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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Luke 18:1-8

Who we read with makes all the difference. By now I hope you realize why it is important to tell you about my Southern Baptist upbringing. I learned to read the Bible among middle-class whites. They saw some of what the Bible says, but missed many other things. I am focusing on Luke 18 because it played a pivotal role in my experience of reading in community. For instance, I don’t know that I ever saw verse 8 as an integral part of the rhetorical structure of the parable in my early training and even into adulthood, so I probably never gave it much thought until many years later.

My attention was first drawn to this verse during one of the most difficult periods of my life as a follower of Jesus. I was a leader in an integrated, predominately white Baptist congregation, but there were rumblings of racial unrest. An older generation of church members was unhappy with the results of desegregation in their church. It was a time in which I found myself questioning whether most, or even any, congregations or denominations in contemporary society and culture had any right to claim the name church. The pastor, in an effort to get the church to go deeper in our discipleship, had urged us to form study groups and follow a widely used curriculum for church renewal.

In the midst of that study, I came across Luke 18:8, and it struck me as the question of the age. I was reading in community with whites and blacks, but the overwhelming division of U. S. churches by race and ethnicity was challenging my previous understanding of the Bible. The question haunted me. “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faithfulness on the earth?” What if Jesus comes looking for me? Will Jesus find faithfulness? Will my church be showing its faith in a way that is recognizable?

Learning to read also requires letting the context in which we read enlighten the text. I knew that following Jesus and living a life shaped by the way of Jesus, being disciples, was what churches are called to do. As I tried to compare that with the scandal of white supremacy, with the wound of racism, I found that my settled and secure beliefs about the church were being shaken. Ultimately, I found myself, along with others, seeking for God in exile from that congregation, wandering in a wilderness of longing. I knew better than to look for a perfect church. I was just hoping to find one where power brokers did not seem hell-bent on denying the gospel.

It was a few months later when I was sitting in Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church, as a new member, that I heard this passage in Luke 18 brought up along the way in a sermon. I was eager to reflect on it further, and once again the Holy Spirit shed new light on the scripture. As I sat in a congregation of mostly African Americans, my white body in proximity to their black bodies, my family and cultural heritage laid out alongside theirs, I heard this story in a whole new light.

I perceived that for African American Bible readers, it was no surprise to encounter the character of an unjust judge who has no fear of God and no respect for anyone. I, of course, had watched video footage of the rigged system of injustice that protected white assassins from being convicted of murder during the Civil Rights Movement. I had read Ida Wells’s accounts of lynch law and the precarious existence of blacks who might seek to improve their economic condition when the legal system was not set up for their good. But for the first time, I was learning to read the Bible with that history as my own history, too. It was no longer a separate set of events, unrelated to the Bible.

Moreover, the entire parable began to take clearer shape as addressing the nature of prayer. In light of reading in community, it becomes clear that the parable is not primarily a message for consumers in a consumer society who consume God and want God to help them consume more stuff. While one aspect of the parable’s message may be that we are encouraged to keep on praying, the core emphasis seems more on clarifying what sort of God it is to whom we are praying. God is not like this judge. The judge is at best an antihero—he plays a role in something good happening, despite his obvious flaws. Or perhaps the judge is merely a villain. Jesus tells the disciples who are listening to pay attention to the contrast. God is not anything like that judge. So if a sorry old reprobate judge like that can be persuaded to do something right, what do you think you could expect from a good and loving God? So don’t lose heart. Keep the faith. Pray on. And be faithful to what God has called you to do.

Moreover, it is not just any kind of praying that the parable is concerned with. It is not about whether I can get a bigger house or a fancier car. It is not about whether I get my picture in the paper or my name gets called out for recognition in public meetings. It is about justice.
The other character is not a widow by chance. Jesus was concerned about how women were being treated by the so-called righteous religious folk of his day. Widows might have no protectors, and they had very few ways to make a living that were acceptable and respectable. They deserved better, and the law had some provisions which could help them. But from a position of social isolation and weakness, they might not be treated humanely. Perhaps no one would even bother to listen. The unjust judge was probably a recognizable character to the people gathered around Jesus that day in Philadelphia, Mississippi, or Orange County, California, or Jena, Louisiana, or Durham, North Carolina, on his journey to Jerusalem.

I had learned long before, as a ministerial student, that Luke’s gospel is reputed to be concerned for the equal place of women before God and in the church. Now in this parable, one more example of that is clear. The judge does not respect anyone. God, on the other hand, loves even the lowly and marginalized. The judge just wants the widow to leave him alone. God wants the widow to have life abundant. The judge acts for expediency and personal comfort. God acts for justice.

A Christian education curriculum that neglects the liberating justice of God toward women is a curriculum that has not learned to read the Bible. Don’t be timid about confronting the systems through which structures of gender have been abused in the service of power. God is with us when we seek to discern the Spirit’s leadership. We say, “Yes,” to the work of God in the lives of women in our churches. We say, “Yes,” to the work of God in the lives of men in our churches. We say, “Yes,” to the new ways in which God will work to reshape women and men to be humble co-workers for justice and mercy in proclaiming the Reign of God.

So the prayers that we must always pray without fainting are prayers for justice. We must pray for justice for the poor. We must pray for justice for the prisoner. We must pray for justice for the worker, justice for the violated, justice for the outcast, justice for the widow and orphan. But they must not be empty prayers or prayers of mere obligation and observance. They must be prayers of opening ourselves to God’s work in our lives. The result of such prayers is to be our faithful ministry to the poor, to the prisoner, to the worker, to the violated, to the outcast, and to the widow and orphan.

We will become the instruments of God to answer those who cry out day and night. We will become the instruments of God to help them without delay. We will be the instruments to quickly grant justice to them.

Learning to read the Bible means learning to pray as God would have us pray. Yes, learning to read the Bible means learning to perform the scriptures. Put them in action. Yes, act them out. Don’t just soak up the teaching—live the teaching. Perform the scriptures. Don’t be mere hearers of the word. Be doers of the word. Love in deed and truth. Love one another. Let love be genuine, so that when the Son of Man comes, it will not be hard to find faithfulness on the earth.

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