Proper 24, Year C, Church of the Messiah, Pulaski

“When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Lk. 18:8).

There’s a tentative quality to the question at the end of our Gospel, as if the questioner were not sure of the answer. Lawyers are taught not to ask questions in court when they don’t already know the answers. If you are trying to prove your point it’s good to know in advance what the answer will be, since it will help to build your case. If you know the answer will obscure things then better not to ask it in the first place; if you don’t know what the witness will say better not take the risk at all! In spite of this lawyerly wisdom, our Gospel closes with what seems to be an open question, the answer to which appears to be uncertain.

Turning to lawyerly wisdom may not be too far afield, because the story Jesus tells in our Gospel today is one taken from the courtroom. In the parable there’s an unjust judge, who doesn’t care whether he gives the people justice or not. In spite of this, there’s a poor widow who keeps coming to him looking for a ruling in her case. Imagine a feisty old lady, poor and downtrodden (as widows were in Israel, as a category of people), who’s willing to mix it up in court. Maybe the judge ties to rule her in contempt of court; maybe she takes her case out to the news cameras outside. The judge can’t hide from social scrutiny, so he says, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice” (Lk. 18:4-5).

It’s a story about persistence and tenacity, framed by our Gospel at the beginning of our reading as an argument for remaining constant in prayer. “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (Lk. 18:1). The point about prayer that Jesus makes is that if the unjust judge can render judgment for the widow, God will show justice that much more to those who call upon him, to those who turn to him in prayer.

The story of the unjust judge is unique to the Gospel of Luke, but the theme of God as judge had a long history in ancient Israel. “God is a righteous judge; God sits in judgment every day” (Ps. 7:12), it says in the Psalms. Unlike the unjust judge, God never grows weary of doing right. “Awake, O my God, decree justice; let the assembly of the peoples gather around you. Be seated on your lofty throne, O Most High; O Lord, judge the nations” (Ps. 7:7-8).  The New Testament itself ends with a vision of judgment, as the One seated on the throne gives judgment for all (Rev. 20:11-15).

The point is that God is a reliable judge, the righteous God who renders just judgment and gives justice to those who ask him for it, to those who are persistent in prayer. About the character of God and his own capacity for action there can be no uncertainty. Yet there is still the matter of the open question at the end of the Gospel, with its note of niggling uncertainty. When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on earth?

Once again, Jesus brings us back to faith, a subject that he has kept before us for some weeks now in our Gospel readings. Jesus performs his miraculous healings through faith: as we heard in the story of the ten lepers. “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well” (Lk. 17:19). Earlier, the apostles asked Jesus, “Increase our faith” (Lk. 17:5). And even earlier, Jesus tells the Pharisees that “whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful in much” (Lk. 16:10). Faith is at the heart of his ministry. He invites us to have faith, to put our trust in God. He calls us, in turn, to be faithful, to be trustworthy ourselves.

But remember, when his followers asked Jesus to increase their faith, Jesus’ answer was that their need for more faith indicated their lack of faith! The open question at the end of our Gospel today indicates the same concern. God is reliable but we of course are not. Remember the frame that Jesus supplies for the story: our need of prayer. Today we will pray for our confirmands, that God will supply the grace they need for the living of the Christian life. They will receive the laying on of hands, the outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace bestowed. What’s true for them is true for all of us as well. When the Son of Man comes will he find faith on earth? He will, if we stand constant in prayer, and are open to the grace that only he can provide.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee