Tomorrow’s Sermon: Persistent Prayer, Audacious Faith
My parents didn’t have a television when I was born. (Yes, I am that old.) They
first had one when I was about five. They must have been alert even then to the
dangers of television corrupting young minds, and limited what they allowed me to
watch. American imports came under particular suspicion, especially Batman.
They didn’t ban me from watching cartoons, although I think they frowned on
them. I did manage to watch The
Impossibles and Wacky
Races. Blue Peter passed
the parental test. That was factual and educational.
But not a lot else did. Certainly, they deemed cartoons frivolous and mind
Only in adult life have I come to see that cartoons are more
than just the frivolous. They can be humorous, but making a point. The Simpsons are perhaps the classic
example. Children can laugh at the antics of this four-fingered yellow-skinned
American family, but adults can detect a deeper message, a satire. And away
from the television or cinema screen, cartoonists – such as in newspapers –
pull a similar trick. Their exaggeration is part of an effect that is not
merely meant to make us laugh, but to get over a point. Margaret Thatcher’s
large nose, Cherie Blair’s wide mouth, or a grumpy Gordon Brown are depicted so
that a message about them may be conveyed.
So can I suggest to you that Jesus was a cartoonist? A
cartoonist with words. He painted extreme and ridiculous images with words to
startle us into thinking about God and his kingdom, and responding
appropriately. I view today’s parable, about the unjust judge, as something
like a cartoon. It depicts extreme characters in order to make us take prayer
seriously. Let’s spend some time thinking about the two key characters of the
judge and the widow. And then let’s see where they and the story lead us in
terms of our attitudes to prayer.
1. The Characters
How crazy is it for Jesus to liken his loving heavenly Father to an unjust
judge? This week one minister
said it would be
blasphemous, were not so much like something out of Monty
Python for Jesus to make such a comparison.
And so it is. The judge is a terrible character!
By fearing neither God nor people, he contravenes Old Testament criteria for
judges in Israel. He is the type that prophets like Amos would have condemned. Such
judges were known in New Testament times, too. People made a pun on their actual
title in Hebrew to call them ‘Robber Judges.’ Some were known to pervert justice
for a dish of meat.
In fact, it’s worse than not respecting people. Jesus is
saying that the judge had no sense of shame. And that is the worst condemnation
for someone in the Middle East. It is not enough to say to someone, ‘You have
done wrong!’ It is more effective to say, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself!’
If he feels no shame, then no appeal to morality will hold any sway with him. What
will? A bribe. Nothing else.
How unlike God he is, then. In contrast, God has no reason
to feel shame. God is not a robber, but a generous giver. He cannot be bribed,
and would not want to be. Yet the judge fulfils the ‘God’ rôle in the parable.
Widows and orphans were those had first tight of call upon a judge, according
to Jewish interpretation of Isaiah and other scriptures. They are the most
vulnerable, with no one to protect them, especially in a male-dominated
society. If a widow owned anything or was entitled to anything of value, you
could be sure that human vultures would attempt to take it from her. We can be sure,
indeed, that she has gone to the judge over a financial matter, since a matter
of money was one issue in which a judge could sit alone, without colleagues.
The widow need not necessarily be elderly – not in a culture
where women married at thirteen or fourteen. It is quite possible that her
husband has died young (life expectancy not being what it is in our society),
and she has been left with young children to raise. She needs all she can have,
and comes to the judge crying out not for vengeance but for justice.
She has no male representatives to go to the judge for her. Otherwise,
she would not have gone to court – a man would have gone in her stead. She would
have stayed at home. She also has neither the means nor the inclination to bribe
the judge. What hope has she? She arrives; perhaps there are others who want
their cases heard, too. Some of the more sophisticated and wealthy petitioners
may be having quiet words with officials, paying ‘fees’ – a euphemism for
bribes – and being heard first.
What can she do? She can do what men fear of women: she can
nag. She can also take advantage of the fact that a man who shouted at a judge
for justice might fear for his life, but a woman’s life would be respected and
honoured. For all her disadvantages, she has a certain safety in going to
court, regardless of her chances of success. So she goes – and rightly milks
the advantage she has. What does she have to lose? She doesn’t own anything
anyway. She wears the judge out with her persistent cries for justice. Even a
man who doesn’t have any sense of personal honour, with whom the moral appeal
won’t work, can be worn down.
