Worn Out or Worn In Luke 18:1-8

Then after the government shutdown, which ended with a compromise that will likely see another shutdown in January, Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.

            Somehow this Gospel lesson seems tailor made for this week.   It has been a tough and contentious past couple of weeks, where fervent and persistent prayers have been uttered on all sides of the debate, and where resolution is not forthcoming in any way, so we feel a connection to the plight of this widow of which Jesus speaks.

            We don’t know her circumstances, but we know that widows are always on the fringes, in that society and ours really.  Who speaks for them?  Who pays attention to them?   Who cares for them?  

            We don’t know a thing about this judge.  Sometimes he’s called “unjust”, but in the parable it just seems to say he is truly and really very uncomfortably impartial.   He neither fears God, nor respects people.   He doesn’t operate out of moral or religious convictions, and isn’t inclined to be swayed by status or position.   How do you get a ruling out of such a person?  What argument do you make to appeal to someone who doesn’t appear to be “moved” by anything?

            Persistence!  That’s what we’re told to employ.

            Persistence!

            The same forces that wind and water use to wear down stone can be employed to wear down other resistances.

            Persistence can be used to wear down resistance to justice.

            Persistence can be used to wear down resistance to change.

            Persistence can be employed to wear down resistance to oppression.

            Found in the actions of this widow of the parable is the key to understanding how it is that change comes about in this world.

            It is persistence that makes it happen. 

This parable is a common biblical argument found throughout the scriptures, which is an argument from lesser than, to greater than.

            It’s not that God is like this judge at all, and that is sometimes confusing for us because we are so used to trying to figure out who God is in the parable.  We’re not supposed to equate God with anyone in this parable, rather the parable is descriptive of “how much more” you can expect out of God than you might expect out of others.  If you can get what you need from them, you will surely get it from God.   If you can move a judge like this with your persistence, how much more can you expect God to respond to your own prayers on other matters?

            That ends up being pretty good news for us, because quite frankly, at this point in time we don’t expect a lot.

            We don’t expect a lot from government and maybe, we don’t expect a lot from God.

            That’s precisely the kind of situation in Luke’s Gospel into which this parable is spoken.  At the end of chapter 17, although we skip over it, Jesus gives a “little apocalypse” where he talks about how bad things will get before the Kingdom of God is revealed in full.  The disciples are discouraged by his words.

Jesus answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is! ‘ or ‘There it is! ‘ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”   The kingdom is already here, Jesus says.  You are a part of it, oh disciples!   That ends up being a little more than a little disheartening, because we often times can’t see it in ourselves.   We sometimes don’t want to hear that the Kingdom resides within us.

            We’d like a final resolution, thank you!   Take this uncertainty off the table for us God. Fix it!  You do it God!   Or “You do it we say to someone else.

            But that’s a little more complicated than we might expect, and we’ve seen that in our own debate this past few weeks.

            Everyone wants people to be cared for, but how to do that without breaking the bank and breaking our political, social, and economic systems?   That is a matter of debate!   We have different philosophies on how to accomplish things, different starting places from which we think things should naturally flow and follow.

            It’s not fair that people are here in the U.S. illegally, but even those who advocate fences and walls and sending people back to wait their turn are loathe to want to do that when they realize what “going back” might mean.  You can have a cold and rational approach toward the issues of immigration or economics, until you are the one who begins to see parallels in our own practices to things that we promised we would never let happen again, and then you are caught short in what seems a simple, or final solution.

Do I really want that?   Is that really the only option?

This is the world that Jesus addresses with this parable.  If you were expecting the Kingdom to be simple, I’m sorry, it’s not.  It is within you!   And, because it is within you; it is inherently complicated! The matters of relationship and justice and care for the neighbor are inherently complicated in this world of finite resources and competing interests and seemingly unmovable personalities.

            But it is within you to find your way through it.

            That’s what Jesus wants us to see in the parable of this Widow, learns as she goes and persists at her request.  

            That is what Jesus wants us to see in the judge that acknowledges her petition at last, what moves him.   “This woman will wear me out!”

            It is that well-worn path of persistence in prayer and dialog with one another that reveals the Kingdom of God at work in us, what that Kingdom is to look like, and who it is to include.  It is a path you have to tread on your own, back and forth, with that other, until the way is clear, the direction determined and the agreement is made.

            And if truth be told, what frustrated us all in those days of the shut-down was the fact that there was no persistence in dialog.

            There is a big difference between a well-worn path of dialog, and a trench.

            The Gospel lesson for this week gives us both hope and a challenge. 

