“Relentless Prayer”

October 16, 2022

Luke 18:1–8

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “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?” ***

“Law & Order” is a popular TV series that starts with a familiar formula each week. Viewers hear a two-note musical beat, the screen fades from black to reveal . . . a dead body on the floor or someone discovering a corpse in a trash dumpster or some other terrible crime scene. The police show up, someone wonders aloud what in the world happened here and then the opening credits appear and the show is off. Whodunnit? How will the police solve this? Who will the suspect be?

Jesus often used a formula to draw in his listeners. “Once upon a time there was this farmer and he was throwing seed all over the creation . . .” Just hearing that much kept his listeners wondering where the story would go.

This formula is missing in today’s parable. Jesus gives away the point before he even tells the story. “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” If an episode of “Law & Order” started this way, viewers would change the channel.

To appreciate the prayer tips and excuse Jesus for divulging the point before the story, its necessary to understand what the disciples have just heard from him. He’s told them the very scary story regarding the end of the age .“I tell you on that night there will be two in one bed, one will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken and the other left.” Then his disciples ask him, “Where, Lord?” And he says to them, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.”

After taking a breath, Jesus continues with this parable about the need to pray always, to not lose heart and to illustrate his point he introduces an unjust judge. This is our clue that he is not talking about just any old kind of prayer. He is talking about prayer that asks God to come and come soon — prayer that is more than a little spooked by the idea of being snatched out of bed in the middle of the night — prayer that begs for God’s presence, justice, compassion — right now!

Perhaps you know how prayer can wear out your heart — especially when there is no sign that God has heard, much less answered your prayer. You can only knock so long at a closed door before your hands hurt and you cannot knock any longer. You can only speak into the silence so long before you wonder if anyone was ever there in the first place. When that happens — when the pain and the doubt gang up on you to the point that you start feeling lost or abandoned, then it is time to get help, because you are “losing heart.” That is the phrase Jesus uses, and he does not want it happening to anyone he loves. That is why he told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.

Jesus knew things were not going well in the prayer department for his disciples. They wanted God to make clear to everyone that Jesus was who they said he was, but instead there were warrants out for his arrest and even he was telling them that his place at the table would soon be empty. By the time Luke writes all this down twenty years later, things had gotten worse. Rome was circling over Jerusalem like a vulture over a corpse and there was no sign of the kingdom coming any time soon. Jesus had said he would be right back, only he hadn’t returned. People were losing heart, so Luke repeated the story that Jesus told about the wronged widow who would not stop pleading her case.

We are not told of the widow’s complaint, but given that she’s a widow it probably concerns her dead husband’s estate. Under Jewish law she cannot inherit it — it goes straight to her sons or her brothers-in-law — but she is allowed to live off it unless someone is trying to cheat her out of it. The fact that she is standing alone in the street is a good indicator that none of the men in her family is on her side.

With no one holding her back, Luke tells us she is quite capable of taking care of herself and the judge soon finds this out for himself. He is not a respectable judge. By his own admission, he has no fear of God or respect for anyone. Maybe he thinks that makes him a more impartial judge. He feels very well-defended. God does not get to him and people do not either, but this widow gets to him, at least in part because she throws a mean right punch.

That humorous picture is lost in our English translation but in Luke’s language (Greek) the judge uses a boxing term for the widow. “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out with continued blows under the eye, literally “so that she doesn’t give me a black eye,” i.e., “punch me in the face!” His motivation in responding to her is not equity but conceit. He does not want to walk around town with a black eye and have to tell stories about how he got it. Anyone who has seen the widow nipping at his heels like a mad dog will know where he got it. Since he cannot stand the idea, he grants her justice to save face.*

After taking another breath, Jesus says to his disciples, “Listen to what the unjust judge says.” This is the part he wants us to pay attention to. “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.” If persistence can pay off with even a lousy human judge, how much more effective will we be when we pray to a perfectly just and loving God!?

In this parable Jesus turns the tables on us and puts the focus back on our faith. It is not always comfortable to keep advocating for what we need, and of course, it would be much easier if God would respond without our constant reminders, our relentlessness. By faith we hang on to our belief in this just God whether we are awash in answered prayers or not.

What the persistent widow knew is that the most important time to pray is when your prayers seem meaningless. If you do not throw a few punches at the judge, what are you going to do? Crawl under the blankets with a box of Kleenex? Forget about God altogether? No. Day by day by day, you are going to get up, brush your teeth, wash your face, and ask for what you want. You are going to trust the process, regardless of what comes of it, because the process itself gives you life. The process keeps you engaged with what matters most to you, so you do not lose heart.

So dear readers, pray on. Prayer works. Prayer keeps our hearts chasing after God’s heart. It is how we bother God and how God bothers us back. There is nothing that works any better than that.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Kurt Jacobson

Author of “Living Hope” & “Welcoming Grace.” Lutheran preacher (retired) but still writing to inspire and aim for a world of mercy, love and respect.