painting of medieval church in summer

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

If we want to find something, it really helps to know what we are looking for, what it looks like.

Every so often I’ll get a call or a text from my daughter – I don’t know if this ever happens to anyone else – that goes something like this: “Can you do me a favor?” Sure. “OK, can you go in my room …” and then she’ll start describing whatever it is she wants me to find, and the game is to describe it well enough for me to know what she’s looking for. So it could be something like “My tennis shoes, not the high tops, not work-out shoes, on the bottom shelf … black …” by which time, hopefully, I’ll say “OK, found ‘em.”– because I want to get her what she wants, but it’s hard when I don’t exactly know what I’m looking for –

So when Jesus ends the story about “the unjust judge” with that haunting question, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” our first reaction may be something like “yes, yes, he will, you will, we’ll have faith” – we’re motivated – but then we might start to wonder, so, what will the Son of Man be looking for, what does this faith that Jesus hopes to find look like?

Of course, we could use a metaphor, an image, of this faith … but … there are different kinds of faith, and they look different.

For instance … I’m guessing that most of us here have been absorbed in the story of the Thai soccer team, the Wild Boars, that was trapped in the Tham Luang Cave by the sudden arrival of the monsoon season, and rejoiced along with the rest of the world when the last player was brought safely to the surface on Tuesday morning.

As the details of what that rescue involved have been coming out in the news, it’s easy to see what these young boys had to go through as an image of the kind of faith that just has to “let go and let God” – they had to be tightly strapped into wet suits and full-face oxygen masks, then wrapped in space blankets to insulate them from the 40 degree water, then strapped into special stretchers that acted like cocoons, that could be guided by divers through parts of the cave, attached to a rope line at another point to be guided over jagged rocks, finally hooked on to a last rope that pulled them up to the surface … through all of this, they simply had to trust the divers and the rescue workers who were doing the work of moving them through the narrow passages, for long stretches totally submerged in water.

It would be hard to invent a more vivid, poignant image of faith, complete trust, than that – the kind of faith people have when they literally have no other options.

That’s the kind of faith Christians mean when we talk about “being saved,” or “God’s grace,” that good old Reformation idea that we are lost and can’t do anything to save ourselves, that we have to depend on God, on the grace of Jesus Christ. We value that kind of faith, obviously.

But … if this kind of “letting go and letting God” is what Jesus means by “faith” here, it’s a little odd that he tells us this story … about someone who does the complete opposite of “letting go.”

The widow in Jesus’ story is not “letting go.” Just the opposite. This widow is hanging on, for dear life, it seems; she’s been pestering this judge, past his point of endurance; she’s literally been “hammering away” at him over and over. We are led to imagine her pounding on his door when he’s at home, and following him through the streets of the town whenever he goes out, shouting at him about what he’s going to do about her case, making an infernal nuisance of herself.

In fact, if the narrator hadn’t told us, right at the beginning, that this is a story about “the need to pray always and never lose heart,” we probably wouldn’t think of this persistent widow as an image of the faith Jesus asks about, and seems to hope to find …

Because after all, what does it mean when we pester, and nag, and keep reminding someone of something we want them to do over and over and over and … ? I confess, in my family I’m the one who’s more likely to be nagged and pestered, and I know it’s because my family doesn’t trust me … or rather, they do trust me, to forget to do things. So, we could seriously ask ourselves – is this what faith looks like? What kind of faith would look like this?

It’s clear the widow believes that the judge can do something for her; she must trust that, if he takes up her case, she will get justice. She has faith that this judge can do what she asks.

But she doesn’t seem to have much confidence that the judge will do it, certainly not without real pressure from her, which is why she is taking matters into her own hands.

Which, to be fair to this widow, makes a lot of sense, because we know she is dealing with an “unjust judge,”

… someone who “neither feared God nor had any respect for people,” which seems to mean, he felt no particular obligation to obey God for any reason, and no particular concern about doing what other people wanted, either – which might be a good thing, since he probably wasn’t bought off by big wigs, but could also mean that he’s not moved by sob stories or a saintly reputation.

So this poor widow … can’t appeal to his fear of God, … can’t get her rich and powerful friends to put in a good word for her – if she even has friends like that, which she probably doesn’t … and can’t appeal to his heart. All she can do is her level best to convince him that she’s going to make his life … miserable, not worth living … if he doesn’t take up her cause.

