Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
I wonder if you’ve ever felt like you’ve fought with God? It might seem a brave or foolhardy thing to take on the Lord God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and challenge him to a wrestling match, but there are times when that is exactly what prayer feels like.
Jesus tells the parable in today’s Gospel reading ‘about the need to pray always and not lose heart.’ Luke’s Gospel was written at a time when the temptation to lose heart was strong. Christians were being persecuted; Jesus’ expected imminent return hadn’t happened; the path of discipleship seemed to bring danger, suffering and injustice. In the face of all that the temptation to doubt God, and to pack it all in, must have been strong.
So this is a parable about perseverance in prayer and faith. On one side is the judge, a man with the power to speak authoritatively, to decide for others. He ‘neither feared God nor had respect for people’, says Luke. And while we might think this shows the sort of impartiality that we’d hope for in the exercise of the law, in the Jewish tradition this is not a compliment. Fearing the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; and the law is given to form people in holiness. And even a brief reading of the law and the prophets will tell you that God is not impartial. Again and again he insists on the protection of the alien, the orphan, and the widow – those most vulnerable to exploitation and injustice. For a judge not to fear God who is the source of all justice, and not to respect those given particular protection and care under the law makes him a neglectful and wicked arbiter of it.
Then there’s the widow. That she is contending for herself tells us that she is desperate. There is no male relative arguing her case for her, as would be the custom. Either her family has cheated her or she is on her own. Yet she refuses to be silenced. Back she goes to the judge, again and again, putting her case, pleading her cause. And the way our translation puts it, we get the feeling that the judge finally gives in because he’s had enough of her whining. But that isn’t entirely true to the Greek. Where it says ‘I will grant her justice so that she may not wear me out by continually coming’ it actually means ‘I will grant her justice so she doesn’t give me a black eye by continually coming’. There’s more than a hint here that he gives in because her persistence, finally, shows him up. It’s not just the judge she’s taken on, but a whole legal system corruptly stacked against her. It’s something of a David and Goliath moment: the insignificant nobody of the widow pitted against the man with all the power his gender and position lend him – and she prevails.
What Jesus is not teaching in this parable is that if we nag God enough he will give in to shut us up. The action of God in this parable comes by way of a negative analogy: if even a corrupt and unjust judge will eventually grant justice, how much more will God, who is not like the judge? It’s the widow’s actions that Jesus commends: her persistent search for justice, her faith that perseveres, her stubbornness in refusing to yield to injustice.
And this is hard work, often. There are times in my life when I have felt like I’ve prayed myself raw. Times when I have pleaded and bargained with God, when day after day, in some cases even year after year I have persisted in the same prayer. What I have not experienced in those times is God saying ‘okay, okay, I’ve heard enough. Now you’ve asked enough times I will grant your request’. God is not my celestial fairy godmother. What I have experienced, often in retrospect but not always, is God’s grace working in me and in the situations or people I’ve prayed for. I notice God’s grace working as I pray for it and join in with it. It hasn’t always been how I’d expected or hoped to see it, but it has unmistakably left its mark. I think of the time my dad was dying, when I prayed so hard for healing for him, when I wept and got angry and felt guilty and begged and sulked and pleaded with God. And my dad died. And I know it would be easy to say ‘see, prayer doesn’t work.’ But what happened was a healing of my relationship with my dad, which had been quite strained, and a healing of other relationships within the family. Does that mean God didn’t answer my prayer? I think he did.
And then there are the times when I haven’t persisted in prayer: when I’ve doubted God; when I’ve preferred not to risk being disappointed with the way God does or doesn’t answer prayer; when I have been afraid of hearing only the echo of my own words and so have not bothered to pray with any kind of persistence. But to do that is not only to cut myself off from God but to accept injustice or suffering as beyond God’s action.
To pray always and not to lose heart is an act of faith: to others it may seem naïve and pointless. It is an act of faith that God’s grace is active and that he desires justice and reconciliation; that he does not will suffering – but promises a time when every tear will be wiped away. To pray always is to align ourselves with God’s purpose and promise – we are taught elsewhere to pray ‘your will be done on earth as in heaven’ – and the more we pray the more we are drawn into that purpose and so learn how to pray more effectively.
‘Grant me justice’ is the widow’s persistent plea. This is what shapes her life and directs her action. She doesn’t just stand afar off and ask God to intervene and sort it out for her: she is made a participant in grace, in the working out of God’s purposes. And so are we, if we really are willing to pray with all our hearts. If we do that we will find our hearts enlarged, our courage deepened, our desire for God’s kingdom begin to shape all we do. We should expect to find that a common way God answers prayer is through us, to extend his grace, and bring in his kingdom. I can’t tell you exactly how it works. But I can tell you what I’ve found, which is that that the more I pray, the more I notice God’s grace at work, the more I find myself wanting what God wants, and the more opportunities God gives me to be a means of grace for others.
Jesus told his disciples this parable about the need to pray always and not to lose heart. This isn’t about finding the magic combination of words that will unlock God’s favour: God is not a capricious deity who can be manipulated or nagged into action if only we can find the right formula. This is about bringing all we are into prayer: our hopes and angers and fears and disappointments and desires. And maybe that makes us feel vulnerable or foolish; maybe it feels like a risk to throw caution to the wind and to be all in in prayer – but this is what a widow with nowhere else to turn teaches us, so that when the Son of Man comes, he will find faith on earth.