05 October 2016

‘May we be a living sign of that kingdom,
where your whole creation will be made perfect’

Patrick Comerford


As a tutorial group, we agreed to spend time using the approach of Lectio Divina to the Gospel reading for Sunday week each week.

The text is being read three times by different people.

We shall focus on the differences of delivery, inflections and resonance. Then we discuss what each member of the tutorial group receives from the readings.

The topics are from the Lectionary for the Sunday 10 days ahead, because this would be beneficial for those preaching in placement and give guidance and time for reflection before committing to a sermon. We agreed that some weeks the Lectionary readings could be supplemented or replaced by a chosen poem or other religious writings.

Luke 18: 1-8

1 Ἔλεγεν δὲ παραβολὴν αὐτοῖς πρὸς τὸ δεῖν πάντοτε προσεύχεσθαι αὐτοὺς καὶ μὴ ἐγκακεῖν, 2 λέγων, Κριτής τις ἦν ἔν τινι πόλει τὸν θεὸν μὴ φοβούμενος καὶ ἄνθρωπον μὴ ἐντρεπόμενος. 3 χήρα δὲ ἦν ἐν τῇ πόλει ἐκείνῃ καὶ ἤρχετο πρὸς αὐτὸν λέγουσα, Ἐκδίκησόν με ἀπὸ τοῦ ἀντιδίκου μου. 4 καὶ οὐκ ἤθελεν ἐπὶ χρόνον, μετὰ δὲ ταῦτα εἶπεν ἐν ἑαυτῷ, Εἰ καὶ τὸν θεὸν οὐ φοβοῦμαι οὐδὲ ἄνθρωπον ἐντρέπομαι, 5 διά γε τὸ παρέχειν μοι κόπον τὴν χήραν ταύτην ἐκδικήσω αὐτήν, ἵνα μὴ εἰς τέλος ἐρχομένη ὑπωπιάζῃ με. 6 Εἶπεν δὲ ὁ κύριος, Ἀκούσατε τί ὁ κριτὴς τῆς ἀδικίας λέγει: 7 ὁ δὲ θεὸς οὐ μὴ ποιήσῃ τὴν ἐκδίκησιν τῶν ἐκλεκτῶν αὐτοῦ τῶν βοώντων αὐτῷ ἡμέρας καὶ νυκτός, καὶ μακροθυμεῖ ἐπ' αὐτοῖς; 8 λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι ποιήσει τὴν ἐκδίκησιν αὐτῶν ἐν τάχει. πλὴν ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐλθὼν ἆρα εὑρήσει τὴν πίστιν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς;

1 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming”.’ 6 And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’

The widow and the unjust judge

To supplement this approach this morning, I have also prepared a short Bible study on this parable, which is the Gospel reading (Luke 18: 1-8) in the Revised Common Lectionary for Sunday week [16 October 2016], the 21st Sunday after Trinity.

It is a well-known parable. But, while we often know it as the ‘Parable of the Unjust Judge,’ perhaps it should be known as the ‘Parable of the Persistent Widow,’ for we are told to take her and not him as an example of how to pray, as opposed to example of how to prey.

And yet, let us take some time first to look at the judge.

Are we asked to think that God behaves like an unjust or capricious judge?

But this appears to be a judge who exercises his office without fear or favour?

Is justice about that?

Is justice about seeing that the law is enforced?

Or is it about seeing that justice is done, and is seen to be done?

How many judges implement the law without dispensing justice?

How many judges implement the law without dispensing mercy?

Is this not what happened in Nazi Germany and in apartheid South Africa?

How many judges in Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa merely applied the law?

Could a Jewish widow expect justice from a judge in Nazi Germany?

Could a black widow expect mercy from a judge in apartheid South Africa?

Could a fleeing Syrian refugee expect mercy today in Greece, or in Hungary given the atmosphere that led up to last Sunday’s referendum?

The woman in our parable is not asking for what is her legal right. She is not asking for her neighbour to be punished. But she may be asking for something she is not entitled to: justice.

When people say they cannot accept a judgmental God, is that because their image of a judge is of a distant figure who applies the full rigour of the law, rather than an accessible figure who dispenses justice and mercy?

These contrasting images of God are found too in the Old Testament reading (Jeremiah 31: 27-34) in the Revised Common Lectionary for that Sunday; it concludes:

No longer shall they teach one another, or say to one another,
‘Know the Lord,’
for they shall all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,
for I will forgive their iniquity,
and remember their sin no more.
– (Jeremiah 31: 34)

Who is ‘the least of them’ in that reading?

Certainly, a widow would fall into that category at the time of Christ. She would have no man to argue her case for her, and so would go unheard. All other cases – commercial, civil and criminal – would take precedence over her request to be heard.

Who is the widow in this story?

The first part of the Old Testament reading might allow us to draw parallels between this widow and the chosen people who have turned their back on God: a people whose covenantal relationship with God has died, and a woman whose covenantal relationship, her marriage, has come to an end with death.

Without love, there is no covenant. Without love there is no true religion, and no true marriage.

Could we talk on Sunday week about a true relationship with God being marked by love – God’s love for us, our love for God, and our love for others?

If that love is the foundation of our Christianity, then justice becomes more important than law, and mercy more important than rules, and God the Judge becomes a loving rather than a tyrannical image.

Concluding poem

Last week, someone suggested we might conclude with a poem or another reflection.

I have chosen a poem by the late Poet Laureate John Betjeman (1906-1984), Variation on a Theme by Newbolt. It tells the story of how a banker or lawyer in the City of London has died. His colleagues and erstwhile friends are concerned about the funeral arrangements, about what happens to his trappings and status symbols, and how they want to be seen at his memorial service in Saint Katherine Cree.

But no-one stops to think of his widow, how she is grieving, and how she feels she has lost everything. Wait for the sting in the tail.

Variation on a Theme by Newbolt, John Betjeman

The City will see him no more at important meetings
In Renaissance board rooms by Edwin Cooper designed;
In his numerous clubs the politely jocular greetings
Will be rather more solemn to-day with his death in mind.

Half mast from a first floor window, the Company’s bunting
Flops over Leadenhall Street in this wintry air
And his fellow directors, baulked of a good day’s hunting
Nod gloomily back to the gloomy commissionaire.

His death will be felt through the whole of the organization,
In every branch of its vast managerial tree,
His brother-in-law we suppose will attend the cremation,
A service will later be held in St. Katherine Cree.

But what of his guns? – he was always a generous giver.
(Oh yes, of course, we will each of us send a wreath),
His yacht? and his shoot? and his beautiful reach of river?
And all the clubs in his locker at Walton Heath?

I do not know, for my mind sees one thing only,
A luxurious bedroom looking on miles of fir
From a Surrey height where his widow sits silent and lonely
For the man whose love seemed wholly given to her.

The Collect of the Day:

Merciful Lord,
Grant to your faithful people pardon and peace,
that we may be cleansed from all our sins
and serve you with a quiet mind;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Father of light,
in whom is no change or shadow of turning,
you give us every good and perfect gift
and have brought us to birth by your word of truth.
May we be a living sign of that kingdom,
where your whole creation will be made perfect
in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Next week (19 October 2016):

The Gospel reading for Sunday 23 October 2016, Luke 18: 9-14.

(Revd Canon Professor) Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a tutorial group with MTh students on 5 October 2016.

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