The 21st Sunday After Pentecost: Do Not Lose Heart

Jeremiah 31:27-34
2 Timothy 3:14 – 4:5
Luke 18:1-8

Everything has collapsed. And their parent’s generation is to blame. Ruinous taxes; an out-of-control government that spent lavishly on ill-fated military adventures but ignored the needs of everyday people; a yawning gap between the haves and have-nots; a sexually obsessed culture that could no longer recall how it once honored loyalty and fidelity; the total abandonment of the its founding principles, both sacred and secular, have led to the end of a long and remarkable national experiment. They were supposed to be a city on a hall, a light to all the nations and now they were a joke, a pariah, a failed nation—little more than an asterisk in the annals of history.

They had been warned, but it was too late. They had chosen to make a foolish last stand, led by a worthless leader with delusions of grandeur and that foolishness was still mind-numbing. The armies of Nebuchadnezzar had swarmed over the walls of Jerusalem, burning every building, including Solomon’s once beautiful Temple. What was left of the national treasury was captured–along with the upper classes of politics, culture and religion– hauled ignominiously off to the deserts of Mesopotamia. The Kingdom of Judah, once a place where justice and equality were the ideals, was a wrecked and hopeless basket case. The generation that remained behind gritted their teeth against their fate, bitter at their parents, bitter at their kings, and angry at the failure of their prayers.

Few members of their parents’ generation still lived among them, but one was a priest and prophet whose years of warnings had been ignored. Jeremiah had been protected by a handful of loyal followers and hidden away from the Chaldean wrath. His heart was as broken as theirs, but his prophetic voice was still strong. He found a quill and an old piece of vellum and began to write about the future for the young people who no longer believed that there was such a thing as a future.

“One of these days,” he wrote, “God will bring back the people, and this place will begin to grow again. Seeds will sprout, crops will grow, flocks will graze on green pasture. No one will repeat the sad proverb that ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’”

Most anyone who read Jeremiah’s words in the late six century before Christ would have considered him a madman. There was no concievable way that Israel and Judah could possibly be reborn; nothing could ever come out that desolation but hopelessness and endless poverty. But Jeremiah could see what his young audience could not see. He could see the will of Yahweh to renew his covenant with them and bring them back to justice and righteousness.

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

There was nothing wrong with the old covenant, if only they had kept it. But they forgot that the purpose of the law was to create economic and social justice, a country that welcomed people from other nations and that cared for the poor, the orphans, the widows. They had forgotten that the purpose of their worship was not to make them smug and self-righteous, but to make them humble and ready to forgive. This new covenant, Jeremiah tells them, will be different. They won’t be able to ignore what was chiseled onto stone tablets hidden away in a relic room, because this covenant would be chiseled into their hearts. The work of prophet-priests would end, nobody would have to remind people to know Yahweh, because everyone would know Yahweh—Yahweh would be present in their hearts, their minds, their spirits.

The people listened and they prayed. They prayed for years and that generation passed, along with the aging prophet. One day, from the east, there came a Savior, whom the later prophets called the Anointed One, the Messiah, Cyrus the Great, who crushed the Babylonian empire and liberated the Jewish people and the other nations under Babylon’s boot. God was faithful and the new covenant was created in a new Israel, with a new Temple and a people determined to keep the covenant.

Unfortunately, their good intentions were no match for political avarice. As the centuries played out, Israel again found itself under foreign occupation, first by the Greeks and finally by the Romans. Once again, injustice was the rule. Once again the people, this time, old and young, found themselves crying out for salvation. Once again God answered their prayers and sent a prophet. But he was not a priest. He wasn’t even a member of the educated elite. He was a carpenter, from a tiny northern village notable for nothing but utter nondescription. He knew was the power of prayer and the power of hope. He prayed and things happened. People got healed. Hearts were changed. People repented of their sins. The poor knew hope for liberation they had never known before. He had a saying about all his signs: “If you only have faith as big as a mustard seed, you can tell a tree to go jump in the lake and it will.”

Our gospel story this week finds him on a long trip south, towards Jerusalem, where he will confront the political powers that have kept his people enslaved. Along the way, he keeps reminding people that God’s kingdom has arrived, and that it is not a kingdom in the usual sense of the term, but is carved by faith deeply into the hearts of those who yearn for it.

Yet, the reality of life in an occupied land was at odds with his message of liberation. When would God act? When would the Romans be cast out? How long would they have to live with the stink of Roman troops fouling their streets, Roman magistrates fouling their justice system, Roman idols fouling the very air they breathed? How could anyone not lose heart under those conditions?

So Jesus told them a story.

“Once upon a time, in little city not far from here, there lived a particularly corrupt judge.” The crowd snickered. There were plenty of those to choose from. “In that city was a widow who appeared before him and asked for justice to be done in her claim against her opponent. The judge, who had no fear of anyone and didn’t even believe that there was a Supreme Judge, refused to even hear her case. Still, the widow persisted. She confronted that judge every day before his judgment seat. She followed him around the marketplace and told everyone how he was treating her. She stood outside his house with a big sign that said: ‘Stop Unjust Judges!”

