Trinity 21 2016 ~ Never give up on prayer - Luke 18.1-8
On Thursday evening, Maria and Jessica and I, and her parents, went to the Temple Church in the City to see her Called to the Bar. Congratulations to Jessica on this major achievement, which means she is now a barrister, rather than any old common or garden lawyer. Sadly - and you’ll be wondering - there is no money in this - even if it is a great qualification and honour. But it was a lovely occasion, 40 bright lawyers, called up one by one, the organ was played, and there was a sermon - sorry a speech - by the head Judge - the Treasurer as they call him. And then there was a champagne reception.
So it was just like church really And after-church champagne notwithstanding - it was the sermon - sorry, the speech, which caught my attention. Because in the middle of congratulating everyone, and telling them that not every barrister gets a job, the Treasurer made some comments about the Law, which resonate with our gospel reading this morning.
He said that some of those present might end up as judges. They could be QCs, High Court judges, circuit judges, whatever. But as judges, they would be administering justice, and as such must be just judges. If the judge is not just, then there is no hope. Yet, we know what an unjust judge is, and hope and pray never to meet one. For there are many countries, places, contexts, in which what passes for justice is not just. And periods in our own history too.
For example, at the time of the Reformation in England, when Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon and married Anne Boleyn, the Chancellor, Thomas More, could not in all conscience acquiesce to Henry’s action. Cardinal Wolsey tried to petition the Pope, and being unsuccessful, rather conveniently died, and Henry went his own way, taking personal responsibility for the Church in England. The rest is history, as they say, although it is always worth saying that Henry did not create the Church of England - that was more Elizabeth’s doing; and that Henry was not a Protestant, by any means. He despised and persecuted the followers of Martin Luther. Back to Thomas More: he never spoke out against Henry’s divorce and remarriage, but kept quiet. He relied on the Law of England to impute assent to silence - that is, just as one is innocent until proven guilty- something we all rely on - in the same way, if you say nothing it means you do not object and so, thereby agree. It may seem like a nice distinction, or even a legal trick, but it is nevertheless one of the basic principles of a just society. Thomas More relied on it, especially at his trial, but others committed perjury against him, and his faith in the law to protect him with justice, was futile in the face of a court who had presumed him guilty to start with and encouraged the giving of false evidence towards a foregone conclusion. So Thomas More - revered by many as a saint - had his head chopped off - an act of so-called mercy on the part of King Henry who commuted the sentence from the customary hanging, drawing and quartering.
More had relied on just justice, but did not receive it, at the cost of his life, if not his integrity, which history has honoured ever since.
Back to the Temple Church this week: we were told that law could be taught. Nothing odd there - people learn the law, study, take exams and learn at the feet of a Master. But then the Treasurer said that ethics can be taught too. Lawyers are expected - in this country at least - to be upright in character and judgment, and of course, if they become judges, to be absolutely just in the administration of justice. Bribery, favouritism, self-interest, financial gain - these are the things that taint justice and corrupt integrity. Yet ethics - all this - is taught not from books but by example. You learn it from others - from the community, from schools, from your family. We learn how to behave by being with others and behaving like they do. Judges learn how to be judges from other judges and from being part of a legal community. Family life is learnt from being part of a family. The Christian life is learned from being part of a Christian community. As St Paul puts it to Timothy:
“continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”
Christians love one another and learn how to do so from each other, from a community striving as community and as individuals to follow Jesus Christ.
To return to our gospel today: we meet, straight away, a judge - an unjust judge. Hang on a sec… We’ve hardly begun the story but something is wrong, isn’t it?! The judge is unjust. It’s a contradiction - a paradox. The clocks are striking thirteen... Something very odd here.
Or is it? What does this tell us? It’s elementary my dears - it means that in Jesus’s day, unjust judges existed. Just as in Thomas More’s day, and just as today, there are unjust, corrupt judges. People who should, but cannot, be relied upon to administer justice fairly and squarely. Every age and place has them. The Treasurer of the Inner Temple, speaking of Thursday said that Justice is taken for granted in this country. That sounds promising, but it also means it can be undervalued and often is!
In first century Palestine justice was clearly not taken for granted - as this parable quietly reveals. For the story is not about justice at all, it is about prayer. Yet Jesus links them, showing us how an unjust judge can reveal something about the nature of God. But Jesus is not saying God is unjust, but rather contrasting how much more loving the God of true justice is. His justice is greater and his love is greater. While even we today are exposed to imperfect, flawed justice - barristers notwithstanding - and we are exposed to imperfect love. This love contrasts with the perfect love of God.
