Parables of Persistence in Prayer
It was Martin Luther King Day in America last Monday. One of his most famous sayings was: 'To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing'. That's a good place to start as we look at Jesus' parables on persistence in prayer.
The judge in the parable of the Persistent Widow was not a Jewish judge. Jewish disputes were taken before the elders. If further hearings were necessary three judges were appointed, one by the complainer, one by the defender and one appointed independently. No Jewish judge ever sat alone. So this judge was one appointed by the Roman Governor or by King Herod. Such judges were notorious. Bribery was endemic and no complainer could get a favourable outcome without paying the judge. These judges were known to pervert justice for a plate of meat. Their nickname was 'robber judges'. This judge we are told did not fear God probably because he did not believe in God and there was no-one going to investigate his conduct of hearings so he could do what he liked and get away with it.
Just over a week ago the legendary Scottish Sheriff Irvine Smith died at the great old age of 89. He was not a corrupt judge at all but he was stern although he had a wonderful sense of humour. He once sentenced a certain Mr Noone with the words '30 days thath September, April, June and Barney Noone'. He once said to an accused 'You are a fecund liar' meaning a prolific liar. The accused later said that at last someone in the legal profession had used language he understood. Another accused was asked to state his occupation. 'Humphin ginger at Springwells', he replied. Irvine Smith interrupted, 'What did you say?'. 'Humphin ginger at Springwells'. The accused's lawyer stood up and said, 'Your Honour, my client is endeavouring to explain that he is employed in a menial capacity by a firm which manufactures aerated water near Hamilton'. 'Well, why couldn't he have said that', replied Irvine Smith. Another accused said 'As God is my judge, I am innocent' to which Irvine Smith replied 'He is not, I am, Guilty'.
As we have seen in Jesus' parables, they are all based on real life incidents and situations. You can imagine then how hard it was for a poor widow to get justice in that time and culture. We know that even in our society today if you are poor it is hard for you to get justice. That's nothing compared to people all over the world who have no access to legal redress through poverty and compared to many who while not poor do not have the resources to employ lawyers to take on cases which they might lose. Our legal system may not be overtly corrupt but if you have enough money, you certainly have a chance to buy the justice you are seeking. The widow in the parable was no weakling however. She didn't sit in the house and mope. Probably she went every day to ask this judge for judgement. He had got sick of seeing her. She hurt his conscience. She was an embarrassment to him. She exposed his corruption because he would not settle the case. She got under his skin. She was causing him stress, palpitations and he was fed up to the teeth with her. She may even have threatened to give him a punch in the face.
This parable is not about justice. It is about prayer. Jesus is not saying that God is like the judge. God is the opposite of the judge. The widow breaks down the unwillingness of the judge to act by persistence. God is the loving Father of our souls who wants to answer our prayers. Jesus told this parable, as verse 1 says 'to show them that they should always pray and not give up'.
The other parable about being persistent in prayer leads on to some of the most important words in the whole Bible. 'Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be open and to you'. These words have caused a lot of disappointment and heartbreak to Christians over the centuries. 'Why did God not answer my prayer?' is one of the saddest questions we have to try to answer. But let's go back to the story. It is again based on reality.
Travellers often journeyed into the late evening to avoid the excessive heat of the day. Hospitality was a sacred duty in the culture of the time and it still is among some middle eastern peoples. It was not like Edinburgh's legendary 'You'll have had your tea'. That's not a myth. When I was an assistant minister in leafy Greenbank I remember visiting two spinster sisters. One said to me 'We haven't got anything to give you to eat because we don't know what you like'. Here it's me who frequently declines hospitality. Many years ago I used to visit Tom McLaren's sister in the Old Almondvale. One time she greeted me with the words, 'Here he is, nae time fur naebuddy'. In Jesus' day if someone arrived you had to get out the equivalent of your best cheeny and cater well – even if the hour was ungodly. Bread was baked fresh daily in the home because it got stale overnight in that climate. When this traveller arrived there was no food in the house. The friend got up and went next door to borrow some leftover bread. But the neighbour was already in bed. The family slept together in such small accommodation. A poor Palestinian house had one room and one window – what used to be called 'a single en''. The floor was beaten down earth. One third of the area was raised and there was a charcoal stove which burned all night if required. The family slept round it on mats. Often livestock was also brought in as well. The neighbour didn't want to disturb and wake the children. During the day, people's house doors were kept open. When the door was finally shut it was not the custom to knock unless in an emergency. But the friend in this parable kept banging on the door with shameless persistence until to get peace the neighbour finally opened up to him. Again the parable is not saying that we have to batter on God's door interminably until he finally and reluctantly answers our requests. The parable is about the contrast between reluctance to help and God's willingness to help. Grudging help is not God's way – the words 'how much more' hold the key – 'will God help those who ask him'.
These parables tell us that God is ready and willing to answer prayers. But it is clear that Jesus is teaching persistence, faith and patience. The implication is that God does or may not answer quickly. There has to be some passion in our prayers. Why would that be? Can God not answer a weak and feeble prayer too? Maybe God does not like half-hearted. We are to love God with everything we are. You know that do to anything well you have to apply yourself. So it is with God. Stick at it – is the message. Don't give up. Trust and obey.
That's easily said. Many people have given up their faith because God has apparently not answered their prayers. But we have to build a relationship with God over the longer term. If what we have asked for is not given, then that is when we need to be praying more. And we can pray for God's will and guidance and blessing to be in the situation. Christians testify that they have seen God's mercy, grace, kindness and care after a while. One thing is certain, Who else can we go to? Who else will hear our prayers? We have to stick with God. As Peter said to Jesus ' Only you have the words of eternal life'. Our prayers are not shopping trips. They are the expression of our relationship with God. That comes first and the answers come second.
Jesus' teaching on prayer in Luke 11 ends with the questions 'Which of you if your child asks for fish will give your child a snake?' 'Or if your child asks for an egg will give your child a scorpion?' Sinful human beings are well capable of responding to the requests of their children for gifts, says Jesus. 'How much more' – that phrase of contrast – 'will God give us the Holy Spirit'. Have you asked God to give you the Holy Spirit? Paul says that it is the Holy Spirit who helps us to pray properly. It seems to be a bit of a chicken and egg thing. But these are part and parcel of the way we relate to God through Jesus Christ. They are indivisible – one and the same thing.
So don't let yourself be saying 'What have I done to deserve this?' as if any misfortune was God's punishment on you. Of course we bring misfortune on ourselves by our sinfulness and wrong choices in life. But things happen to us and to members of our families which may be out with our control and for which we may not be responsible, serious illness, road accidents, sudden unemployment, estrangement in marriage, fallings out with friends. The psychology of prayer in Jesus' teaching is to confess our sins if they have contributed to misfortune and not to blame ourselves if misfortunes have come otherwise. And – in whatever circumstances – to persist in prayer. To trust in God and leave the forgiving and the worrying to him. Believe and hope. God is essentially good and loves us. That is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, our living Lord and Saviour.