Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 20, 2019 – Luke 18:1-8 – Trinity, Winchester
There is a series of internet memes that begin, “Always be yourself…” Maybe you’ve seen them. Perhaps the most popular is “Always be yourself. Unless you can be Batman. Then always be Batman.”
It’s not without warrant. Batman is really, really cool. His car is epic, his house is massive, and his butler Alfred cooks all his meals.
We love this meme because it represents innocent, child-like fantasy. Can’t you just picture a kid saying, “I’m Batman!”?
Children have an uncanny ability to imagine that they are someone else. They pretend. They make believe. They take on the role and insert themselves into a story. All it takes is a blanket fashioned as cape and ¡voila! Batman.
Kids don’t just dress up for Halloween, they become whoever they dress up as–sometimes for weeks on end! I’m not going as an astronaut, I am an astronaut. I’m not going as a princess, I am a princess. I’m not going as a pirate, I am a pirate.
We adults can’t get away with that. Perhaps that’s why the meme is so compelling. We long for those care-free days when we had the time and imagination to be somebody else. All we can do now is be our boring ol’ selves.
We must, however, have retained some of this child-like ability because use it whenever we interpret a parable.
We’ll read a parable and stick ourselves right into it. We’ll read a parable and say that we are the prodigal son whenever we wander into sin. We’ll say that we are the sheep, hapless and hopeless on life’s journey. We’ll say we are servants, needful of wise counsel and tough love. And then we’ll say that the talents are our God-given gifts, which we must not hoard but invest boldly in God’s economy.
We do this for good reason. Parables have layers of meaning. When we encounter something complex, our instinct is often to make it simpler. However, parables are not reducible to simple, easy-to-understand analogies.
Parables are complex because our lives are complex. Their complexity is a virtue. It is just as impossible to derive a single moral lesson from a parable as it is to apply such a moral to any given life circumstance.
We do not have to be the widow in today’s parable. Nor does her relationship with the judge have to represent our relationship with God.
In fact, it shouldn’t. The judge is unjust. He has little regard for others. But we know God is not unjust. God does not relent to our prayers out of exasperation. God does not grant our desires just to get us off his back.
Likewise, what the widow is requesting of God—justice against an opponent—is not always what we request of God. Our prayers are not merely demands for justice. They certainly might be (and perhaps they sometimes should be) but prayer is more than that.
Prayer can also be a time for giving thanks, asking for guidance, or listening quietly for what God has to say. In just a few minutes we’ll pray, as we do every week, for the mission of the church, the welfare of the world, and the sick, the dying, and the dead.
Many of us have been studying the Bible a long time. We think we know how biblical interpretation works, but sometimes we get so focused on plugging ourselves—and God—into the parables that we forget to listen for what else the Spirit might be calling our attention to.
Taking ourselves out of the story can be helpful because it forces us to ask the more complex questions. If God is not the judge, and I am not the widow, then where is God in this story? And where am I?
I hate to break it to you, but God is not a character in the parable. And neither are you. But that’s okay, because God’s the one telling the parable. And you’re the one who’s listening. We don’t have to insert ourselves—or God—in the story to find meaning in it. We can simply be ourselves and listen with a little help from the Spirit.
I really do know a guy who used to pretend to be Batman. Now that he’s an adult, he no longer runs around with a blanket around his neck. But he can still listen to what Batman’s story has to tell him.
“It might sound silly,” he admitted recently, “But Batman is my biggest role model. He overcame intense childhood trauma, he manages a super successful company, he’s extremely philanthropic, and he puts himself in harm’s way to pursue justice totally anonymously. Plus, he still finds time to work out.”
Likewise, you can be yourself and listen to what the widow’s story has to tell you. Today that story might inspire you to pursue justice. Or it might inspire you to persist in prayer. Or it might inspire you hire a good lawyer.
This morning I wonder if it also might inspire you to persist in listening for fresh meaning in scripture.
The Book of Common Prayer tells us that scripture contains all things necessary for salvation. I actually believe that. But there is no one way to interpret what that salvation means. Our approach to it can and should be varied and open to the Holy Spirit’s guidance.
That’s why we pledge in baptism to commit ourselves to continually reading and studying scripture. Because we can’t get it all the first time. Scripture always has something new to tell us, even if we’re reading a story for what feels like the millionth time.
I’m not ignorant to the fact that many of you come to Bible Study on Tuesday afternoons. Keep it up. Neither am I ignorant to the fact that many of you cannot come to Bible Study on Tuesday afternoons. This is not a guilt trip.
It’s a reminder. There is a reason that we call Jesus the Word of God. If we listen, we can find him in the words of scripture. Whether it be in the favor of a judge who rarely does the right thing, the persistence of a widow who has nothing to lose, or the deep, deep commitment of the reader, whose faith already dwells secure.