Safe in the hands of God

Pentecost 22

Luke 18:1-14

Marian Free

In the name of God who raises up the humble and puts down the mighty and who never abandons us to face our trials alone. Amen.

When the weather is good, Michael and I like to eat outside. Not only is it a pleasant environment, it also gives us a chance to observe the natural world. Among other creatures that inhabit our garden are some rather large, but harmless ants. Needless to say they are very much in evidence should anything fall from our table. On one particular day a rather large crumb was picked up by two of these ants. We watched as they moved it somewhat awkwardly across the cement amazed that they should think that the trouble was worth it. Because the ground slopes, the concrete has a large crack in it – too wide for the ants to cross. The two of them spent ages trying to manoeuvre the crumb down one side of the crack and up the other. If one ant dropped an end, the other clung tightly until the first had regained its hold – a process repeated over and over again. They did not seem to be discouraged no matter how often they had to repeat the process. It was hard to believe that one small crumb warranted such persistence – especially when there were others, more manageable, to be had.

Today’s gospel consists of two parables which, at first glance, appear to have nothing to do with each other. A closer look however reveals that they are both about faith – a relationship of trust in God that persists in difficult circumstances and that is built on openness to God in prayer.

To understand the parables, we have to understand the context in which they are being told. The Pharisees have asked Jesus when the Kingdom of God will come. Jesus’ response was to tell them that the coming of the Kingdom would not be observable by outward signs. Indeed, he says, the Kingdom is already among them. It is just that they have failed to recognise it. Jesus concedes the world is not yet perfect. It is full of uncertainty and suffering which will only come to an end when God’s rule is firmly established. Jesus warns his followers that they are to expect difficult times – and the letter to Timothy indicates that the believers do experience persecution and suffering. The disciples and the church live in this in-between time. They are aware of God’s rule in their own lives, but conscious of how far from the ideal of the Kingdom the world still is. They accept that in this still unperfected time that their life will not necessary be one of peace and ease.

The parables are told to encourage the disciples to remain faithful even in difficult times and to trust God to vindicate them against those who oppress them. Jesus is responding to the unasked question: How are the disciples to live, how are they to pray in this time after Jesus coming and before the realisation of God’s rule over all the world?

Even though it seems to be taking a long time for things to change, the disciples are to persist in prayer, confident that God will respond. They are not to abandon their faith at the first sign of difficulty, but to preserve against all odds. God is not like the judge who has to be worn down before he will act, and then only acts in his own self-interest. God’s loving goodness has the disciples’ interests at heart, and though the Kingdom seems long in coming, they are not to be discouraged even when times are tough. Jesus urges them to continue in prayer and to remain faithful, confident that even if God does not act as quickly as they would like, God will respond.

Having told this parable, Jesus tells another – about two people at prayer. The Pharisee, confident in his own goodness is keen, not so much to pray, but to tell God just how good he is in comparison to everyone else. Certainly, he is living in a way that is consistent with the law and he is observing the spiritual disciplines expected of him. However, he cannot see that even though he fasts twice a week, gives ten percent of his income away and does not earn his living by collecting taxes for the Romans, his very arrogance, self-centredness and lack of compassion place him as far from God as every other sinner. His belief in his own perfection has blinded him to his own faults and shortcomings. Worse than that perhaps, he has made himself judge, thus standing in God’s stead and doing God’s work for him! He might think that he believes in God, but in fact by his attitude he demonstrates that he doesn’t need God. He can be judge and jury all on his own.

The tax-collector on the other hand, is only too aware that by circumstance or design, he falls far short of the ideal of perfection. In fact, he is so aware of his failings, that he cannot hold his head up high, nor can he wait for God to pass judgement on himself but beats his breast as a form of self-punishment. Unlike the Pharisee, the tax-collector knows only too well how much he depends on God for anything like a good outcome at the judgement. He hopes against hope that God will overlook his present situation – his role as tax-collector – and that God will restore him to a relationship with God. The Pharisee does not need God to tell him how wonderful he is. The tax-collector, knows how much he needs God if he is ever to be declared wonderful.

This is the difference that Jesus wants us to observe, and why he commends the tax-collector who, to his contemporaries is a traitor and one of the worst kinds of sinners. What matters, Jesus implies, is our relationship with and dependence on God, our recognition that we fall far short of godliness and our belief that, despite our faults, God will vindicate us if only we trust in God and not ourselves. The widow’s persistence and faith in God teaches us to persevere and not to be discouraged. The tax-collector’s humility in prayer teaches us to trust in the mercy of God even though we are far from perfected.

Today, we continue to live with the tension that faced the first century church. Like them we might wonder why God who sent Jesus to save the world, continues to stand back, to hold his hand when a baby dies every three seconds, children starve in Syria because adults cannot agree on how to bring about peace, millions of people languish in refugee camps, Christians are persecuted and killed and people’s homes are destroyed by fires so ferocious that they are almost unimaginable. We do not and will not have the answer to this question, but Jesus tells us that we must not be discouraged, we must not give up. We must continue to pray, confident that God is not only listening, but that God has everything in hand and in God’s own time God will respond.

So we must continue to pray, and when we do, we must be honest with ourselves and with God. We must recognise that if the world is not perfect, it is in part because we are not perfect. When we ask God to change the world we must first ask God to change us.

We are to have faith in this in-between time when Jesus has come and the world is still not perfected. We are to keep the faith even in the most difficult and trying circumstances. We are to understand that faith does not consist of doing the right thing, but first and foremost consists of a relationship with God which is honest and transparent, which is open and responsive to the presence of God and willing to be transformed by that presence.

Persistence and humility are two characteristics, two attitudes that should inform and support us in a world that is far from saved. Persistence in prayer prevents despair when our circumstances seem impossible. Humility in prayer acknowledges our solidarity with (rather than our superiority over) the world around us. Both evidence a trust in God which places our future and that of the world firmly where they belong – safe in the hands of God.


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