Last week, American media
reported the story of a woman who passed out with shock at her husband’s
funeral. She was rushed to hospital, where her jewellery was removed for
safekeeping by her son. He put it in a rubber glove, but then mislaid it. The hospital
said it would have been collected with the rubbish and sent to a landfill site.
The family called the waste management company that had
taken the ‘trash’ from the hospital. They had not disposed of that particular
consignment yet. They agreed to deposit it at their site, separate from other
rubbish. The family and a hospital official – who refused pay for this – began to
search for the jewellery, while dressed in protective plastic clothing, and
enduring a hot day.
After seven hours, the family members were exhausted, and
were ready to quit. But the hospital official said,
“I prayed to God and pulled one more bag — because we were
about exhausted — and our prayers were answered. There it was.”
The official said it illustrated the principle by which he
“Don’t give up five minutes before the miracle.”
How often do we give up 5 minutes before God answers our
Time and time again I read of healing that doesn’t come from the first time
that prayer and laying upon of hands is offered. So often it comes after much
prayer, and many healing sessions. How often do we pray for someone or
something, then give up on God? How often do we feel that our prayers are fruitless?
How often do we give up rather than persist in prayer?
There’s a person in my life for whom I pray and get tempted to think God has
not heard my prayers. This person’s situation is getting worse rather than
better. But I persist. I know that God hears my prayers and is responding to
them. Over the course of time my prayers are being honed into more focused and
insightful supplications. I seek a deeper understanding of how God’s mercy and
grace work in those praying and those being prayed for. And when doubt enters,
I hearken back to the words of the [hospital official] … and endeavour not to
give up 5 minutes before the miracle.
One person who read the story offered this response:
This reminds me of a wood festival that I went to this
summer. I paid £5 for the privilege of climbing a 70 foot pole lumberjack style
– wearing spiked boots and using a strap.
It was surprisingly exhausting. I stopped at what I thought was about 3/4 of
the way up, too tired to keep going. When I looked up to see how much farther I
still had to drag myself I discovered all I needed to do to touch the top was
reach up a bit with my hand.
When you feel too tired to keep going, look up. You might be a lot closer to
your destination than you think.
Right at the outset, Luke lays out the reason for Jesus
telling his disciples this parable:
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray
always and not to lose heart. (Verse 1)
Don’t lose heart, says Jesus. The widow didn’t. Don’t you,
either. You’re not coming to an unjust judge, but to a loving Father. Don’t let
hope slip away. God the Father is the God of hope. Keep going.
Where are you losing hope? Where are you being tempted to
give up? Jesus invites us to remember – along with that hospital official –
that we might only be five minutes away from a miracle.
Persistent Prayer Is
A Sign Of Faith
Jesus doesn’t just want gently to encourage us to be persistent. He says something
stronger than that. He wants us to do so as a sign of genuine faith:
‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant
justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in
helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when
the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’ (Verses 6-8)
God will help his people. He will be patient with us,
because he is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, as the Psalmist
says. He knows we are weak and sinful, but that will not change his loving and
merciful desire to help us. And if we know God is like that, then we couple
persistent prayer with audacious faith. Because God is good, we persistently and
daringly ask him for good things.
American Methodist I’ve read this week had collected a series of
secular quotes on this theme of audacity. They might illuminate the point I
am trying to make:
The fifteenth century priest Erasmus said, ‘Fortune favours
An unknown source said, ‘Audacity has made kings.’
Syrus, a first century BC Roman author, said, ‘Audacity augments courage;
Disraeli said, ‘Success is the child of audacity.’
And finally, von
Goethe said, ‘In every artist there is a touch of audacity without which no
talent is conceivable.’
Jesus wants us to be bold as well as persistent in prayer. In
the Lord’s Prayer he has us praying for the kingdom of God to come, paralleled
with the request for God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven. That’s big! This
is not, ‘Lord, may I have a Mars Bar’ prayer. This is big stuff.
But we can learn from children. Because we are God’s children,
we are encouraged, if not urged to pray, just as a parent would think there
were something strange about their child if it did not bring requests. In my
four and a half years’ experience as a parent, I find that when Rebekah wants
something, one thing I cannot do is pretend she has not asked for it! She will
repeat it, and repeat it. Moreover, the volume of her voice will probably
Keep going! Be bold! The God and Father of our Lord Jesus
Christ is no unjust judge. He will hear us much more willingly than the unjust
judge entertained the widow. Do not lose hope. Keep praying. And keep praying
for Big Things.
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