Persistence in Prayer
21st Sunday after Trinity
Luke 18 1-8
I am sure if I asked each one of you here this morning you would all be able to name at least one thing that you have bought or started with every good intention of finishing, but haven’t. An exercise bike, a paint box, knitting wool, learning the piano, tins of paint I am sure we could compile quite a list. Some people have done this with church-going or with daily prayers.
The eminent sailor Sir Francis Drake once said, "There must be a beginning of any great thing, but the continuing to the end until it is finished yields true glory." Jesus was well aware that some people give up easily in their prayers and it is too easy to lose heart. One of the great weaknesses of the Church is that many of its people are not really praying people, which says a lot about where God is in our list of priorities. Yet there may be times when we do pray with persistence ~ in the face of danger, illness, war, violence, and concern for our children, parents and friends. I am sure that people prayed fervently in the World Wars, they prayed as we all do when lives are endangered.
It is that sort of dire situation that we find in the Gospel. Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart. It is parable of a judge who “neither feared God nor had respect for people.” We do not know if he is corrupt or not. What we do know is that the judge was not a believer in anything beyond himself—this judge did not believe that he would ever be judged. And we assume that this judge, who respected no person, cared little about widows and orphans and the poor of the land—those people the law commanded him to protect. Jesus said the Judge had no respect for anyone.
In Luke’s Gospel, there is a special concern for the poor and lowly, the widow and orphan. If the judge was corrupt, the widow is a person without resources to bribe him. In ancient Palestinian society the widow was helpless and could exert no real influence on those in power, having lost the support of her husband, she would have been destitute. Jesus uses her as an example of all those who are poor, powerless and without human resources, who rely upon faith in God and not themselves.
We all know about “squeaky wheels” and how their persistence gets them what they want. You only have to stand still in a Supermarket and hear children wearing their mothers down with persistent cries for sweets. The widow was certainly persistent. She keeps bothering the judge until he finally gives in to her demands, “Though I have no fear or God and no respect for anyone, yet because the widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” The Greek is stronger than the translation. It really says, “She will give me a black eye if I don’t give in.” She may not intend to punch the judge but she was certainly wearing him down by her persistence. She is a good example of a “squeaky wheel” which gets the oil.
Now it seems strange advice of Jesus to give his disciples and us that we should be “squeaky wheels” before God, so persistent in bringing our needs to God that we get what we want. People, in Jesus’ day, prayed to their pagan gods repetitiously heaping words upon words. They performed rituals to get the god’s attention. Some even slashed themselves so their blood would cry out. Jesus says that God is not like that—God knows our needs even before we ask for his help. We do not need to get God’s attention, He is not sleeping or too busy to help us. We have a loving heavenly Father who will outdo any earthly parent in taking care of us and meeting our needs.
There is a story about Martin Luther, who once lifted a piece of meat from his plate and dangled it enticingly in front of his dog Tolpel . Of course the dog was interested in the meat and wanted it. Tolpel jumped up and tried to get it. Luther commented that he wished he could pray with such longing and desire, with just such concentration and intensity as his dog sought the meat. God wants us to pray with persistence and intensity. We do not need to use fancy phrases and convoluted prayer language. We don’t talk to husbands or best friends that way; and we should bring our needs to God, to pray and not lose heart.
In the Old Testament reading we heard about Jacob wrestling with a man – understood to be an angel - and it was his physical endurance which resulted in his blessing. When the angel saw that he was not going to overpower Jacob he put his hip out of joint—but Jacob was blessed for his persistence and determination not to give in, in spite of a dodgy hip. Just like the widow who got what she wanted—it was her persistence which changed the mind of the judge.
Jesus tells us to “seek, ask, knock” and those verbs in Greek have the sense of ‘keep on with it’ - keep on seeking what you need, keep on asking, keep on knocking at the door and you will be given what you need. And this is the confidence that we have in God, that if we pray according to the will of God, he hears us, and if God hear us, he will give us what we ask.”
And it is certainly true, that prayer will change us. As we pray and keep on praying we come closer to God. We realize that we are not alone with our problems, but God is there to help us and strengthen us and encourage us and console us.
The other question the parable raises is: “Who are the unjust judges?” Sometimes we can be unjust judges. When we are prejudiced, intolerant and judge others, when we fail to see other people as children of God and show them the love our heavenly Father has for them, then we are just like the judge in the parable.
Then Jesus closes his parable with a strange sentence: “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Any prayer for a changing world must begin with the prayer that God will change us – “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.” We don’t pray in order to change God but for God to change us, so that when the Son of Man comes he will find faith on earth.
So one final question; how much do we believe when we pray?
Mozambique is just one of the countries that has known long-term conflict. It is at the root of their poverty and isolation in the world over the last 30 years. Whilst all the political powers met for discussions for peace the churches came together in prayers for peace. Every Friday was a day of prayer and fasting. They held workshops on conflict resolution and had a project to beat swords into ploughshares.
Despite the delay the churches never doubted that their prayers would be answered - and they were. After 30 long years miraculously in October 1992 the signing of a peace agreement and the Mozambican Christians were rewarded for their persistence. In the years that have followed there has been continued peace, increasingly prosperity and most importantly, huge creative art displays made out of guns, knives, bullets and other weapons. You will find the ‘Tree of Life’ in the National Museum.
The message for each of us today is whatever you are praying for – when the going gets tough, keep on keeping on.