Due to the sharing of our lives with each other in Meeting for Worship Sunday it seemed appropriate to only share a portion of the message I had prepared. So for the adventuresome here is the whole thing…
A couple of years ago Susan and I drove up north to a community that had at one time been blessed with a productive mining operation. We were told how much ore had to be excavated to extract a very little gold. That’s what my sermon preparation has been like this week. At one point I felt more like the Chilean miners but without the drilling team.
It seemed like two scripture texts, Luke 18:1-8 and II Timothy 3:15 were competing for my attention.
The first was the story of the persistent widow and the aloof judge. It goes like this: “ 18Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” 6And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
The second, “16All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”
I couldn’t get a handle on what message these two had for me and possibly you. So I began digging. One thing that I learned was that in this verse from II Timothy there lurks a most difficult and critical question for dogmatic theology especially important to Protestant views of the authority of scripture. Biblical scholars have been quietly engaged in a battle over the self-witness of scripture. Is the relationship of the two Greek words ‘theopneustos’ or God breathed to ‘grafhy’- writings, attributive, meaning that all / every inspired scripture is profitable… or predicative, meaning that every scripture is inspired and profitable? So you ask, what’s the difference?
Does it mean every scripture is inspired and thus useful for teaching, reproof, correction and training in righteousness? If that is so, what would be included? Clearly for Timothy it would include the Jewish Torah: the law, the prophets, the writings but what of the newly written Gospels? Certainly we would have to question Paul’s letters, including this one that includes this verse. And then where does that stop? In this verse and the one preceding it Paul makes a distinction between the sacred writings with which Timothy had been raised and the much broader word for Scripture. Would every scripture include the sacred texts of other Abrahamic faiths such as Islam? What of other world religions like Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism? What about the Book of Mormon? Is every “scripture” inspired and thus useful…? The other side of the translation difficulty is the equally good interpretation that every inspired scripture is profitable... Now most of us like that so much better. It allows us the freedom to judge which among sacred texts that claim inspiration are useful and which are not. You might want to note that’s not how the translation I just read goes.
Now, we’ve got to decide between “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…” or “All scripture inspired by God is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…” It’s a big issue. And it’s a hidden land mine. Denominations have split over much less. By the way it doesn’t seem likely that Biblical scholarship will resolve this for us. We are at an impasse. Whatever interpretation of this verse you think is right has the effect of saying to those who take the other position that they are wrong. Those who agree with you are righteous. Those who do not are unrighteous. If what you think is truth, what others think is false.
It is here that I found myself much more interested in the Gospel story of the persistent widow and the aloof judge. If someone is in the role of a judge, the assumption we make is that the person is to make judgments. If, in that culture, a widow has to bring her own case before a judge the assumption we must make is that she has no family to help her, no political power to exert, to strings to pull – she is for all intents and purposes a non-entity. Thus the judge ignores her claim.
And when it comes to Jesus’ parables one of the first things we are tempted to do is to equate the judge with God. So tell me please, in what way is God an unjust judge? The very question seems inappropriate. I think it a bit unfair of us to characterize God as aloof and uncaring of the needs of a marginalized member of the community. Even in the text of the story we are assured that God renders justice quickly. So what should we make of this parable?
I found an interesting piece entitled “The Sermon We’re Not Going To Preach”. It went something like this: Opening statement: “Pray always and do not lose heart.” Read widow and judge story. Tell several stories of people who prayed to God and were cured of disease, got a better job, improved their personal finances and had better relationships. Conclusion: “The judge finally answers the widow’s prayer because she tired him out. God is like that but better!” So “Pray always and do not lose heart.” Amen.
Unfortunately you know, as do I, people who tried that and ended up angry with God because God didn’t deliver. The mother of a woman I know died and the woman decided that her mother’s death was on her hands since evidently she was not adequately righteous, her prayers evidently not effectacious. It became an enormous spiritual struggle. And, by the way, we aren’t into the success gospel either.
I want to suggest that maybe in this parable you are the judge, not the widow; aloof, immersed in your own concerns, too busy to be aware of a case of injustice that is right under your nose. Could it be that someone is seeking a judgment from you and you know full well that the correct judgement isn’t at all to your liking.
An insightful Lutheran seminary Professor named David Lose asked: “Who could be against justice, right?” And then went of to say “I mean, come on, if there’s one thing that the law and prophets – not to mention Jesus – would seem to agree on, it’s justice. So who could be against it? As it turns out, from time to time, I am. Actually, it’s not justice I’m against, it’s how we too quickly label our side of an argument a “matter of justice”. ” And it’s not just any argument; it’s arguments among Christians. It might be an argument over particular actions regarding taxation, immigration or the environment, or a host of other issues over which Christians of equally good faith and conscience fight. And, I should say, it’s not that I don’t think some issues are a matter of justice. I actually hold pretty strong convictions about homosexuality, taxation, organized violence against populations, the death penalty, immigration, the environment, and a host of other issues that I could easily define and defend as matters of justice.
The problem is, however, that as soon as I do that I label all those who disagree with me unjust. That is, I’ve defined the argument so that those who hold one opinion (the one I share, obviously) are right, faithful, and just, and those who hold the opposite opinion are wrong, unfaithful, and unjust. And defining matters this way doesn’t seem to, well, do justice to the character and faith of some very good people that I know, respect, and care about who happen to disagree with me on some important issues. Does that mean that we should never take a stand when Christians disagree? No. But it’s incumbent on each of us to try and understand how someone might hold an opinion that differs from mine, even though I might disagree with it strongly.
So what is it that I want? Maybe a bit more humility, especially in this time of electoral politics, in our personal decision making process. I think I want us to use greater caution in seeing our preferences as a matter of justice. That would also apply to labeling one side of an argument a matter of “principle” or “morality”. Because whenever we use those labels we rule one group of Christians and the views they hold immediately out of bounds. We shut down conversation, and divide the Body of Christ.