I feel in love with doing mission projects the same way I fell in love with chocolate cake.
One bite, and I was hooked.
I love the way mission projects wake up the team working together to a world they might have ignored. I love the way it breaks down boundaries between people you might never find in the same room short of the work of the Holy Spirit. More than anything, I love watching other people fall in love with it too.
I have this scrapbook of memories of seeing people catch a vision for helping other people. Watching a group of teenagers go out from behind the soup kitchen counter to go play dominoes with the homeless men at the shelter. Seeing the love in the eyes of young mom helping another mom who lost everything in an apartment fire. Walking through a completed home with a man who helped build it’s frame, and now got to meet the children who would live there.
I do love mission projects.
But after several years I realized something.
These projects are really important. They are valuable and important and they transform the people who do them and show the people we partner with that they are loved and not forgotten. But they are a first step, not the only step. It’s where we start, but it’s not the end.
Social justice is more than a one day project.
The work of social justice is day after day after day. It’s not just a project, it’s a lifelong commitment. It often starts with a project or a trip, but that’s not where it ends. This is why it is so difficult. Doing the work of social justice isn’t always what we think it will be. We create these images, these snapshots, of what justice work looks like, and then we get frustrated. Because a life committed to justice it is not an A to B. It’s not as simple as if we do the following three things, then the problems of our community will go away.
Progress is slow. The problems of our society are huge and complicated. Success is one area is often followed by a set back in another. There are delicate balances to be found between helping and hurting. People don’t do what we think they will do. Mission projects are awesome (and we should keep doing them). But justice is complicated and messy and difficult.
Even though it’s difficult, there is no question about Jesus’ expectations about justice in the world, and our role to play in that. As we read through the teachings of Jesus, there are some things that we have to read into, to interpret, to contextualize and translate. But Jesus is undeniably clear on this one.
Our passage for today as we look at everything Jesus taught comes from the gospel of Luke, chapter 18:
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.
Let’s stop and think about this judge for a minute. Like today, judges were expected to be fair. But there was an extra emphasis for judges in ancient Israel to maintain the peace of the people, and especially to look out for vulnerable people. Deuteronomy 1:16-17 says “ I charged your judges at that time: “Give the members of your community a fair hearing, and judge rightly between one person and another, whether citizen or resident alien. You must not be partial in judging: hear out the small and the great alike; you shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God’s. Any case that is too hard for you, bring to me, and I will hear it.” Being a judge wasn’t just a job, it was a calling. It was bringing about God’s judgement for the people. The text doesn’t mince words here. This judge is not doing any of these things. It says the judge “neither feared God nor has respect for people.” Not only does he not work for justice the way God has taught, but he also doesn’t care about the people who come to him.
In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’
The most likely explanation of this involves financial restitution that was rightfully hers. Widows at this time in history had few rights, and were often reliant upon the support of other people. They didn’t have the support of a husband, and often the estate of the husband who had died was passed directly on to their children. This widow wasn’t fighting for a fortune. She was likely fighting for her survival when someone has taken the little she had from her.
For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’
Again, the text is really clear that this guy is the worst. He is about to hear her case, but Jesus makes sure we know that it isn’t because he has suddenly become a good, God fearing, judge, but because he is simply tired of the widow bothering him and wants her to go away.
And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
That is quite a story. But before we talk about what it means for us, let’s look at the most dangerous verse for us in the entire passage. The very first one:
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray.
This one simple verse at the beginning of this passage is so dangerous for our faith. Why? Not because this passage doesn’t have something to teach us about prayer. It does. It is dangerous because it can seduce those of us with the resources to help the vulnerable into thinking we should worry over the health of our prayer life instead of the state of widows and other vulnerable people around us. Because that would be so much easier. This passage is about prayer. But it’s about prayer that changes you when you get back up off your knees. In the words of Oswald Chambers, “to say that “prayer changes things” is not as close to the truth as saying, “Prayer changes me and then I change things.” This is especially when it comes to the work of social justice. The prayer in this passage isn’t an easy way to get around the teaching, so don’t be seduced into thinking otherwise.
