Serious Christians remember a sermon if you simplify it. Hence, the title of my book, Simple Sermons for Serious Christians. Most often, I simplify sermons by hanging three points on one letter. Today, three Ps – Parable, Passage and Prayer.
Three points are easier to remember if they all begin with the same letter. Case in point: An investor analyzes businesses through people, product and process. An entrepreneur states the key to success is passion, patience and perseverance. An anthropologist deems it imperative that males aspiring to be men must protect, procreate and provide. A professor teaches that we handle setbacks through personalization, pervasiveness and permanence. While I do not expect you to remember all those Ps, they illustrate that points are easier to remember if all the words begin with the same letter. That said, for Christians engaged in the world: parable, passage and prayer.
First, parable. What is a parable? Simply defined, a parable is a short story that teaches a moral or spiritual lesson. It comes to us from the Latin, parabola, and the Greek, parabole, which literally meant ‘a throwing beside.’ Its origin is from the term para, meaning alongside, and bole, a throwing, casting, beam or ray.
The geometrically gifted understand that a parabolic curve refers to a comparison between fixed points and a straight line. The St. Louis Arch and your satellite dish are parabolic curves. Jesus, however, did not teach math or build arches. Rather, he compared real life situations to teach a lesson about God.
Parables were part of Jewish tradition. The Hebrew term for a parable was mashal. We find mashal in the allegories, proverbs, riddles and taunts of Judges, Samuel, Proverbs, Prophets and the intertestamental Book of Enoch. We are familiar with Nathan’s powerful story to David of the rich man who stole and slaughtered the poor man’s prized lamb. It transformed David to a humble, contrite sinner. So, we see that Jesus did not invent parables, but like his ancestors, used them to win people over to his views.
Jesus spoke parables to proclaim the gracious advent, disturbing presence and challenging implications of the Kingdom of God. At times, he opened with, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” or, “To what shall I compare?” Often, he concluded with a question. “Which of these three … proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” Today’s parable asks, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
While Jesus’ questions did not pressure listeners to choose any one direction, they confronted them with the necessity to make a choice that determined their future. No doubt, his listeners who viewed matters one way now discovered a better way. Discovering a better way resulted in conversion, reconciliation and changed behavior. Once they experienced conversion and reconciliation, his followers transformed society and changed the world. As I conclude my first point on parables, I repeat that last sentence. Once they experienced conversion and reconciliation, his followers transformed society and changed the world.
From parable to passage, my second point. I repeated the last sentence because repetition is effective pedagogy. We learned our catechism by repeating answers to questions. As Luther employed repetition, so did Luke. He emphasized continued prayer in this passage, and humble prayer in the next. The conclusion of the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector reads, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
We also find a parallel between this passage and chapter 11, where Jesus said, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him.’” In both, the main character is the petitioned, not the petitioner. The petitioned represents God, who listens and answers, but the attention goes to the petitioner, who asks, seeks and knocks. In other words, do not be afraid to bother God. Do not give up on prayer.
Jesus encouraged his disciples to pray earnestly to the end. Luke recorded that when Jesus was in the Mount of Olives, he was in agony but prayed more earnestly. In Acts, when Peter was in prison, the church prayed earnestly to God for him. Like the widow seeking justice, the disciples’ goal, even in the midst of difficulties, was never give up before the Son of Man returns.
Jesus then described the judge as unrighteous, unaccountable to God and inconsiderate towards people. The listeners understood that this man was not a religious figure, but a secular judge who ruled through the authority of the occupying power, a common practice in the Ancient Middle East. In many cases, people sought justice in these courts because the judicial process was quicker and smoother. We find an indication of this practice in chapter 12. Jesus said, “As you go with your accuser before the magistrate, make an effort to settle with him on the way, lest he drag you to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer put you in prison. I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.”
The oppressed widow symbolized the helpless and defenseless. She knew she had right on her side, appealed for vindication and expected swift justice. As a favor to her oppressor, a rich and influential man, the judge delayed her hearing.
The judge did not decide according to the exhortations to give widows their rights according to the Law and Prophets. There, we read, “You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child.” “Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not bring justice to the fatherless, and the widow’s cause does not come to them.” “I will be a swift witness against … those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and fatherless, [and] those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord.”
Yet, the unrighteous, exasperated judge yielded to the widow’s relentless pursuit of justice. He could do nothing to appease her short of giving her a swift hearing based on Roman law. He did so because he was tired of having his reputation sullied and his name ridiculed among his peers because this poor, defenseless widow never gave up seeking justice.
If the unjust judge does right by the widow for whom he does not care – a case in which the chances for a positive outcome are very slim – how much more will God respond to the unceasing cry of his elect, since, in contrast to the judge, he listens favorably to them. The unjust judge did not care for the widow and hardly wanted to listen to her. Our righteous, loving God has a lively interest in his elect and is always prepared to listen to them.
