In those days they shall no longer say: "The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge."
Our readings tonight begin with a reference to the “sins of the fathers” paradigm. There are many passages in the Torah along the lines of: “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation.”
Perhaps these passages have always pointed to something we refer to today as systemic sins, perhaps not. Nonetheless, systemic sin is a reality. The evils that others have put into place affect us all, and we all have our parts we inevitably play within them. Systems do not change in one generation, and even four generations seem optimistic.
All shall die for their own sins is an interesting form of optimism of course. But wouldn’t it be a better world if the consequences of our actions only negatively affected us? Does that seem impossible, completely out of reach?
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.
A key word here is “then,” in Luke’s Gospel Jesus tells this parable after a foretelling of the second coming. This gives us a different perspective on this parable than it’s usually given.
Another name for this parable, as it’s often understood, might be, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Of course, the other wheels may need greasing just as badly. It’s only the squeaky one that gets attention. This isn’t justice in any way we understand it today.
God as judge has never been a comfortable image for me; I much prefer the image of God as spouse, a jealous spouse, but maybe but still the beloved. Jeremiah presents us tonight with a very interesting contrast between spouse and beloved though. The ancestors broke the marriage vows. Now it’s easy to forget that marriage didn’t happen for romantic reasons in those days. Marriage was often a matter of practicality. So husband doesn’t necessarily point to beloved.
The new covenant will be different. God will put the law within them, and will write it on their hearts. This covenant will not be a written contract, but a true bond of love. “They shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” In other words, “Your abandoning me was a result of not loving me in the first place. Now that you love me all is forgiven.”
And in our parable, God is not compared to the judge, but contrasted to him. Unlike the judge who delays in meeting out justice, we are told that God will quickly grant justice. Of course, God’s idea of quickly and ours may be quite different.
Let’s take our saint*, Jesus came and comforted him, which is no small thing. But he did not live to see the justice he predicted. Emperor Julian perished after Artemius’ death. Quickly does not even mean we will live to see it.
Let us set our parable in context. Just prior to our parable, Jesus says, “The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it.”
In all honesty, are you looking forward to the end all that you know? We’re promised a better world, abundant life, but I know a great deal of the time, I’m not terribly anxious for the apocalypse to come. Yet at other times, I long for justice, for an end to the sins of the fathers. And I doubt that justice will ever come.
But our Lord tells us not to lose heart. The next verse of the psalm is: Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. For now we can find comfort, and sometimes direction. We may not get to harvest the fruits of our labors. Despite this, we are asked “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"
I often speak of my faith in terms of my relationship to God, but in this context another sense of the word presents itself; a faith more akin to hope. I never lose my relationship to God, though perhaps I don’t always hold up my part of it very well. Hope, on the other hand, I lose all the time.
I’ve have my dark nights, nights of confusion, despair, asking God “Am I wasting my time?” “Am I expecting too much?” In essence, should I just give up? These are questions that can range from the bigger, systemic battles to my own wishes and wants for my life.
In my life, however, I can tell you that time and time again God has given me better than I would have asked for myself. It’s easy to forget that. I think of this when I read that our saint for today was sent to Greece to remove the relics of St. Andrew and St. Luke, and to take them to Constantinople. Artemius carried this out with joy. How I would love an assignment like that, and yet I would never have asked for one like it.
Other times though, I just get that daily bread which can keep me worrying about tomorrow. And bigger picture, I know a fair amount of what is handed to me, is given through privilege. And more injustice than I can imagine is handed down to those less fortunate. Once I felt guilt over this, now I feel anger. For systemic sin is rampant in the land; parents are still eating sour grapes in abundance. And I wonder what good there is in transporting relics in the face of this.
And love is the good in that. I will never stop calling out injustice in anger, never stop trying to live a life that rejects evil. Yet the seeming ineffectiveness of that can lead to the loss of hope. Love however, love breeds more love.
Tenderness, compassion, forgiveness, acceptance… these things change hearts. Joy is infectious. Oh how often I speak of things that my heart cherishes in far too sober ways. How often when my heart breaks for another’s pain, do I offer advice rather than share that heartbreak? Oh that our heart could be a filter for our eyes and ears and voice.
So let us listen to Jesus’ reminder not to lose heart in our hearts and not just in our minds. Minds alone can spin out of control and end up worrying. Rather let our understanding and meditation be rooted in the cry “Oh, how I love your law!” As the psalmist wrote, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!”
Readings for this sermon:
*Saint Artemius of Antioch
When the victorious Cross, surrounded by stars, appeared to Emperor Constantine, Artemius, Constantine’s chief commander, also saw that Cross, believed in the Lord Christ and was baptized. Emperor Constantius sent Artemius to Greece to remove the relics of St. Andrew from Patras and St. Luke from Thebes, and to take them to Constantinople. Commander Artemius carried this out with joy, and was appointed as imperial prefect in Egypt. He remained in this position for a period of time under Emperor Julian the Apostate. When the apostate emperor went to war against the Persians, he commanded Artemius to come to Antioch with his army. Then the emperor subjected two Christian priests, Eugenius and Macarius, to torture. Seeing this, Artemius said: “Why, O Emperor, why do you inhumanly torture these innocent and dedicated men of God, and why do you force them to renounce the Orthodox Faith?” Artemius continued, prophesying: “Your death is near.” The enraged emperor sent those two honorable priests into exile to Arabia, where they died shortly thereafter. He then stripped Commander Artemius of his military rank and ordered him to be flogged and torn asunder. Artemius was thrown into prison, where the Lord Jesus Christ Himself appeared to him, and healed and comforted him. Finally, St. Artemius was beheaded. It was the year 362. Emperor Julian went out against the Persians and perished dishonorably, as St. Artemius had foretold.