Forward, Not Back
2010-10-12 by Stephen Schuette
Ever looked back and reviewed what you said (or didn’t say) and thought of what you’d like to go back and say instead? It is perhaps one of life’s greatest hazards. Not that we can’t learn something with a healthy review of the possibilities that could help us be prepared for the next time. It’s the ruminating over it that tends to pull us down and can begin to preoccupy us so that in the next moment we don’t respond with what we might have because we were not present in the moment but back somewhere else. Once the snowball takes over it can keep rolling.
Worse yet is the tendency to try to defend what we said. With heels dug in it’s hard to make any progress.
Jesus always knows exactly what to say. So why can’t I always know exactly what to say as a follower of Jesus? (Even though the answer is obvious it doesn’t prevent us from asking, does it?)
Once I let go of an insistence on (or illusion of) my own perfection communication can begin to open up. Letting go of prior moments allows the present moment to be full of new opportunity. What didn’t work, didn’t work. Giving up isn’t going to lead to better communication, that meeting of the souls for which we so deeply long.
I suppose the widow could have given up. She had a lot stacked against her. She had no rights by law. But she did not let the prior evidence and all the experience of failure deter her from trying again. She made it a contest of wills relying on the one resource she had in abundance. She kept looking forward, not back.
In all the readings there’s an underlying affirmation of healthy ego strength, something we may not always teach in the Christian tradition. There’s often a tendency to make no distinction between ego in excess and ego that is healthy, to everyone’s detriment. The eldest members of every congregation I’ve served all have a bit of Jacob-like chutzpah. Growing old, like being a widow in ancient Israel, is not for the weak or those without will. Neither is faith.
Who, what, when...
2010-10-12 by Christine Smaller
The text of this parable itself presents an immediate challenge in determining who said what and when. The story of the widow and the judge is contained in verses 2-5, but the literary structure strongly suggests the necessity of adding verses 1 and 6-8 to make a contained passage, separate from the text before and after. The text can be separated into four components. It opens with an introduction stating: “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart”, which appears to be the voice of Luke and could or could not be suggesting that Jesus himself prefaced or explicated the parable in such a way that made the purpose and meaning of its telling clear. The core parable itself is attributed to Jesus, as remembered and re-told by Luke. The passage then continues with three lines which interpret the parable. These lines open with the command: “And the Lord said”, suggesting that the balance of those lines is also attributable to Christ. Finally, there is the question: “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” which seems to be departure from all that precedes it in the passage.
The eight verses clearly are meant to be read together, but this can be seen in the grammatical connections between the components “then Jesus told them…”, “and the Lord said, ‘listen to what the unjust judge says…”, “and, yet…” more than in the content. It is simply not obviously apparent how the substance of the passage hangs together and in The Parables of Jesus, Arland Hultgren notes that indeed “[t]he question of the unity of 18:1-8 is disputed”. He states that there is substantial agreement, however, about the structure of the passage: “Clearly 18:1 is Luke’s introduction. Clearly also the parable consists of at least 18:2-5. The next two and a half verses (18:6-8a) are an application. The final saying (18:8b) is an addition either from tradition or due to composition by the evangelist, to the foregoing material.”
The introduction fulfils the function of directing the listener’s interpretation of the story. By prefacing the parable with explicit guidance to listen for Christ’s intention to tell about the “need to pray always”, Luke begins the interpretation process for the listener. This directing of the listener’s focus can be argued to be in line with Luke’s special interest in prayer but the narrow focus would also have the effect of potentially eliminating all other interpretations of the parable. As though there is a concern that the introduction is not directive enough, the parable is followed by a specific interpretation as told in verses 6-8a. This text explains that the parable teaches that if an unjust judge will grant justice to a widow, then surely God will quickly grant justice to the chosen.
There is great debate about whose voice is actually heard in verses 6- 8a. Among the possibilities presented the Jesus Seminar determined that while the core parable rated a “pink” stamp of “probably Jesus”, the remaining verses were seen as not at all consistent with Jesus’ teachings. This suggests that the parable itself may have been told by Jesus in such a way that would invite very different interpretations. At the other end of the spectrum we hear the argument that indeed the parable is incomplete without the interpretation and that “[t]he objections to the genuineness of verses 6b-8a are inconsequential. On the other hand, the parable, if it stood alone, would be indeterminate, and thus meaningless. It is a parable which requires an interpretation if it is to have specific meaning.” This approach would likely take verses 2-8a as the actual parable following the traditional Jewish form of mashal (the description of the interaction between the judge and the widow) and a nimshal (explaining what the story means). One can see how adding the interpretive component assists in effectively teaching those to whom the parable is addressed.
