There are people among us who enjoy camping. Collecting firewood is a chore for most campers when they set up camp. There was once a scoutmaster who was teaching his boys how to set up camp. When a young scout asked him how much wood he should collect, the man replied:
“Get as much as you think you will need and put it in a pile. Then go gather the same amount and put it on the pile. Finally, go get half again the amount you have already collected and add it to the pile. Now you have about half the amount you will need, but at least you’ll know now where to go and get more.”
Does prayer ever feel like that sort of chore to you? We pray and pray and then pray some more. We wait and wait and then wait even longer for an answer. We wonder how long we need to pray before God grows tired of listening to us. What’s more likely is that we’ll tire out long before God does.
The great Reformer Martin Luther once said that he prayed an hour when he first got up in the morning, unless he had a lot to do that day. On those mornings, he would pray for two hours. Sounds like the scoutmaster, doesn’t it? However much we pray, we might want to try doubling it — and then maybe doubling it again. After all, the Apostle Paul does say that we should pray continually! (See 1 Thess. 5:16–18.)
Continuing in prayer is the theme of the parable in our Gospel lesson for today. In Luke’s Gospel, we’ve already seen Jesus’ concern for the prayer life of his followers. We’ve already heard the parable about the man who goes to his reluctant friend at midnight to ask him for bread. While he would not get up to provide for him because he is his friend, yet because of the man’s persistence, he got up and gave him as much as he needed (Luke 11:5-15).
We noted in this connection that the concern is not the “what” of prayer. Jesus’ disciples are Jews, steeped in the rich religious traditions of their people, after all. They already knew what to say in prayer. It was drilled into them from early childhood.
Their concern is the concern of everyone when it comes to prayer. How do we pray effective prayers? Or how do we pray prayers that get answered?
This should be straightforward. We worship a God who is a generous provider. He knows what his children need even before they ask him. Indeed, if he concerns himself with the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, then how can he overlook his children, who are worth more to him than many birds?
But then, why is it that when we pray, God does not seem to answer? Why is it that when we are in need, he does not seem to provide? There is a confession of faith about God on the one hand. And there is an experience of God on the other. And the two do not fit together, at least not all the time.
Jesus knows about this disconnect. That is why he tells this parable to encourage his followers.
The parable features a judge. Now the Law of Moses instructed the people to choose their judges carefully. They were only to select them from among good and trustworthy men, men who feared God and therefore hated dishonest gain (Exodus 18:21).
But this judge was the very opposite. He neither feared God nor respected people. As a man, he is a lawbreaker, violating the twofold commandment to love God and neighbor as himself. As a judge, he was unfair and most certainly corrupt. He served not the people, but his own interests.
There there’s a widow. Let’s consider for a moment her status. First, she is a woman. We hear about those who have no voice, about those whose voice is not heard. This language usually comes from women and minorities. I once heard a business executive confide to her friend: “At the meeting, I gave my opinion about the proposal, and they kept talking to each other as if I wasn’t even there.” The woman found herself in an “old boys club,” in which her opinion did not count.
Then she’s a widow. The Law of Moses stresses justice for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger who is within your gates. Care for them is expected from God’s people, especially judges and leaders. God is a witness against the oppressor of widows, according to Malachi 3:5. And why? Because they are the most vulnerable. With none to defend them, it’s easy to exploit them, to trample them underfoot.
If this is the case, then what hope does this widow have of a hearing before the judge, especially one like this? Truth be told, she doesn’t have a prayer.
Have you ever felt powerless to influence an outcome? You have heard the saying: “It’s not what you know, but who you know that counts.”
Researcher Mark Granovetter, professor at Stanford University, wanted to see how far this saying is true. He studied how professionals working in the city of Newton, Massachusetts, found their jobs. Out of the hundreds that he interviewed, almost 60 per cent reported that they’d found their jobs through personal contacts. But among those in the highest income brackets, those who had the highest paying and most prestigious jobs, more than 75 percent found their job through their social network.
When my academic career came to an end, I began the search for a new one. I always found the world of finance interesting, so I considered working at a financial services firm. A close family friend encouraged me to apply at one in Grand Rapids, but I hesitated. You see, I didn’t know anyone in the industry, at least not personally. I reasoned that only if I knew someone already in the industry with pull, someone who’d be willing to make a call for me, could I ever hope to get a job there.
The widow in the parable is in this position. She has no one to put in a good word for her with the judge. She has no advocate, no supporter. Why should she even try to have a hearing with the judge? As we mentioned before, she really hasn’t got a prayer.
