A Particular Parable
Delivered at First UMC Washington. Just a reminder, this is pretty much a transcript of the sermon, so it's written as I spoke it, not how it would be written it for publication.
Scripture: Jeremiah 31:27-34; Luke 18:1-8
Hello everyone! In case you are visiting First Church today, I am not Pastor Kelley, my name is Trent Somes, I am a student at W&J, I served as a conference intern in Clairton under the mentorship of Rev. Michael Airgood this summer, and am in the ordination process in the United Methodist Church. I thank all of you for allowing me to deliver the message here on this 19th Sunday after Pentecost, which the United Methodist Church recognizes as Laity Sunday, where we celebrate the necessary and wonderful role of lay people in the church.
When looking at the lectionary scripture for this week, the parable in the Gospel of Luke caught me as particular. This story of an unjust judge and a widow is confusing and cryptic to the contemporary reader. We lack the cultural understanding it takes to really understand this passage, and I have to admit, if I were not preaching on it this week, I probably would’ve glossed over it during my personal readings of the Bible. (Oops)
But when examining this passage through the lenses of those that first heard it, it suddenly seems more important. Many of the sermons on this passage I read in preparation for today interpret it as a parable solely on prayer, where God is portrayed as the judge and the widow is us. The messages that many preachers using the lectionary will likely deliver today will likely be something about how we must be persistent in our prayers, and though I agree that this is what today's scripture is partially about, I think that this interpretation has some flaws.
God is not unjust; he does not hesitate to come to our aid as the judge did. He sought us out before we could seek him and offered us grace before we were in relationship with Him. Rather this parable, in my view, is an illustration of the justice that God will provide to us by contrasting it with the justice that humans provide, and an illustration into what it means to be a part of his kingdom.
During the days of Jim Crow laws, in Nashville, Tennessee a black United Methodist Pastor by the name of Rev. Joseph Lowrey, went to a restaurant every day for lunch to get a burger, and every day he was denied by the waitress, who said, “We don’t serve negroes.” He would reply by saying, “I don’t eat negroes!” and would proceed to unpack a lunch that he brought (knowing that he wouldn’t be served) and ate it at the restaurant.
While we do not fully understand laws regarding widows in the days of Jesus, we do know that this parable was meant to be shocking and ironic. Jesus, in this passage, was using this example to show two extremes, a desperate widow without any notion of privilege, seeking justice and protection in a flawed justice system, and a judge that did not respect the law of God himself, yet was in charge of its interpretation in a time where Levitical law was enforced. If even this unjust judge could bring justice to the widow, the listener is forced to consider what God almighty could deliver.
The justice that God can give us is one unparalleled to the that of human creation and when we seek God’s justice on Earth, and we must be willing to challenge our own inclinations on what it means. When the Lord spoke through Jeremiah saying, “I will put My law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they will be My people.” He was showing us how we must view justice. Our actions should be driven by our spirit filled heart’s desire to make things right - to show the world what God’s justice really means.
Christians are citizens of another nation. We have our own laws and governance, our own customs and creeds, we have our own King, we wage wars with evil forces, and we reject the sinfulness that occupies the world. This being said, our citizenship in Christ and the justice that God gives us does not negate our responsibility to seek justice for those experiencing oppression today.
Jesus told us as recorded in John, that “the thief only comes to steal, to kill and to destroy. I came that they may have and enjoy life, and have it till it overflows.” Injustice is stealing people’s futures; injustice is killing the hopes and dreams of those trying to make a better life; injustice is destroying the lives of those afflicted by it – injustice is sinful; and if we believe that light and darkness cannot exist in the same place as our scripture states, our church cannot afford to not remove injustice from our society.
There is also something to be said about the widow’s persistence and the value of her presence. She did not give in for her fight for the justice she sought despite being turned away. She continued to put herself in a position that was vulnerable, in a place she was not welcome, in order to seek justice for herself and in the end, she prevailed.
The widow in this story shows us that we can change the hearts of our Earthly rulers through persistence of action and the importance of being present, and we should follow her example when addressing worldly injustices today. We should not stand in the face of injustice and be distraught, but rather continue fighting the good fight, guided and wholly occupied by the Holy Spirit.
When we pray “thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.” we must never forget that we are God’s kingdom – the prophecy that Jeremiah spoke of is demonstrated through us. This is not something that we need to wait for, and we are to seek justice on Earth as God gives it to us: without hesitation, without reserve, and with the love and might of someone who gave us his son.
This seeking of justice with persistence is one of the principles of which this very Methodist movement was founded. We have always been at the forefront of social justice.
Methodists were the abolitionists, Wesley and the early Methodists expressed their opposition for, in some cases for over 100 years, to societal ills such as slavery, smuggling, inhumane prison conditions, alcohol abuse, and child labor before action was taken by Earthly governments. We were present in the communities where the people who struggled lived, and similar to the witness of Jesus, we were not afraid to go to the worst parts of world in order to show the love of God.
Our refusal to seek justice and be present for the world to see what the love of God means for humanity has correlated with our decline. When we are not following God’s will, the world notices. It was the persistence of martyrs, professing their faith until the moment of their death, that brought people to the church in the 1st century. It was persistence of Luther, continuing to defy the law of the land, that brought us Protestantism. It was the Wesleyans, who tried and failed and tried again attempting to reform the Church of England and reach those affected by the negatives of industrialism that brought us Methodism.
After eating at that restaurant for weeks on end, and after other activists did the same, the mayor took notice and desegregated restaurants. When Rev. Lowrey returned from being out of town to go eat at the restaurant, the waitress looked at him, and said, “Brother Lowrey, May I pay for your hamburger.” starting to cry, she stated, “You don’t know how it hurt me to have to tell you I couldn’t serve you. I am a Christian woman. God taught me to love everybody. But I couldn’t serve you because I had to have my job, and every night I went home and I prayed for God to forgive me. I thank God today that I can serve you.”
For this woman, Rev. Lowrey’s presence meant something. It was a witness to all for the justice of God. It made the difference in her heart. It made a difference to the officials making the decisions. By choosing to advocate for justice, he chose to be a witness for godly actions.
Church your presence matters. Your witness matters. It is our job to be a witness to the world, and in a world where the church is no longer the center of our communities, we have to be persistent and aggressive in showing our presence in order to be effective in our fights for justice.
The question that Jesus asked his audience in the 1st Century at the end of his parable is still a challenge for us today in the 21st Century. Do we have faith that God can deliver us justice, and do we have faith in our ability to do so with God’s help? If we do, let us go forth and change this world. Let us pray sincerely for justice while acting in reverence to the commands God gives us, let us love others with deed proving the love of God to others, and let us seek the justice that only God can offer, and only God’s people can show.