Ai Weiwei’s exhibit “According to What? at the Art Gallery of Ontario inspired me to look beyond traditional interpretations of Jesus’ parable of the Pleading Widow to see our role as the unjust judge. The gentle breath of a newborn granddaughter enabled me to hear God persistently pleading for justice. Read the sermon manuscript below or Listen to the sermon here:
I spent time exploring the Ai Weiwei exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario. It is a powerfully, disturbing, fascinating and compelling exhibit that I know will stay with me for years to come. Ai Weiwei is, according to the AGO’s description, “an artist with a very new kind of visibility. He has transcended his artwork to become a worldly figure who, for many, symbolizes the assertion of freedom of expression against great odds. Using the fame and recognition garnered by his art, Ai Weiwei has taken on issues that could not be raised publically in China.” The exhibit provides a unique window into a part of the world that continues to remain impenetrable.
Ai Weiwei and I are the same age but it is as if our worlds are light-years apart. I first became aware of his work during the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Ai is responsible for the spectacular design of the Beijing Olympic Stadium that has become known as the Bird’s Nest. With his conception of the Bird’s Nest Ai hoped to represent freedom. He saw the Olympics as a splendid opportunity to demonstrate that China was opening up after decades of seclusion with a dismantling of the barriers erected by successive totalitarian régimes. Sadly, Ai’s dreams were dashed as the stadium was constructed and the Chinese government resorted to old methods to drive the poor from their homes in order to build on Olympic sites.
On the opening day of the Olympics, Ai wrote this about his of his decision to boycott the events: “Today China and the world will meet again. People will see that the planet is now smaller than at any time in history, that mankind should bid farewell to arrogance and indifference, to ignorance and discrimination, and understand that we share the same small piece of land. It will be a time to rediscover each other, to share what is good in life, to look each other in the eye and link all 10 fingers. The colourful festival is a time not just for celebration, but also for peace and friendship. To rediscover our future, we should say goodbye to our past. We must bid farewell to autocracy. Whatever shape it takes, whatever justification it gives, authoritarian government always ends up trampling on equality, denying justice and stealing happiness and laughter from the people.
We should also leave behind discrimination, because it is narrow-minded and ignorant, denies contact and warmth; and corrodes mankind’s belief that we can better ourselves. The only way to avoid misunderstanding, war and bloodshed is to defend freedom of expression and to communicate with sincerity, concern and good intentions.
The “Bird’s Nest” National Stadium, which I helped to conceive, is designed to embody the Olympic spirit of “fair competition”. It tells people that freedom is possible but needs fairness, courage and strength. Following the same principles, I will stay away from the opening ceremony, because I believe the freedom of choice is the basis of fair competition. It is the right I cherish most. If we want it to be, today can be a moment of courage, hope and passion. This day will test our faith in the human race, and our determination to build a better future.”
The Chinese government has not reacted kindly to Ai’s public descent and he has felt the weight of their abuse. He remains under house arrest and was not allowed to travel to Toronto for the opening of his exhibit. It is only, Ai’s world renown as an artist and public dissident that protects him from the ultimate fate of so many Chinese dissidents. Ai Weiwei’s courage in speaking out against injustice over and over again, has robbed him of his liberty and put his life in grave danger and yet he continues to publically protest the abuses of his overlords. Ai’s testimony, expressed in his art, speaks volumes to the world and even tough his protests fall on what appear to be the deaf ears of a régime that continues to oppress the people of China, one wonders how long these unjust judges will be able to resist his persistent pleas for justice.
I have never much cared for the traditional interpretations of Jesus parable of the persistent widow. I have long ago given up the belief that God will respond if only we pray often enough. Even back in the days when I believed that God was some sort of cosmic superhero who answered prayer, I still found it impossible to believe the injunctions not to give up, and your persistence will persuade God to respond. I know too many people who have ardently and persistently fallen to their knees and begged God for help all to no avail. I’ve never been able to tell anyone that all they need to do is to be persistent in their prayers and not lose heart.
As my images of God have moved me beyond an understanding of God as some sort of cosmic super-hero, my notions about what prayer is and is not have also changed. Trusting that everything that is, is in God, and that the Divine Source of the Cosmos, lives and breathes in with and through us, I trust prayer to open us up to all that is beyond us and within us and I see prayer as a way for us to connect to the Divine and to one another in ever deepening and expanding ways. I believe that prayer is incredibly powerful and that it changes lives. I also believe that prayer has the ability to enable us to change the world. I just don’t think that we’re supposed to be persistent in prayer in the hope that we can change God’s mind. So, when this particular Gospel reading came up, I went back to all those traditional commentaries on the Bible to see if I could figure out what it is that Jesus teaches us about prayer. It wasn’t until I began looking at what the Jesus Seminar has to say about this parable that I began to see some hope of discovering how this parable might speak to us.
For those of you unfamiliar with the work of the Jesus Seminar, let me just remind you that one of the founders of the Jesus Seminar is a great friend of this congregation. Our friend, Dom Crossan together with some of the worlds best biblical scholars created the Jesus Seminar by gathering together experts in the field of Biblical Studies to see if they could determine the historicity of the New Testament. When it comes to this particular parable the Jesus Seminar suggests that it is indeed a parable that Jesus actually told.
However, they indicate that the writer of the Gospel According to Luke is responsible for the interpretation of the parable which he puts into the mouth of Jesus before the parable begins:
According to the gospel writer known as Luke, “Jesus told the disciples a parable on the necessity of praying always and not losing heart.” The Jesus Seminar made up of the most learned biblical scholars of our time, insist that this is an editorial added by the author of the gospel designed to speak to his own community.
