Scripture - Luke 18:9-14
Let us enter into a court of law, wh
ere a civil case is being tried. I haven’t been in a courtroom often, but we see them on TV & in the newspapers, & from time to time legal cases are widely reported & may even make history.
If it wasn’t so serious, it would be like a sports contest. On one side is the plaintiff, claiming eagerly that he was wronged by the person opposing him. He has a team of lawyers, & they are arguing the case, producing witnesses, trying to persuade the judge that he is in the right. And opposite is the defendant, the man the plaintiff is accusing. He & his team are trying to persuade the judge that he is in the right. Though experts who are watching may have a sense of which way the verdict is going to go, the result isn’t truly known until the judge, like a referee, finally announces the result.
In the ancient Jewish courts, all cases were like that, not just civil ones. If someone had stolen from you, you had to bring a charge against them; you couldn’t get the police to do it for you. If someone had murdered a relative of yours, the same was true. So, every legal case in Jesus’ day was a matter of a judge deciding to vindicate one party or another: ‘vindication’ or ‘justification’ means upholding their side of the story & deciding in their favor. The word ‘justification,’ which we read a lot in Paul but hardly ever find in the gospels, means exactly this: that the judge finds in Paul’s favor at the end of the case.
Last Sunday’s Scripture & today’s parable, though very different in some ways, are both about vindication. Last week’s more obviously so, since it was set in a courtroom; we were puzzled at first glance, since, though J clearly intended for the judge to stand for God, the judge was about as unlike God as possible. He had no respect for God, & he didn’t care whether he did the right thing for people or not. The point of the parable was to say: if even a rotten judge like that can be persuaded to do the right thing by someone who pesters him day & night until it happens, then of course God, who is Justice personified, & who cares passionately about people, will vindicate them, & will see that justice is done.
The parable assumed that God’s people are like litigants in a lawsuit, waiting for God’s verdict. What is the lawsuit about? It seemed to be about Israel, or rather the renewed Israel gathered around Jesus, awaiting from God the vindication that will come when those opposed to his message are finally defeated. It is, in other words, about the same scenario as described in chapter 17: the time when, through the final destruction of Jerusalem & Temple that have opposed him, Jesus’ followers will know that God has vindicated Jesus himself, & them as his followers. Though this moment itself will be terrifying, it will function as the liberating, vindicating judgment God’s people have been waiting & praying for. And if this is true of that final moment, it is also true of all such lesser moments, with which Christian living is filled.
Today’s parable looks at first as though it is describing a religious occasion, but it, too, turns out to be another lawsuit. Or maybe I should say that the Pharisee in the Temple has already turned it into a contest: his “prayer,” which consists simply of telling God all about his own good points, ends up exalting himself by the simple process of denouncing the tax collector. The tax collector, however, is the one whose small faith gets through to the heart of God, & he casts himself on the divine mercy. Jesus reveals what the divine judge would say about this: the tax collector, not the Pharisee, returned home justified.
Today I want us to think about where vindication, justification, may be occurring amid an opioid epidemic. Recovery from addiction involves multiple steps. Last week we looked at detoxification, the process of removing opioids from one’s body. It is a painful, long process taking as long as 60 days or more. The second step is long-term recovery & it continues for a lifetime.
Once the body is free from opioids, recovery is just beginning. The brain continues to crave opioids. You know that little voice that tells us we want some chocolate ice cream when we don’t need it? That same voice is shouting to the person in recovery that they must, at all costs, get some opioids. Memories of the high from opioids, the muscle memory of prepping the drug for use, & the memories of which houses to buy the drugs from live long in the brains of recovering addicts. They are difficult to overcome & must be overcome every day. The person in recovery can have an intense craving for opioids at any moment because their brain remembers their past use. The person in recovery must have support from other persons in recovery, from their family, & from friends. Recovering users need someone to reach out to – at any time of the day – to help them fight their craving. Most people in recovery will relapse into opioid use because the brain’s craving is so very strong.
The person in recovery is also dealing with their feelings regarding how they have treated the very people who love them. They must learn to live with the frustration of missed opportunities, lost careers, & alienated family members. They may also suffer from other diseases, such as hepatitis & HIV as a result of their drug use.
Long-term recovery may begin with a residential program, intense outpatient treatment, or simply a person’s own determination. It often takes several attempts to stay in long-term recovery. Cost, availability, & determination all play parts in how well a person will do in long-term recovery. And all recovering users need support from peers, family, & the church to stay in recovery.
Today, when we go into town, we see prodigal sons & daughters everywhere. Some may have traveled hundreds of miles, others not even one mile. We may know them, but they are truly living in a faraway land. Their addiction to opioids has cut them off from their home & community, & now they seek recovery.
This week, as you fast, pray, listen & respond, ask God to show you what our response should be for those seeking long-term recovery. Should we provide them a warm place to sleep? They may be dirty, scary, & wasting all that their parents & God gave them. But they are someone’s child, & more than that, they are children of God. Ask God to help you look past their appearance & see the lost children who have parents & a God who are worried about them.
If your child was lost in a faraway land, how would you want them to be treated by a local church?
These 2 passages, the widow & the judge & the 2 men at prayer, together make a powerful statement about what, in Paul’s language, is called justification by faith. The wider context is the final courtroom, in which God’s chosen people will be justified after our life of suffering, holiness, & service. Though enemies inside & outside may denounce & attack us, God will act & show that we truly are his people. But this doesn’t mean that one can tell in the present age who are God’s elect, simply by the outward badges of virtue & in particular, the observance of the minutiae of rules & regulations. If we want to see where this final justification is taking place in the present, look for where there is genuine penitence, the genuine casting of oneself on the mercies of God. This person went down to his home justified; those are among the most comforting words in the entire gospel!
It is not enough for us to open our church doors & hope the strangers in a strange land sober up, clean up, & come in. We must follow God out of our sanctuary & feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, & welcome the stranger.
Dear God, show us how.
Let us pray: Men and women, old and young, see God’s visions, & dream God’s dreams. Young and old, women and men, feel the Holy Spirit fall like rain. People everywhere on earth, join creation, & shout for joy: Praise is due you, God, for all that you do, for all that you have done, & for all that you promise to do. Amen.