The Unjust Judge by Swiss artist Eugene Brunand (1850-1921)
Luke 18:1-8 — Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’ For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”
The parable raises a few questions. Is this a story about God? Must we beat upon God’s door, harassing God day and night, until He finally gives us what we want? Is God like that mean and unjust judge? Or is this a parable about us, informing us that we are commanded to go on and on in our prayers, just like that poor widow went on and on in her persistent appeals to that uncaring judge. Or should we perhaps not read too much into the details of the story, and simply hear Jesus’ encouragement and command to “pray always and not give up,” or, “lose heart” as in some translations.
It does seem clear that the parable is primarily about prayer. Verse one says that Jesus told them a parable to show them that they should ‘pray and not give up.’ But it is not only about prayer, according to that verse, but also about persistence in prayer. In prayer, along with all other aspects of the religious life,– that is to say, in our relationship to God– we are to keep at it and not lose heart. We should not give up. This parable then, is more a parable about the nature of our faithful response to God, than it is a parable about the nature of God.
The most striking feature of the woman in the parable is her persistence. Persistence is a virtue not often promoted in Lutheran sermons. We Lutherans are best at proclaiming salvation by grace alone, completely by God’s initiative; a pure gift without anything done by us. We are saved (we are always saying) not by our persistent strivings, but rather by the sheer grace of God in Jesus Christ. ‘This is most certainly true,’ as Luther would say in the catechism. And this grace of God is not only explained by the catechism, it is also proclaimed on every page of the New Testament.
But having said all of that about God’s freely given grace, we must also hear this clear command by Jesus to “pray always and not lose heart.” Perhaps many folks do lose heart because they have neglected the virtue that the poor widow had so much of: tenacity. Grit. Determination. Persistence.
We cannot save ourselves. We do not have it within ourselves to secure our relationship with God. We are saved only by Christ’s atoning death on the cross for us. But we are able to do something. We are able to be persistent. We are able to keep putting ourselves in those places where the Word of God is proclaimed so that the grace of God can get to us, and create faith in our hearts, and change us, and help us grow. And as we grow in faith, we become more and more able to trust God– if we are persistent. As John Calvin once said, “We are not saved by works, but neither are we saved without them.”
John Wesley once said “Even though prayer does not always change God, it can often change us.” Wesley did not say that prayer never changes God. If it is God’s will to set aside all the laws of nature and answer a request for the healing of a terminal illness, God can do that– and sometimes does. But if in His infinite wisdom God decides to not heal, that does not mean the prayer has not been heard. It means that the prayer has still been heard, for God hears all prayers, but for some reason, the answer is “No, the healing will not be at this time, but will have to wait until the final and complete healing of the resurrection.”
Of course, God is always hearing the prayers of everyone on earth, all at once, and sometimes those prayers will contradict one another. Vacationers will pray for a week of good weather, while farmers in the same area may be praying for desperately needed rain. Both sides in a football game or in a war will pray for victory. But what John Wesley meant when he said that even if prayer doesn’t change God it can change us, is even when we are not getting exactly what we pray for, we may in fact be getting something better. We may, by this persistent communication with God, be growing stronger in faith and closer to God. Relationships grow by communication, and the more time we spend with God in worship and prayer, the better we will know Him, and the more familiar we will be with His way for us and His promises for us. (continued…)
O Lord, we know not what is good for us. Thou knowest what it is. For it we pray.
–Prayer of the Khonds in North India