Do Our Prayers Pay Off?

Sermon by the Rev. Marek Zabriskie on Sunday, October 20, 2019.

The story that was just read is a really baffling parable, which raises more questions than it answers. After all, are we really to expect that God acts like this unjust judge?

 

Luke frames this story with the opening line, “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” Luke wrote this gospel nearly 40 years after Jesus had died. The Romans were now devouring Christians like vultures descending on their prey. The early Christians had prayed for 40 years, and they, like us, were tempted at times to lose heart.

 

But it’s a such strange story. Is the point of this story that if we pester God enough with our prayers, God will answer us just to get us to shut up and or go away? In the parable the widow uses a boxing term that she will “wear God down” or in the Greek give the judge “a black eye.”

 

Furthermore, she is not just seeking justice, but in the Greek translation she is demanding vengeance. Is this how we go to God? Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann notes that “this is not theology; it is a playful rabbinic story.” Indeed, it is one of the most comical scenes in the New Testament, pitting two contrasting characters against each other.

 

Perhaps this parable works negatively. Perhaps the point of this parable that God is not like the unjust judge. Perhaps the point of this story that God is actually like loving parent who quickly cares for her children whenever they cry for help. Perhaps God is not like the unjust judge.

 

The problem is that our experience doesn’t bear this out. Too often, we pray and pray and nothing happens. We offer fervent prayers for healing or help or for someone drowning in addiction and ill with a deadly disease or for joy or peace around the world in our family and nothing seems to happen. Our prayers go unanswered for reasons that we cannot fathom, and it’s easy to lose heart. We can only bang on an unopened door for so long.

 

In Somerset Maugham’s autobiographical novel Of Human Bondage, Maugham movingly portrays the main character, Philip, with a clubfoot. One day, Philip comes across the passage in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus says, “Whatever you ask in my name you will receive it.” (Mark 11:24) Philip thought that he could be immediately healed.

 

He imagined the freedom that he would have. He imagined what it would like play soccer and run fast and for people not stare when he limped on his clubfoot. That night, he prayed with all his heart to be healed. As he awoke in the morning he touched one foot to the other and realized that nothing had changed. That morning his faith died.

 

Perhaps God does us a favor by saying “No” to many of our prayers. I had the biggest crush on a girl named Nancy Stroker, and I prayed that we would marry and that I would become a famous soccer player. Needless to say, we would have starved trying to live on my soccer skills. C.S. Lewis once put it, “If God had answered all the silly prayers I’ve made in my life, where should I be now?”

 

But when our prayers go unanswered, it can break our heart, and we can grow cynical. Sustained prayer is hard work. But something happens when we pray in a sustained manner. I know that when I do, it makes my heart stronger. Something happens to me when I pray over and over again for something important or for someone in need or for some significant change to take place. So often when we pray, we become part of the answer to our own prayer.

 

And wonder or wonders while our prayers are not answered in the ways that we had prayed for, good things happen nonetheless. There’s simply no explanation why some prayers are answered and others are not. God responds to prayer with staggering unpredictability.

 

In today’s gospel, we read that there was a nameless judge in a nameless city who was approached by a nameless widow. As in all of Jesus’ parables, except for the Parable of Lazarus, none of the characters is named. Rather, Jesus conjures up people that we can relate to – a man with two sons, a shepherd who lost a sheep, a widow and a corrupt judge.

 

Widows in that time had no rights, no power, no clout, no legal standing. Under Jewish law a widow could not inherit. The estate went straight to her sons or her brothers-in-law. She could live off the estate unless someone tried to cheat her out of it. The fact that the widow stands alone before the judge to pursue her case indicates that she has no family, no men, on her side.

 

Yet, as with many widows in the Bible, this widow is plucky, persistent and tenacious. “Give me justice,” she cries out. “I will not shut up until you do so! I will return again and again to your courtroom!” This widow was a pest, who would not give up. She reminds me of Winston Churchill who gave a speech in Britain’s darkest hour at the Harrow School in October of 1941. Churchill told those gathered,

 

Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or

small, large or petty – never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense.

 

This widow is like the Spanish mothers, who come to the Plaza del Sol in the heart of Madrid every day as they have come for decades to protest the fact that their sons were taken and killed during Franco’s regime. Franco died in 1975, but these tenacious widows and mothers protest because the Spanish government has never acknowledged their sons who were taken and killed. They are like the widow who badgered the unjust judge again and again and again.

 

The Bible is full of widows who will not be exploited – Tamar, Naomi, Ruth, Orpah and Abigail. Professor Amy-Jill Levine said that the widow in today’s parable is less like the biblical widow Ruth and “more like Leona Helmsley fighting a hostile takeover.” She has been called her the “Persistent Widow,” the “Tenacious Widow,” or even the “Nagging Widow.” Her prayers and cries for justice are relentless.

 

And theologian Walter Wink says that biblical prayer is like this. He notes that biblical prayer is more like haggling in an outdoor market than it is the solemn-toned prayers that we politely offer in church. Biblical prayer is aggressive, demanding, insistent and downright shameless.

 

We are told that this judge neither respected God nor respected people. But he was all that there was. The widow had to deal with him. She could not go around him. He had power. If she wanted justice, she had to enter his courtroom. Here is a practitioner of the law, who was willing to break all the professional rules and in so doing he became an agent of God’s grace.

 

Jesus tells us, “For a while [the judge] refused…” to grant her justice. But “afterwards,” he relented. “Afterwards” implies “kairos” or the appointed time, the time that we cannot measure, predict or force. It is the high time of God. It’s the time of grace.

 

Perhaps on his fifteenth or fiftieth visit to the courtroom, the judge finally relents. Nagging sometimes pays off! The judge does not relent because of the merits of her case. He relents instead because of her constantly showing up in his courtroom. The judge is willing to be considered a bad judge just so that he can be rid of this nagging widow and get a little peace.

What’s this say about God? It says that even when we don’t deserve it, even when we are immersed in worldly matters, even when we are acting like losers, God treats us like we are winners. To quote St. Paul, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

 

The widow asks the judge to justify her, and he finally does. How does the New Testament say that we are justified? The answer is simple. We are justified by grace through faith. (Eph. 2:8)

 

The parable ends by saying, “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.” Perhaps this mention of “quickly” refers to the crucifixion and resurrection for Jesus soon died and rose again for us. And that governs everything we know about God and life.

 

Like the unjust judge, God forgave a bunch of unrepentant, unsavory, unreconstructed human beings who were a bloody nuisance, breaking all the laws to do so. God was willing in Jesus to drop dead in order to give us a fresh start, not once but over and over and over and over again.

 

In the Bible we read, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1) There is no condemnation because God is not a hanging judge. God is not a condemner, but a forgiver. God bestows grace on the unlovely and the lovely, on the repentant and the unrepentant and on all of us.

 

Perhaps God is a bad judge, an unjust judge who breaks all the rules to let us have more chances, more freedom and more grace than we ever deserve. God justifies us by grace alone, through faith. And that’s certainly more than we deserve, and it’s the ultimate answer to our prayers. Amen.