The reading we just heard from the Gospel of Luke, like so many gospel readings, comes to us without a specific context. What motivated Jesus to tell this story at this time? The text offers no clues. But keep in mind the nature of that society. It was an age when the many were onerously burdened to the benefit of a privileged few. For those many, of which Jesus was one, the longing for justice would have been intense. And it would have been frustrating. And it would have been infuriating. And it would have been disheartening.
So Jesus tells one of his stories to emphasize why it is important not to get discouraged and why it is important to keep praying. Look at this miserable, rotten, no good judge, Jesus says. If a scoundrel like that relents because the widow refuses to give up, how much more will our loving God respond to our prayers?
Who is our God? What is our God like? In my readings this week I came across this beautiful passage from a homily delivered by 4th century bishop Gregory of Nyssa:
Charity lives in the intimacy of God and it is God who by his hands shaped the first works of love and philanthropy in creating everything that is. For God is the first and foremost lover of good deeds who nourishes the starving, waters the thirsty, and clothes those who are naked.
That is who God is and what God is like. God cares about injustice and God cares about our suffering. This concern is rooted in the very heart of God and the call for justice in the Name of God permeates all of Scripture. Still, we are left with a nagging question: if God cares so deeply about injustice, and if God loves us deeply, why do our prayers for justice – prayers for our entire social order as well as prayer about the specific wrongs we endure – why do these prayers seem to go unanswered?
An American tourist sat at a table at an outdoor café near Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall. As he sipped a coffee he observed a man praying at the wall. While others came and went, this particular person prayed all morning long. After what seemed like hours, the man left the wall, walked over to the café, and sat at a table next to the tourist. The American decided to strike up a conversation: “I saw you praying at the wall all morning. Do you mind me asking what you were praying for?” “Not at all,” the man answered. “For the first hour I pray for peace around the world; that goodwill might rule in every human heart. For the second hour I pray for people who are hungry or naked or homeless; that no person should ever have to go without the basic necessities of life. For the third hour I pray for the sick and hurting; that there might be an end to disease and suffering.” “May I ask how long you have been coming to the wall to pray?” “Every day for twenty-five years.” “That is incredible,” the tourist said. “What does it feel like to offer such important prayers day in and day out for that many years?” “Well,” the man said, taking in a deep breath, reflecting, and then letting out a sigh, “Sometimes it feels like I am talking to a wall.”
Surely you know that feeling. Surly each one of us here, at one time or another, has felt as if our prayers not only go unanswered, but, even worse, go unheard. Pray all you want, work for justice as hard as you can, and still nothing seems to change. This, I think, is the experience Jesus encountered in some folks that motivated him to tell the parable we heard this morning. It is tough, he says, but you must not give up and you must not give in. You are never praying just to a wall.
It strikes me that praying for justice is very different from other kinds of prayer. When you pray for forgiveness, your prayer hinges largely on your own ability to accept the forgiveness God extends. When you pray for healing – either for yourself or for another – the answer depends on many factors; some we can control and others we can’t. With healing prayers, ultimately, either we are encouraged by what we see or we resign ourselves to another path of prayer. But when we pray for justice, we are praying for a change of heart that leads to a change in action and behavior. Whoever or whatever is perpetrating injustice must undergo deep, spiritual transformation before the wrong can be righted.
Changing a cold human heart takes time. Pharaoh endured ten horrific plagues before he reached a point where he could let the Hebrews go. In today’s Old Testament reading, we heard the prophet Jeremiah’s vision of a time when God’s covenant with the human family would be written on the human heart. It is a vision of a time when right behavior is not dictated and directed by external laws, but rather emanates from within; of a time when God’s very life would so dwell within each of us that we would know and do what is right and just.
Christians believe that some six hundred years later this vision found its fulfillment on Pentecost Day with the coming of the Holy Spirit. But even we admit that it is at best a partial reality. Because God honors the freewill of every human being the quest for justice can be a very long haul indeed. That is not good news for us who are more and more the product of a short-term, quick fix world of instant gratification because the quest for justice is not a short-term, quick fix kind of problem.
So here are two things you can do.
First, do not give up. Stay at it. Persevere. That is what Yvonne Pierre did. As a child she endured terrible, unspeakable abuses and the murder of her father. As a result she fell into self-destructive behavior, but eventually determined to turn around her life. She graduated from an alternative school and, over time, earned four undergrad and graduate degrees. She has written a play, a film, and a book. The mother of two children, one who has Downs Syndrome, Pierre works tirelessly with the special needs community. Thinking about all she has endured and overcome, listen to this passage from her book, The Day My Soul Cried:
For every person who closed the door in my face, thank you. For every person who told me I wasn’t good enough, thank you. For every person who laughed and told me that I was wasting my time going to college, because I was going to fail, thank you. For every person who tried to break me, thank you. For every person who took my kindness for weakness, thank you. For every person who told me I was wasting time chasing my dreams because I would fail, thank you. It could of broke me. From the core of my heart, I thank you. I truly mean it, because if it weren’t for each of you I wouldn’t be who I am today. I wouldn’t of spend hours and loss sleep studying. I wouldn’t developed tough skin. You pushed me to think about what I “really” want out of life. You pushed me to master my craft. You helped me develop the drive, passion and determination. You pushed me to not wait for someone to believe in my vision, but to find a way to make things happen. I know you didn’t “intend” to, but I thank you for teaching me to believe in myself! AND you taught me to TRUST in God and lean on my faith, not man. Thank You!
Yvonne Pierre is a present-day widow from Jesus’ parable, isn’t she! Her life, with all of its challenges and struggles, gives witness to the fact that when we pray more than a wall hears us. With faith and determination, she overcame her challenges. If she could do it so can you.
Here is the second thing you can do while you wait for justice: examine your own heart and your own actions and your own life. Where are you a perpetrator of injustice? When are you the very thing you detest? While you hunger and thirst for a wrong to be made right, allow God’s covenant to be written on your heart. The easiest heart for God to change is yours. There is much to be said for being the person you are praying for another to become.
There is an anonymous quote that says “Everything will be okay in the end, so if it’s not OK, then it’s not the end.” And we Christians would add, if it’s not okay then we still have work to do; work on our knees, work in our heart, and work marked by determination and perseverance that one day will get us to the ‘okay end’ we long for and know will come.