Our gospel story is a bit confusing. Is Jesus encouraging us to continually pester God in prayer the way the widow pesters the judge? After all, Jesus says we “need to pray always and not lose heart.” So are we supposed to wear God out until God relents and answers our prayers in exactly the way we envision? If we followed that line of reasoning we would have to conclude that God answers our prayers just to get us to shut up and stop being so bothersome. That is what happens with the judge the widow just keeps bugging the judge until he gives in. Although she is correctly seeking justice, the judge doesn’t care about that. He just wants the widow to go away.
That is not God’s modus operandi. God is not like the unjust judge, God is a just and loving God. We want to believe that God does not delay in granting justice to those who are righteous, but sometimes that requires a suspension of our understanding of time. The truth is that our experiences in life do not always bear out our faith that God will dispense justice quickly. Sometimes our most fervent prayers, whether they be for healing, for justice, or for peace seem to go unanswered. We simply cannot understand why God would turn away from urgent pleas for things that are not self-centered or ill-advised, but that would bring healing, justice and peace to a hurting world.
As commentator Debie Thomas suggests in the September 28, 2016 issue of The Christian Centurymagazine, perhaps the focus on the parable is not meant to be on the judge, nor are we supposed to compare the judge to God. Perhaps Jesus intended to put the focus on us. Jesus introduces the parable as being about “their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” He then proceeds to paint a vivid picture of a widow, among the most vulnerable people in Israel, who does not only refuse to lose heart, but who is unrelenting in her persistence. She is a person with purpose and precise knowledge. She has clearly identified her need, she knows how urgent it is and she knows exactly where to go and whom to ask to get that need met. Every day she gets up, prepares herself and heads over to the place where she knows the judge can be found. She then persists in demanding his attention until he finally listens to her. This ritual of seeking justice defines who she is for that period in her life. She persists in her belief that ultimately justice will be served, even when the odds seem totally stacked against her.
In other words, she never loses heart. Surely we have all had moments of despair when we have lost heart. We have trouble finding our sense of purpose and direction, we feel spiritually confused or even hopeless, and no matter what path we choose to follow, we seem to remain lost. Those are also those times when we feel as though we have no energy to pray. Sometimes we just give up; even though those are the times when we need to be the most faithful and persistent in prayer.
Hopefully we have all also experienced those times when we are able to focus and really persist in prayer. When we have a full heart and good motives and we engage in conversation with God over a long period of time – because prayer is conversation with God – something good happens to us. We have a better sense of who we are, whose we are, and what really matters in life. We become stronger and more mature in our prayer life and in our relationship to God and others. Very often we find that positive things happen to us and to those we care about even if our prayers do not seem to have been answered in exactly the way we envisioned. We become wiser in our understanding and feel more at peace. God is answering our prayers.
Ultimately prayer is a mystery, another one of those things about God and faith that we cannot fully explain. As author Erick Erickson explains in his beautiful essay “If We Die Before You Wake” which he wrote to his children during this past year when his health and that of his wife became seriously compromised, he knows that faith in God is real, because no human beings would make up a belief system that depends so much on accepting mystery. We just don’t understand why our prayers for healing, justice and peace seem to be met by God’s silence. But Jesus assures us that ultimately justice will be served. Then, from the very center of this troubling mystery, Jesus asks if he will find faith on this earth when he returns again.
The parable explains the kind of faith Jesus hopes to find when he returns. The faith of the widow – a faith that is persistent, that does not lose heart, because God is persistent and always watches over us, even when we feel discouraged. For the next few weeks we will be talking about stewardship. When we hear that word – stewardship – another word – money- usually comes to mind. Make no mistake; money is important because without it our ministry cannot survive. Jesus understood the importance of money; he talked about it more than any other topic. But money in itself is not at the heart of stewardship. Good stewardship – the management of things entrusted to our care – is found first in hearts that are strong, with good motivations and purpose. Prayer is another component of stewardship – our prayers for healing, justice and peace not just for ourselves and our loved ones but for all of God’s creation.
So we are asking you not just to commit to giving money – our treasure, in stewardship terms – but also to give of ourselves, our time and our talent to the church and other worthy causes, and also to prayer. Perhaps we can begin this stewardship campaign by actively pledging to be more persistent in our prayer life. Not just to say a quick prayer before we fall asleep but during our daily life. We can pledge to begin the day in prayer, and to have those conversations with God continue through our day. Persisting in prayer in this way will help us to be more patient, to truly think about what we are praying for, and to hold fast to our trust in the possibility of healing, justice and peace. Our theme for this stewardship program is “Living Each Day as a Steward!” We can begin to increase our prayer life together today, and take that first step towards being better stewards. Amen.