Paula Anema Sohl
2 April 2017
Luke 18:1-14, Hildegard of Bingen
Postures of Prayer
(Demonstrate 3 postures of prayer—pounding fists in air, arms up in orans posture, arms crossed and pounding chest; invite congregation to join—and use postures throughout when appropriate.)
Jesus’ parables from today’s reading describe three distinct experiences of prayer, inviting us to wonder, what is it to pray?
Experiences of prayer are probably as distinct as the individuals participating in praying. Jesus had a habit or a practice of prayer, which he demonstrated in taking time away for prayer alone; he prayed aloud in the company of his friends; and he gave instruction in prayer as when he said, “Pray then in this way,” offering a version of the prayer we say together every week. He also taught about prayer in parables.
Now, I learned as a child that parables were earthly stories with a heavenly meaning, and indeed it was often proposed that the meaning was quite particular and static. The word parable, in the Greek, means to throw alongside as in parallel or paradox, and in the fluidity of throwing, a single meaning can neither be determined nor restricted, neither particular or static.
Fred Grewe tells us that parables are like Buddhist Koans. One definition of Koans frames them as “paradoxical anecdotes meant to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to provoke enlightenment. Amy Jill Levine, a Jewish, feminist, New Testament scholar, says the value of parables is not in what they mean, but in what they do. She says if the parables disturb us, they are working. They help us to ask the right questions.
Some of the questions I bring to these parables about prayer are: What is the effect of prayer? What ways of praying have value? To whom does prayer matter? Is a disrespectful judge an appropriate model for God? How is the judge affected by the persistent widow? Is the widow set on vengeance or justice? How can the Pharisee self-aggrandize in public so shamelessly? What makes the tax-collector receptive of his justification? What is the value of these legal metaphors—of judges and justification—in these parables about prayer? Maybe you have questions as well…..
The word for prayer in the bible is sometimes translated as wish, which brought to my mind the Dusty Springfield song, “Wishin’ and hopin’ and thinkin’ and prayin’, plannin’ and dreamin’ each night of his charms…”
But that kind of praying, which I practice, and might endorse, as holding an intention for what it is we imagine and desire, doesn’t seem to be suggested in these particular parables.
I’ll talk a little about the second parable first, where the religious leader stands and prays, probably with his hands raised: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” It seems hard to believe that this Pharisee, with such disciplined spiritual practices—of praying, fasting, and giving—seems not to have benefitted much from them. His prayer sounds more like a boast. He seems to lack compassion and the humility and self-awareness that the tax-collector does have.
But, his sentiments I am sure are not far from my attitudes when I say (although maybe not in public) I am thankful that I am not like other people who deny climate change, or want to defund Planned Parenthood, or threaten deportation of hard-working and valued neighbors and friends in our community. It is our challenge to hold the fears and wounds and perspective of another as tenderly and patiently as we do our own.
The parable says that the tax-collector, with his simple prayer, “God be merciful to me, a sinner,” left there that day, justified. His posture of prayer, his acknowledgement of his faults, brought him to a personal experience of freedom, knowing he was beloved.
Now, the widow, from the first parable, in her persistence, got results on the ground. Levine suggests that in this story in its first century context, this widow was not weak and dependent, but active and engaged, with time on her hands to show up regularly and bother the judge.
The story describes the judge’s fear of receiving a black eye from her. The word hupo-piadzo is often translated as weary in this text: “I will grant her justice so that she will not weary me by continually coming.” The literal translation of hupo-piadzo is “to hit under the eye.” Interesting how that metaphor translates to our use of the phrase “black eye” to suggest an injury to the prestige of someone or something, like when we say “the record number of homeless persons with limited options for winter shelter is a black eye for the city.” This suggests the role of shame used as a motivator for improved behavior and indeed on this judge in the story, it worked.
I don’t think that this judge who did not fear God or respect people, is any kind of example of the God of my understanding, which makes me wonder how this parable can really be about praying to God at all, unless it is an opportunity to recognize active advocacy as embodied prayer behavior. Maybe it is not so much God that is affected by such behavior, but the course of human history itself as people engage in resistance to injustice, bending the very arc of the moral universe.
