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October 12, 2004
Today's eMo is really two different meditations on texts for this Sunday's preaching: the first is the usual sermon preparation eMo, and the second is intended for preachers who wish to focus their attention on the Church's work among the suffering through the ministry of Episcopal Relief and Development. As with all the eMos, preachers and teachers are welcome to borrow, with the usual attribution. No further permission is necessary.


The Sensible Knave

In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor regarded man...Luke 18:2

The eighteenth century English philosopher David Hume imagined such a person, and he has fascinated ethicists ever since: The Sensible Knave, he called him. Why do we think it important to be righteous? Why refrain from doing wrong, if you know you can get away with it? No compelling reason, if one argues from self-interest alone.

The unjust judge is like the Sensible Knave: he cares nothing for God or man. He cares only for himself. He only answers the importunate widow to get rid of her. It is odd that Luke tells us that Jesus uses the story of the unjust judge to encourage us not to lose heart when we pray -- as if God were like the judge, a Sensible Knave. As if God had no compelling reason to be merciful to us.

The Knave recognizes that it is wise to be good, ordinarily -- or, at least, it is a good thing if most people are good. That way, we don't live in a chaotic society. The trains run on time if most people do their duty. But, he thinks, it is possible that I might be able to shirk my duty and not make much difference in the grand scheme of things. If nobody notices and gets in my way. If nobody stops me. If I'm smart enough.

The widow notices. She makes sure everyone else notices, too, with her loud pleas, and the judge gives up. Is that what God is like? Indisposed to hear us unless we make such a nuisance of ourselves with the clamor of our prayers that he grants our requests, just so we'll go away?

Hume thought in terms of desire, and not of pure rationality. What do we want, and what must we do to get it? The Knave may end up behaving very well much of the time, regardless of his ethical bankruptcy: he desires peace and quiet, to be left to his own devices. But what does God want? Peace and quiet? If so, creating the universe was an odd way to go about getting it, creating humankind, odder still. And the Incarnation? Off the chart. God begins to look less and less like the Knave or the unjust judge.

Hume is interesting for us because he throws us back on the presence of love -- love in the heart of God, love in our own hearts. There really is no convincing reason for good apart from desire, and we desire it, want it, love it. Love it first for ourselves and widen our love as we grow up in the school of Christ's love, so different from other schools. Desiring it, we desire God. As God desires us.


And here is the ERD meditation.

I will vindicate her, or she will wear me out with her continual coming. -- Luke 18:5

The widow needed what she needed, and she camped out at the feet of the unjust judge until she got it. She simply refused to leave until he heard her.

She reminds me of the families of women patients at St. Mary's Health Center in Obido, Namibia. Our situations are so different -- we go to the hospital and order food from the menu we find in our rooms, making wry comments about its blandness. It's not like that at St. Mary's where people don't have the little things we often take for granted: if you want to eat, you have to bring your own food. We tug at our skimpy hospital bedsheets -- why do they never seem to be wide enough? It's not like that at St. Mary's -- you have to bring your own sheets. Our breezy hospital gowns, open at the back, embarrass us. But it's not like that at St. Mary's, where the only gown you're going to have will be the gown you brought with you.

And so the people who love the women in treatment there come with them, stand patiently outside the window of the ward, their bundles in their arms: food, bedding, clothing. What love -- what quiet, stubborn love they have for their others, sisters, daughters who are so ill, when they themselves have so little.

St. Mary's was bombed during the war that wracked Namibia, and would have closed, had not the Anglican Church rebuilt it. Like its patients and their familles, it has so little, but it stubbornly gives its patients everything it can. Recent visitors to St. Mary's from Episcopal Relief and Development in faraway America felt this stubborn love and dignity, and recognized it for what it was: It is clear that the volunteers and nurses are moved by their religious faith, as much as they were motivated by the African spirit of community, said Pamela Payne, chair of the Diocese of Los Angeles' HIV/AIDS Commission. Truly the Lord is at work here in Obiodo, and in all the isolated parishes in the Namibian bush.


To read more about the work of ERD in the midst of the AIDS epidemic in Africa, visit or telephone 1-800-334-7626, ext 5129
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