The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
October 16, 2022
So often, prayer is so disappointing in its outcomes you wonder whether to bother with it at all.
You pray for weeks or even years for what seems like a reasonable request to make of a good and loving God; but your cancer-ridden friend still gets worse, your best efforts to save the marriage make no difference, and the same number remains of folks oppressed by poverty.
You begin to wonder whether praying accomplishes anything more than just talking to yourself does; and whether you have it in you to keep hoping that in prayer there really is Someone there who does in fact care.
This parable immediately follows Jesus’ having warned His disciples, who longed to see Him set everything right, that they might well have to endure much loss and pain before that happens; and that, given the unknown date of that great day, they needed to get ready to wait for it a long while yet.
So, to build up their capacity to wait with patient but expectant hope, Jesus here urged His disciples to “pray always and not lose heart”. He told them this parable to encourage them to persevere in prayer even when God makes no apparent response but rather leaves the impression He’s uninvolved and uninterested.
The parable’s widow is a helpless victim who’s been done wrong and wants her situation rectified; and the parable’s judge is a heartless, unprincipled official who, was, back then when there were no legal aid societies to help the poor, the only person powerful enough to right an injustice.
While we might be tempted to think the widow as us and the judge as God, in fact the character of the judge is in sharp contrast to that of God, and the situation of the widow is in sharp contrast to that of ours. For though we, like the widow, need someone to champion our cause, we, unlike the widow, already have a trustworthy Champion who is eager to help us; and though God, like the judge, acts independently of any standards but his own, God, unlike the judge, has a fierce resolve to uplift the lowly and give them justice.
The line of thought in this parable means to move our minds from the lesser to the greater. God cares infinitely more than the judge; God is anything but a narcissist devoid of concern about others. We can count on God – perfect in love power and righteousness – to set things right, with all due speed, for any and all who pray and depend on Him.
As Jesus said, “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?” No, Jesus asserted, “He will quickly grant justice to them.” “Quickly” here, however, cannot have a chronological meaning as if measured on a countdown clock. After all, Jesus told this parable to call His followers to persevere in prayer; and perseverance only makes sense in the context of an extended period of time. Jesus Himself knew only too well that prayer often involves waiting and anguishing over what feels like cold inactivity from heaven. He had to practice persistence in prayer. The gospel-writer Luke reported that Jesus sometimes prayed “all night” and that, on the night of His arrest, He prayed under such strain and distress that His sweat fell down like “great drops of blood”. Jesus’ prayer on that night that the cup of suffering would pass from His lips was not answered “quickly” then and there, but it was answered decisively and wonderfully at just the right time.
In what sense does God grant justice “quickly”? In the sense that, as happened with Jesus, justice comes just as soon as heaven has completed a great work of grace – in Jesus’ case, in His awful, drawn-out suffering. On Good Friday and Holy Saturday, days that felt like they’d never end, God, in His labors to redeem us, fulfilled the requirements of both justice and love as soon as possible – in other words, “quickly”.
In human reckoning, God does not always grant us our requests right away; but God always responds to our requests right away.
Sometimes God responds to our requests by saying “No” because what we ask for is not as good as the better thing that God wants to give us and that we’d prefer to receive if we only knew as much as He. Many of us give thanks that God responded to some of our requests with a No!
Or sometimes God responds to a request with a “Not yet!” – because timing is everything and we often need to engage in a long hard process of praying and waiting to become prepared to make the most of what we ask for. Undergoing that protracted process lets life, like a Master Metalworker, hammer us into vessels that can hold all the blessings God aches to give us.
Or sometimes God responds with a “I wish I could grant you your request, but I the Almighty cannot. For I have given every human freedom of will, and have tied my hands by my promise to respect their liberty to choose either evil or good. Thus, you may have to suffer as an innocent as Jesus did. You may have to endure terrible wrongs that happen for no good reason. But I swear to you that I will put them to a good purpose, and be with you in all the inexplicable mystery and deplorable injustice of this world. I will take into myself your pain, and inject into you inner joy that lifts your hearts above the horrors we suffer together.”
It’s no small accomplishment for a human being not to give up on prayer. But persevering in prayer accomplishes great things – not always immediately but always in the long run. Most of all, it keeps us close to the God who is always at our side and on our side, who always gives us what we truly need (if not what we want), and who always enriches us with inner power, peace and love.
There is no question that God will respond when His chosen ones cry out to Him day and night. The only question is whether, when the Son of Man comes, will He find “faith on earth”, faith enough not to lose heart but to pray always?