18th Sunday after Trinity

10 October 2019

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

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LUKE tells us that Jesus offers the parable of the persistent widow so that the disciples might “pray always” and not “lose heart”. While Jesus offers the persistence of the widow as an example for disciples to follow, their persistence is to be “rooted in confidence in the faithfulness of God as the antithesis of the judge” (Judith Lieu, Epworth Bible Commentaries: The Gospel of Luke).

This leaves them, and us, with a paradox. If God — unlike the judge — is eager to give his people justice, why do they suffer so much pain and injustice? The Bible offers no easy answers. Indeed, it firmly and consistently rejects the two most obvious ways to resolve the paradox. It counsels against despair, urging us to have faith in a just God who will vindicate the oppressed (Psalm 43.5). Likewise, it counsels against complacency, demanding that we do not simply seek to make ourselves “at ease” by insulating ourselves from the suffering of those in greatest need (Amos 6.1-6). Jesus’s parable is told to keep the disciples from despair, and to reinforce their hunger for God’s Kingdom.

Faith in God requires us to embrace the paradox: to cry out in lament and protest against the injustices of the present age, and yet to trust in a vindication that will not be fully realised until the age ends. Like the widow in the parable, it is often the poorest members of the Church who teach the wider body how to live with this tension. Their situations make it impossible either to live “at ease” while others are oppressed, or to believe that those injustices can be overcome by human agency alone. What sustains their hope is their costly and yet life-giving encounter with the Lord.

Our Old Testament reading is a reminder that faithful discipleship can involve confrontation and struggle with God. Just as Job’s lamentation is vindicated by the Lord (against the false consolation of those who tell him to stop complaining), so here in Genesis 32 it is through wrestling and struggle that Jacob receives a blessing from a mysterious emissary of God.

Jacob’s encounter is a costly one. He receives a blessing from God, but will for ever bear the bodily marks of that struggle, walking with a limp. As Walter Brueggemann observes, when we read this passage in the light of Christ, we see “the same theology of power in weakness and weakness in power” — both in God, whose strength and power is revealed in the vulnerability of Jesus, and in Jesus’s disciples, who must make manifest his wounds in every age (Interpretation Bible Commentaries: Genesis).

In this Sunday’s epistle, Paul calls Timothy to remain faithful, as his ministry makes him vulnerable to those same wounds. In the midst of violent persecution, Paul reminds his co-worker that God has revealed himself to be the one whose life is poured out for the world — and, in that self-offering on Calvary, to be the vindicator of the persecuted and oppressed. Jesus, Paul reminds Timothy, is the one “who is to judge the living and the dead”. In contrast with the unjust judge of our parable, who grants justice only because he is pestered and disturbed by those who suffer, the ultimate judge of all things has himself borne that suffering on his shoulders.

Paul’s advice to Timothy echoes the message that Jesus is conveying to his hearers. Like those disciples, Timothy must not lose heart, nor be tempted by a false and easier gospel (“having itching ears” and “wandering away to myths”). Rather, he must persevere in the hope of the “appearing” and the “Kingdom” of his Saviour. Commenting on this passage, St Thomas Aquinas observes that God in Christ is both “our beatitude” and “the one who leads us to it”.

Taken together, these lections offer a profound and nuanced account of the nature of faith. True faith is unyielding in its confidence in the gospel of Christ crucified, not “itching” for a less demanding or more novel message. Precisely because of that confidence, it can cry out in lament and anger in the midst of the injustices of this world. We do not need to create façades of false optimism and success in our relationship with God. Faith gives us the confidence to present to God the reality of who we are, and, in that encounter, to be both wounded and blessed.

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