Recall the point we made about our experience of God a moment ago. Before God we can feel powerless and insignificant. Why should God concern himself with my needs? In the vast scope of things, my needs are less than trivial. “What is man, that you mindful of him? The son of man, that you concern yourself with him?” asks David in Psalm 8.
But what captivated the Psalmist is that God does concern himself with us. For this reason, it is never futile to go before God with our need. “The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are attentive to their cry…they cry out, and the Lord hears them, and he delivers them from all their troubles” (Psalm 34:15, 17).
It’s in this conviction that the woman does in fact go and plead her case before the judge. And she does so continually. At first, it does not achieve the desired outcome. But in time the judge is moved, not by compassion, not by a sense of justice, of which he is devoid, but by weariness. This widow keeps bothering me. Therefore, I will grant her what she is asking of me, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming to me (Luke 18:5).
The translation does not adequately capture the pluck of this woman. What we read as “so that she may not wear me out…” is literally “so that she doesn’t give me a black eye.” Through his inaction, the judge is risking provoking the women to vent her frustration through violence! At least, that is what is suggested by the language here, if we are to take it literally, and not figuratively.
Now I hope you are familiar enough by now with Jesus’ teaching style to see how this parable works on those who hear it. Jesus employs here a device that we have seen elsewhere. We may call it the “how much more” argument. Recall how he used it earlier: “If you, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him (Luke 11:13). So here too: if a judge, who is evil, can be swayed by persistent entreaty, how much more will God, who is good, be moved to answer our prayers?
Jesus assures the disciples that indeed God does hear the prayers of his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night. And if he hears them, will he be long delayed in answering them?
We want to believe that the answer is an emphatic no, but, if we are honest, we will admit that it is hard.
Quite often, I speak with mothers and grandmothers who tell me they have been praying for years and years for the conversion of their sons and daughters, their grandsons and granddaughters. It is heartbreaking for them to see their loved ones continue in their unbelief. And I am sure that each one of you has at least one unanswered prayer in his or her life. I know I do.
We all go through periods of exhaustion and discouragement, especially when our prayers go unanswered—when the heavens are as brass, when our prayers seem to go no higher than the ceiling. It is during those times when in our praying it seems like we are only going through the motion.
But Jesus assures us that, unlike the dishonest judge, God desires to answer his children, even though this doesn’t mean he will necessarily do it when and in the way we think he should.
Why is this? Why the delay? We cannot know the answer. Could it be because God has designed prayer to be a school in which he enrolls each of this children as lifelong learners?
He knows that our tendency is to live far from him. Indeed, to come to God is to come to ourselves, which we avoid as a general rule. Either is a fearful prospect for a human being. Even when God has shown his own children a kind and benevolent face in Christ, we still find it hard to be open and transparent before him. We find it hard to say with the Psalmist: “search me, O God, and know my heart” (Psalm 139:23). We find it hard, that is, until we turn to him in desperate need, until we feel we have nowhere else to go but to him.
Could it be that our need keeps us coming to him? And could it be that our coming to him keeps us in fellowship with him?
And this is what God wants. He wants his children to know that he is always near, that he is always by their side, that he is an ever present help in time of trouble.
It’s been said that the “clinging hand of his child makes a desperate situation a delight to God.” Not that God delights in the desperation of anyone! But if our desperation leads us to cling to him, then it has achieved what God wants. Our pressing close to him delights him. Remember that God uses all things, even the bad things, to bring his children closer to him.
That is why we must continue to pray. Faith in him is our strength. And paradoxically, faith rows stronger only when it is tested: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, for the testing of your faith produces patience. And let patience have its desired effect: that you may be perfect and complete and lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4).
Prayer is the expression of faith. Jesus assures us of victory, but then he asks: When the Son of Man comes will he find faith on the earth? (Luke 8:8).
There are people today who have concluded that prayer is useless, and therefore have given up on faith. But if faith is extinguished, then prayer is extinguished, and we walk in the darkness. Then, we get lost on the path of life, as so many of our contemporaries are today.
We must not cease to pray, even if our prayers goes unanswered. It is prayer that nourishes faith; without it, faith withers.
Let us ask the Lord for a faith that is incessant in prayer, patient and persistent, like that of the widow in the parable, a faith that fuels our desire for his coming. And in our long wait on answers to our prayers, let us experience the closeness of God, a Father who wants his children to come to him, that they may know him and rest in him as their Father who is full of love and compassion. Amen.