            The hope comes from this assurance by God that persistence in prayer and dialog pays off.   The Kingdom is within you!   You can do this!

            The challenge comes in whether you will or not. 

            “When the son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?”  That is the haunting question at that concludes the parable.

            It is Jesus saying “your persistence will pay off, but I wonder if you’ll do it?”  He wonders if his disciples are ready, if they will be persistent after the events of trial, crucifixion, and resurrection. Will they persist in the pathway I have shown them?

            That is ever the challenge of faith.  

            How awesome is this God of ours who has done so much for us, who has led us by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.  A God who has created, sustained, rescued, and saved, and given great and gracious promises, and who after all of that sends his Son to live among us.

            How awesome is this God who lives as we live, walks as we walk, breathes our air and feels out pains and frustrations and needs, and who then heals and forgives and leads us so that we would know of his Kingdom and power in our lives.

            How incredible, that after all of this, after placing the seed of the Kingdom of God deep within our own selves, this God of power and majesty and might would then step back and with baited breath wonder….. “Will they actually use what they’ve been given?”

            Will they be persistent in prayer and in voice and in dialog with me and with each other in such a way that this world will be transformed and that seed of the Kingdom that is sown deep inside each one of them would come now to fullness of harvest, and the world be changed? 

            That is the question on Jesus’ mind as he tells the parable, and looks at his disciples, at us in love.

            That is the question we entertain every day, in every action we undertake. 

            We have God’s confidence, so we have confidence in God to persist in what God knows we can do, bring in the Kingdom?  Be the change we want to see in the world, be the change the world groans to see and experience?

Who Says Thanks? Luke 17:11-19

           Quick Exercise, I want bring to mind what your biggest complaint is at the moment.    Go!

            Now, bring to mind the ONE THING that you are most thankful for right at this moment.  

            Which one was harder to come up with?

            I would bet dollars to donuts that you could come up with a complaint within seconds, but when you had to come up with something you are thankful about you really had to stop and think for a moment, maybe even struggle to come with something.

            Don’t disparage, I think this is kind of fundamentally the way we are built.  We are much more ready to notice what is wrong than to see what is going right, and that turns out to be a pretty important point to catch in understanding our Gospel lesson for today.   To understand the Gospel you must dig a bit deeper.   You must wrestle with what it means to be a leper, and what it is to be a Samaritan.

            To be a leper is to be excluded from the community in every way.  In Biblical times Leprosy was identified as any kind of visible skin affliction.   It could be actual clinical leprosy, psoriasis, eczema, or even a bad case of acne.     Whatever the priest didn’t like the looks of and labeled as being potentially contagious or dangerous was cause for exclusion from the community.

            Lepers therefore could only have contact with each other.   You could not see or talk to your family, spouse, or children.  You could not access your property, wealth or goods.   It was utter isolation.   To be a leper was to in effect be a “non-person.”   They are simply called “a leper.” 

            And hey, as near as we can tell, so long as they share that common diagnosis, they get along fine.  It is a matter of survival to depend upon one another when all else has been stripped away.  And so these ten lepers, once they have been identified as that, cease to be whatever they were before. They share the commonality of their disease, which is why they can with one voice they raise their cry to Jesus.    “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

            Jesus hears their cry, and tells them to show themselves to the priest.   This is where a new dimension is introduced to the story.

            So Jesus, having with a word from afar cleansed them, tells them what they need to do.  They need to go to the one who can certify their cleansing and allow them back into the community from which they originally came.   It is, as I said, the priest who makes that call. They show their skin to him, he looks at it, and he tells them and the community that it is all right to have contact with one another again.  How joyful it must have been for those nine who were able to go back to their family, their friends, and all of their connections with the community of faith centered around the Temple! 

            But this gets us to the matter of the Samaritan.  A Samaritan is not Jew, and he is therefore not welcome in the Temple.   Jews and Samaritans have nothing to do with each other.   The cleansing actually becomes a dilemma.   As long as these ten were all simply “lepers,” they could be together quite nicely.   Adversity makes friends of all foes.  But now, with this cleansing of the disease, the only thing they shared in common — their diagnosis and being considered outcasts — is gone. 

           “Go and show yourselves to the priest” is a fine command to receive if you are a Jew.  The nine can joyfully go back to their old way of life, returning to friends, family and their property.   But the Samaritan has no share in any of that.  He also has no place with the nine anymore. The priest will pronounce the nine clean, and then take one look at the Samaritan and turn his nose up in contempt.   The priest cannot pronounce him clean!   Samaritans are unclean because of who they are, and are never welcome.  He is clean enough for his “own kind”, perhaps, but not welcome with the nine whom he had been living with.

