Then Jesus[a] told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’”[b] 6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
The past week has been a bit of a whirlwind for us all. We started hearing about Hurricane Matthew in the news about two weeks ago. I, for one, didn’t think much of it the first few times it came up because, as we all know, Savannah rarely receives the brunt of any major storms. I expected it to pass us by without much incident and for us to carry on life as normal.
By the time we reached last Wednesday morning, however, news reports were changing. Weather projections placed Savannah more directly in Matthew’s path. Coastal South Carolina was issued mandatory evacuation orders on the Tuesday before Saturday’s expected landfall. Chatham County was a bit slower. The islands were ordered to leave first. The City of Savannah proper didn’t receive “mandatory” evacuation orders until midday on Thursday. By then, my family had already decided to leave.
The Hurricane came through Savannah in the wee hours of Saturday morning. I spent a lot of time and energy on Friday and Saturday keeping up with all the updates and warnings out of the City. It became clear that it was still unsafe for us evacuees to return before Sunday morning and we sadly canceled last Sunday’s services here. So most of us spent an odd weekend away from home, work, school, and this church. (It was a strange feeling to wake up leisurely on a Sunday at 7:00.) And we trickled back home over the next few days.
Many of us prayed fervently throughout that time as we waited expectantly and fearfully for the hurricane to pass. We asked God to protect our loved ones, to protect our homes and our streets, to spare the lives of all those who stayed. Like the nameless widow, we begged for justice against our opponent, a storm named Matthew.
So far as I have heard, the people of this parish made it through okay. We suffered no deaths or major injuries. But some of us did lose property or see significant damage to our homes.
And of course our neighbors in South and North Carolina fared worse than we did here -- not to mention the devastation that befell our sisters and brothers in Haiti and throughout the Caribbean. I trust that the Christians in these places are no less faithful than we are, and that they too spent time and energy in prayer, asking God for protection from the violent storm they faced.
What does it mean for us when our prayers seemingly go unanswered? Where is God in these moments of crisis? St. Luke tells us that today’s Gospel passage is “a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. (18:1)” How do we avoid losing heart when things in the world turn out so ugly and violent?
First of all, we have to resist the urge to draw too close a parallel between our genuine concerns regarding the hurricane and our interpretation of this passage. They aren’t exactly talking about the same thing. There are at least three broad categories of evil that exist in our world.
Hurricane Matthew and other forms of natural disaster are what theologians call “natural evil.” They are destructive and death-dealing forces that don’t have any direct personal cause, but rather are the result of geological, meteorological, and environmental conditions. A storm, an earthquake, a tornado, a volcanic eruption, etc.
On the other hand, Luke 18:1-8 addresses our prayers in the face of “personal evil/sin” and perhaps “structural evil/sin.” Personal evil is the pain, suffering, and death that we cause to one another. The perpetrators and victims can be identified and blame can be meted out with relative confidence. The widow cries out, “Grant me justice against my opponent!” (18:3). Someone has wronged her and she turns to others for help.
Finally, structural sin is about the systems we establish that are more powerful than any individual’s choice to harm or help someone else. Professor David Ford puts it this way:
“In modern times, especially, human beings have collectively been responsible for unleashing forces which nobody can control: political systems and revolutions, military establishments and wars, stock markets and crashes, technologies … information systems and media … These factors, and many others, combine to form dynamics which have immense power to damage individuals and whole communities in multiple ways. But can anyone be held responsible?” (Ford, Theology, 69 [emphasis mine]).
In this passage the structural evil at play may lie in the judge’s reluctance to grant justice to the widow and his ability to hold her hostage to his whims.
So our Gospel text today won’t give us a perfect analogy for thinking about Hurricane Matthew’s destruction. Then, why am I bringing it up? What can we learn about our present situation from Jesus’s teaching?
It’s about location. Creatures suffer under the weight of all kinds of evil, and one of our most persistent questions is: Where is God when I’m in pain? Jesus’ parable has a subtle way of answering that question.
At the end of the story, the Lord says, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will God not make justice for his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night, and suffer patiently with them? (Luke 18:7, My Translation). That translation is a bit different than the New Revised Standard Version, which we read earlier. Here the point is clearer.
God is not the unjust judge. God is not reluctant to help in our time of need. But God isn’t absent from our scenario either. When we pray continually as the widow cries out, God comes to our aid. God comes alongside us. God suffers patiently with us.
Each of us will face sin and evil in countless ways. We will all come up against people’s selfishness and hatred, and the broken systems our society has created. That is the condition of the world until Jesus returns. But until His Coming Glory, during this waiting period, God does not abandon us. Christ says, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
Christ patiently bore the violence and rage of the systems and individuals in his world. The Roman and Jewish elites conspired to break his body and execute him on a Cross. He is not far from us when we experience the same. He remains present with us in the Blessed Sacrament and in our hearts and spirits in all our moments of suffering.
So do not lose heart. Do not give up hope. No matter what sort of devastation we might face in this sinful and broken world, we are not alone. God has not given up on us. The love, mercy, and power of God remains in our midst. Amen.
References and Suggested Reading
Mark Davis, “Impunity and Persistence,” Left Behind and Loving It, blog, http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2013/10/impunity-and-persistence.html.
David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (2005).
David F. Ford, Theology: A Very Short Introduction, 2nd ed. (2014).
Robb McCoy and Eric Fistler, “Show Notes for Episode 189: Proper 24C (October 16, 2016),” Pulpit Fiction, blog and podcast, http://www.pulpitfiction.us/show-notes/189-proper-24c-october-16-2016.