Luke 18:1-8; Psalm 121
When my children were little they could get on my last nerve with their persistent begging for things.
Can we play outside? Can I have a cookie? Can I watch TV? Can I have some candy? Can we play a game? Can I have money for this? Can I have money for that? Can I, can I, can I?
There were times when I was absolutely firm and successfully held my ground. “No,” I would answer, and “no” meant “no”.
They got the cookie 15 minutes before we were going to eat dinner – especially if they gave me a good story for why they “needed” it. They got to play outside before they did their homework, even though this was against the rules, but always, of course, with the stipulation that it would get done right after dinner.
Yes, their persistent begging wore me down, until finally they got their way. Sometimes. It didn’t happen all the time. I won’t tell you how often it happened, but it was often enough that it gave them hope that strengthened their resolve for the next time they wanted something. Justice was not done on those days. We didn’t follow the law (the rules of the house).
Today we have a little plaque in our house that reads, “What happens at Grandma’s stays at Grandma’s” so, I plead the fifth where our grandson is concerned because, well, it stays at Grandma’s!”. I am sure you understand. You understand that it’s not just about giving in to nagging – it’s also about love – which leaves us particularly vulnerable.
Most of us have probably had that experience – either as the petitioner, begging and pleading our cause before our loved ones –
where we pretty well know their weak spots
and the vulnerabilities we can prey upon,
or as the judge and arbiter of justice and all things sweet and sticky.
In any case, on those days when my kids wore me down, I guess I was like the judge in the gospel lesson today who – at least sometimes - does the right thing for the wrong reason.
The parable in our gospel lesson today is often referred to as “The Parable of the Unjust Judge.” Just a look at the description of this man in the gospel text, and we understand how it got that name;
“he neither feared God nor had respect for people.”
Someone who has no respect for people doesn’t care one whit for a widow. In Jesus’ time widows had no power. They were completely dependent upon and vulnerable to those who wanted to take advantage of them and they were in many ways helpless.
The widow in this parable has been victimized by circumstance – she is a widow after all - and she has most likely been victimized by the system as well. The law of the day was that when a man died all his wealth and property would pass on to his sons if he had any, and to his brothers if he did not, and then to more distant male relatives when those closer descendants were lacking.
There was an expectation that a widow would be looked after by the one who inherited the estate, and widows with good family systems might be cared for, yet they were still totally dependent on the decency of those who inherited.
The most common types of complaint that a judge like this was likely to deal with were land and property disputes, disputes over inheritance, and the widow’s is the messiest kind of these cases. Because really, “expectations” aside, the law works for her opponent and against her.
And yet, our widow remains relentless. She continues to pursue what she sees as justice for herself, or at the very least, mercy.
She continues to fight for her survival.
She gives up her helplessness and pursues, persists, and perseveres, seeking what she calls “justice.”
Despite her widowhood and accompanying helplessness this widow sees herself as having hope.
Rather than voiceless, the way most marginalized people have no voice, this widow speaks with purposefulness and insistence that she be heard.
Instead of giving up on the judge, she trusts, she believes, that ultimately she or, rather, justice will prevail, even against an unjust judge - Even against the prevailing wisdom and law of the time. This woman believes and trusts that all evidence to the contrary, justice will triumph for her sake. Otherwise, how could she continue to appeal to this man who neither feared God nor respected people?
Jesus told this tale as a parable about the need to pray always and not to lose heart. Jesus also twice repeats the idea of fearing God and respecting people.
Justice for all people, and especially for the weak, the vulnerable, the lost, and the lifeless ones is not only important to God, it is at the very heart of God.
There is good reason that Jesus would use this story to teach his followers about the necessity of prayer in their lives, even prayer that seeks the seeming impossible, even when hope appears determinedly dead in the water. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, where sin and injustice will converge in his arrest and trial, his conviction and passion, his death and resurrection.
It is not lost on us that Jesus, who himself fervently prayed throughout his life and especially when difficulties and challenges arose, encourages constant prayer; the Son of God, who prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he died for “this cup to pass,” declares that God will grant justice to those who pray both day and night.
Those experiences like the one I shared with you of my parental successes and failures at giving in to the nagging of my children, teach us that “no” is never really “no”. and our experience of God is that God’s “yes” comes out of a place of pure love and mercy and grace that supersedes any rules we may have put in place.
We are primed by our experience of being the parent occasionally worn down by persistent begging, or of having been the beggar who has worn down our own parent, to interpret this parable as a story that teaches that all we have to do is nag God with our prayers and we, too, should get what we want, even when there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.
The thing is, this gospel points to an ever greater truth. The extension of God’s mercy is not dependent of “fairness” or “law” as we interpret it. God’s response is one of grace for God’s beloved children. Prayer is not so much about wearing down God as it is about building up our relationship with God, and having that relationship strengthen us in our life of faith.
This parable demonstrates God’s character through contrast. The point is that God is not like the unjust judge. Rather, God is just and loving, cares about the needs of people, and hears our every prayer. We can expect justice and mercy from this God.
Of course, there is a lot of mystery that surrounds prayer. How does it work? Why does it seem that some prayers are answered and others go unheard? I don’t have answers for those questions.
Perhaps it is easy to hear this story and conclude “Well, obviously the widow is a good example of persistence and faith because she ultimately receives what she wants”— What about the woman who knocks and knocks and knocks and never receives a reply?
Who among us hasn’t prayed for something— persistently, faithfully, constantly, and not received that for which we prayed? Is the widow a better pray-er than I am? Am I just not good enough at prayer? Simply being faithful in prayer doesn’t guarantee that we’ll receive the response we want.
But being faithful in prayer does strengthen our relationship with God. Being faithful in prayer does remind us constantly of who God is, and who we are, beloved children of God and disciples of Jesus Christ.
Being faithful in prayer grounds us in God’s promises and gifts, gives us an outlet for both the grief that threatens to destroy, and the joy that sometimes overwhelms. Being faithful in prayer gives us hope that no matter what may come, God will somehow bring us to a good end. Immersing ourselves in a healthy prayer life gives us the means to faithfully, consistently give God thanks and praise for God being God.
Two weeks ago, I asked you to write down on cards I gave you, something you had done in faith. Those cards are in this basket. The single most common answer was “prayer.” You got it! You know that it takes faith to pray – even if it is Jesus’ faith we rely on. Because when we are unable to pray, we have a community surrounding us that prays for us in our stead, and the Holy Spirit interceding for us.
Last week, you wrote down something you are grateful for. Those cards are here too, and again you gave great answers, including things like faith and life, family, health, education, church, Jesus, and prayer. Some of these cards are completely full, others have just a word or two. Some responses are written on these cards and others are on paper torn from the pages of your bulletin. Each response is valid, important, and communicates something about our relationship with God, as do the prayers we pray.
Today, our third and final exercise links together the messages of these three weeks. Faith, gratitude and prayer work together as essential aspects of our relationship with God. They are three parts of our spiritual lives informed by scripture, blessed by the Holy Spirit and blessed for our use in the work Christ has set before us.
So today, I ask that you write down something that you are praying about or would like to pray about. I will include some of these in the prayers of the people.
Yet remember, prayer is not simply nagging God until our needs are satisfied—our prayers are our participation in the reign of God. While our “nagging” prayers might not always be resolved the way we want them too, by continually being in prayer, and not giving up hope, we are drawn closer to God and proclaim with confidence that God has not abandoned this world.
By praying constantly, we practice faith that we might have strength for these troubled days. We practice faith that we might be a part of God’s coming kingdom, the kingdom of justice and peace.
By praying unceasingly, we follow the path of our Lord. We place our trust in God above all else.
Let us be a people of prayer. Let us be a people of prayer in this place, at this time: PRAY.