Proper 24

St Paul’s, Carlinville–Luke 18:1–8


Over the last few years, I have made several trips by train between Springfield and Chicago. One of the nearly invariable features of that experience is the presence of one or more of what are often referred to as “panhandlers” right outside the door of Union Station. This is always an uncomfortable moment for me, full of complex emotions, even as it is when I’m stopped at a traffic signal and see a bedraggled-looking person holding a sign announcing that they’re homeless, or hungry, or both, and soliciting donations. It’s a horribly uneasy moment for me. I usually try to avoid eye contact, and breathe a sigh of relief that I can truthfully say, as I don’t even break my stride, that I don’t have any cash on me, because I usually don’t. I rationalize my behavior with the notion that they’re probably operating a scam, or they’re just going to use the money on drugs or alcohol, or that there are plenty of places they could go to get the help they need—all of which are very plausibly true. Once in a while, I do reach into my pocket and hope I have something smaller than a $20 bill. Mostly, though, I just wish they would not be there, that they would just have the courtesy and decency to not intrude on my life uninvited, and my subconscious often usually a very good job making them invisible and inaudible to me.

My uneasiness—about encountering the panhandlers and about my response to the pan handlers—is rooted in the question: What do my feelings and attitudes say about me? What does the fact that I’ve gotten really good at just looking past them, not seeing them—what does this say about who I am? About my progress in becoming more like Jesus? Becoming fit to live in Heaven? Am I on an arc toward becoming like the rich man in the Lazarus parable from three weeks ago? That’s a truly scary thought!

Perhaps you can identify in some way with my experience. I’m sure you’ve met your share of panhandlers. The state of my mind and the state of my heart—and yours, to the extent that your experience enables you to identify with me—might be attributable to the assumptions we bring to gospel parables like this morning’s—the persistent widow and the lazy judge. In the story, there’s a judge, perhaps something akin to what we might call an administrative law judge, or a civil magistrate. This judge is kind of a scoundrel, self-absorbed, uncaring about what anybody thinks of him, including God. He works at his own pace, and decides the cases he feels like deciding. And there’s this woman, a widow, who is the plaintiff in one of his cases. She keeps pestering him, over and over again, to make a decision in her favor, to give her the justice she believes she deserves. Eventually, he breaks down and gives her what she wants, not out of any sense of duty or commitment to justice, but just to get this wretched woman off his back. He wanted her to disappear. He didn’t want her intruding uninvited in his life.

Understanding a parable, of course, is all about which character in the story you choose to identify with. Whose eyes are you seeing through? At first blush, it’s awfully tempting and easy for us to identify with the widow when we read this material. She’s a sympathetic character. She has been wronged, and she’s seeking to have that wrong righted, to have her grievance redressed. You and I are certainly acutely aware of our own sense of unfilled need, the things we need or deserve but haven’t gotten, or things we don’t deserve and have been afflicted with anyway, and we want to take comfort from the promise that God will reward persistent petition. Indeed, the gospel evangelist himself labels the parable in advance as having to do with the need to pray persistently, and not lose heart. We’ve heard preachers and teachers talk about how this parable is an example of the benefits of persistent prayer, nagging God. Yet, that focus on my needs, I’m afraid, can lead to a place where we really don’t want to go.

What happens, though, when we let ourselves identify with the lazy judge? I mean, on its face, it’s a pretty unappealing prospect. He’s a nasty character, right? But, let’s just try it on—you know, as a thought experiment. What does it look like?  Well, when we see the events of the story through the eyes of the lazy unjust judge, I believe we will find a window into the very heart of God. We are able to touch the boundlessness of God’s mercy. You see, both God and the lazy judge are seeing the same thing. They’re seeing a widow who has been wronged and is crying out for justice. And both God and the lazy judge do the same thing—they grant justice. The judge, of course, just wants to be rid of a nuisance. God, as Jesus goes on to tell us, acts out of infinite love. So, if we start out identifying with the lazy unjust judge in this parable, there is the potential for us to end up looking at it all through the eyes of God. Through the impatient judge’s eyes—which, I have to admit, and probably you along with me, are not so different than the eyes through which I look at the panhandlers I meet—we can be trained to see through God’s eyes. By humbling ourselves to identify with a scoundrel, we acquire the heart of God.

And this is completely transformative. When we see the world through God’s eyes and feel the world through God’s heart, we are drawn to attend to the “prayers” of the “widows” with whom our lives intersect. We hear them, as God hears them—we hear them pray, “Thy kingdom come,” and we become aware of opportunities for us to be used by God to grant those requests, to put ourselves in a relationship with those whom we want very much to look past and pretend like they’re not even there. You know, perhaps even more important than the five dollars that we might or might not give a panhandler is the opportunity to simply see them. Even when I have to tell somebody, “Sorry, I’m not carrying any cash,” the least I can do is stop, and look them straight in the eye, with the compassionate heart of Jesus beating in my chest, as I speak the words. This is what we call respecting the dignity of every human being. And I have no doubt that a great many of the people we meet under such circumstances will treasure that more than any cash they might get.

My friends, being like Jesus is something we have to grow into. Being like the lazy unjust judge, though, is a good start in that direction, and it’s something we can do even this afternoon.

Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

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