October 20, 2013
22nd Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, Proper 24
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Then Jesus told a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”
Back in biblical times, widows had it bad. If we think the social safety net is frayed in our day, a safety net was not even a glimmer in the eye of the patriarchy up to Jesus’ time. So the parable Jesus tells his friends, the Parable of the Persistent Widow and the Unjust Judge would have been well understood.
A widow, the lowest of the low, keeps pestering this judge who neither “feared God nor had respect for people.” She kept coming back to his door, “Grant me justice against my opponent!” We don’t know the quarrel, but to her mind, it was not resolved and the judge just kept ignoring her. But her persistence was remarkable, and finally, the judge, annoyed by her constant petitions finally said, “…I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” “Lady, enough! Fine, whatever you want just leave me alone!!!” We’ve seen that in how many movie scenes? We’ve done this in how many moments of parental weakness? “Fine, one more cookie/five more minutes before bed time/one more Little Bear episode… just… ahhh!” We’ve all been there?
So the stated purpose of this parable is to teach the “…need to pray always and not to lose heart.” So sort of, at least it seems, Jesus is comparing God to the Unjust Judge. If you just keep praying, keep pestering God like the judge, and God will grant you needs. “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” Is that our model of God? That we can so wear God down with petitions that eventually our wishes will be granted? That is not how I understand God; it is not the experience of billions of people over the past 2000 years of Christianity, either. Bad, very bad things happen to good, very good people all the time.
This parable brings up two extremely important issues for Christians of all stripes. The first comes under the title, The Problem of Evil (or, why do bad things happen to good people). The second is little less complicated, the efficacy of prayer. This week, we are going to talk about the problem of evil. The lectionary next week continues St. Luke’s treatment of Jesus on prayer, so we will take up how our lives of prayer relate to God, our lives and everything next week. But for now, evil.
Who here has had bad things happen to them? Raise your hand. Sickness? Death(s)? Loss and heartbreak? Broken relationships? War? Poverty? Violence and abuse? Mental illness and addiction? Failure to live up to expectations? Those are just some of the things I know for sure are suffered amongst us here in our safe little South Eugene haven. Everyone of us here has suffered evil, natural or otherwise. Remember, evil is a technical term meaning basically “bad things.” Under the category natural evil falls earthquakes and tsnamis, cholera outbreaks and hurricanes, that tornado that leveled that elementary school last year was a natural evil. This is to say that intention is not necessarily part of the calculus when it comes to describing evil, it is the badness, the suffering that results that makes something theologically evil.
OK, who deserved it? Who deserved what happened to you?
All hands should be down. We deserve the evil that befalls us as much as we deserve the love of God and God’s only Son that redeems us; meaning that we don’t. No one deserves to suffer. No matter what you have done, no matter what you have left undone, you do not deserve to suffer. No matter what you said or did, what you say or do, you did not, you do not deserve to be hit, ever. Be you a grown woman or a little boy or any other configuration of humanity, you don’t deserve to be hit. That rape was his fault; no one deserves that. And I don’t care if you smoked for a lifetime, no one deserves to die from lung cancer or emphysema. No matter how irresponsible you are with drugs or sex, no one deserves to have Hep C or HIV or herpes. You maybe should have seen it coming, maybe you could have made some better decisions, but to deserve to suffer? No. No one deserves to be on the street, or be scared in their homes, or hungry or dirty or simply depressed. No one deserves to suffer.
To me, deserving means something structural, something about the fabric of the universe, something about God. Our story of the Cross, the heartbreak of the cross, is very simply that Jesus Christ was crucified. The metaphysically least deserving person in the cosmological history of existence suffered as terribly as is humanly possible. (Metaphorically as terribly, at least). And that happened against God’s will, but very much in accord with human will. And Jesus Christ’s tremendous suffering and horrific death are exacerbated by His failure to gather the faithful, His being abandoned by his friends and followers, not being recognized when He rose. But the story goes, that even through the most horrific suffering under the boot of a very human empire and her corrupt, collaboratonist religious leaders, that even in the darkest night of the soul, we all know that God’s love for Jesus never, not once, not for an instant waivered. The story of Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus Christ, life conqures death, even as gruesome a death as imaginable, in the love of God, life triumphs. “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” Gave him over to suffering and death. Why? To save us. How? To deomonstrate concretely that God’s love never fails, never, even though an only child was being tortured to death, limitless love pours forth. That is our story. The central story of Jesus Christ’s mission in this realm is that all are loved all the time. You are not alone. God’s love never failed (never fails), though the suffering persists. That is our story.
No one deserves to suffer. (The collolary that no one deserves deep happiness, easy living or the love of God is equally true; by grace alone, right?) No one deserves much of any of our lots. The privilege and success I have experienced has so much more to do with the privilege bequeathed me by a fortunate birth to wealthy, educated and well adjusted people. Much like most of the people I work with on the street inherited most of the brokenness and depravation of their lives from parents and cultures immersed in poverty and suffering. We don’t deserve out lots, we don’t deserve to suffer, but the world is rife with suffering. This naturally leads us to the question: where is God in all of this? If our God is omnipotent, omnipresent, can number the hairs on our head, loves us so much that God’s only Son came for us, why doesn’t God just make the suffering stop? Why did the creator create a world where suffering and evil even existed? Why do bad things happen to good people?
I have no idea. No idea at all, none. And I have yet to encounter a convincing argument as to why evil exists in a world created by a benevolent, loving God. All I can verify is that suffering does happen, and to everyone, and that the sun rises and the rain falls on the righteous and the sinner alike, and that our earthly lot does not in any way reflect the love God has for you and everything. That is the nature of it, the nature of our God and our world.
Christianity cannot explain the problem of evil, and when Christian’s do, it usually results in bad theology and worse religion. Christianity cannot explain away suffering, but, but in the brilliance of our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer we are led through suffering into life. Our lives of prayer, our relationship with God in Christ with the Holy Spirit does not prevent suffering from happening, but can make the evil we all encounter and bear, bearable. God won’t keep the cancer from metastasizing, but God will walk you gently through, be it to an joyful recovery or a painful death: God is with you. God won’t (can’t, I don’t know) make your abuser stop, but can strengthen you as a survivor, as one taking control of your own life, taking up the power each of us is given in birth and recognized in baptism. God can help you bear the suffering until you can gather the resources, personal and community, to make it stop.
Jesus Christ does not promise us a rose garden. Jesus Christ does not promise (nor should we expect) that we will live comfortable, even half-way decent lives. No. It is an awful truth that we can’t expect life, our lives to be nice, even survivable, but we can expect our lives to be good, holy and righteous, oriented on the root cause of creation, on God. For God in Christ promises to be with us every single possible step and misstep along the way. And the harder we lean into God, the deeper we descend into prayer, the greater the kindness and generosity we offer to the world around us, the grander the consolation that God has to offer us. Being a good Christian has nothing to with avoiding the unavoidable suffering we will all encounter. Being a good Christian is being able to receive and accept the consolation God has too offer. This consolation is what enables us to bear the suffering, to resist the evil that we are bound to experience. And how we do that, how we pray and love and act in this world, that is the prayer the saints across the generations have tearfully prayed for you, that we be made worthy of the promises of Christ. And what does Christ promise? Not that you won’t suffer, you will, you do, but that you are not alone, the very fabric of creation suffers with you. That suffering is not how it is supposed to be, but it is how it is. With God in Christ on your side, not only can you bear it, but you have powerful, loving allies who are with you, and weep with you, always. AMEN