Clearly, teaching is a component of parables and there is no doubt that both Jesus and Luke were consciously and intentionally teaching others although it appears that at least Luke was not consciously concerned about what the term “parable” meant or how it should be employed. But to suggest that a parable is simply a teaching tool, an illustration or an example story may not reveal the complexity of Jesus’ parables in form and function. Jesus was very familiar with the genre of parables and used this traditional type of rhetorical device in a new way which invited listeners to somehow find a new world within the parabolic story. Finding this new perspective involves risk, as the listener is encouraged to suspend his or her ideas of how things should work out in the story and also to make oneself vulnerable enough to put oneself in the midst of the drama. In this way, the parable becomes a world in which the listener can be called to consider a new way of life. When this happens, Robert Funk suggests that “[t]he ‘meaning’ of the parable is the way auditors take up roles in the story and play out the drama. Response will very from person to person and from time to time. The parable is perpetually unfinished. The story continues to tell itself, to ‘tell’ its hearers.”
But what does the parable continue to tell? Just by virtue of the fact that Jesus told parables and did not simply attempt to transfer information from his own brain into others, suggests that parables do much more than just tell about the content contained within each one. Because Jesus told parables instead of unambiguous lessons, there is an unavoidable challenge to think and re-think about the story and its meaning for each individual. But it is very human to want to arrive at resolution in confusing matters, rather than living with the tension of uncertainty. Perhaps, however, Jesus intended to encourage the listener to stay for a while in the world of each parable and this is why not all parables contain the traditional nimshal. Without a voice of authority clarifying any uncertain elements the listener is given the freedom to engage with Jesus’ word in a variety of way.
The parable of the widow and the judge is particularly bereft of clues as to what meaning(s) should be taken. If we operate on the assumption that Jesus told the parable found in verses 2-5 at some time, in some place to some people and that verses 1 and 6-8 were cannot be attributed to Jesus, then it could be argued that there was significant concern about leaving the parable open to interpretation, about keeping the parable alive so that it could be revisited again and again. If one of the purposes, and results, of parables is to affect change in the listener there may have been some concern about the dangers in the broad possibilities of change that could be effected. While there is a risk for the listener to enter into the parable, it appears that there may also be a risk to anyone who transmits a parable “as is”. The danger is that the listeners will then enter into the world of the parable themselves and take up the challenge to learn something new from it – something in direct contradiction to what the transmitter wishes to teach or uphold. And yikes… this week I am one of the transmitters!
 Hicks, J The Parable of the Persistent Widow RESQ 1991 p 212
Welcome, Christine Smaller!
2010-10-11 by David Howell
Christine Smaller is in her second year of ministry and has just started a short term position in a rural pastoral charge. Born and bred in the city she is enjoying the country life of her congregants. Christine lives in Toronto with her husband and three children and entered seminary after 20 years in business. She is very excited to be a part of the homiletical hot tub this week.
In the beginning (of the week)...
2010-10-11 by Christine Smaller
As I begin to read the parable contained in Luke 18:1-18 I am reminded that, in our communities, we so often face situations where the one person who is supposed to represent justice is the one denying it. I recall that some scholars suggest that the judge was not only the arbiter of law but would have been the widow’s closest male relative. And so we are faced with the double whammy of being mistreated by a symbol of mercy and a flesh and blood person with whom we should be able to expect to be in compassionate relationship.
This will be my sixth Sunday with this community and… in an attempt to “play it safe” in the beginning of my ministry here I decided (and confidently announced I was doing so) to preach a series on parables… so I could (ha ha) avoid any difficult topics, at least for a few weeks. Difficult topics like… oh I don’t know – faith, love, forgiveness, redemption, trust, community, justice… a strategy that obviously fell apart 7 minutes into my first session of sermon prep. I am tempted to preach on one of the other lectionary texts, but do not want to have to explain it.
What word of good news is here for my pastoral charge? I know there’s something… but for the life of me I can’t see what it is this morning. Luke gives up a poignant clue in his directive introduction – when he says that this is a parable about how we need… to… not lose heart. Okay then… here we go!
Canon Bouwmeester and Scarlet Gorton
2010-10-09 by David von Schlichten
It's stimulating to read these messages. Canon Bouwmeester is correct to stress that thanksgiving is to be a way of life that includes caring for those in need. Scarlet Gorton's challenge for us to walk with the leper is important for us Christians to embrace, since Jesus is ever calling us to un-other one another.
Have a blessed Un-other Sunday tomorrow, everyone, and Happy Thanksgiving, Canada.
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
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