God is always prepared to listen; however, as I mentioned earlier, Jesus often concluded parables with a question. Here, he asked, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Will he find disciples actively engaged in prayer?
Will he find disciples actively engaged in prayer? That, folks, leads me to my third point, prayer.
What is prayer? Prayer is the necessary foundation of our work as church and individuals. It is communal and personal. We pray in our sanctuaries and rooms. To paraphrase one holy person, prayer is God looking at me, and me looking at God. It is from the heart, but it is also vocal. We speak the Lord’s Prayer as Jesus taught it to his disciples.
Prayer involves reading Scripture. Daily, my wife and I read aloud the Psalms. We are also reading the New Testament in the Community Bible Experience. When I pray the Scriptures, I use the Five Ps of Prayer: Passage, Place, Posture, Presence and Passage. This method calls me to read, question and wonder.
Prayer involves thought and imagination, gifts Jesus employed as he formed parables. Praying over Nathan’s story to David may reduce me to a humble, contrite sinner. Pondering Jesus’ closing question in the Parable of the Good Samaritan may leave me wondering if I show mercy to diverse neighbors. Meditating on the Parable of the Prodigal may challenge the depth of my love for father and brother, mother and sister. So, friends, you see why my last point is prayer. When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith in me? Will he find me praying earnestly to the end – like Peter in prison or Jesus in the Mount of Olives?
Jesus based this parable on trust and confidence in God’s help and assistance. He could be so straightforward in his assurance that God hears the cry of his people because he took seriously the action of God in his own life and ministry. He saw it in Israel’s history and the world around him.
We do not live in that history and world. We live in a country with a different history and a different world. Therefore, we pray over this parable in order to relate it to our daily lives. When I pray over the passage, many questions rise to the surface, but let me focus only on a few.
First, who are today’s widows? Who are God’s elect who cry out to him day and night seeking justice? Whose voices are the exploited and oppressed?
Second, Jesus promises that God will give justice to his elect. If I – created in the image and likeness of God, baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit, a redeemed sinner and child of God – If I am to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, how do I extend mercy to those who seek justice? If the unjust judge who neither feared God nor respected man knew how to extend justice to the poor, exploited and oppressed widow, to whom do I extend justice?
I asked myself, “Who are the exploited?” As a REALTOR®, I know predatory lenders exploited poor families who lost home and savings. Recalling my work at World Neighbors, an international organization solving hunger, I saw the immensity of poverty in rural Asia, Africa and Latin America. As a fundraiser for a homeless service provider in Berkeley, California, I met many homeless vets and people with mental health disorders. As a program manager for Incarceration to Independence, I interviewed dozens of women exploited by pushers and pimps. I could list scores of exploited and oppressed people who cry out to God seeking justice, but only the unborn do not have a voice.
Abortion killed 700,000 unborn babies last year. In the United States, for every 1,000 babies that were born, we aborted 200. Lutherans for Life, Priests for Life, Operation Rescue, Guttmacher Institute, the CDC and others publish pages of statistics and stories on their websites. Read them. Think about the 80 babies aborted during the length of our worship service, or the 25 during the length of this sermon. Ask yourself if these exploited and oppressed elect of God cried out when aborted because they were inconvenient to the parents.
I concluded my first point by saying that once people heard Jesus’ parables, they experienced conversion and reconciliation, transformed society and changed the world. “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Will he find that Lutherans Engage the World is a reality or simply a magazine?
Friends, these exploited and oppressed people created in the image of God have no voice and yet cry out for justice. As men and women who experienced conversion and reconciliation, our prayers and actions can transform society and change the world. As we approach the election, seriously consider not only people, but also political parties and policies that ignore or respond to those who cry out to God. Let your vote express justice and mercy for those who cry out to God, yet have no voice.
Beyond the ballot box, pray and protest the inhumane slaughter of the innocents, and tax-payer funding of agencies that abort unborn persons. Do this, and know that when the Son of Man returns, he will find you engaged in prayer and in the practice of your faith. When He returns, may the peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
 Matthew 13;31,33.
 Luke 7:31.
 Luke 10:36.
 Luke 18:8.
 Luke 18:14.
 Luke 11:5ff.
 Luke 22:44.
 Acts 12:5.
 Luke 12:58-59.
 Exodus 22:22. See also Deuteronomy 27:19.
 Isaiah 1:23.
 Malachi 3:5.
 Herman Hendrickx, The Parables of Jesus, San Francisco: Harper & Row (1986). 223.
 Luke 18:8.
 Hendrickx, 229.
 This is the primary reason parents seek abortion.
 Luke 18:8.