October 20, 2019
Scripture: Luke 18:1-8
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’
And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And 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. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
My first reactions to this scripture for today were that it was a tough topic to consider and to speak about. And I think that is because I have viewed this passage in the past as dealing with prayer, and in particular, with answers to prayer…which of course gets us to the notion of what is often thought of as ‘unanswered prayer’. But I gained some ground when I read the first line over again, hearing for the first time what I thought was perhaps the kernel of truth that needs to be brought into the light. That sentence, where it says that Jesus told them this parable in order to encourage them to ‘pray always and not to lose heart, or become discouraged’, appeared capable of changing the focus just a bit away from the thorny issue of prayer that seems either unheard, unnecessarily delayed, or unanswered altogether. But that question still stubbornly remained, prompting me to look again to try and find a way to engage or perhaps even to deflect away from the question of whether or not God answers every prayer that we pray.
And to be honest, the setting of the scripture, which tells of a woman pestering a judge over and over until he finally relents and grants her request just to get her off of his back is not terribly helpful in trying to consider answered or unanswered prayer. For the picture of a judge who finally gets tired of hearing of the woman’s pleas and relents just to get her off of his back does not fit that well with my understanding of our God as one of love, mercy, and grace. To think that God only answers prayers of those who ask unceasingly, over and over again, does not explain why the prayers of those who do so, do not always receive the outcome for which they prayed.
And so, as I looked at the scripture again, trying to hear the Spirit’s guidance in how to approach this passage, I saw that in fact the woman who was pestering the judge so unceasingly was in fact asking for justice, which as we know is one of the primary drivers of the whole of Jesus’ message. Which I know may seem like something I place a lot of emphasis on frequently. However, that insight into the passage gave me some hope that I might find a way through it without tackling the difficulty of whether or not prayers seem to be answered. But I’m afraid that was not fully the case. However, it did give me a framework through which to consider both of the approaches I have already mentioned. Both, how this scripture speaks to personal prayer as well as our communal calling as people of faith, to pursue justice when and wherever the need arises.
And that framework is relationships, specifically how personal prayer and petitioning for justice to be wrought, are both positively addressed or answered within relationship, either relationship personally with God, communally all together with God, or personally one with another. And it all rests on the assertion found in the gospels and our faith in its truthfulness, that God sought to establish relationships with each one of us by having the Holy Spirit indwell our own spirits. If that is indeed the case, if the Spirit is resident within our souls and is always available to guide and counsel us, then frequent conversation, frequent ‘prayer’ if you will, serves to build a trust in the goodness and love of God. In other words, building or strengthening a relationship with the Spirit of God within our hearts, somehow prepares us all to think with the mind of Christ, to desire God’s will more than our own, and to trust that the answers to our prayers, whatever they are, are in fact in line with God’s good will, even if they may not at first seem to be what our own hopes or desired outcomes may have been.
In other words, in the end, I believe that God knows better than we do, how a particular ‘answer’ received by us fits into a plan or purpose greater than our own hopes or desires. For we worship a God not of our own whims or under our own control, no matter how much we may plead and petition. Ultimately, I believe that all prayers are heard, and all prayers are answered in God’s own time, and in line with God’s good will.
When moving the conversation over from personal prayer and personal relationships with the Spirit of grace within, making prayers known in the wider circle of the faith community allows the Spirit to work in even greater ways as a community of support is built up, all seeking the desired outcome of the thing prayed for, but all there as well for support and strength, if the answer does not prove to be what was hoped for.
Praying persistently and vocally within the gathering of the faithful builds a community of care and concern around a particular request, builds a deep resolve to trust God whatever the outcome, and serves to focus the intentionality of love by the community towards the one seeking an answer to prayer. It allows for the opportunity to share joy and to rejoice together in the case of a healing or an answer in line with the request, as well as to hold and to comfort the one in need should the answer not appear to be immediately forthcoming or in line with one’s hopes. Persistence in prayer builds relationships as well as trust, and allows us to view our scripture passage as a call to community in relationship, rather than simply advice on how to pester God into doing what we ask for.
Which does not help necessarily with how to deal with certain of our needs that seem to go on unheard or unanswered, especially when we profess that we worship a God who desires fullness and wholeness of life for each one of us. But it does allow us to learn better how to trust God overall and each other as well.
The case for allowing this scripture passage to speak to issues of justice and relief of oppression for our brothers and sisters is a much easier one to make. Any study of the gospels, in even a cursory fashion reveals that Jesus sought justice for the weak and oppressed more than any other thing, both in his message and in his actions. Many are the footnotes that he was helping a Samaritan or healing an outcast, or elevating a woman into a place far above what the society was used to allowing. Overall Jesus came that the poor and the oppressed might find freedom and liberation, and that those who could not ‘walk’, ‘see’, ‘hear’, or ‘understand’ for whatever reason, might be made whole once again.