Like the widow who wouldn’t take no for an answer, many in this congregation are focusing on particular issues of justice that they are remaining engaged with for the long haul: things where their persistence can make a difference.
I was delighted to see many of our church people at the Medford Library a week and a half ago, some participating in a round dance led by indigenous people of the Yurok, Klamath and Hupa tribes. The gathering was organized to oppose the building of that pesky LNG pipeline through Southern Oregon that would continue to add fossil fuel infrastructure in this time when human contributions to climate change are enacting violence on the most vulnerable throughout our world.
Someone at the action questioned the idea of whether shaming those poised to make money on the pipeline deal was an effective strategy. Dan Wahpepah of Red Earth Descendants said it is how behaviors are brought to public awareness and can be effective in helping people choose not to shame themselves by manner of their choices. Just as the fear of a black eye was an effective strategy for the persistent widow in Jesus’ parable, there is hope that the pipeline company will recognize the sacredness of the water, the land, the air, and the legacy we leave for future generations. If not, we count on our established legal processes being brought to bear for justice and a livable future. It is said that “we are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it.”
I hear three themes in Jesus’ teaching on prayer. One is about our acceptance of the grace of the God whose “Spirit heals sin and pours balm over all the world’s wounds”. One is about finding humility when we are tempted to judge the sins of others. And one is about translating our prayers into action that demands justice and civility and the very re-arranging of our culture.
This week 120 countries gathered to draft a treaty to ban nuclear weapons at the United Nations. As usual, the US did not participate and urged its allies not to as well. Non-weapons states and peace movements around the world have worked for years to build public opinion and join together in a process to ban these weapons. It has been the policy of our country to plan to spend a trillion dollars to upgrade our nuclear weapons over the next 30 years. We cannot let that happen.
On Wednesday, April 26, at 7pm, Regis Trembley will be at Peace House with his film: Thirty Seconds to Midnight: The Final Wake-up Call. It is about the renewed risk of nuclear war and this showing is co-sponsored by our Global Ministries Team.
Ben Ferencz is 97 years old. He is the last surviving prosecutor of the Nuremberg Trials. He is a Jew, an immigrant from Transylvania, and lived with his family in a cellar in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City when they first arrived in the US. He studied to become a lawyer, then joined the army and witnessed horrific scenes in the liberation of death camps in Germany following WWII. At the young age of 27, he was recruited to help with war crimes trials and became a chief prosecutor.
He once said the lesson of Nuremberg was that “If we do not devote ourselves to developing effective world law, the same cruel mentality that made the holocaust possible might one day destroy the entire human race.” In reflecting more recently, he also had this to say about the dangers of investing in war, the progress we are making, and the need to change hearts and minds.
“War makes murderers…out of otherwise decent people…these are patriots trying to do their duty to protect either their religion or their nationality or their economic security…If the money spent on weapons could be spent on eliminating the cause of [their] discontent” people would not go out and risk their lives and kill people in war. “We’ve got to reverse those thousands of years (of glorifying war-making)…We’ve got to begin in the cradle: re-education of the human spirit and the human mind on a world-wide basis is the task before us and we are doing it…I say don’t give up. Law is always be better than war…which is murderous and terrible, and the three ways of preventing it is 1) never give up, 2) never give up, and 3) never give up.”
So our work is cut out for us. Like the persistent widow, we too, must never give up. Like Hildegard, and the tax-collector, we can live in the belief that “God is love, which the vast expanses of evil can never still.” In our coming together in sharing of spiritual practices of prayer, fasting, giving and communing together, we can take care to neither boast nor judge but to follow Jesus in the way of life-risking love.
Another thing Hildegard wrote was this: All of creation is a symphony of joy and jubilation…Prayer is nothing but the inhaling and exhaling of the one breath of the universe.
You ought always to pray and not to faint.
Do not pray for easy lives.
Pray to be stronger women and men.
Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers,
But for power equal to your tasks.
Then, the doing of your work will be no miracle—
You will be the miracle.
Every day you will wonder at yourself and the richness of life,
which has come to you by the grace of God.