The story tells us that even those who are unjust will give justice grudgingly if it suits their own purposes. Yet it is not true justice, because even if it yields the right answer, it is born of corruption.
The Judge is unjust. He is unfit - Corrupt. There are many incorrupt people, but not everything bad people do is bad. Not everything bad is done by bad people. Similarly, good people make mistakes, or are led astray.
There is a classic conundrum in the question first asked by Aristotle - what is a good person? Is it as simple as saying that a good person is someone who does good deeds? Or that someone who does good deeds is a good person? Surely it is more complex than that.
Most of us are neither good nor bad. We do good things and bad things. Do we always behave well? In the rush hour? When frustrated with family, friends or shopkeepers? We tend to have different modes of operation, different faces we wear. Where is the true one? Are we fundamentally loving and kind, or fundamentally unjust or egotistical? Or is it more complex than that?
Whatever we are, we are human beings, created in the image of God, but as such are imperfect reflections of the divine. We are like God, but also a million miles different. The difference - classically speaking - is sin. We cannot be perfect, and we know it. Being human, in reality, means that we never can be. We are humans, we mess things up, we behave badly, we put ourselves first, we forget others, we turn our backs in the face of others’ sufferings, and think we are better than we are. And yet, almost simultaneously, we care for others, we strive for goodness and truth and justice, and we applaud those who do good and condemn criminals, liars and cheats. It is the paradox of the human condition: for as well as thinking we are better than we are, we also think we are worse than we are. So most of us live with this moral ambiguity, knowing we can never be wholly good, but nevertheless having a go at being good, most of the time.
Into this inherent ambiguity of the human condition, steps the perfect one who is both entirely human and completely divine: Jesus Christ. And what does he do? Well various things, but one of them, is tell stories. Parables, allegories - jokes - tales with a sting in the tail. In today’s parable, as much as the judge is unjust - and therefore not fit to be a judge - he is morally ambiguous, just like you and me. He does do the right thing, for the wrong reason. Is he really all bad? Is anyone all bad? Does he have good qualities? He is certainly capable of being just.
Maybe he is a bad person doing something good. I already said, this story is not about justice, but about prayer. And, to some extent, they are the same thing. The widow begs for justice and nags accordingly. But isn’t most prayer a plea for justice, on some level or another?
We pray for ourselves, for others, for the world. We pray for peace and justice - are they not the same thing? - in Syria, Iraq? We pray for healing, because at some level we feel that sickness is the unfair side of the way the world is. Why do good people suffer? It is the constant question that troubles us all.
Well, remember the thought that no-one is entirely good - and that even bad people, like unjust judges - can do nice things, even for the wrong reason. And keep our focus on praying for those who suffer, rather than on trying by to work out why they are suffering. And there is that huge contrast, because God is not an unjust Judge - he is justice incarnate, love incarnate, mercy incarnate, and so prayer is so much more fruitful because he is so much bigger and better than the unjust judge. This is of course what Jesus says at the end, and how Luke begins the passage.
He is telling us to put aside the. complexities when we pray, and just ask. For whatever the complexities, paradoxes and ambiguities may be, God is bigger than all that. Seek and you shall find, ask and it will be given unto you.
The main thing here, as demonstrated by the widow, is never give up. History is full of examples of people who never gave up, in relation to the slave trade, scientific enquiry, writing novels, sporting achievement - you can pick your own examples. So in one sense the message of this parable is not complex, or ambiguous, it is clear: never give up on prayer. Pray without ceasing. Never abandon yourself or anyone else to a prayerless void where hope has been abandoned. Dante told those entering hell to lasciare speranza - abandon hope. Turn it round and we might say that to be without hope, is to be in hell. And it is the hell of hopelessness in which so many live today. They have given up on prayer, and do abandoned hope.
The widow never abandoned hope, but persisted in her quest for justice. In some countries today, there are those fighting for justice in the face of corrupt regimes. And meanwhile, in our cosy little country there are many who have not really ever bothered with prayer, let alone abandoned or given up on it. And often it is those who you would expect to give up on prayer, who do not and will not, and cannot. When you really have something to ask for - something that is life and death, something that is fundamentally about human or cosmic justice - you do not give up.
And this means, doesn’t it, that if you are thinking of giving up on prayer, it may be because you don't have anything significant enough in your life, to force you to your knees and keep you there. Lucky you. But if you have no-one to pray for, join your prayers to others, and pray for the world - for its peace and justice. Make that prayer a habit. And pray for the church, for her mission and ministry. That should keep you busy. But whatever you do, when you pray: never give up.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 16/10/16