And here, the building of relationships around a common calling and the learning to trust one another in the pursuit of justice makes our passage particularly critical. Persistence in calling for and working towards freedom and liberation for any and all who are bound up in oppression, from within, or from an outside source will provide that same wide community of support and encouragement that persistence in prayer for a personal matter does.
‘Loving one another’ was a command not just for a small group or a gathering of like-minded or ‘like-believing’ individuals, but rather a most difficult call in its insistence that the love we as people of faith extend outwards must be without condition and without fear, as well as without expectation of reward or any sort of return. We are blessed to receive, so also, we must be ready to give and to share those same blessings in the presence of need. Persistence in the pursuit of justice builds a community seeking the expressed will of our Lord, and the more energy applied in seeking after justice the more likely that pursuit will succeed. Prayer on behalf of those mired in injustice is righteous in that it establishes a wider relationship with or between those who are oppressed and those with the means to do something about alleviating it.
I feel as though I know the pain of what at first seemed like unanswered prayer with the death of my mom after 13 long years of dealing with complete paralysis from the neck down as a result of a terrible auto accident. My mom had always been a shining light within our community and was much beloved by many in our town. Her tireless work on behalf of both her family and friends within the community made her a standout and an example for others of grace and goodness. And even after the accident she continued to shine, never wavering in her willingness to reach out and share with, and on behalf of others.
And I found myself praying deeply for a complete healing, for her to be freed from the cruel prison that prevented her from hugging and holding my youngest sister who at the time had just turned 10 years old. I prayed that she might walk again and experience life in ways anyone at the tender age of 47 might wish to. And I prayed persistently and publicly…professing that I believed, that I had faith, and that I had somehow ‘claimed’ the healing I was so sure the Lord would hear of and honor.
I was so sure that my mother would walk again that I was absolutely stunned when the call came in from my Aunt Betty, my mom’s sister, that she had passed away, unable to once again fend off pneumonia which is so difficult for those in her condition. I hung up the phone and didn’t know where to turn…I had been so sure, I trusted God to do what I really felt I needed…and now, in the face of what seemed like a total betrayal, and a total rejection of my persistent and heartfelt prayers, I had a choice to make…I had to decide if I would turn away from God in anger and confusion…or if I would seek to draw nearer in hopes of finding even a glimmer of how this could ever be perceived as a good or even a heaven-sent reply.
And while it took some time to decide, eventually the community of those around me summoned me to look God-ward once again, to draw closer to God even though I was so broken and so deeply disappointed. And over time I began to hear from so many for whom my mom was a source of comfort, healing, encouragement, and caring love. And I came to know even more deeply of how her condition had enabled her to minister so effectively to those the Spirit sent her way.
I came to know that her lack of bitterness, her acceptance of her fate, and her decision to take that and turn it around and into a force for goodness and grace was in fact a full, complete, and total healing…for her soul and her spirit…and for all of us blessed to share the sunlight of her smile even for just a moment. And I also knew somehow deep within my soul that her ability to walk, indeed to jump and to dance once again returned in full the moment she came face to face with our Lord.
Was my frequent and persistent prayer answered in the way I had hoped it would be? No it was not…but it was answered in a way that revealed the grace of God all over again to me…and it was reinforced by the community of faith that rose up in the aftermath of her death to affirm over and over again that this was a good and a holy woman, now freed from the cruel prison of paralysis, and freed as well to inspire others to rise up and make even more of the blessing of their own time here on earth.
And when it comes to justice…and examples of the power of persistent and focused prayer…we have never before been in a time when the consciousness of the need to act on behalf of the oppressed was more present or more pressing. Every day we hear of new instances that demand our concern and our active engagement in seeking to rectify injustices being meted out on so many of our brothers and sisters.
It is a time when the community of faith is being called to act like a community of faith, a time for those who profess to follow a God of love to stand up, and to be counted, as those who will stand between the forces of hatred and division and the right of every child of God to live free from fear, from hatred and bigotry, from hunger and poverty, and from the very denial of their humanity and place as co-image-of-God bearers along with us. We can and must do more, and persistent prayer will serve to unite us in seeking to do the will of our Lord as we were so instructed in John 6 and verse 33 where Jesus calls on us to ‘seek first the kingdom of God and his justice’.
Prayer builds relationships, with God, and with each other…persistent prayer builds communities of purpose and commitment…communities of holy purpose and commitment bring low ‘high mountains’, raise up ‘valleys’, and allow righteousness to finally ‘flow down like a never-ending stream…’
So pray…and pray again…and never forsake the call to hold and to cherish those in faithful communion with you…for they are your strength and the sure source of holiness…