GRACE TO YOU AND PEACE FROM GOD OUR FATHER AND THE LORD AND SAVIOR JESUS CHRIST, AMEN.
C.S. Lewis recalled a time when he was going to London for a meeting and thought he should get his hair cut. Then the meeting was canceled and he decided to put off getting the haircut too. “Then there began the most unaccountable little nagging in my mind’, he noted, ‘almost like a voice saying, ‘Get it cut all the same; go and get it cut’.
In the end I could stand it no longer. I went. Now my barber was a fellow Christian. The moment I opened his shop door he said, ‘Oh, I was praying that you might come today’. And in fact if I had come a day or so later, I should have been no use to him.” Lewis wondered later if it had been coincidence or telepathy. He believed it was the power of prayer.
This week on the Sports page of the newspaper, we read the story of Kerry Herring, a young man from Mapleton who dropped out of school, did drugs and alcohol and ended up homeless under the Washington-Jefferson Street Bridge. His story didn’t end there but God’s Spirit working in this young man and in the lives of a couple who took him in as their son. Schaeffer’s column acknowledged it was God’s prompting and the power of prayer that turned his life around. Kerry no longer does drugs or drinks and is talking of going to college.
One of you told our Bible class of a prompting to telephone someone you had never phoned before and ended up talking to a spouse instead—two hours of talk on the phone because it was a time of crisis. You laughed that it was that person’s angel talking to your angel to make that call. When we pray for help, God may answer that through another person. Even when we do not know how to pray as we ought, God’s Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words—that is St. Paul writing to the Romans.
Our Gospel this morning talks about the power of prayer. One may assume that the setting of the text was Jesus and his disciples were discussing prayer. Now I am sure you have wondered too—does prayer change the mind of God? Does prayer change the mind of the prayer? Does it do any good? I have known good Christians who say they rarely pray. Yet there may be times when we do pray with importunity—in the face of danger, illness, war, violence , concern for our children or parents. I am sure that people prayed fervently in the World Trade Towers , they pray when they are under fire in Iraq , 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. Perhaps he was on the take, perhaps 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 whom the law commanded him to protect. Jesus said he had no respect for anyone.
In Luke’s Gospel, there is a special concern for the poor and lowly, the widow and orphan. Besides the judge in this story, the text puts a widow who sought justice against an opponent. If the judge were corrupt, then we find the widow is a person without resources to bribe the official. As a commentator has noted, “In ancient Palestinian society the widow was helpless and could exert no real influence on those in power, having lost the support of the man to whom she was married.” Without a father or brother or husband or son, she was 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 “squeaky wheels” and how their persistence gets them what they want. The widow was certainly importunate. 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.” I don’t know if these words are literal or figurative. She may not intend to sock 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 the Lord God is not like that—God knows out needs even before we ask God’s help. We do not need to get the Lord God’s attention. God is not sleeping or on a trip or too busy to help us. We have a loving heavenly Father who outdoes any earthly parent in taking care of us and meeting our needs. Last year in Japan we visited Shinto shrines—Shinto worship is really quite easy. Clap twice, bow to the idol and then clap twice more. Why clap loudly? To get the god’s attention. Well, our God is not like that, a figure made of stone or so busy carrying on with the others gods and goddesses atop Mt. Olympus or cavorting with pretty girls here below. Our God promises to hear us and help us and save us.
Yet Jesus commends the widow’s persistence. He is using the contrast between an unjust judge and a righteous God—how much more will our loving God hear us and give us what we need. God does not forsake or abandon God’s children: “Will God grant justice to us who cry to him day and night? Will God delay long in helping them? I tell you, God will quickly grant justice to them.”
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Jesus closes his parable with a strange sentence: “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” P.T. Forsyth was England ‘s greatest preacher in the nineteenth century and an authority on the power of prayer. Forsyth notes that the worst sin is prayerlessness. “Overt sin,” he writes, “crime or the glaring inconsistencies which often surprise us in Christian people are the effect of this or its punishment. We are left by God for lack of seeking God.” And then he gives this advice on how to pray:
“Go into your chamber, shut the door and cultivate the habit of praying. Pay no attention to literary form… Read a passage of Scripture and then sit down and turn it into a prayer. Learn to be particular, specific, and detailed in your prayer… Let prayer be concrete, actual, a direct product of life’s experiences.”
Martin Luther, the story goes, once lifted a piece of meat from his table 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. Luther said then his heart and soul would look only to Christ.
God wants us to pray with persistence and intensity. God wants us to communicate with Him as with our best friend. Forsyth is right—we do not need to use fancy phrases and convoluted prayer language. You don’t talk to your best friend that way; you don’t need to talk to God that way. Luther is right too—we should pray to our God as a dog barks and jumps and wags the tail before the master. We should approach our Lord as a child seeing his mother or hearing the voice of her father. And we should bring our needs to God, to pray and not lose heart.
Does our prayer change the mind of God or God’s will? We have Bible passages such as Jacob wrestling with the angel and it was his physical endurance which entailed his blessing. Jacob was disfigured—his hip put out of joint—but he was blessed with a new name. Jacob had contended with God and with humans and prevailed. His name would be Israel because he wrestled with God. The widow got what she wanted—it was her persistence, her importunity, 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. Don’t pray, “Thy will be done,” until after you have prayed, “Give us this day our daily bread, forgive us our trespasses, deliver us from evil.” It may be that our prayers, if they accord with God’s good and gracious will, do change God’s action: “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 widow was changed as she kept on coming to the judge for justice. Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, wrote in his journals,
“One kind of person thinks and imagines that when he prays, the important thing— the thing he must concentrate upon is that God should hear what he is praying for. And yet in the true, eternal sense it is just the reverse. The true relationship in prayer is not when God hears what is prayed for, but when the person praying continues to pray until he is the one who hears, who knows, what God wills.”
As we pray, we bring God our specific, actual, everyday needs. God becomes more real to us, nearer to us; God’s will for us becomes clearer. Don’t give up on God. Don’t lose heart but keep praying. Be a “squeaky wheel.” Talk to God as your best friend who knows you even better than you know yourself. God will give you what you need. Amen.
Copyright 2007, James D. Kegel. Used by permission.