The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
October 17, 2021
Persevering in prayer can be tough – especially when it seems to make no difference. Jesus understood the challenge. So He told this parable, verse 1 says, to encourage us “to pray always and not to lose heart.”
In ancient Palestine a widow had no chance to generate her own income after her husband died. The entirety of the estate went to his sons or brothers; and while God’s law repeatedly commanded people to take care of widows, many a male in-law failed to do the right thing and give a widow her just due.
It was the duty of Israel’s judges to insure social justice and thus, for example, to fairly and impartially adjudicate family disputes about money and property. For the parable, Jesus banked on everyone’s assuming that the widow had a legitimate grievance; but He spelled out how the judge was “unjust”, a man who “neither feared God nor had respect for people”.
Since, however, a widow back then had no clout, without any Legal Aid around, that unjust judge was this widow’s only hope – and, given his ethical apathy, her only recourse was to become such a nuisance that the judge would do what’s right just to get her off his back.
I imagine her showing up to plead her case every morning the judge held court. I imagine her hounding him at street corners and at friends’ houses. It must have been aggravating and embarrassing for him. So finally, to stop the unrelenting badgering, he caved in and said, “Because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out”.
Immediately upon quoting those words, Jesus asked folks to “listen” again to what the judge said – not because his words reveal what God is like, but because they reveal the opposite of what God is like…and the stark contrast is clarifying. That God is everything that the judge was not is something we can easily lose sight of. By being the antithesis of God, the unjust judge shows us the real reason why we “need to pray always and not to lose heart”. We don’t need to make God so perturbed by our pestering prayer that He caves in to our demands. We just need to avail of the grace that’s already there for us, the grace of a God who, in eager good will, sits on the edge of His heavenly throne ready to jump into action on our behalf. The purpose of prayer is not to change God in His willingness to help but to change us in our faithfulness to make the most of the help He always yearns to give. And if persistently pressing a request with an evil judge gets us somewhere, how much the more will doing so with a good God!
Jesus then posed a question and answered it Himself. He said, “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.” God will respond to our prayers without hesitation or inhibition!
But grant justice “quickly”? Maybe eventually…but quickly? What could “quickly” mean here when God’s people have for centuries been praying for justice and still must?
Maybe it can only make meaningful sense if we make sense of what it means to pray!
We misunderstand prayer if we think of it mainly as a means by which to get things from God. God thinks of it mainly as a means by which to get under our skin, get into a close relationship with us, and get us right: that is, like Him in character and conduct.
We are transformed into Christ’s likeness by keeping in contact with God. Persistent prayer is essential in doing that. By staying in a continual conversation with God, we steep our souls in God’s presence and absorb His qualities and spirit.
God does grant us justice quickly in the sense that not a second passes without God’s doing right by us. Right away He’s right there to set us right – even when He does not instantly banish injustice from our world. For God prioritizes changing us for the better ahead of changing our situation for the better. God will let us struggle with a world gone wrong because that struggle is often necessary for our developing that poverty of spirit that Jesus said makes the kingdom of heaven ours, developing empathetic compassion for all who are denied justice, and developing an energetic passion to fight for them. Thus, God may refuse to do something about a problem we face because He wants first to do something about us; and we’ll only allow that if we’re still in a problem.
Jesus concluded this lesson on prayer with one last question: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” That of course is up to us. Will we believe in God when He holds back from answering our cries to create in us a sensitivity to the cries of others? Will we trust God when He emphasizes our moral development above our rightful vindication? Will we rely on God’s making everything right one day and, every day until then, work for what is right? Will we be found with such faith as to be faithful to the call to love God in persistent prayer and neighbor in consistent care?