The author of the Gospel of Luke was writing at the end of the first century; some 60 to 80 years after the life of Jesus of Nazareth. During this time, the Romans were persecuting both Jewish and Christian communities. Not losing heart in the face of such persecution would have been quite challenging for the people to whom this gospel was written. Scholars suggest that the gospel writer put his own words into the mouth of Jesus when he wrote: “Listen to what this corrupt judge is saying. Won’t God then do Justice to the chosen who call out day and night? Will God delay long over them? I tell you, God will give them swift justice. But when the Promised One comes will faith be found anywhere on earth?”
The truth is justice is anything but swift. If we’re waiting for God to save us from injustice, well we might as well loose heart. So, what happens if we simply look at the heart of this parable without the writer’s editorial? “Once there was a judge in a certain city who feared no one—not even God. A woman in that city who had been widowed kept coming to the judge and saying, ‘Give me legal protection from my opponent.” For a time the judge refused but finally the judge thought, “I care little for God or people, but this woman won’t leave me alone. I’d better give her the protection she seeks or she’ll keep coming and wear me out!” Short, sweet and to the point. The trouble is for generations our male dominated world, with it’s male translators, and male interpreters has interpreted this parable as though the only character in this particular parable who might be compared to God, is of course the unjust judge. So, trapped by an inherent male bias, so many before us have insisted that the only interpretation that makes any sense is that God, being God, is so much more merciful than any old judge so surely if we only persist, in our supplications, God will relent and give us so much more in the way of justice than any mere human judge who by all accounts could care less.
Fortunately for us, we are beginning to move beyond the male dominated church of our foremothers and fathers. So, a whole new interpretation has opened up to us. When we compare the Source of the Cosmos, the Divine One, who dwells among us, to the persistent widow, a whole new interpretation of this text emerges.
For me the key to this ancient text lies in the Hebrew language. The word in Hebrew for widow is a word that also means silent, or voiceless one. When I begin to imagine the silent, voiceless masses whose only method of protest is to cry out with the pain of their existence, I can begin to understand that it is I who am the unjust judge and it is the Divine One who is crying out through the pain of my voiceless sisters and brothers, crying out to me for justice. How many times have we all heard their voiceless pain? How many times have the circumstances of the lives of those in need of justice cried out to us for legal protection from their opponents? Can we hear their protestations as prayer? Can we begin to understand that the Divine One who is the Source of All that Is and All that Ever Shall Be, comes to us through the lives and witnesses of our sisters and brothers as they appeal to us for justice? Can we begin to understand our role as the unjust judge and God’s role as the persistent widow?
In the plaintive cries of Ai Weiwei’s art, I hear the voice of the voiceless begging me for some relief from their opponents. All too often, their pleas go unanswered, as I turn my attention to other matters; matters I judge to be more worthy of my attention. From time to time their sheer persistence captures my attention and succeeds in disturbing me, and I must struggle to distract myself from their constant nagging, annoying persistent presence. Whether it’s the millions of persecuted Chinese crying out for freedom, or the millions of poor, hungry and homeless crying out for the crumbs off my table, or the battered and abused children, longing for relief, or the plaintive groaning of the earth, longing for relief from the burden of my greed and waste as I continue to use up the precious resources at the expense of the health of the planet, or the persistent voiceless screams of the animals as their kind disappears from the earth. Widows, silent ones, voiceless ones, unable to speak cry out to us for justice, persistently hoping that we will relent if only for the sake of our own peace of mind.
Our God, the Divine One who lives and breathes in with and through us, also lives and breathes in with and through the widows of this world of ours, the voiceless ones who long for us to relent and give them justice. Our God comes to us in many guises, for our God, the Divine One the Source of All that Is, leaves and breathes in with and through creation and we are all intimately connected to one another.
Yesterday, as this very sanctuary was filled with the sounds of the hustle and bustle of our Tea and people from all over the place turned up to support this community, I wandered around holding in my arms, one of the most beautiful voiceless ones. Our little grand-daughter Audrey Clare, came to Holy Cross for her first tea. At just eleven days old, little Audrey can’t say much of anything. But as I held her in my arms, I couldn’t help wondering at the miracle of life that she is. All of the amazing things that needed to happen in order to create such a beautiful example of what it is to be human. From the big bang, star bursts, the development of cells that can replicate themselves, to amphibious creatures crawling onto the land, down through millennia as the evolution of species culminated in two-legged creatures dominating the planet, all the way up to the love between her Mom and Dad. It’s a marvelous web of life into which little Audrey has been born. As I held her in my arms, I couldn’t help but marvel at the reality that the Divine One, the Source of All that Is and All that ever shall Be, lives and breathes in with and through this beautiful little baby girl. Our God comes to us in all sorts of guises, and in our darling little Audrey’s gentle little breath I could hear our God crying out for justice. Justice for Audrey certainly, justice for the world that she will grow up in, and justice for the planet she will inherit.
I know that the Divine One, the One we call God, has also come to each of you. Whether you’ve held a newborn in your arms and marveled at their gentle breathing, or whether you’ve had your own breath taken away by lover as they lay sleeping beside you, or if you’ve heard that horrible soundless scream of a child crying out in pain, or been disturbed by the relentless cries of the oppressed who threaten to ruin your day with their persistent begging for justice, or if you’ve been touched by the art of a brave man who will not remain silent even in the face of insurmountable oppression.
We are incredibly powerful judges, and we can change the world. The Source of All that Is, lives and breathes in with and trough us. The prayers of the voiceless will not go unheeded, if we but listen to their cries for justice. Let the justice we impart come swiftly. Let it be so. Let it be so.