A Matter of Persistence

Luke 18: 1-8

Who first taught you to pray?

My mother taught me to pray as a little child. Each night when my brothers and I were put to bed, she would say a simple prayer and then ask us to tell God about our day. Those were the first prayers I ever said. In time we were on our own to pray. By then I knew the Lord’s Prayer and that would be the starting point for my nightly prayers. Even though I basically stopped going to church in my older teen years, I still prayed most every night. Still do, in fact. Though now I don’t always finish my prayers before falling off to sleep.

All around the world last night and today, prayers have been offered up to God: the simple prayers of children, traditional prayers of grace around a table before a meal, anxious prayers by concern for a loved one, worried prayers by those experiencing a hard time, and joyful prayers of thanksgiving and contentment.

There’s an old gospel song that some of you may know. It’s called, “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” There are times when prayer is sweet. And there are times when prayer is a refuge, a shelter from the stresses of life, times when prayers express our anguish or deep concern. Prayer isn’t always sweet. Fred Craddock quotes an elderly African-American minister who said, “Until you have stood for years knocking at a locked door, your knuckles bleeding, you really do not know what prayer is.”

Praying can be hard work, like pushing a big rock up a hill that goes on and on. Life in this world is not easy. Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, it throws you a curve. There are obstacles all along the way. The easiest thing to do is to lose your faith that life is good, and certainly to lose your faith that life is fair. We all have times when we are tempted to give up on prayer. We live in a culture in which it’s expected that most problems we encounter should have a short term solution. It’s a culture that’s deeply suspicious of anything that does not get results. So when we pray for healing to occur, for peace to come, for an answer to a dilemma we face, and then, wait and wait for God’s response, we’re in constant danger of “losing heart.”

Long ago, it was for this very same reason that Jesus chose to tell the parable of the “Widow and the Unjust Judge”…to strengthen those who were at risk of “losing heart.” Jesus had been battling with the Scribes and the Pharisees about the real meaning of faith, and this story was meant to urge and encourage his followers to not stop knocking on God’s door. To always persist in prayer, even when it seems no one is listening.

The story has just two characters; both are archetypes of traditional Jewish characters in Jesus’ time: a widow and a judge.

In ancient Israel, the duty of a judge was to maintain peace and order in the community. There were no juries. So it was imperative that the judge mediate fairly and impartially. But the judge in the parable could care less about either. He lacks even a modicum of concern for those he serves. “He neither feared God nor had respect for people,” Jesus says. This judge has no heart for the cause of justice. He arrogantly and arbitrarily decides the cases of the people who come before him. Yet despite all that, there’s this widow who refuses to be deterred by the judge’s reputation and keeps coming to the judge saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.”

Widows play a key role throughout scripture. The treatment of widows was the standard by which the compassion of a community was measured. Widows were among the “least of these” because they had no property rights, no means of support in a society in which the deceased husband’s estate was passed on to his sons or his brothers, and the widow was at the mercy of the men in her family. The Old Testament is full of admonitions to care for the widow and the orphan, who represent the powerless and the marginalized of that society.

The widow stands in stark contrast to the judge. He has a position of status and the power, with all the trappings of his judicial office — while she is essentially a nobody. But that does not stop her from having the temerity to speak up for herself. With the power of a determined heart, she keeps presenting her case for justice before this stubborn judge. Seeking an answer to her grievance, she comes back and comes back and comes back.

Finally, the judge says to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps badgering and nagging me, I will give her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” No change of heart here. The judge has simply been worn down by this widow, so he gives in. The widow’s persistence pays off.

It is curious, I think, that some interpret this parable allegorically and equate the judge in the story with God. Curious, because it’s pretty obvious that Jesus is using hyperbole to exaggerate the indifference of the judge in contrast to a caring God that wills justice. Jesus resolves any misinterpretation in concluding his parable, “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?”

Clearly Jesus is not comparing God to this judge, as though God will only pay attention to us if we make pests out of ourselves. Instead Jesus assures us that we can expect much more from God in offering up our prayers.

Do you believe that? Do you believe God answers our prayers? It’s easy when the outcome of our prayers is what we desire. Not so easy when we pray and it seems as though it makes no difference at all. Then it’s not only easy to lose heart, but also to lose faith. The problem of unanswered prayers is not a new one.

There’s an old Garth Brooks country song that goes,

“Sometimes I thank God for un-

answered prayers.

Remember when you’re talkin’ to the man upstairs,

that just because he doesn’t answer

that doesn’t mean that he

don’t care.