            There is something wrong about that!  You and I can feel it.  There is something unjust about the fact that Jesus can treat all ten alike, gives them the same blessing and the cleansing, but then after Jesus has pronounced them “clean” the priest, the world, those whom he had previously been connected to  will have to make distinctions and will have to exclude, judge and prohibit.   There is something wrong with a world that divides and separates people because of who they are, or where they have come from. 

          There is something wrong with a world where people who would otherwise get along with each other are now told that they can have nothing to do with each other because of where they were born, or because of their outward appearance, or because of their heritage.  As the Samaritan goes along, he suddenly realizes what Jesus offers.  Jesus offers not only cleansing, but a new understanding, a new outlook on this broken world.   Jesus offers more than cleansing, he offers healing.   

          There were NO DISTINCTIONS in Jesus’ actions.  He did not separate.  All were treated the same.   All ten were seen as acceptable to God, and Jesus did not care where they had come from.  In that moment, the Samaritan is more than cleansed.  He is healed!  The old wounds, the old world’s understanding that we should be separated, were swept away.  

           He goes rushing back to Jesus to see if what he thought he heard Jesus say to him was true!  That is what he is doing praising God in a loud voice.  He’s shouting at the top of his lungs, bouncing back to Jesus to give thanks and to make sure that this is true!

           Is it true, Jesus that we are all God’s people and that you show no partiality?

           Is it true that it is your desire to heal all the old wounds, those that separate us from each other and keep us from community?   Is that why you eat with sinners and tax collectors, have mercy on lepers, cast out demons and talk with Pharisees even as they ridicule you?  Do you do all that to show us that the old wounds can be healed and all people can be drawn together in you?

            There is something wrong with the world, and Jesus has come to set it right.   And what is more, for that Samaritan the important thing is that Jesus has chosen to set HIM right!  Jesus has come to give HIM a glimpse of this kingdom where finally all the things that divide us are swept away by the love and mercy of God.

            This is where I want to draw you back to the opening exercise. Which was easier for you?  Coming up with a complaint, or something to be thankful about?

            I am convinced that this story of the lepers won’t mean much to you unless you are a person who has felt the wrongness and the exclusion of the world.   

            Who says “thanks?”   it is those who have felt the injustice and who now experience something new!

            So, don’t lightly dismiss that complaint that you had or minimize it. If you found it easier to come up with a complaint than you did a thanksgiving, then you are a part of that world that understands there is something deeply wrong.  This is not the way it should be!  You might even have sensed that what is wrong with the world does reside deep inside you as well.

            Now think back to what you had to give thanks about.   Was it just about you?  Or was your thanksgiving more about something you had seen God do for someone else, or some resolution of a problem that you couldn’t solve on your own? Were you thankful for what you had done, or for what had happened to you, or for what you had seen done by God for someone else?   That may be the start of you understanding what it is that Jesus has come to offer.   Maybe you also recognized that the one given the power to address he complaints of this world is also YOU.  You, no longer just a faceless, nameless part of a group, but now given an identity, or perhaps more to the point, have your identity restored.

            Indeed, that is the point at the end of the story.  Jesus tells the Samaritan to “Go.”  Go now, your faith has made you whole. You see the world as it should be, you see the world now as God intends it to be.  You won’t be satisfied with going back to the way it used to be.  Go, and make known the Gospel which you have seen, that all people may be one in more than just adversity.

            Beloved, we are indeed fortunate people.  To us has been given this vision of what God intends for this world, and for his people.  The command that Jesus gives the Samaritan is the same one he gives to us. 

            “Go!”  

             You know where the lines are drawn,   Go, bring healing, and inclusiveness. 

             You know who the outcast is in your community.  You know who the unwanted one is, the unloved, the non-person, the person who is identified only by his or her “label.”   Poor, illegal, gay, straight, bi, tranny, nerd, geek, etc, etc.  You know the labels in your place, your corner of the world.

             “Go,” says Jesus to you, and include, touch, love, and value that labeled one — that the Gospel may become real.  

            Go to the one who is picked on in school.

            Go the family member you have been ignoring.   

            Go, that the old wounds can be healed.  In the Kingdom of God all distinctions, classes, races, and separations of this world fall away into the new reality of God gathering us all at his table.

             Go, in faith, that such faith in Christ Jesus can make you and this world whole at last.