Divine Impetus

I will deliver this homily at St. Michael and All Angels in Tucson tomorrow, Oct. 20, Proper 24 of Year C. Prior to what you see written below, I will offer a brief introduction about me and my work at Imago Dei Middle School. (Advocating for my students and their families in local churches is something I plan to do a lot of over the next few years.)

Luke 18:1-8

1.

The Roman historian Livy tells a story that goes like this:

In 75 BCE, the man we know today as Julius Caesar was captured by pirates. These pirates had a notorious reputation, having controlled the Mediterranean Sea like the mafia for more than a millennium. They would release their captive, they announced, for a ransom of 20 talents of gold.

In case you’re wondering, I looked it up. In today’s dollars, one talent of gold is worth about $1.4 million; so, 20 talents is worth approximately $28 million.

Well, Julius caught wind of the ransom, called the pirate chieftain over, and said, “Pah! 2o talents isn’t nearly enough. Increase it to 50!” In other words, $70 million.

Which the chieftain did. And which the Roman people paid. (Not sure how the ancient taxpayers felt about that.)

Fast forward nine years, to 66 BCE: Julius Caesar has risen in rank from Army General to Emperor; and part of his agenda as Emperor is to rid the Mediterranean Sea of those notorious pirates. He commissions this task to his Army General, a man named Pompey.

So this becomes Pompey’s vision: rid the sea of pirates. But how?

Pompey decides to collaborate. He calls his best engineers together, lays out his vision, and together they formulate a plan.

More harbors will be needed, they determine, harbors all over the empire. To do that, land will have to be cleared, channels dug, large amounts of earth moved.

One of the engineers then suggests the use of a tiny, invasive seed that, when planted in abundance, will strip the soil of nutrients and suck out all moisture, making their earth moving projects much easier.

In fact, this seed—the mustard seed—proves to be highly effective. So crumbly became the affected soil, Livy writes, that even the hardiest of all trees, the mulberry, sometimes would fall of its own accord into the sea.

And thus were the necessary harbors created. And so, in the span of three months, according to Livy, Pompey rid the entire Mediterranean of pirates; and, he also relates, this accomplishment became widely known throughout the empire.

Hmmm. “Widely known”? Do you think, a century or so later, Jesus and his disciples might have known this story?

After all, Jesus taught them, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed. . . .”

2.

But that was the Gospel from two weeks ago. Today’s Gospel tells a different story, not about a mustard seed and a mulberry tree but about a widow and a judge.

And, you know, widows in the ancient world had it rough. There was no Social Security, no Medicare. Unless she had a son to take care of her, she was largely on her own. Where could she turn for help?

Well, this particular widow turns to a local judge. “I demand justice,” she cries; “justice that both God and humanity deserve!”

However, the judge she turns to is self-serving; he cares nothing about God and even less about the dignity of persons. He’s a key player in the system already stacked against her.

Nevertheless, incredibly, after presenting her case before this self-serving judge, day after day, over and over, she gets what she asks for. The judge gives in—because she persistently wheedles, hounds, and annoys him.

Just what is Jesus teaching us through this parable?

Is there some kind of lesson here about stewardship—maybe if the rector wheedles, hounds, and annoys us persistently enough, the parish will raise 100% of next year’s budget through pledges alone?

I’m a little confused.

St. Luke the Evangelist states at the outset that this parable is not about stewardship; but about praying always. And yet—I didn’t see it; did you?—this widow never once prays!

And, besides, is this unjust judge somehow supposed to be a picture of God?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t view God as some aloof arbiter who cares nothing about me and only gives in to my prayers because I persistently wheedle, hound, or annoy God enough.

Just what does this parable have to do with prayer? Is anyone else confused?

3.

If we go back to the Gospel again, but this time to the end of the passage, then we find a key connection.

There, after telling this curious tale about the poor widow and the unjust judge, Jesus asks, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

There, in other words, at the end of the passage, Jesus connects prayer to faith.

This is the key to unlock our understanding of the parable.

For what have we been hearing about over the last couple of weeks? Hasn’t it been faith?

Last Sunday—do you remember?—we heard a story about Jesus encountering 10 lepers. He healed them and they left rejoicing.

But then one of these lepers returned to give thanks. And so we heard some more about this one leper, a foreigner, healed precisely because of his faith, a faith that took on a visible, tangible form, namely face-to-face contact and a warm smile. The healed leper’s faith was concrete.

And the week before that? Jesus told us that if we have faith the size of a mustard seed, we can say to a mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it will obey us.

This too is a tangible, concrete faith, a literal seed by which Julius Caesar and General Pompey were able to fulfill their vision—a means towards an end.

That’s what faith is for Jesus. Something literal. Something quantifiable. Dare I say, something, even, utilitarian.

But how often have we heard an entirely different message: that faith is some invisible, intangible thing? If God doesn’t answer our prayers, how often have we been told it’s because we lack faith; or because we haven’t prayed hard enough or just need to believe more?

Hear me now: that is not, nor was it ever, the good news of Jesus!

For Jesus, faith looks like the warm smile of thanksgiving from a healed leper. Or, another way, faith looks like a tiny mustard seed that alters a vast landscape. For Jesus, faith is tangible and concrete, a quantifiable means toward God’s ends.

4.

So, it’s time to ask ourselves: if faith is not the invisible, intangible something we’ve always heard, what does a quantifiable, tangible faith look like for us today?

Well, I can tell you what it looks like for the kids I work with, the kids of Imago Dei Middle School. For most of them—maybe for all—they’re vision includes earning a college degree.

So, you know what their faith looks like—a tangible, concrete faith? A means to that end?

It looks like a pencil!

“If you have faith the size of a pencil,” I tell them, “you can earn that college degree, land a stable job, and break free from poverty.”

What about you? Does your faith look like a pencil? How about a dollar? Or a pink ribbon? Or a rainbow? What is the best means for you to accomplish God’s ends?

5.

Anyway, now, finally, I think we are able to see what Jesus’ parable has to do with prayer. For this kind of faith isn’t easy, is it?

It wasn’t easy for Pompey to rid the Mediterranean of pirates.

It wasn’t easy for a foreign leper to give thanks to the Jewish man who healed him.

It wasn’t easy for a widow in Jesus’ day to plead for justice repeatedly and persistently, again and again, over and over to an unjust judge.

And it definitely isn’t easy for the Imago Dei scholars to break out of the cycles of poverty they find themselves born into.

In every case, their faith is the means to accomplish God’s ends; but more than faith in necessary.

As I read today’s parable, though prayer is never mentioned, I cannot help but imagine the widow going through her daily regimen—another tiring, wearisome day of facing a heartless brick wall of a judge—I cannot help but see her praying herself through: every night, after she returns home heartbroken yet again; and every morning, when she rises to find, somehow, another small ray of divine hope flickering in her soul, thanks be to God.

Faith is the means to accomplish God’s ends; but prayer is the divine impetus that enables us to persevere.

Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: