Prayer? On whose terms?
And [Jesus] told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:1-8, ESV)
Jesus’ parable of the widow and the judge has a clear goal. Jesus told this to his disciples so that they ‘always pray and not lose heart’. And when we hear about prayer I wonder how we feel. Excited? Depressed? Ambivalent? Curious? Angry? I suppose that depends on where we are in our prayer lives – in the ups and downs of life. It is my observation that prayer is one of the key cutting edges of Christian spirituality – more so than ‘being good’, ethics, and obedience – important as Christian discipleship is. Our behaviour is external – people see it for good or ill – and we can wear a mask if necessary – go through the motions – but prayer is intrinsically different as Jesus told us not to parade it before others – so it is a closed door event or experience – not necessarily individual – families and congregations and groups can pray – but there remains an essential fact about prayer that it is interior – me and God or is that God and me – or is it just me thinking thoughts or saying words that no one hears – or if God does hear, why doesn’t he act? You see prayer generates, I think, deep experiences. We invest in prayer – pour ourselves into it so to speak – and prayers ‘answered’ can be turning points in our life – while prayers ‘denied’ can be the foundation for a rejection of God. Jesus’ very aim in telling the parable highlights the tension that exists. Prayer to God can be disheartening so don’t lose heart!
What is going on?
We can’t date when Jesus told this parable with precision but we are in the weeks or months before Palm Sunday and Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem. His ministry is busy – teaching disciples, challenging Pharisees (and most of the time I think one group heard what was said to the other), performing miracles, and walking through tensions, adulation, and confusion – Jesus is marching to drum that only he seems to hear. And so to his disciples he tells this parable and the rabbinic principle of ‘from the light to the heavy’ is evident – if an unjust judge – one who can’t be shamed into doing the right thing – will eventually do the right thing and act justly towards the widow (the parable only makes sense if she is a plaintiff who has no other support – no men or family to help, no money for bribes – and who is being robbed or treated unjustly in some way) then how much more will God vindicate his people and do it speedily? The answer of course is conveyed and stated that God will give justice quickly.
Will he? That doesn’t often square with our experience of life – of injustice, when evil seems to win, when the rogue gets the riches, and the good guy indeed seems to come last. When we’re going through tough times we want relief – healing when ill; friendship when lonely; justice and fairness when we’re treated unjustly and unfairly – and the sooner the better. The call to perseverance in prayer seems based on the fact that God will act quickly but that then makes us question how long we should persevere? Is prayer really a work – to nag is to receive?
It is Jesus’ final comment – his point so to speak – that makes us pause and rewind what we’ve just heard. “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
I think we assume that our prayers are made in our best interests – after all, we know what we want and we’re always on the side of truth and justice aren’t we?. We identify with the widow – someone powerless – a person in need – and if she’s in the right then so are we. But I’m not sure we identify God with the unjust judge and of course that rabbinic principle means that he’s not unjust but he’s still a … ah, that’s interesting … who said ‘Judge’ in their head?
And if there’s one picture of God that Christianity has some ambivalence about then, I think, it is of God as Judge. It can smack too much of hell fire and brimstone sermons and God weighing up our deeds or balancing the books and for Lutherans that’s all too much works righteousness for our liking. Don’t you know that we live by grace through faith not works? We prefer the idea of God as Judge giving way to the Trinity as a ‘Welcoming Committee’ and us strolling into heaven.
Yet what God does is give ‘justice to his elect’ or ‘vindicate his elect’. Um, God, I just wanted a lotto win or pain relief or my boss to be nice. I want justice of course. I like being vindicated of course. But what do you mean when you’re doing it? What does that mean for me?
The unjust judge didn’t fear God or man – and if he had been impartial and followed the dictates of the law, we’d say he was a good judge – but his description as ‘unjust’ testifies that his actions – possibly his accepting of bribes – were grounded in himself, his needs, his wants – and in that he is a picture of humanity – with humanity’s motto: I do what I want. Replicated in everyone this creates a jungle, a survival of the fittest, injustice, conflict, and ultimately death. And before the holy, righteous God – the one humanity either denies or ignores – it means judgement – guilty. And people sense this – know this – fear this even. The general question ‘what’s life all about?’ gives way to ‘what am I doing here?’. We search for meaning and purpose and somehow it all is tied up with our relationship with God.
And God doesn’t delay his response and that means that God extends patience towards people – and this patience has a particular quality – that of setting aside wrath. Where one should take action and where one is in the right but doesn’t, gives the guilty party a moment – for how long? – to consider the situation he’s in and perhaps do something about it. We often hear that God is ‘slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love’. But why? Guilty is guilty. Can humanity pay its debts to God? Can humanity serve the sentence required?
And now Jesus’ last question might make a little more sense – Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth? – when it seems out of place in a parable on persistence in prayer but it is not out of place when considering how God and us relate to each other which is expressed in prayer. It is so easy to turn God into a cosmic vending machine and prayer the coins we put in the slots. Whereas we are unjust sinners – thinking we’re always better than we really are – coming before God who punishes and takes vengeance – yes, it is a strong word – on the Son of Man, his own Son, the teller of the parable. Only through faith in this Son of Man will people know and understand – through a dark glass for now but it is enough – that God doesn’t count our sins against us – that there is no condemnation for those who are in Jesus Christ – and that while sin still clings to us, the primary cry before God for justice is a cry for mercy.
And when we look to the cross, we see that God is merciful. God is not slow or slack in this mercy – he is close to us through words, water, bread and wine – and with us through each day of our lives – even when they are filled with this world’s injustice and troubles. Our prayers are not begging God to act; nor are they evidence of God’s capriciousness; but they are part of the relationship God has given to us when he granted us a justice we didn’t deserve through the death of his Son. To go past, to ignore, to say that we’ve learnt this truth and we can move on is to miss what the persistence is about – returning each day to the Judge with both fear and love for our sins never depart but just change shape and form and returning also to God’s mercy which doesn’t change either. Prayer built on this foundation is one of request and supplication and intercession – ask away! – but in a relationship where we trust God. It’s not easy street. The sin part of us has to come to grips each day with the fact that we’re not God! Moments before Jesus entered the Garden of Gethsemane when his prayers dripped with blood, he told his disciples, ‘In this world you will have many troubles but take heart, I have overcome the world’ (John 16:33) and this perspective gets us up in the morning with prayer and takes us to bed at night with prayer. No one said that things will be easy – that’s one reason we pray – yet as sinners in a sinful world we want God to act justly for all people – we want all people to be saved – and we need help to live in that way towards others.
- Luke 18:1 - 8