human Being, find faith on the earth when he comes bearing God’s justice, a justice that includes all human beings as children of God?
In 2010 my sermon began with the mystery of unanswered prayer before settling into the mystery of how God’s justice answers THE human prayer for justice against our enemies but then doesn’t look like an answer to us, because it includes love of enemies. It ends with the mystery of unanswered prayer again and the grace of Romans 8:26-27: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” Link to a sermon entitled “Praying for God’s Justice.”
3. In the Gospel two weeks ago (Proper 22C), Luke 17:5-10, Jesus’ disciples pray to have their faith increased, but they don’t seem to understand what faith is, so Jesus doesn’t answer them straightforwardly. In our comments on the Proper 22C Gospel, we talked about learning to understand faith in terms of forgiveness and the willingness to serve, following a master who forgives and serves.
In this week’s passage, Jesus urges his disciples to pray without ceasing, giving them the example of the widow and the unjust judge. But he ends with a question, “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Is this a holdover from two weeks ago? Jesus still has doubts about whether his disciples know what faith is?
4. These questions link the Gospel Lesson with our comments on the First Lesson. We might even end with the same words: When Jesus urges us to pray without ceasing, what do we pray for? What would it take for the Son of Man to come and to find faith on earth? Let us pray without ceasing, and let our prayer be the prayer of God’s kingdom, of God’s justice. Let it be a prayer for the blessing of forgiveness.
Link to a sermon entitled “Pray Always . . . for the Reign of Forgiveness.”