Proper 24c 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.
In keeping with the theme for the readings today, we persist in hearing from the letters of Paul to his disciple Timothy. Today we hear Paul urging Timothy on, like the coaches who accompanied Diana Nyad on her swim from Cuba to Florida. Look at all the encouragement Paul pours out: “Continue in what you have learned… I solemnly urge you… be persistent… endure… do the work… carry out your ministry fully.”
As with most of Paul’s letters, we only have one side of the conversation. That is, we have no copies of the Letters of Saint Timothy to Paul. But common sense tells us that Paul does not write a letter such as this — full of the voice of a coach offering encouragement — if Paul has not heard, either from Timothy himself or perhaps from some other messenger, that there is something about which Timothy is discouraged.
We don’t have to look very far to find indications of what is causing Timothy’s discouragement. People are challenging his teaching — which involves passing along the gospel that Paul has passed along to him. As we saw in last week’s passage, people are “wrangling over words,” that is, perhaps arguing over different interpretations of Scripture.
In a verse we don’t hear between last week’s portion and this week’s, Paul complains that some people are giving in to“profane chatter” as he calls it, that will “spread like gangrene” because some — and Paul is not afraid to name names — “some have swerved from the truth by claiming that the resurrection has already taken place.” Paul denounces these people as frauds who are just trying to take advantage of people and make themselves rich.
In today’s passage he alludes to those who have “itching ears,” who choose teachers to their own liking instead of listening to the truth, putting their faith in myths rather than in the sound teaching that Timothy is trying to offer them.
In the midst of all this trouble — and doesn’t it sound familiar, even in our own day? — Paul urges Timothy to press on, to keep the faith and to spread it. Four times in this relatively short correspondence, he uses the phrase, “The saying is sure” to introduce some fundamental doctrine to which he urges Timothy to hang on as he would to a life preserver in a flood. The message to Timothy is persistence.
+ + +
Our other readings today reinforce this theme of persisting, holding fast, and not giving up. The story of Jacob’s wrestling match with God takes the image of holding fast literally. The amazing thing is that, not only does Jacob wrestle with God — or God’s messenger — but that he gets his adversary to cry uncle! Jacob simply will not let go until he gets that blessing, and so he receives the blessing; he becomes a father of nations, and he gains a new name, Israel — which means “he who contends with God,” whose face he sees, and yet lives — even though he is left out-of-joint and limping.
+ + +
The gospel today shows a different kind of persistence, in the parable of the widow and the unjust judge. Whenever I hear this parable I can’t help but think of those women who for many years stood in the public squares in Argentina, El Salvador, Chile, and Guatemala — all of them holding up photographs and posters with the images and names of Los Desaparecidos — the “disappeared ones” — their brothers, sons, husbands and fathers abducted by political authorities with no more care for justice than the unjust judge in today’s parable. They persisted, in a testimony to their faith that justice will eventually prevail, and that right will triumph in the end. Sadly, some of them are still waiting.
In the parable, however, we aren’t given the details of what the widow’s complaint is, only that she has an opponent, and the judge — who has no fear of God or respect for people — is not rendering a decision. Perhaps he is looking for a bribe, perhaps he just doesn’t care enough to take up her case, or perhaps — in spite of his not having respect for people — he doesn’t want to cross whoever her unnamed opponent is. Whatever the reason, justice is delayed — and as the old saying goes “justice delayed is justice denied.” Finally, though, in this case, we hear the end of the story, and the persistent widow wears the unjust judge down.
+ + +
Jesus then gives us a moral to this parable, as he spells it out, and it is an example of a teaching technique that the rabbis called “light and heavy” — a teaching device very common among the rabbis, and used a number of times by the Rabbi Jesus. We heard an example of it some weeks ago when Jesus confronted those who were upset with him for healing that woman on the Sabbath: and he confronted them by saying, if you will rescue an animal on the Sabbath how much more a human being.
This teaching technique of light and heavy was very popular with the rabbis, and Jesus uses it again and again; even in perhaps his last teaching. Even on the road to Calvary, as he carried his cross to his crucifixion, when he met the women weeping for him, he ended by saying, “If they do this when the wood is green, what will they do when it is dry.” Light and heavy — simple and hard.
So too here the “light” is the unjust judge and the “heavy” is the just God. If even an unjust earthly judge will eventually give in and do justice for those who appeal to him, how much more will the just God hear and respond to his people when they cry out to him for justice. Light and heavy.
As with Paul’s encouragement to Timothy, this is Jesus’ encouragement to the disciples, “about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” — if an unjust human will finally do justice, will not the just God ultimately do justice as well — and far more powerfully, with far more weight?
And as with all of Jesus’ teaching, this is directed to the church to which Paul ministered and Timothy ministered — and to which all of us minister in the church today, for we are his disciples. I don’t just mean the ordained ministers but each and every one of you, as each of you has some ministry, some service in the gospel to the spread God’s gospel on earth, to let all hear of the kingdom and its coming. We are, all of us, called to persevere and persist in our work and in our prayer.
As I said a few moments ago, when I was listing some of the problems that Timothy had to face: some things haven’t changed since the first century. There are still people who will get deeply into arguments about words, using the Scripture not as a medicine for the soul but as a weapon to bash other people over the head. There are some who engage in profane chatter and spread false doctrines or their own half-baked ideas instead of relying on the wholesome gospel truth of Christ and his saving life and death, and life again. There are some who prefer myths and fantasy to the tested and assured doctrines of salvation, or who have itching ears and seek out teachers who will tell them what they want to hear, instead of challenging them with the demands that Christ places upon us. And there are some who are willing to be such teachers, willing to give people what they want to hear, and make a fine living out of it, creating personal cults with devoted followers — and we’ve seen the tragic results of such things in places like Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate.
I’m tempted almost to cite our Lord’s pessimistic — it seems — closing comment, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Will he? Will he find it hear among us? Everywhere the church seems to be in decline; it is so much less a part people’s lives today than it was even thirty years ago, even twenty years ago; while the “new age spirituality” section at Barnes & Noble takes up several shelves — and anyone with itching ears for salvation through crystals, or yoga, or transcendental meditation can find plenty to occupy their time — and fill the pockets of those who are ready to provide such spiritual junk food.
But, to quote Saint Paul, “as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed.” For we have studied the Scripture together, persistently examining it and exploring it for all of the benefits that can be found in it: a light to our feet upon the way. We have recognized that the inspired Scripture is useful — this is no fantasy game! We are called and challenged, my brothers and sisters, to persevere in these disciplines of prayer and devotion and work, ministers of God as much as Paul and Timothy, each of us equipped with varying skills and differing talents, all of which can be used to the service of God and to spread God’s kingdom. Only let us persevere, and blessing and justice will be ours at last.+