“The Within-Us-and-Among-Us Kingdom”
Psalm 27:7-14 and Luke 18:1-8
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
7 Lord, listen to my voice when I cry out—
have mercy on me and answer me!
8 Come, my heart says, seek God’s face.
Lord, I do seek your face!
9 Please don’t hide it from me!
Don’t push your servant aside angrily—
you have been my help!
God who saves me,
don’t neglect me!
Don’t leave me all alone!
10 Even if my father and mother left me all alone,
the Lord would take me in.
11 Lord, teach me your way;
because of my opponents, lead me on a good path.
12 Don’t give me over to the desires of my enemies,
because false witnesses and violent accusers
have taken their stand against me.
13 But I have sure faith
that I will experience the Lord’s goodness
in the land of the living!
14 Hope in the Lord!
Be strong! Let your heart take courage!
Hope in the Lord!
(Psalm 27:7-14 – CEB)
It feels paradoxical to me, but Luke’s Jesus often says things that seem inconsistent with what Jesus says and does in the broader New Testament witness. In Luke 17, for example, Jesus talks about “fire and sulfur” raining down from the heavens. That’s a favorite passage for those who like to use scripture as a horror reel to scare people into embracing absolutes.
Then, on the heels of those unnerving words, chapter 18 begins this way:
Jesus was telling them a parable about their need to pray continuously and not to be discouraged. 2He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected people. 3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him, asking, ‘Give me justice in this case against my adversary.’ 4For a while he refused but finally said to himself, I don’t fear God or respect people, 5but I will give this widow justice because she keeps bothering me. Otherwise, there will be no end to her coming here and embarrassing me.” 6The Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7Won’t God provide justice to his chosen people who cry out to him day and night? Will he be slow to help them? 8I tell you, he will give them justice quickly. But when the Human One comes, will he find faithfulness on earth?” (Luke 8:1-8 – CEB)
“A parable about their need to pray continually and not to be discouraged.”
Luke wrote his gospel around the time Rome conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the temple in 70AD. For the young church, it probably felt like heaven was raining down fire and sulfur. Luke’s point, though, is that if fire and sulfur do rain down, it’s always from violent power and its idols. Not from God.
Let’s remember something else. In the midst of all those upsetting words in chapter 17 lies a little gem of hope. In verse 20, the Pharisees ask Jesus when God’s kingdom was coming, and Jesus tells them that God’s realm isn’t like the kingdoms of Israel or Rome. “Don’t you see,” says Jesus. “God’s kingdom is already among you.” The word “among” may also be translated “within.” So, the realm of God is already among us because it’s always within each of us.
To pray continuously, then, is to do more than ask God for material things, or for assurances or protection. Through prayer, we engage and inhabit the within-us-and-among-us realm of God. Jesus and Luke invite us to see that external realities cannot threaten the presence of God’s realm. Neither fire nor sulfur nor some “unjust judge” can remove God’s holiness from us. And while suffering will always be a part of this life, nothing can remove God or God’s help from us.
There are two things for us to highlight in all of this. First, we live in our own scary context. For many of us, the world feels in danger of crumbling like ancient Jerusalem. In our own culture, the political square designed to offer leaders with differing opinions an arena for debate, understanding, and compromise has become a battlefield for adversaries in a zero-sum “war.” Increasingly, we hear and read about members of one side not simply disagreeing with members of another side, but pummeling each other with insults and referring to them as, quite literally, “the enemy.” What way forward is there when our actual neighbors cease to be objects of Christlike love and become foes to vanquish?
Into realities that test our courage Jesus says, Keep praying. Don’t get discouraged. Pray for the world, the earth, the nations, for all whose needs are greater than their means. Pray for yourselves, your neighbors, and especially for your enemies.
Now yes, prayer includes spilling out to God shouts of joy and cries of sorrow. And, as a language to learn and a discipline to practice, prayer is also the path of intimacy with God. That means prayer includes wordless silence, waiting patiently and expectantly, opening ourselves to the presence of God so that we might know God’s voice in our own lives—especially when the world seems to be crashing down around us. That means that prayer equips us to live in a scary world encouraged by faith, hope, and love.
That brings us to the second thing. Four times in his parable about the persistent widow, Jesus uses the word justice. And the unresponsive judge is called “unjust”—a label specifically defined as having neither fear of God nor respect for people. Jesus is clearly linking prayer and justice.
Years ago, I talked with someone who expressed deep irritation with the use of the word justice when it came up in sermons or during the liturgy. They said that “justice and all that it implies” shouldn’t be a part of the religious conversation, and especially not in worship.
I don’t remember all the details of the conversation, but I remember feeling bewildered. If the Church is the body of Christ, how can justice not hold a central place in our practice, prayer, and worship? Didn’t Jesus eat with the most despised and care for the most vulnerable? Didn’t he send his disciples to cure the sick, feed the hungry, and visit those in prison? Didn’t he teach us to pray “thy will be done on earth”? And how can we read the Beatitudes and not hear Jesus calling us to do justice so that we are signs of God’s blessedness, of God’s world-restoring grace? Is a congregation that avoids “justice and all that it implies,” really the Church?
Here’s the thing, though: Justice and prayer must inform each other. When we don’t connect the two, the only justice we’re likely to practice is retributive justice—punishing wrong-doers and getting even with enemies. And the prayers we pray are likely to focus only on selfish wants, needs, and fears. Even when Jesus sharply challenges the religious leaders, he does so with the prayerful intent of restoring them to faithfulness, because if they experience redemption—if they experience the presence of the within-us-and-among-us-kingdom—then they, as leaders, will welcome others into the blessing. That makes justice synonymous with the “faithfulness” that the Human One seeks.
Richard Rohr calls the life of that kind of dynamic prayer contemplation. “The contemplative,” says Rohr, “responds to the divine in everyone. God wills the care of the poor…; so, therefore, must the true contemplative. God wills the end of oppressors who stand with [their] heel in the neck of the weak; so, therefore, does the true contemplative…The…truly spiritual person, [the truly prayerful person]…insist[s] on justice…”1
I think Jesus wants us to see that the widow in his parable hounds the unjustjudge because that woman knows that somewhere within the judge’s ego-encrusted heart lies the holiness of God’s image. And eventually, even if for selfish reasons only, the judge will relent and do the just and good thing for the woman. And maybe tending to her will be good for him because the suffering of one means the suffering of all; and the exaltation of one who suffers means the exaltation of all. Life on this planet is simply too interconnected for that not to be true.
Another bit of good news Jesus makes clear in this parable is that God is in no way like that judge. Praying to God, praying with God, praying in God means engaging the very Source of proactive justice, mercy, and love. That very conviction allows the psalmist to declare that, no matter what, even if his parents abandon him, he “will experience the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living!” (Ps. 27:13)
So, yes, our times are troubling and challenging. They remind us of Jesus saying that because of him, fathers and sons, and mothers and daughters will pit themselves against each other. (Luke 12:53)
Nonetheless, the kingdom of God is within us and among us. And through the gift of prayer, we inhabit that kingdom.
We receive its strength and guidance.
We become agents of God’s justice and shalom.
And through Christ, we become Christ to one another. That is God’s promise and our true and lasting hope—even in times like these.