“Finally, to shut her up, he took the case and ruled in her favor muttering to himself, ‘I’ve got to shut this old woman up. She’s wearing me out.’”

He looked around at the crowd. “Now listen. If even a mobster judge will eventually do something right to protect what little reputation he has, don’t you think God, the Righteous Judge, will eventually answer your cries for justice?” And then, with a sad little smile, he added, “But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

In those unjust days, widows were at the bottom of the social heap. They had no rights to the property of their dead husbands because it either went to their firstborn sons or one of their husbands’ other relatives. Even orphaned little boys had more civil rights than widows. Young women might have been property sold by their fathers to the man who could pay the highest dowry, but old, used women had no value at all. They were completely dependent upon the mercy of a public welfare system that had long before stopped working for them. The old woman knew that the original covenant given by Moses and prophesied for renewal by Jeremiah did value widows. The law said that they were to be protected, clothed and fed by the community—and if they had a son, he was commanded to care for his mother out of his father’s estate. By Jesus’ time, the Talmud, the rabbinical commentary on the law, even went so far as to order courts to set aside some of the son’s inheritance to be doled out by a judge to care for a widow uncared for by her son.

The story doesn’t give us any of the widow’s backstory, but it does tell us that she had justice coming. Now the Hebrew words for justice (mishpat), and righteousness (tsedaqah), are not just about a legal system that protects the rights of everyone but also about economic structures that provide equal social justice. And they often appear together, as in the prophet Amos (5:24): “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”  In other words, even though we don’t know exactly what the woman’s case was about, we can be pretty sure it was about money.

Money is one of those subjects best avoided in polite society. We don’t ask how much money people make or question how they spend it. And we sure don’t ask how much they give to charity or to support the work of the Church. But the Bible isn’t shy about the use of our wealth. It is given to us, not to be used for our own good, but for the common good of God’s people. Moses even commanded that every seventh year, the entire tithe was to be set aside for the welfare of the Levites in the Temple and the orphans and widows in the land. Every fifty years, all debts were supposed to be cancelled, so that no one could ever create the kind of concentrated wealth that we take for granted. That was the Mosaic version of justice and righteousness in the use of money.

The reason that the Mosaic legal system collapsed was not that it was a poor system, but that it was ignored by God’s own people. They quit paying their tithes, resentful of the workers who served in the Temple, resentful of the poor, the orphans and widows who, they saw as social parasites whose poverty was deserved. In our polite society, we don’t talk about tithing and we don’t talk about taking care of the poor. In fact, we find the whole subject distasteful, threatening, un-American. It sounds like wealth redistribution or socialism or some other vaguely unsettling economic system. After all, we worked hard for what we have and if the poor, the orphans and widows would only work hard they would have what we have too.

And that’s precisely why Jesus asked his sad question: “When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on the earth?” He knew how hard it would be us to have faith, to pray for justice, to wait and pray and work and give our wealth away all without losing heart. But he still expected us to do it.

The judge in the story does not relent and take her case because he is suddenly seized by the Holy Spirit and made righteous. He gives in because the widow is wearing him out with her demands. The Greek literally says that she is “giving me a black eye.” Her prayers pummel him into justice. It must have been very hard, to be a person with no rights, no wealth, no social connections and yet pursue the dream of justice. Eventually, the wicked judge gave in.

Jesus is not saying that God is a wicked judge—quite the opposite. He’s saying that if such a despicable person is finally able to do what is right because an old woman is giving him a black eye, wouldn’t God, the Righteous Judge, answer our prayers for justice in our time?

There are a lot of parallels between ancient Judah, first century Palestine and modern America. One of those parallels is that each is a society which has forgotten how God wants us to use the divine gift of wealth. In spite of the doomsayers, it is not too late for us. If we can imagine a nation formed for justice and righteousness, we can pray it into existence. If we can imagine a world where the poor are care for, we can pray it into existence. If we can imagine a Church, on fire for doing the work of ministry, we can pray it into existence.

In 1961, right in the midst of some of the darkest moments of the struggle for African American civil rights, Martin Luther King said:

I am convinced that we shall overcome because the arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice….

And so if we will go out with this faith and with this determination to solve these problems, we will bring into being that new day and that new America. When that day comes, the fears of insecurity and the doubts clouding our future will be transformed into radiant confidence, into glowing excitement to reach creative goals and into an abiding moral balance where the brotherhood of man will be undergirded by a secure and expanding prosperity for all.

Yes, this will be the day when all God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics will be able to join hands all over the nation and sing in the words of that old Negro spiritual: “Free at Last, Free at Last. Than God Almighty We Are Free at Last.”

We’re not there yet as a country. We’re not there yet as a Church. We have to work some more. We have to pray some more. We have to give some more. We must never lose heart. So that when the Son of Man comes, he will find faith on the earth. And that faith must be ours. Amen.

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