Some of God’s greatest gifts are una

answered prayers.”

We all know that prayer is not magic, any more than blowing out birthday candles or wishing on a star. Prayer’s not a way of forcing the universe to do our bidding. Nor is prayer a way of twisting God’s arm behind God’s back until you get what you want. Prayer does not mean that God will pull some strings to give us what we want. If that were so, then all our women would be strong, all our men good looking, and all our children above average.

We don’t get everything we ask for in prayer. That much is sure. And so we’re stuck with the questions: Does God answer our prayers? Does God even hear our prayers? The evidence is not entirely in God’s favor. If we’re completely honest and don’t try to protect God’s reputation, there are occasions and situations that cause us to wonder.

Does God answer our prayers? The safest answer is: yes…and no. The only people I really trust to say yes are those who’ve had serious doubts and have been close to losing heart…who were tempted to give prayer up altogether…and then kept praying anyway…and found answers to their prayers in ways they could neither have asked or imagined.

I think of a man who I knew who was diagnosed with a terminal disease and prayed for a cure. Over time he came to pray that he could live every precious day on this earth to the fullest. I know of a student who prayed to get into a certain school, but ended up at a different school, that for him turned out to be the right place. Sometimes the answers to our prayers aren’t that obvious.

Above all else, prayer is giving over to God our greatest fears, our fondest hopes, and our grateful thanksgivings. In going to God regularly with what is in our hearts, we discover that the best thing about prayer is the building of a relationship.

You and I have lots of different kinds of relationships. Many of those relationships are what you’d call “polite” relationships. In “polite” relationships you don’t let your guard down very far. You smile and show your best face and hide any bitterness, heartache or weakness you don’t want others to know. Then there are the relationships we have with those who are close to us, especially with our family. For better or worse, the ones we love get to see us as we are. We trust them enough to let them see our tears, our childishness, our anger, our contradictions. Which relationships are deeper? Which mean more to us?

We certainly won’t develop any significant relationship with God if it’s only the “polite” variety. If our prayers are just occasional or indirect, the relationship is bound to be superficial. Our relationship with God gets more real when we honestly give over to God, day after day after day, all that is on our heart. Prayer is about an authentic relationship with God as with any good and trusted friend. When you build that relationship through prayer, it becomes easier to forgive the silences and delayed answers.

God is big enough, and loving enough, to hear the truth of our prayers. Through the relationship of prayer, God offers salvation and wholeness of the spirit of the pray-er – you and me. God is always at work, trying to shape some good things for us out of the materials at hand.

Frederick Buechner’s memoir called, The Eyes of the Heart, includes many powerful stories, including this story of his brother. “It was on July 11, 1988 the day I turned seventy two,” Buechner writes, “that [my brother] called me to say that he had been told he had incurable cancer of virtually everything and didn’t intend to be around for more than two weeks more if he could possibly help it. He then added, ‘By the way, Happy Birthday’…I told him that I loved him as much as I had ever loved anybody in my whole life. He said, ‘You have been a wonderful brother.’ I said I had a feeling we had not seen the last of each other, and he made a soft, descending ‘Ah-h-h’ sound as a way to thank me for saying it, for maybe even believing it. ”

Buechner then goes on, “He never went to church except once in a while to hear me [preach] and he told me he didn’t want a funeral…But he did ask me to write a prayer for him that he could use, and [his son-inlaw] David said that he had it there on the table beside him” when he died.

The prayer read, “Dear Lord, bring me through darkness into light. Bring me through pain into peace. Bring me through death into life. Be with me wherever I go, and with everyone I love. In Christ’s name I ask it. Amen.”, (Pp. 161-163)

The heart of all our prayers is not so much getting to God, as God’s getting to us. And maybe that is the most important thing about prayer. That even though God does not always give us the answer we seek, God gives us himself.

I have one more thought for you to consider today. Parables, being stories, invite multiple interpretations. And this parable of the “Widow and Unjust Judge” can be turned upside down. It would still be about persistence, but with a twist. What if instead of identifying ourselves with the widow, we envision God as the widow? And it is God’s persistent love that keeps coming to us and knocking on the door of our soul? As a familiar friend used to say, “Think about it.”

So pray. Pray always and come into a closer relationship with God. Do not lose heart. Keep at it. Pray out loud. Pray silently. Or just sit in silence before God, for that matter. God is persistently there to hear you. This is the promise we have: Let your requests be known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6b-7)

Thanks be. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.