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16th October 2016 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
13 October 2016

Readings

Jeremiah 31:27-34

Our reading this morning from Jeremiah moves from impending doom to coming restoration but there is still the prophet’s sting in the message.  The old covenant had been broken so there needed to be a new covenant.  Rather than the law being written on tablets of stone it will be written on the people’s hearts.  The new covenant will become part of the people’s total being. [1]

Claudia Orange writes that Hone Heke used to speak of the Treaty as the new covenant and Ngapuhi continue to regard the Treaty as a sacred covenant that both unites all Maori tribes and acts as a bond of union between races.[2]

Judith Binney suggested that the RingatĂ» church has survived because of the memory of the harsh experiences of the 1860s but also affirmed God’s binding covenant.’[3] A covenant expressed in gratitude by Te Kooti who said ‘This is the word of Jehovah. ‘I will be a God to them, and they will be a people to me.’ 

Luke 18:1-8

This is the story of the unjust judge and the persistent widow.   In remembering that this is a parable it is important not to see God as the unjust judge.

This parable is used by Luke to reassure the marginalised emerging church that, because an unjust judge when pestered by the most marginalised, the widow, might finally give in, they should expect a just God to give the marginalised and dispossessed justice.[4]

Bill Loader writes that we should not treat the passage as a general teaching about intercessory prayer because it is primarily about the yearning for change.  The poor widow represents persistence but she also represents poverty and vulnerability which is the point of the parable’s message.

The story has been shaped in the cruelty of exploitation and the arbitrary abuse of power which was part of Jesus’ world and these are the people whose cries he hears.[5]

Sermon

Jeremiah’s vision was that the exile was divine punishment but the time of exile would pass and both Judah and Israel would be restored.  History confirms this prophesy along with the fact that bad foreign policy on behalf of their king was to blame for the Assyrian invasion and subsequent exile in Babylonia.  However it was not the first and certainly won’t be the last bad foreign policy decision that inflicts suffering on a whole nation or group of nations. 

Fair-mindedness tends to blame the leader rather than the entire nation.  But from a religious point of view we could argue that a nation that tolerates, or even encourages, immoral leadership gets leaders who make bad foreign policy decisions and drag their people into devastating wars.  The American ‘The Christian Left’ Facebook page is certainly pushing that point of view at the moment. 

In seeing the exile as divine punishment Jeremiah also sees a time when their sentence is served and God will allow them to return to their land and I love the poetic language he uses.

The days are surely coming, says Yahweh, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals.  (Jeremiah 31:27)    

God will build them up again from the very beginning, a re-colonisation that will grow over time.  Seeding a land with people and animals is the story of our land where Pacific mariners arrived in canoes to live in these forest islands.  They were later joined by people and animals from the other side of the globe.  Both those people seeds brought animal seeds that radically changed the landscape and were a threat to other species. 

It is the same story for the American Continent when a small group crossed the land bridge from what is now Russia to Alaska some twelve thousand years ago.  Contemporary thinking is that was a relatively small group of nomads.  People seed for a great continent.   

In Jeremiah’s understanding the Assyrian invasion could only happen if Yahweh allowed it. 

They had a covenant relationship with Yahweh to protect them so that covenant must have been broken.  God is always just and holy and can’t break agreements so it must have been the people of Israel and Judah that broke the covenant.

They didn’t have a Waitangi Tribunal in Jeremiah’s time and place so Jeremiah imagined that Yahweh would have to make a new covenant. 

The covenant with Moses was based on a set of rules carved in stone but Yahweh would put the divine law within the people and write it on their hearts. (Jeremiah 31:33) That is where Jeremiah’s imagination is truly inspired.  The problem with any written law, carved in stone of filed in a computer is that it affirms bad behaviour if that behaviour is not specifically forbidden.   

Perhaps the best example and certainly the most current is tax law.  It is fair and reasonable that if a business makes a loss then that business is not liable for tax until that loss is recovered.  After all a financial year is a very arbitrary period and balance sheets are simply a snapshot of a business on a particular day.  Trading through a loss often means using reserves that have previously been taxed or the owner reducing their personal spending. 

But manipulating accounts to create the allusion of a loss goes against the fair minded assumptions that many people hold in their hearts.  Such ethical feelings suggests that if to live in a community that provides benefits and facilities we all share then those who are able need to contribute some of their earnings to make that possible.  When someone who earns money in the millions loses so much money in one year that don’t have pay any tax for years we don’t necessarily see them as clever.  Charitable people may decide they made some incredibly bad business decision in the past others might be highly suspicious of their accounting practises.

