Luke 18: 1-8
At the end of the southbound I-95 exit ramp in Port Orange, there is a man holding a cardboard sign, asking for help. He stands under a city-posted sign that says: “Please do not help panhandlers.” Yet since July, in most daylight hours, he is there. I have to hand it to him: he is persistent. But what motivates his persistence? Is it hope, hope that one day soon someone will help him? Or is it results—that—in spite of the sign, people are still helping him enough to make it worth his time to beg, out in the sun, or out in the rain?
Over in Jerusalem, one of the most visited places is often called the “Wailing Wall.” It is, in fact, the remaining part of the Western Wall of the Temple of God. I don’t know if the same people who were there in July praying were also there when we visited a few years earlier. Their backs are always toward people who are watching; and it seems rude to get close to the wall and try to see their faces. But I suspect some have been coming to the wall to pray to God for a very long time; perhaps years. I have to hand it to them: they are persistent. But what motivates their persistence? Is it hope, hope that one day God will help them? Or is it results, that is, that God has already answered earlier prayers and they have come back to ask for more?
In Luke 18, we just read about Jesus telling a parable describing why people “need to pray, and to not lose heart.” He said that “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected people.” Why did he say that? Because he’s reminding us that this is a parable: an exaggerated story that is not perfectly grounded in reality. And because he wants no one to think this judge is God; he is not! This was a judge who made arbitrary decisions, not often based on justice or love, or a sense of write or wrong. He was the kind of judge we hope not to face in court. Knowing that, Jesus said a widow kept coming to the judge with a request. A widow; by saying that, he was not pulling on our compassion. He was telling us this woman had absolutely no leverage over this judge: she had no money of her own, no husband who could make trouble for the judge, and nowhere else to turn. She had nothing to lose. But, she was persistent. What motivated her persistence? Was it hope, hope that one day the judge would give in and give her a favorable decision? Or was it results, that perhaps the judge had given a favorable ruling before, and after wearing the judge down, was she asking for another good ruling? We don’t know. But in Jesus’ story, limited as it is, the judge says to himself, “I have no fear of God, and no respect for anyone else. But because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice so she will not wear me out with her continual requests.” Jesus then explains, and I’m paraphrasing: If an unjust judge—one who does not fear God or others—grants the request of a powerless widow, how much more will your loving Father want to grant the requests of his loving children?
That’s the point of Jesus’ story. We are to be persistent in prayer, because others get requests granted when they have much less going for them than we do. We are loved children of a loving God. We are reminded of how persistently Jesus prayed. A number of times, the disciples looked for Jesus when he had slipped away to pray. Then as Jesus approached Jerusalem, he wept and prayed again. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he prayed again; he prayed with profound passion: that the plan his Father had for him might be set aside. Did you hear that? Jesus prayed to his Father that the plan that had already been revealed to Jesus might be changed and set aside. But even in that situation:
Jesus believed in and prayed to God his Father; he didn’t say: “I don’t believe in you!”
Jesus never gave an indication that his Father was heartless or uncaring.
Jesus never said, “Since you aren’t answering my prayers, I will stop praying to you!”
In spite of the fact that Jesus, the Father’s beloved Son, was about to die under the watchful eye of his Father, he went along with the plan. Even on the cross, he constantly prayed to his Father, rather than going it alone.
Today we are not in our parable world. We are in the 21st century in the real world. In this real world, where some say they are spiritual and not religious; where some are atheists, or Jews, or Muslims, or Buddhists or other groups, we have a choice to make as Christians:
Do we pray to God, and keep praying to God, even when we don’t hear an answer? Or
Do we stop praying to God after a time or two, or a month, or a year, deciding that God is nowhere near, or deaf, or heartless or dead?
This parable urges us to keep praying. When Jesus did not give up, God engaged his plan to save the world! What a blessing, when the Father communicating with the Son, said in essence, “trust me.”
There are many examples of so-called “unanswered prayer,” and also of “answered prayer.” In his book, Daring Prayer, author and professor David Willis gave two examples he had heard from others. Here’s one:
I was driving down the freeway with my daughter in the front seat with me, when I saw a car suddenly swerve over the divider and head straight for us. Instinctively I prayed that we be spared. Though we were hit on the side and overturned, neither of us was even seriously injured. You can say what you want, but I know prayer works.
