DON’T STOP PRAYING
Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. 2 He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. 3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’
4 “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”
6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”
If you were to ask me what the most common expression of spirituality is, I’d have no hesitation in saying prayer. Prayer is the one thing common to all religions. Even in societies like ours, where relatively few people attend worship, statistics show that the majority of people say that they pray. One Gallup poll found that seventy percent of people who believe in God pray daily, and ten percent of people who say they don’t believe in God also pray daily.
However, even though prayer is something most of us do, we sometimes wonder why we do it. Why do some prayers seem to get answered while others do not? Why do we need to persuade a loving God to do things He ought to know about anyway?
We all love stories about answered prayers, but what about the ones that aren’t? I remember when my kids were small, we were driving down the south coast in the midst of a heatwave. The two girls were surrounded by camping gear, and, in those days when air-conditioners weren’t standard fixtures, it was clear that they were quite distressed.
Suddenly, my five-year-old yelled out, ‘God doesn’t care about kids, He doesn’t care about kids.’ I turned around and asked her what she was talking about, and she said; ‘I’ve been sitting here asking God to take the sun away and He hasn’t done it; He doesn’t care about kids.’
I thought to myself, how do you tell a heat-exhausted five-year-old that prayer isn’t about making the sun disappear from the sky, when all her life I’ve been teaching her that God hears and answers prayer.
But then, literally out of the blue, a cloud appeared in what had for the whole day been a cloudless sky, and covered the sun for about ten minutes, bringing instant relief. And I still remember Melissa’s eyes opening wide and hearing her just say, ‘Oooo!’ Was it coincidence, or was it divine intervention in response to a child’s trusting prayer?
But here’s another story. A friend who used to run a women’s refuge told me about a woman who came for help. She’d been bashed by her partner and was in great distress. He arranged accommodation for her and then said he’d pray for her, but she got very angry. ‘What good’s that?’ she said. ‘When I was eight my father used to rape me, and I prayed every night for God to make him stop. But he kept on doing it.’
What do you say to that? ‘You mustn’t have been praying hard enough,’ or ‘God’s answer sometimes is no.’ Responses like that may seem fine in a church study group, but not to a traumatised child.
I doubt we’ll ever find a satisfactory answer to all our problems about prayer this side of heaven, but there are a few things that Jesus went to great lengths to teach us about prayer; and one of them was the importance of persistence – to keep on praying and not give up.
That’s what our Gospel reading today is all about. It begins by saying: ‘Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them they should always pray and not give up.’ The story is about a poor widow who was being treated unjustly and took her complaint to a judge who didn’t want to be bothered with her. But she kept on pestering him until finally he paid attention just to get her off his back.
Now, the judge in this story was clearly not a Jewish judge. In Israel, ordinary disputes were taken before the elders. If a matter was taken to court there were always three judges, one chosen by the plaintiff, one by the defendant, and one independently appointed.
The judge in this story would have been one of the paid magistrates appointed either by Herod or by the Romans. They were notoriously corrupt. Unless a person had influence and money to bribe the magistrate, they had no hope of ever getting their case settled.
Now the first thing we need to understand is that Jesus was not saying that God is the same as that corrupt judge and has to be pestered before he takes any notice of our prayers; but rather he was contrasting God to that judge. Jesus was saying: ‘If even a corrupt judge can be wearied into giving a widow justice, how much more will God, who is a loving Father, give his children what they need?’
As for the widow, she represents all who are poor and defenceless. She had no hope of getting justice from such a judge because she couldn’t afford a bribe. But she did have one weapon - persistence. And it’s possible that what finally got the judge’s attention was the fear of violence. The words translated, ‘lest she exhausts me,’ can mean, lest she give me a black eye. It was her persistence that won the day, and that’s the point that Jesus was making about prayer.
However, this still leaves us with so many questions unanswered. We’ve all known times when we’ve prayed for something or someone with all the earnestness and faith we could muster, and the prayer seems not to have been answered. How do we reconcile this with those great promises we read in the Bible?
I doubt we’ll ever find a satisfactory answer this side of Heaven. But one thing we do know is that Jesus told us to pray, and never to stop doing it. And when his disciples asked him to teach them to pray, he gave them a model that contains all the elements of real prayer; it is, of course, the Lord’s Prayer. And central to it are the words: ‘Your kingdom come; your will be done on earth as in heaven.’
We see the ultimate example of this in Jesus’ own prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before his crucifixion. As he tried to prepare himself for the unimaginable horror that lay ahead of him, he prayed so intensely that God would get him out of this that he literally sweated blood. But then, at the end, he uttered the supreme words of faith: ‘Nevertheless, not my will but yours be done.’
Real prayer is not about aligning God’s will to ours but aligning our will to God’s. We often quote Jesus’ words: ‘If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.’ But what we sometimes overlook the first part: ‘If you remain in me and my words in you.’ It follows a passage where Jesus describes the relationship between himself and a believer as being like that of a vine and its branches. The implication is that in a relationship like that, the thing we’ll want most is to know and do God’s will.
I remember a time when I was at my wits end trying to cope with a situation that seemed about to have disastrous consequences both for my family and my ministry. l prayed many desperate prayers for God to intervene and make what seemed to be about to happen not happen.
Then one day a friend reminded me that the only place where you can be at peace is in the centre of God's will, and, if you are there, you can live with the assurance that, as the Bible says, ‘God is at work in all things for the good of those who love Him.’ It was such a simple message I was amazed I'd forgotten it. But from that day on I stopped praying desperate prayers and started to pray that God would do what He knew was best and that I might be guided to play my part in it.
Now, I look back on that time and see how wonderfully all those insurmountable problems have been resolved for my greater good and my family and ministry, and how none of them was resolved in the way that I thought they should be. It taught me that the real power of prayer is in aligning ourselves with the will of God and allowing his Spirit to make us participants in what He wants to do; even though we may not understand it. That’s why Jesus told this story to teach us that even when nothing seems to make sense, we should keep on praying.
It reminds me of an incident I read about where a woman phoned the manager of theatre to say that she had been at the theatre the previous night and later discovered she’d lost a valuable diamond brooch. He told her to hold the line while he went to look. He found the seat whose number she’d given him and began a thorough search. Finally, he saw the brooch, lodged in a crack beneath the seat.
He raced back to the telephone only to find that she had hung up. She’d been so distraught that she couldn’t endure waiting any longer and had gone on to call her next possibility. Sadly, she never did call back, nor did she respond to a notice he placed in the newspaper.
She reminds us of how we often are in our prayers. We pour our hearts out to God, but when the answer is delayed, we fail to hold the line. That’s why ‘Jesus told his disciples this parable to show them they should always pray and not give up.’ Persistence is an essential component of faith-filled, trusting prayer. So, don’t stop praying.