Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Rev. Art Ritter
October 20, 2019
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?”
Preacher and scholar Tom Long tells of a time when Mother Teresa was in New York City to meet with the president and vice-president of a large company, trying to raise awareness and money for her ministry among the poorest of the poor in Calcutta. Before the meeting however, the two executives had privately agreed not to give her any money. The meeting started and the tiny nun was seated across a large mahogany desk from the men. They listened to her plea but then said, “We appreciate what you do but we just cannot commit any funds at this time.” “Let us pray,” Mother Teresa said. “Dear God, I pray that you will soften the hearts of these men to see how necessary it is to help your needy children. Amen.” She then renewed the plea, and the executives again renewed their answer that they were not going to help. “Let us pray again,” Mother Teresa said. “Dear God, I pray that you will soften the hearts of these two men to see how necessary it is to help your needy children. Amen.” As she opened her eyes, she was looking at the now beet-red faced executives, even as the president was reaching for his checkbook.
The parable that Jesus tells today from the gospel of Luke is a story about prayer, but not just a simple lesson about the etiquette of praying. It is more about a God who hears our prayers and about how and who God is. Jesus, with his usual creative teaching skills, uses the opposite of something to make a point.
There is a judge, kind of an anti-hero in the story. The judge is a self-centered narcissist. He gives little or no thought to the ways of God in his judgments and in his dealing with other people. He is very much into getting what he can get for himself out of life. He is proud and arrogant and self-serving.
The other character in the parable is a widow with a complaint, a legal case for the judge’s court. We don’t know what the case really was but this unjust, selfish judge wanted nothing to do with her. He wouldn’t even listen to her. Lacking any other recourse, the widow did what she needed to do. She became a public nuisance. She stood in front of the judge’s bench all day. She made her grievance public. She stalked the judge when court was out of session. She waited for him when he walked out of his health club and grocery store. She hit the judge where it hurt. She challenged his public reputation. The judge didn’t care about other people and didn’t care about her, but he did care about his reputation. When the widow threatened that, the judge was forced to act upon her case.
Jesus uses the parable to teach us about how we should pray to God. His final words are quite puzzling, “Listen to what the unjust judge says.” Jesus doesn’t say, “See how persistence pays off with a lousy human judge. Think about how much more persistence will pay off with a just and loving God. He says simply “Listen to what the unjust judge says.” What are we supposed to hear? Are we supposed to nag at God? Are we supposed to make God frustrated with us in order to have a chance to get our prayers answered?
I think the parable is less about teaching us to pray persistently than it is to teach us about our waiting for God’s intention to be fulfilled. Our prayer life brings us closer to God, but not in ways that turn God’s heart to make our fondest wishes and dreams come true. Rather our prayer life keeps us engaged with God, brings us to some sort of understanding of how God works in our world and in our lives, helps us remember who we are and whose we are, and helps us align ourselves with the intentions of God. Soren Kierkegaard once said, “Prayer does not change God, but it changes the one who prays.” Prayer may not bring the results we pray for but prayer may put us in the place where we see and understand the life we get.
In her book, Home by Another Way, Barbara Brown Taylor talks about her seven year old granddaughter Madeline. Madeline came over to her grandparents’ house to celebrate her birthday. They had a cake and lit the candles and grandmother, grandfather, and mother sang Happy Birthday to Madeline as they watched the candles burn down. Without making a wish, Madeline leaned over the cake and blew the candles out. “Aren’t you going to make a wish?” her mother asked. “You have to make a wish,” added her grandfather. Taylor says that Madeline looked as though someone just ran over her cat. She finally responded, “I don’t know why I keep doing this. This whole wishing thing. Last year I wished my best friend wouldn’t move away but she did. This year I want to wish that my mommy and daddy will get back together…” Her mother quickly interrupted, “That’s not going to happen. So don’t waste your wish on that!” Madeline lowered her head and sadly said, “I know it’s not going to happen. So why do I keep doing this.”
Taylor says that since the issue was wishing and not prayer, she left Madeline alone that day. But she knows that sooner or later she will have to have a talk with Madeline about prayer. Taylor does not want a child to lose heart. She wants her to believe in a God who loves her and listens to her, even when it doesn’t always seem that way.
Jesus teaches us that same kind of loving, patient lesson. He teaches us that prayer works. Prayer may not change God but it is a constant reminder that God will not give up on us. It is not a matter of getting or not getting what we ask for. It is about faith and trust and relentless perseverance, especially in times of need. It is about a discipline that keeps us close to God.
Taylor closes her story by saying that one day when Madeline asks her outright whether prayer really works, she is going to say, “Oh, sweetie, of course it does. It keeps our hearts chasing after God’s heart. It’s how we bother God, and it’s how God bothers us back. There’s nothing that works any better than that.”