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Prayer Should Be a Priority
based on Luke 18:1-8
I doubt if there's a parent among us who, at one time or another, has not given into the whiny demands of our child, especially if those demands are made in public. And, if you've never given in to your child's whiny demands, I know you have, or someday will, give in to your grandchild's whiny demands! An entire book has been written about children who whine in public places. It's called The Berenstain Bears Get the Gimmees. Very often, Christians see prayer as a "gimmee." Dear God, please gimmee this. Dear God, I want that. Even if we are praying for someone else seemingly a more noble deed than praying for ourselves we still often ask for "gimmees." "Please heal Andy's broken leg." (What we mean is heal it instantly, don't make Andy go through the pain of an operation, or the discomfort of a cast.) "Please give Paul and Donna that new house they want." On first reading, this parable seems to be about "gimmees." The widow in the parable keeps pestering the judge until she gets what she wants. If this story were told from the judge's perspective, however, we might not be as sympathetic toward the widow. There is another word for this woman, one I won't use here, but one we frequently hear around my school. It is not complimentary. From the judge's perspective, she never left the 'poor' man alone! She essentially stalked him until he gave her what she wanted. The reality of life is that she would have landed in jail because of her actions. The scripture doesn't even say what her petitions were about, or whether or not they were 'legitimate.' And, who decides legitimacy? Isn't that why there are appeals courts? One judge may decide one way, and another completely opposite. So what is it about this widow that gives her the right to keep pestering the judge? First, the very fact that she was a widow appearing before a judge gives her specific rights. Kenneth Bailey, in Through Peasant Eyes, points out: In traditional society in the Middle East women are generally powerless in our man's world. But at the same time they are respected and honored. Men can be mistreated in public, but not women. Women can scream at a public figure and nothing will happen to them. . . . men could not say the same things and stay alive. Ordinarily women in the Middle East do not go to court. The Middle East was and is a man's world and women are not expected to participate with men in the pushing, shouting world [of Middle Eastern courts]. . . . her presence [at the court means] that she is entirely alone with no men in an extended family to speak for her. . . . It is her status as a widow with no husband or father, sons, brothers, uncles, to support her that gives this woman the right to appear before the judge. In the world of the Middle East, this woman was truly "the least of these." And so it is, she goes, alone, before the judge and demands justice. The judge, according to Bailey, was not only corrupt, but also out of step with his own culture. The problem with this judge is not a failure to "respect" other people in the sense of respecting someone of learning or high position. Rather it is a case of his inability to sense the evil of his actions in the presence of one who should make him ashamed. In this case he is hurting a destitute widow. He should feel shame. But the whole world can cry "Shame!" and it will make no impression on him. He does not feel shame . . . Eventually, this representative of moral degradation decides to give the widow what she has been asking for. She has called him on the phone. She has been at his doorstep, sat in his court room daily. She has followed him to restaurants and to the grocery store. She has continually asked him for justice. Finally, he decides to grant her request but not because it is the right thing to do. Rather, the judge gives the woman what she wants so she will stop pestering him.
Jesus uses this strange parable to teach his disciples that they should never stop praying, and that when they pray, they should never give up hope. Jesus says that, if this rotten, no-good, hairball excuse for a judge will give a poor, destitute widow justice just to get her off his back how much more will God, who loves us, and cares about us, grant us justice? Note that the scripture does not say that God will give us what we want. The scripture says God will grant us justice. There is a big difference. The biblical concept of justice is built on the conviction that God treats people fairly. God's judgements about our life are never wrong. For now, it may be that the wicked drug lords, con men, CEO's of large software manufacturers have all the advantages, while the poor suffer. In the end, this will not be the case, there will be justice. A Kentucky pastor reminds us that parents know their children are different. A harsh response to a stubborn child might be necessary while the same response to a sensitive child would be cruel and unjust. Or consider being given a speeding ticket when others pass by going just as fast. You would be right to cry, "Hey, it's not FAIR!" But the cop would also be right to respond, "It may not be fair, but it is JUST!" If you break the law it is just to pay the penalty even if others get off. It's JUST, not fair.
It is justice, not our wants and our needs, not our list of "gimmees," that Jesus is talking about in this parable. And, it is not individual justice, or individual prayer, about which Jesus is talking. This parable is a message to the future church about its life of prayer. It is not advice to individuals about spiritually keeping on keeping on. What would it mean for us to rediscover prayer as the Church's expression of faith in the ultimate goodness of God, rather than a wish list for people who feel entitled to have their 'needs' met? Ultimately, how we pray, whether we pray, is a matter of faith. Very often, we pray in hope hoping God will hear, hoping God will care, hoping God will answer our prayer the way we want God to answer. Too often, we fail to pray in faith. Too often we fail to pray with our attention on God, not on ourselves and our wants or needs. Too often we go to God expecting God to be our heavenly errand boy, instead of seeking God's will for creation. That is why Jesus told the disciples to "pray always," for through prayer that focuses on God, and only through prayer that focuses on God, are we able to understand God's will. I know the question in your mind is: "Rev Jan, do you think I'm crazy? How on earth do you expect me to pray always? I have a job, a house, children, a spouse. There's laundry to be done, the lawn to be mowed, homework to be done. There is no way I can pray while I'm doing all those things, especially if you want me to understand God's will. It can't be done." Well, I'm here to tell you, it can be done. It's a matter of priorities. It's a matter of who and what you put first in your life. It's a matter of faith. It's a matter of being constantly, continually, consistently aware of God's presence in your life. For when you are aware of God's constant, continual, consistent presence in your life, you won't be able to do anything other than pray. Just think about it. We have a God who not only came to earth in the form of Jesus Christ, but who is still present with us today in the person of the Holy Spirit. We have a God who not only loves us enough to listen to our prayers, but who cares enough to correct us when our prayers are inappropriate. Prayer is seeking to know God, and to know God's will. Prayer is not about bringing God's will in line with ours, it is about bringing our will in line with God's. That is the whole premise behind the phrase in the Lord's prayer, "Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." Or as Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, "IF it be possible let this cup pass me by. But not my will, by thy will be done." We need to pray always, consistently, with discipline, to enable our will to be conformed to God's. As people of God, we should constantly be aware of God's presence in our lives. We should be in constant communication with the God of continuing creation. For it is only through prayer that we are able to understand God's justice.
A friend shared this poem: "If what you pray for is not right and you're not right and the time is not right, God answers your prayer by saying, NO. If what you pray for is right and the time is right, but you're not right, God answers your prayer by saying GROW. If what you pray for is right and you're right, but the time is not right, God answers your prayer by saying SLOW. If what you pray for is right and the time is right and you're right, God answers your prayer by saying GO. Does God answer prayer? In God's perfect timing, in God's perfect way, and when God sees you are ready!" How do you pray to God, with a grateful heart, or with a greedy heart? Has it occurred to you lately to thank God for the sunrise? For paved roads, for the autumn leaves, for church pot lucks, for teenagers, for dirty diapers, for music? When do you talk with God? If you limit your conversations to bedtime prayers, then you are missing out on a whole wonderful world of sharing your life with God, of letting God come into your life, of having God fill your life. For, when you allow God into your life, when you put God first in your life, you will never, ever, be the same again Praise God! Amen.
Frank Schaefer, for JavaCasa Resources and the Desperate Preacher's Site, 1999