She has to be persistent in her desperation precisely because she is dealing with someone who, when it comes to caring about her and her problems, is nothing like God.

Jesus says flat out, God wouldn’t be like this, God wouldn’t need pestering, God would be very quick to grant justice to God’s little ones.

In fact, we know God cares about this poor widow, because God has made very plain in the Torah, in God’s instruction, that God cares about widows, orphans, aliens – the people who would be most vulnerable in the society of ancient Israel, the people who would be most likely to end up being forced to depend on other people.

God tells God’s people to care for these people, the aliens and orphans and widows. What it means to worship the God of Israel is precisely to obey these commandments, to follow these instructions, that God has given. We just heard Jeremiah reminding the king of Judah about that rule a little earlier this morning.

Come to think of it, the king of Judah could have been someone in the position of a judge, back in the day. In Jesus time, there was no king of Judah any more, the person a widow might have gone to might have been rabbi, or might even have been a gentile, administrative officer.

Anyway, worshiping the God of Israel was supposed to mean you followed God’s rules, including the one about caring for widows and orphans and strangers; breaking that rule meant you were worshiping some other God, some other priority; it meant something or someone else was more important to you, whether that was keeping your hard-earned money in the treasury instead of sharing it with the needy, or hanging out in the palace with your friends instead of volunteering at the widows and orphans charity bazaar, or whatever it was that you put before caring for these vulnerable people.

Which ought to make us wonder … why is this widow in such desperate straits, in the first place, that she seems to be down to her last option, pestering this unjust judge? What’s gone wrong? Maybe she doesn’t have sons, maybe her husband didn’t have brothers, but then, why haven’t her neighbors, the members of her community, come through for her according to God’s instructions … ?

What if this is exactly the question Jesus wants his listeners to ask themselves … ?

What if the faith Jesus is asking about is the kind of faith that people exercise when they follow God’s instructions, even when they have other options, even when … at least at first glance … it would be to their advantage not to.

In ancient Israel, it could be very tempting to make a quick profit by not honoring a widow’s claim – what was she going to do? Or administering property that had been left to an orphan and just never getting around to giving that property back; or just be more concerned about making ends meet than about someone who was even worse off …

This is a different kind of faith; this isn’t the kind of faith we have when we’re out of options and can’t do anything but “let go and let God.” This is the kind we have when when we have options, and we choose the one that follows God’s direction; this is the kind of faith that looks like choosing what’s kinder, or more humane, over what’s easier, or less costly, or what looks like it might be “better for us.” This is the kind of faith that looks like loving our neighbor as ourself by making someone else’s desperate situation a matter of desperate concern for us, too.

Choices like this involve faith, or trust, all right – the faith that God’s instructions are the right ones, are for the best, for us and for others, even when their short-term costs are high.

Interestingly, we can see what this kind of faith looks like in the story of the Thai rescue effort, too.

It looks like the volunteer cave divers who showed up to help search for the soccer players in murky waters, from places as far away as Finland, knowing that their skills were needed. It looks like the business people who donated massive pumps, and the fuel to run them, to pump tens of thousands of gallons of water out of the cave system to make the rescue effort more feasible. It looks like the 138 or so farmers downhill from the cave who lost an entire year’s rice harvest when that water flooded their fields. It looks poignantly like retired Thai Navy Seal Sunam Kunam volunteering his expertise, and giving up his life in the rescue effort – not because he had no choice, but because had a choice, and made the compassionate one.

In a way, we can think of this kind of active faith as a different kind of persistence in prayer – the active form of prayer that consists of following God’s instructions to love our neighbor as ourselves through thick and through thin, not only when it is easy or convenient, but also when it isn’t.

When Jesus asks whether the arrival of the kingdom of God will meet faith on earth, surely he has this kind of faith in mind as much as, and maybe even more than, he has in mind the kind of faith that has no other option but waiting for rescue. Surely he has in mind the faith that looks like obedience to God’s call to be part of the rescue of the vulnerable, the least, and the lost, trusting that God not only can, but will, grant justice to God’s people, and may even work through us to do that – whether we see its fruits immediately, or have to wait a little longer.

[“What Faith Looks Like,” a sermon on Luke 18:1-8 with a nod to Jeremiah 22:1-9, substantially as given at a small church in rural southern Indiana.]

painting of medieval church in summer

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