This text is one that I think has had much harm done to it over the years by overly pious preachers and translators. They promise things that Jesus himself is contradicting. And their promises often make God out to be a monster and a liar. I don’t know if I manage to do it, but I hoped to set it straight. The persistent widow is not a tale about how we should pester God. That oddly feeds into a prosperity gospel trope of “asking consistently and believing”. Instead it is much more specific. What is she asking for? Justice? When does Justice for the Christian happen? At the return of Jesus. Until then we live in the now and not yet. The Kingdom is now ours; it has not yet been fully revealed. Hence we persevere is asking “deliver us from evil”. And we do that because we have faith in the one who promised. Because the Character of God is not one that needs pestering, but one slow to anger and abounding is steadfast love. Persistence in prayer is just outward proof of persistence in faith.
The parable and the life picture in the text may not on first glance appear to go together. What do the a compare and contrast of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector at prayer have to do with mothers bringing babies to Jesus? But the theme running through both is humility and spiritual pride. The kingdom belongs to the children, the tax collector went down justified, while the Pharisee exalted himself, and the disciples subtly sought to do the same.
This sermon grounds humility/pride in the second commandment, how we use God’s name. It examines the coarse form of pride of the Pharisee, but also the subtle pride of the disciples, and how both of these play in our life. It presents Jesus as the one who humbled himself for us and was exalted for us. It concludes with the response of faith both now as children under the cross and then when we come into our inheritance.
Recording note: Two items: 1) I think the recording is good, but the line volume was quite low, the raw file had to be amplified which often has the effect of bring forward background noise. I don’t think it is too bad, but if it is worse than I think, please let me know. 2) I left in the recording our final hymn, LSB 573, Lord ‘Tis Not That I Did Choose Thee. I think this hymn captures perfectly the spiritual humility or childlikeness the text call for. Stanza one covers the coarse spiritual pride that I can be righteous in myself, I cannot. Stanza two ponders how that grace works on us while the world yet enthralls, the spiritual pride of claiming the grace, but not for the Kingdom itself but for our own glory – “to thy heavenly glories blind. And stanza three ends as all theology must, in the praise of a doxology, the calling on the name of god in praise and thanks. One of my top 10 hymns. It doesn’t hurt that the tune it is set to is a the slightly melancholy catnip of O DU LIEBE MEINER LIEBE shared with the great Lenten hymn by Savonarola (he of the bonfire of vanities) Jesus, Refuge of the Weary. The life of Savonarola is fitting meditation for the theme of spiritual pride and humility.
Have you ever read a biblical passage that just doesn’t make sense or maybe I should say makes sense in very bad ways? Then this sermon is for you. This text is one that has often struck me wrong and is one that when I pushed or heard others ask question the explanations would just “keep digging.” When I hit a passage like this I typically find one of three things: 1) the translators have chosen a particular word or phrase that carries the wrong connotations or ignores the larger context, 2) the cultural assumptions of the writers are just different than ours or 3) I have a sin problem that is more or less directly being addressed by the text. In the first two categories it is not that our English translations are bad, we should just recognize that the task of translation is an art. With this text I think it falls into my first category. So, this sermon starts with my problem, which I think would probably be familiar, and attempts to think our way to something that doesn’t make Jesus a liar or the Father a cretin. Hopefully the path is full of the gospel, helping us not to lose heart.
Worship note: I’ve left in our final hymn of the day. Lutheran Service Book 652 – Father, We Thank Thee. The text is from the Didache, the earliest catechism of the church from the 2nd century. I left it in because I think it captured the two main points almost perfectly: 1) the Father that Jesus reveals is full of compassion for the sinner and 2) that we do not lose heart by staying connected in prayer. The second verse is a mighty example of the prayer “your Kingdom come”.