One of the criticisms that I have heard lately is about the frequent offer of “thoughts and prayers” when tragedy strikes. Whether it is a personal health crisis, a natural disaster or a violent terrorist attack, people send out by email and social media messages of “thoughts and prayers.” This really bothers some people. Now I can understand that if we refuse to help in practical ways and limit our concern to only “thoughts and prayers.” But that is not what the Bible teaches nor is it the practice of most Christians that I have seen.
I could go on a complete tangent of why it is important to put action to our prayers but I want to go somewhere else instead. There is an underlying assumption to this criticism. These critics are going with the belief that praying will ultimately not do anything other than relieve us of some of the guilt that we feel for other people’s suffering. My non-Christian friends who do not pray send out messages offering “positive energy.” I don’t even know what positive energy is. Does that mean you are going to pay my electric bill? As far as I’m concerned, positive energy will not help anyone. The same assumption is made by many about prayer.
I need to confess that this is what I believed for a long time, even during my younger years growing up in church. I prayed, but I prayed as part of the liturgy. There is nothing wrong with liturgy, but I saw prayer simply as a religious duty. People prayed just as they sang hymns or read Bible passages. It was just one of those things that religious people did. It never entered my mind that God would hear those prayers, much less answer them. Until he did.
No matter where you are at in your spiritual journey, I suspect that prayer is some part of your experience. But like me, there are varying levels of confidence in those prayers. We may find that Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow will bring some encouragement.
In this passage, Jesus is teaching on prayer, as he often did. Jesus often prayed to his Father and he taught his disciples how to pray as well. He knew this was vital, not just for the start of the Christian church but for every individual disciples. Prayer is integral to a life of faith.
There are many ways that Jesus could have taught about prayer. He could have given a theological lecture on the subject and that would be fine. But what suited his audience more was the telling of a story, specifically a parable.
The story that Jesus tells was one that people did not need either much theological background nor a vivid imagination. There are only two characters and they would have been very familiar.
The first character was a widow. I can’t imagine that there has ever been a time when it has been easy to be a widow. The losing of spouse is one of the hardest things. But being a widow was much more challenging in the ancient world. There were no social services or government help or pensions to help widows out. Society was built around the system of a male-dominated economy. The man was the primary financial provider, even if the wife did other jobs to to subsidize the main income. It would be very difficult for a widow to provide for herself, even more challenging if she had children. The best case scenario was that a widow could remarry. But that was not always possible. The Bible often uses the widow as a symbol for all those who are marginalized and vulnerable. If anyone was going to be taken advantage of, it was the widow. Justice didn’t come easy to the widow.
The second character is the judge. We shouldn’t think of the modern justice system where there are checks and balances to try and keep corruption out. It was very easy for judges to take advantage of the vulnerable and to line their pockets with bribes. There was no regulatory body to prevent abuses. Many of the people that Jesus was talking to would have experienced corrupt officials. If you didn’t have the money to make the bribe, you lost the case. This meant the rich got aways with plenty and the poor with little.
Bringing the widow and the unjust judge together was the perfect storm. You have one character with no power and the other with all the power. How could this ever end well?
It does end well, but not for the reason why would expect. The judge grants the widow justice, not because he had a change of heart or was moved to compassion. The judge gave the widow what she needed because she practically nagged him to death. He would have done anything to get her off his back. And this is how Jesus teaches us to pray!
What We learn About Prayer
I want to take a look at this story and to try and pull out some practical tips to aid us in our prayer life. Here are five things about prayer that we learn here.
This story works not because God is like the unjust judge but because he is unlike him. Jesus is not telling us that as the unjust judge helped the widow, so will the unjust God help us. We are meant to compare and contrast the judge and God. Jesus uses the example of a bad person to illustrate the confidence that we can have in a good God. God is good and that is our starting place when it comes to prayer.
The second thing we learn is that persistence pays off. This may be the clearest lesson in the parable. There are other examples found in the Gospels. A Syro-Phoenician woman once came to Jesus asking that her child would be healed. Jesus seems to say no but when she persists, Jesus heals her child. The woman in the parable doesn’t give up when the judge tries to ignore her. She keeps at him and at him until he gives her justice. Persistence is just as important for prayer. When our son Logan went into a group home, we hoped that he would be able to be in the same home as our daughter Abby. A bed opened up at Abby’s home and it seemed to be the perfect situation. We prayed and prayed that they would be together. But it seemed like our prayers were hitting a wall as the people who make those decisions refused let Logan move in to Abby’s home. But we kept praying. Eventually a new home opened up that both Logan and Abby were able to move in together. It ended up that this new home was good not just for Logan but resulted in a huge improvement for Abby. I’m so glad we kept praying.
When we look carefully at this parable, we see that the promise here is not that we will get what ever we pray for. God is not a Santa Claus that we can just hand our wish list to. The promise is for justice. We need to keep that clear. As a parent, would never give my children everything they asked for. That would be no good for anyone. But they can trust that they will get what they need. We need to trust God that he will give us justice, whatever that might look like.
We are told that God responds quickly. What does that mean? Many of us have had the experience of waiting months, if not years, for God to answer our prayer. Can we really take this promise seriously? Again, we are meant to see this in contrast to the unjust judge. The unjust judge put it off and put it off, only reluctantly providing justice. God is not the type of God who puts off justice like an unpleasant chore but rather he begins to work right away. That does not mean that the final result will appear right away. But it does mean that the process is started. Am I just making this up? Notice how it ends. Jesus talks about the coming of the Son of Man, meaning his second coming. People have been praying for that for centuries. It hasn’t happened yet but the process has begun and we are moving toward that event.
When Jesus talks about the coming of the Son of Man, he asks if he will find faith on earth. This entire practice of persistent prayer is an exercise in growing faith. I can do a pushup. But having mastered the ability to do a pushup does not mean that I can stop doing pushups. If I want to get strong I need a regular routine of pushups. Getting strong spiritually is more than having some insight on prayer. It requires a regular routine of persistent prayer, continually seeking God for justice for ourselves and for our community.
I need to be completely honest with you. There is so much about prayer that I don’t understand. It is a complex topic that even if we dedicated our entire life to, we would only scratch the surface. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work. I don’t really understand how my body is able to breathe in air, take out the oxygen and put it into my blood while breathing out the carbon dioxide. But I’m not going to stop breathing while I wait to get all the answers. Breathing works.
This parable is a powerful reminder of what prayer looks like on the front lines. Most of the time we have no idea what God is doing or what his timeline looks like. All we can do is be like the widow and pray and pray and pray. We pray and we don’t give up. Be persistent in your prayer and let God figure out the details.