Our road rules are extremely detailed and many of us think they are so detailed they become a nuisance. Nevertheless it is possible to damage life and property without breaching the road code.  That’s when you discover that overarching statute that demands that you drive with due care and attention. 

It is the overarching law written in our hearts that allows us to live in community.  We can read in the Bible that we have to love our neighbour but the lawyer wanted to know who his neighbour was (Luke 10:29).  Jesus didn’t answer the ‘who is my neighbour’ question, he told the lawyer a story about being a neighbour. (Luke 10:30-37) 

That story illustrates a most important part of the divine law written in our hearts ‘empathy.’  Empathy is about seeing other people as ourselves and imaging how we would feel if someone hurt or cheated us. 

It is the purpose of religion to build empathy in humanity but empathy is hard to define.  That is why Jesus told stories.  Jesus told stories because he wanted people to feel situations, to relate to situations and imagine themselves in situations.

How do we feel when we cannot get the justice we deserve.  If we have enough money we can sue the person who defames us in a pamphlet that he distributes all over New Zealand.  If we don’t have that sort of money we just have to remember that our mother told us that sticks and stones will break our bones but names will never hurt us.  But the empathy, the divine law written in our heart, the understanding that is continually refreshed and rebooted by our faith tradition, reminds us of the young people who are driven to suicide by bullying both verbal and physical.

We don’t know what the issue of justice was that drove the woman to the unjust judge but that does not matter.  Certainly there is a suggestion that persistent prayer is important but God is not the unjust judge that needs to be pestered.  Jesus makes that clear.  And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?  Will he delay long in helping them?’ (Luke 18:7)  

Not all prayer is intercessory like praying for a better world or pleading for a parking space. 

Prayer is about acknowledging the presence of God, reminding ourselves of the presence of God, being aware that the God we image in Christ is always with us.  We are human and we need reminding. 

Being reminded of God’s presence draws our attention to the laws God has written in our hearts, and sometimes those laws conflict with injustice around us.  That is when we come up against the unjust judge.  The unjust judge is the way our community exploits the vulnerable.  The divine law reminds us of the way we so easily divide ourselves into them and us.   That is the attitude that allows American police to shoot black suspects.  More importantly it is attitude that automatically identifies people of colour as suspects and that is not unique to the United States.  I recently came across a comment from a young pacific woman who took one of her children to the afterhours surgery. The receptionist looked up and said ‘it might be better if you went to the emergency department at the hospital which is free’.  My friend rolled her eyes and I hope she just thought the remark she put on her Facebook page.   ‘Get over it lady, my salary is bigger than yours.’  

Injustice in our world is the unjust judge and it takes persistence to change injustice that is ingrained into our society but the divine law written in our hearts demands we persist. 

Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela the Very Rev John Murray and John Minto all persisted and got justice.  Kate Shepherd, Emily Pankhurst and many other women persisted and not only changed our world but opened it to further change.  Emily Pankhurst said ‘The argument of the broken window pane is the most valuable argument in modern politics’.  That was a statement about what in her time was seen as undignified protest, it affirmed protest as a politic action that was far more effective they writing polite letters to MP’s   Certainly that sort of persistence may sound a bit violent to nice people but if it got universal suffrage and keeps the planes of death on the ground. It remains part of political persistence today.

The big challenge in this story of the persistent widow is that the very persistent prayers that bring us close to God open us to the divine call to oppose the injustice in our world. 

We should also note that widow in the story was a symbol of poverty.  Widows in Jesus’ day were excluded from society and lived in absolute poverty and Luke was writing his gospel for the early church struggling to survive.  That early church was metaphorically the widows of temple Judaism.  This story reminded them of the freedom they had to make change. 

This story reminds us that it is often the marginalised people who are free to sit at the front of the bus, to chant ‘I an’t afraid of your jail cause I want my freedom.’   Kris Kristofferson, in the song Me & Bobby McGee wrote ‘Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose’.

Many oppressed people are in that position and the law written on our hearts calls us to empathise with them and be part of their persistence.

We are all called by the divine law written in our hearts to walk the discipleship road and embrace the freedom of the crucified Christ.

With the divine law expressed as Christ in our hearts we are called to seek justice for and with those who have ‘nothing left to lose.’



[1] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), pp. 473, 474.

[2] C. Orange, The Treaty of Waitangi (Wellington: Allen & Unwin/Port Nicholson Press, 1987) pp.90-91, 150, in Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), p. 474.

[3] J Binney, Redemption Songs p.429 in in Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), p. 474.

[4] Fred B. Craddock Luke. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 2009), pp. 207- 209.

 

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