s196g98 Somerton Park 18/10/98 Sunday 29
"will he find faith on earth?" Luke 18.8
I confess I find these parables difficult, and I suspect that Luke also felt the need to give some of his own commentary on the words of Jesus because of the difficulty he had. The words given are perhaps Luke's own when we are told that the first parable was about "their need to pray always and not to lose heart" and that the second parable was to some "who trusted in themselves that they were righteous ..."
The words of the parables, the words of Jesus undoubtedly, are difficult because the first parable pictures God as reluctantly giving justice. We are left like the picture of Jacob in the OT reading having to wrestle with God in what will always be an unfair contest. This contest has the surprising result that Jacob prevails - he doesn't win - he survives the encounter, though with a limp. He survives the encounter in a second way too. He sees God and yet survives.
The words are confronting to me, for I find life is like this a lot of the time, and of anyone, I should be the last person to ever complain. We live in a wonderful country, blissfully ignorant of 99.9% of the blessings God has bestowed on us, and yet there are the poor and the marginalised in our society still. Life often seems to me to be full of struggles and angst. There seems no reason for it. Blessings abound and yet so often it seems a struggle to survive. I am reminded by a correspondent that the great German philosopher, Heidegger, (wrote) that anguish is the fundamental mood of our existence.
The second parable initially seems somewhat less confronting, but that is only because I associate more closely with the tax collector than the Pharisee, like (I am sure) 99.9% of all other people who read these words. Quite frankly I am glad I don't have to fast twice a week ("fat chance" I hear Catherine murmur up the back there:-) I'm quite happy to be numbered among the rogues of this world - though perhaps the meaning of this word is different from my own. In Australia we have made a virtue of the larrikan. I think that there is a strain of "Crocodile Dundee" in some of us to counter the feeling of being looked down on by others. Even our defacto National Anthem: "Waltzing Matilda" makes a hero of a swag man caught with a stolen sheep by the authorities. But I can find myself saying to myself (much like the Pharisee seems to be addressing himself rather than God): "I thank thee that I am not like that Pharisee there ..."
And in the light of what I have said recently about worthiness, I don't actually think God wants us eternally beating our breasts, as the tax collector seems to be commended for doing. Nor does God want the Pharisee to eternally berate him or herself for doing the right things as best they are able.
I guess I am caught up with similar sentiments to St Paul, who stuffs up the good things that he wants to do, and always seems to achieve that which he perceives to be the wrong thing. "Wretched man that I am" he exclaims in his letter to the Romans (7.24). And I think, well, if St Paul can be left in this state of existential angst, how am I ever likely to escape it? If this is the characteristic of "true" Christian existence - who would in fact commend it to anyone else? In the words of Forrest Gump: "S..t happens". Why bring more upon ourselves, and in the name of religion?
And right in the middle of these two parables we have the ultimate in confronting words from Jesus - the words of my text: "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"
For I see lots of people who proclaim that they are Christians - be they in the Pharisees' or the tax collectors' camp, I am neither competent or even interested to judge. Of course Jesus will find faith on the earth - I mean not 100% of the world's population will be baptised, communicant and tithing Anglicans, but surely there will be some who have faith :-) But Jesus seems to put some doubt about the question.
I see lots of people who pray always and never seem to lose heart, despite a multitude of difficulties, far more than I've ever faced. I don't need to be told to pray, and I certainly wonder about praying to a reluctant God such as the one portrayed here!
I see lots of people caught up in the power struggles of our time. In the recent federal election, I got the distinct impression that both the major parties were claiming (in the week before polling day) that it was unlikely that they would be elected. I suspect that this was done to get the sympathy vote. Looking at the commentators before the election, it seemed to focus on which party would deliver most benefits to me, rather than which would benefit the country overall. Who is the more needy - the widow or her opponent - who has right on their side?
I see people who might not regard themselves as righteous, but who certainly treat others with contempt.
For me the answer through this maze of questions is to see faith as the opposite of these things.
Faith is the active respect for people - because Jesus has died for me and for them, one and all, even if they recognise this or not. Faith is in a God who has already acted in love towards all of humanity - in sending Jesus to live, to die and to rise again for one and for all. Faith is recognising that I and the rest of humanity have the authority and the responsibility to deal with questions without needing to resort to God to support either one side of a debate or the other. (I am reminded of the man who wanted Jesus to arbitrate over his parents estate (Luke 12.13)) Faith is about having the self esteem to make decisions for ourselves rather than expect God to supply all the answers. (Contraception and the issue of the Ordination of Women immediately spring to mind.) Faith is about performing our religious duties as we perceive them to be without looking down on others who express their faith differently. Faith is faith in God and not faith in my personal expression of faith in God.
Some further mention has to be made about the reluctance in the parable. Do our prayers bother God, like the widow got her way because she was persistent in bothering the unjust judge? Anglicans are used to the Prayer Book phrase: "grant unto her whole Council, and to all that are put in authority under her (the Queen), that they may truly and indifferently minister justice to the punishment of wickedness and vice, and to the maintenance of thy true religion, and virtue ..." I have said in another context Australia was settled by the thieves and rogues of society, deported for stealing the necessities of life. It's all very well to say "Thou shalt not steal" when one is not starving ... We might have come across our wealth perfectly legitimately, but nothing is ours by right when others are perishing for lack of food, water, clothing or shelter. "Wickedness and vice" are not to be attributed to those who steal lest they perish.
It needs to be said that at the least these parables are a very useful corrective for St Paul's words: "pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks.." Yes, prayer is fine, but also yes there are some cases where God expects there to be no need of divine intervention. It is fine to turn to God if we are sick, but when we want someone else to change or be changed - God has already intervened, in the person and work of our saviour Jesus Christ. When we look to the cross we see God's answer - love. God is looking for love, and if love abounds - as well it ought - questions of justice should have sorted themselves out.
God is not indifferent to whether justice is done and is see to be done, but God would rather see a society ruled by love.
I want also to say that the self assessment of the Pharisee is also somewhat inaccurate when he says: "I am not like ... thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector ..." Self assessment is usually very unreliable - my own as much as anyone else's. But has this man not, by his own admission, stolen the dignity of his fellow worshipper? Has this man, by his own admission, not acted as a tax collector towards himself (I give a tenth of all my income ...)? Has this man not worshipped the god of his own making (his own righteousness) rather than the God of unmerited grace witnessed to in much of the Mosaic covenant? The primary meaning of adultery in the OT is the worship of other gods. Who indeed is the real rogue?
I began my thoughts today with the statement that I find these words disturbing. At the end I can only reflect and be encouraged by the fact that Jesus in his gospel ministry did find faith, albeit in surprising places. We are told that Jesus was astonished to find rejection amongst the members of his own home town and among the people with whom he had worshipped all his life: "... he was amazed at their unbelief." (Mark 6:6). He found a little bit of faith amongst his disciples (Matt 8.26). Yet he found faith in the Roman centurion (Matt 8.10), in the woman who surreptitiously touched his garment in the midst of the pressing crowd (Matt 9.22), in the Samaritan leper of last week's gospel reading (Luke 17.19), in two blind men (Matt 9.29), and in the Canaanite woman (Matt 15.28) ... And I note that in all of these cases, faith was found and was rewarded, because it was not to the detriment of another. Their prayers were answered gladly, not reluctantly.
Our faith is that we can treat ourselves with as much respect as Jesus has treated us. Our faith is that we can treat others with respect as Jesus has treated us, differing as we inevitably do, one with another. Faith is the grace to see that all people have a right to exist, provided only that they are not existing to the detriment of others, and that surely is good news.
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