This sermon was preached on the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, October 20, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The Revised Common Lectionary, Proper 24C: Jeremiah 31:27-34; Psalm 119:97-104; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; and Luke 18:1-8. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will . . . watch over [the house of Israel and the house of Judah] to build and to plant. * * * I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
Our lesson from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah today comes from a section of that book which scholars call “the Little Book of Consolation” or “the Book of Comfort;” it comprises chapters 30-33 of Jeremiah and is thought to be the work of an editor or group of editors generally referred to as “the Deuteronomist” because it is similar in perspective to the Book of Deuteronomy.
In it Jeremiah’s message to the post-exilic community, a message of hope and restoration, appears to have been re-organized theologically around the idea of restoration and obedience to the Torah. It is a theological reflection upon the fact that, at a time in Israel’s history when God’s People faced their darkest hour since being slaves in Egypt, God’s word to them was one of hope for the future. It voices a basic recognition that God is willing to work with humanity even in the face of its sinful rejection of God. It asserts that God’s choice for sinners is nothing short of forgiveness; “I will forgive,” says God, “with no prerequisites and no preconditions.” God’s forgiveness creates newness in the lives of people; it creates a future which will be enough different from the past that even the hearts of God’s People will be transformed.
Earlier Jeremiah had said, “The sin of Judah is written with an iron pen; with a diamond point it is engraved on the tablet of their hearts . . . .” (17:1) Now in the Book of Comfort, as edited by the Deuteronomist, the Prophet asserts that God will write his instruction, his law, his torah on the human heart with his own finger. So the writing involves an erasure as well: where sin was once written, now God’s own will and desires will be written — on each human heart.
This is a socially radical assertion.
If God’s covenant is written on each heart, all members of the community will stand on equal ground. If God’s covenant is written on each heart, all will be equal in righteousness. It will have a leveling effect, eliminating doubt about who can properly be called “Israel.” No longer will it matter whose ancestors stood at Sinai. The marker of the covenant binding the community together will be internal, an invisible sign that cannot be questioned by genealogy or undermined with accusations of impurity. No one can claim the authority to teach the other because each heart has God’s torah inscribed on it.
How is this going to happen?
Jesus gives us a clue in the parable told in this morning’s reading from Luke’s Gospel, parable about not losing heart.
In this reading, Jesus tells the store of a woman who demands justice; he doesn’t tell us the particulars of her case. We do not know her grievance nor what redress she believes should be hers; those details are not important to Jesus’ story. What is important is only that she has a legitimate complaint and seeks some form of amends.
However, her just cause is thwarted by an unjust judge who will not grant her the judgment. So every day she comes to the court and every day makes her plea: “Grant me justice against my opponent.” Finally, she wears down the unjust judge and he grants her that to which she is entitled. In commenting upon that eventual conclusion, Jesus asks, “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.”
This passage is usually interpreted to mean that we should persistently petition God for the things we want. If we pester God enough, goes this interpretation, we’ll receive whatever it is we are praying for. So there’s the rich man harassing God for greater wealth. There’s the young woman worrying God for a spouse. There’s the cancer patient insisting that God should intervene and heal him. If we are persistent, if we just wear God down, will God fix everything.
Is this really how God works? Is this really what Jesus meant by telling this parable?
If we believe that if we just ask enough, God will make us rich, how does real poverty in our midst answer that belief? If we believe that if we just ask enough, God will give us the desires of our hearts, what does it say when our hearts are broken? If we believe that God will heal our bodies if we only ask enough, what does it mean when our bodies or our loved ones’ bodies waste away?
Do we really believe that is how God works? That in prayer as in business, the squeaky wheel gets the grease?
If you really believe that is what Jesus telling this parable is saying, then I would ask you to reconsider and, especially, to take into account two things. First, Jesus’ assurance that God “will quickly grant justice” where it is warranted and needed. Second, that in his concluding commentary Jesus asks another much more long term question: “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
I believe that Jesus is saying something about the transformation of human hearts, hearts often described in the Hebrew Scriptures as “hearts of stone” (Ezekiel 11:19; 36:26) or as “hardened” (1 Sam. 6:6; Ps. 95:8; Isa. 63:17). The instrument of that transformation is prayer.
Why do we pray? What is the ultimate goal? Are we, as Oswald Chambers once caricatured most prayer, simply “throw[ing] our petitions at [God’s] throne and dictat[ing] to Him what we want Him to do?” Clearly not!
Through prayer we rein in our overactive, worry-prone, and control-oriented minds. Through prayer we remind ourselves of God’s sovereignty. Through prayer we align ourselves with the Spirit, allowing the Advocate to counsel us. Through prayer we eventually conform our mind to His mind – our will to his will.
One definition of prayer says that it “is the divinely appointed means through which we commune with the living God and advance God’s kingdom.” A life lived in prayer creates a relationship with God which conforms our minds to God’s. Through prayer our hearts are aligned with God’s, so that our lives are lived with the unconditional love which characterizes God’s very self. The more we pray, the more we live into God’s own life.
The Roman poet Ovid, who lived at the time of Christ, wrote “Dripping water hollows out stone, not through force but through persistence.” The Chinese philosopher Lao Tse wrote that water is patient and takes its time, so when it does carve through stone, the marks it leaves are smooth and natural. “In this world,” he wrote, “there is nothing softer or thinner than water. But to compel the hard and unyielding, it has no equal. That the weak overcomes the strong, that the hard gives way to the gentle — this everyone knows.”
Jesus is making this same point in the parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge. As water is to stone, so prayer is to the human heart.
It is not that our persistent prayer wears down the Judge: we are assured that “he will quickly grant justice.” No, the persistent prayer is like water, the waters of grace, wearing down our harden hearts; through our prayers, conforming our wills to God’s will, our minds to God’s mind, God will remove from our bodies the hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh (Ezek. 36:6), hearts on which God’s torah will be written.
Let us pray:
Grant, Almighty God, that through your grace, with our constant prayer, your Word may be so engraved on the tablets of our hearts, that our wills may be conformed to your will, our minds to your mind, that we may produce the fruit of good living, to the honor and praise of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.