Here’s another, nor connected with the first story. This was spoken to a pastor:
I want to thank you for your visits while [my daughter] was in the hospital. Your prayers especially meant a lot to both of us, but, frankly, more to her than me. I guess at the time I sort of resented [the prayers]: dishonest, raised false hopes. And I was mad as h* when she died after all we’d been through and tried. I still can’t believe how a “loving God” can tolerate such pain, such d*** stupid suffering. Well, let’s not go into that again. The funny thing is that I’m now able to articulate my anger with God. Not really praying, I suppose, but more like arguing. Right or wrong, that’s the way it is.
[John Knox Press, 1977, p. 24]
It is said that even those long prayers at the Wailing Wall are from people who don’t just gently pray to God. They rail; they cry out; they curse; and they move the tops of their bodies, back and forth, in anguish or rage. Jesus wept too and cried out to his Father, but never said, “I don’t believe in you!” “Or I’m done!” All of those things God can take and can understand. But to cut out prayer because you conclude there is no God, well, then you’ll feel adrift on the sea of chaos. Here’s a final story from a chaplain. Hold on; this is a tough one.
Lindsay (name changed) was a patient in a hospital expecting her fifth child. She was Roman Catholic. Her four other children ranged from age 3-12. She developed an internal tear, and her life was at risk. Physicians encouraged her to terminate the pregnancy. Her priest strongly declined that as an option. Lindsay was stuck with how to proceed and argued with God about it. A week went by and the family decided to concur with the priest to not terminate her pregnancy. She asked the chaplain to plan to baptize her baby in her womb so the child would go to heaven if the baby died. Another week went by. Lindsey was feeling her own mortality. She was anxious and said so in prayers to God. She requested that the chaplain pray with her, with her rosary, and to bring her communion. In so doing, she believed she was taking Christ into her to strengthen her body and heart. After another week, the baby was in serious trouble. Doctors believes the baby would not live another week. Lindsey was then in a spiritual crisis with God. Her doubt was escalating, fearing now for both her baby’s life and her own. She prayed and read Scripture with the chaplain. By the next week, she had been away from her family several weeks and it was getting close to Christmas. Her own parents didn’t support her decision to try to keep her pregnancy at that point. Lindsay was moved to a new room where, providentially, the earlier patient left a small Christmas tree in the window. There was an ornament on the tree that said “hope.” Lindsay takes this as a sign from God. She had learned the child she was carrying was a girl, so she decided to name the baby “Hope.” Conversations with Lindsay and prayers with God became all about what it meant to hold onto hope and hold onto Hope. Then Lindsay started having so much pain that she could barely move. With every movement from baby Hope, Lindsay felt grief instead of joy. Lindsay continued to be in spiritual crisis – why would God give her this baby that could potentially cause her to die? Finally, the baby was delivered by C-section; both Mom and daughter needed blood transfusions. Soon the chaplain witnessed Lindsay’s theology (God will be faithful) and experience (Will God be faithful?) bumping up against each other. Lindsay had to walk the entirety of her journey largely independent of her family. Much like a soldier out at war, Lindsay’s story was known and experienced by the chaplain and a few others. Sadly, the story ended in the death of Hope, that is, the child. Her brain developed a bleed, a very common side effect of babies born so early. Lindsay, in her sadness, was discharged back home to her husband and four young children, who had been apart from their mama for a month. She had even been apart from them over Christmas-the time the world celebrates the birth of the Christ child, who brought hope (small h) into a suffering world. The chaplain’s concluding observation was this: I can say for sure that Hope (the daughter) died, but I’m not sure that hope had died.
When people come to the end of their rope; or wear out their prayer book or their rosary beads; when men or women visit the Wailing Wall for the hundredth time, do they, in their pain, cut their losses and turn away from God? Or are they persistent? Are you persistent? Only you can finish the story of your prayer life with God.
Jeffrey A. Sumner October 20, 2019
(Hear now this Jewish confessional prayer to God- Avinu Malkenu)