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21st Sunday after Trinity

13 October 2016

Proper 24: Genesis 32.22-31; Psalm 121; 2 Timothy 3.14-4.5; Luke 18.1-8

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Grant, we beseech you, merciful Lord, to your faithful people pardon and peace, that they may be cleansed from all their sins and serve you with a quiet mind; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

ALL three of Sunday’s readings invite questions about the point of persistence. To wrestle with a stronger opponent when your strength is failing (Genesis 32.22-31); to continue working to spread a vision when public imagination is increasingly hard to engage (2 Timothy 2.14-4.5); to plead insistently for one’s rights in the face of contempt and indifference (Luke 18.1-8) — these things make sense only when matched with sufficiently compelling motives and incentives.

The final charge to the local evangelist addressed in the Second Letter to Timothy states matters most directly (2 Timothy 3.14-4.8). The author, who adopts Paul’s persona, urges Timothy to carry on preaching the gospel with energy, because communicating its hope is a race against the clock. Already, Christ’s “appearing and his kingdom” are pressing on the present (2 Timothy 4.1), and every opportunity to teach people who are still receptive to the good news of the resurrection must be seized, even at great personal cost to the one bearing the message (2 Timothy 4.5).

If the incentive to persevere is the Kingdom, and God’s offer of a place in that new order to all who hear the gospel and choose to live by it, the enemy is distraction. “Itching ears” and the attractive delusions of “myths” are quick and easy alternatives to the harder work of formation in faith (2 Timothy 4.3; see also Acts 17.21).

Luke’s parable of the widow and the unjust judge is also centrally concerned with the coming of the Kingdom. The story follows parables and miracles in which Jesus exhorts his followers to be watchful at all times for coming of the Kingdom (Luke 12.35-48); to see healing as a sign that the Kingdom is being realised (Luke 13.10-17, 14.1-6); to be confident that God will extend welcome and mercy to anyone who repents (Luke 15); and to reorder one’s life to a pattern of justice and generosity while there is still time (Luke 16.19-31).

Along with shared themes of inequality of status, and the vulnerability of the sick, outcasts, and widows, this parable introduces something new: constant prayer. Like the preaching of the gospel, prayer, too, works against an enemy: in this narrative, the casual abuse of established codes of justice.

The judge’s cynicism is important enough to be mentioned twice (Luke 18.2, 4). He has no personal reason to deny the widow’s claim, nor would it cost him much effort to uphold it. The Gospel-writer makes no attempt to suggest that this is petty officialdom throwing its weight around: the judge simply does not care.

His eventual capitulation comes not through any dramatic insight or moral conversion, but through attrition (Luke 18.5). Commentators note that the “wear me out” (NRSV) translates the Greek “hupopiazein”, a verb used for delivering a blow in the boxing ring. Paul uses it in describing the way he punishes his own body in order to subdue its desires to the exacting demands of the gospel (1 Corinthians 9.27).

Brendan Byrne suggests that Luke might have imagined the judge deciding to give in before the widow lost patience and gave him a black eye (The Hospitality of God, Liturgical Press, 2000). Christopher Evans argues more persuasively that the judge became tired of the ongoing petitionary assault, and “threw in the towel” (The Gospel of Luke, SCM Press, 1990).

That justice has been achieved, albeit for unworthy reasons, is a tribute to the widow’s determination. She has received the rights owed to her under the Law (Deuteronomy 10.17-18, 24.17, 27.19). The comment on the passage implies that if this could happen under an unjust judge, then the expectation of mercy from a loving God is infinitely greater.

And yet this gathering up of the Old Israel in the new Kingdom depends precariously on “[finding] faith on earth” (Luke 18.7-8).

Jacob’s struggle with the unknown being, whether God or an angel, might be taken as the founding story of the people who would take the new name “Israel”, given to him after the all-night wrestling match (Genesis 32.28). The man who adopted disguise to obtain the firstborn son’s blessing (Genesis 27.1-40) now faces an unknown power, and asks again for a blessing (Genesis 32.26).

He is rewarded for persisting in striving “with God and with humans” (Genesis 32.28). Although the human struggles with Esau and Laban (Genesis 25.29-34 and chapters 29-31) have a dishonourable aspect, they are part of the determination to seize God’s blessing. That blessing leaves a permanent mark (Genesis 32.25, 31), a reminder that the closer we come to God and God’s Kingdom, the readier we must be to have our lives in every way reshaped.

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