Now let’s take a closer look at the two main characters in this story, the widow, and the judge. The text tells the story of a widow who is trying to get the judge to hear her out. Our temptation when we read this is to make her smaller than she is. To make her pathetic and weak and deserving of our pity. But that’s not how Jesus describes her. This widow is tenacious. Everyday, she gets up, gets dressed and goes over to the judge’s house to remind him, again, of the injustice done to her. Everyday she goes out to fight for what’s right. Then she goes to bed, gets up, and does it again. Day after day after day.
It’s not easy to be that persistent in the overwhelming face of injustice. It’s not easy to keep fighting when everything is stacked against you. In fact, it can be exhausting, and demoralizing, and make you want to give up.
But how did Jesus start the story? He said pray always and don’t lose heart.
Don’t lose heart, Jesus says to the hurting. Don’t give up.
Maybe you are like the widow in the story today. Maybe you are someone who has pushed down by the people of power and privilege. Maybe you have come up against injustice and oppression, have knocked on the door day after day looking for justice and come up empty
Jesus says don’t lose heart.
I know that’s easier said than done. It can be exhausting to fight, day after day. Recently I came across an interview of a man named Billy Honor. He is a black Presbyterian minister in Atlanta, and he was interviewed after the recent public resurgence of white supremacy, and was asked what his response was.
He said this:
“Normally, it would have taken me seconds to get on my rhetorical high horse ….. But instead, I found myself with only the motivation to say very little this time. With a slight smirk and a hint of fatigue in my voice, I simply responded, “no comment.” That’s it. That’s all I said. And it wasn’t because I didn’t have anything more to say, it was because I just didn’t feel like saying it. These days persons like myself (that is, black and involved in fighting social injustice) are almost constantly giving explanation for the continued contested existence of black life in America and quite frankly, this can be extremely exhausting. Moreover, I contend that given all of the pervasive injustices that continue to threaten black life in America it can be said that simply the act of being black is an exercise of exhaustion. From this viewpoint, you can understand why many in the Black community who’ve been fighting for justice find themselves, as my Grandmother would say, “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Yes. Sick and tired. It is exhausting to fight, day in and day out. It is exhausting to keep moving against a system that is stacked against you.
But then Jesus says “don’t lose heart.”
And we sigh. So where do you start if you are sick and tired of being sick and tired? It starts with prayer. Keep crying out to God. Keep telling God about the injustice in your life. Then let Jesus give you the strength to not lose heart. To keep knocking on the door, day after day, of the unjust judge. To keep hammering at the darkness until light starts to seep out through the cracks. Don’t lose heart. Don’t give up. This goes too for those of you standing alongside of those who are fighting.
If you are someone right now who is trying to do good in the world, to stand alongside of those who are being treated unfairly, I know there are days when you are tired. It’s not easy out there. You know, deep down, that you could give up and go back to your regular life. But if that widow could get up day after day to go talk to the judge, you can keep getting up day after day to go help her. So don’t lose heart.
Now let’s talk about the judge.
There are quite a few of us who hold quite a bit of power in the world. Some of the people in our pews at church hold financial power. Political power. Cultural power. Or all three.
Maybe you’re not the one knocking on the door of the judge, day after day, seeking justice.
Because you are the judge.
Jesus ends his story in our passage today with a question: And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” When Jesus returns to put all things right, to restore the justice and equality that God intended, will he find faith on earth? If you are in a position of power, will Jesus find faith in you? If that question makes you squirm a little, start at the same place we started with the widow. Start with prayer. The first mistake of the judge in our story is that he didn’t fear God. You have the opportunity to take everything you have and go before God and lay it all at his feet and pray. But remember the temptation for us here. Prayer isn’t just talking. Prayer changes you. Jesus was very clear about his priority and concern for the poor and the vulnerable. Prayer can reorder your priorities, your focus, your whole life, around God’s priorities.
What does this mean for you?
Let prayer change you, if you are brave enough.
Take a big deep breath, find your courage, and ask God to make your priorities a little closer to His. Then let these priorities send you out to be a part of the justice work happening right here in our community.
That’s not where it ends. Because from there, we figure out the difficult work of a lifetime of social justice, of walking alongside of the vulnerable as they knock on the door, day after day, looking for justice.
About the Author
Megan Collins is the co-pastor of Maitland Presbyterian Church near Orlando, FL. Find her on Twitter @pastormegan