Prayer is a very special privilege for the people of God. Why don’t we pray more consistently than we do?
Come with me to the parable in Luke chapter 18, verses 1 through 9. It is about a powerful judge and a powerless widow. Because women at the time often married much older men, many were widowed and ill-provided for; they were vulnerable to exploitation.
The widow here seems to have been unjustly treated over a property or financial matter. A relative may not have passed on her rightful inheritance.
But her problem didn’t stop there. Her case was being heard by a judge who neither feared God nor regarded man (18:2). Every society knows powerful people like this. The Jewish historian, Josephus, observed that King Jehoiakim was ‘Neither reverent towards God nor fair towards human beings’ (Antiquities 10.5,20).
The judge in the parable is either unjust or dishonest, or both. He seems more interested in money than morality. What hope did this poor, powerless woman have? We can imagine the stillness amongst Jesus hearers as the drama unfolded, asking themselves, ‘What would I have done?’
The scene is dramatic and unexpected: The widow kept coming to him’ (18:3). She used the only weapon she had – persistence. ‘Grant me justice against my opponent’ (18:3) she insists.
For a while the judge acts true to form: he does nothing. But in time he relents, not because he is a changed man but because of her perseverance: ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone,…’ he says (18:4).
The words no respect are significant. Kenneth Bailey comments that ‘Middle Eastern traditional culture is a shame/pride culture. That is, a particular pattern of social behavior is encouraged by appeals to shame’ (Bailey, Peasant Eyes, p.132).
Whereas the judge should have felt shame about the way he treated the widow, he didn’t. No appeal of goodness or mercy could be made to him on behalf of the destitute woman. Money may be one thing that persuades him… or is it? His soliloquy continues, “Yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming” (18:5).
The woman is persistent, and the judge realizes she will not give up. Indeed, her perseverance provokes this powerful, corrupt man to bring about justice: he not only hears her case, he settles it in her favor.
Jesus comments: “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God vindicate his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will vindicate them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (18:6-8)
The word delay literally means patience. It’s a word in the New Testament especially linked to God’s act of salvation, such as we find in 1 Timothy 1:16 and 1 Peter 3:20. In each instance the stress is on the long-suffering nature of God’s patience in dealing with us.
Two commentators, Bailey and Horst, observe that the sentence, Will he delay long over them is not a question but rather a statement, better translated, He is also slow to anger over them. All of us are sinners. None of us either through our efforts or because of who we are, can claim God’s kindness, let alone his vindication of us. We are totally dependent on his mercy.
This is key to understanding the parable. To paraphrase Kenneth Bailey (Through Peasant Eyes, p.139), God’s people ‘are sinners, not sinless saints. If God is not willing put aside his anger towards us, we can’t approach him in prayer. We dare not call out for vindication lest, as the prophet Amos warns, the Day of the Lord is a day of darkness, not light (Amos 5:18-20). To seek vindication does not make us righteous’
It is only because God is long-suffering and patient that he will be slow to anger towards those who persist in calling on him and throwing themselves and their needs upon his mercy.
Through this parable Jesus brings our attention to profound and encouraging themes about prayer. In the face of life’s uncertainties, he wants us to know that we can and should pray. Persistence in our prayer invites God’s long-suffering patience and mercy towards us.
God is not capricious but is a loving, compassionate Father who will vindicate our cause. He will do this, not because we deserve it, but because he is merciful. While we will delight in seeing the perfect manifestation of this on the final day, we can also be assured that there will be times when God will vindicate us in our present life’s experience.
We can be confident that God is at work in the drama of human history and in our lives, bringing his good purposes to pass, including the final vindication of his people.
So, Jesus asks you and me about our prayer and our trust: When the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
The real issue is not with God’s willingness to answer our prayers but with our refusal to ask.
So why don’t we pray? Is it because God doesn’t seem to answer our prayer? Is it because we have been swayed by our culture and think of prayer as a psychologically therapeutic exercise, making the pray-er feel better, but having little other effect?
Or is it because we think that God will do what he wants anyway, whether or not we pray? If that’s what we think, we misunderstand Jesus and what the New Testament says elsewhere. Prayer is a powerful gift God has given to us – not because of the prayer itself, but because we are praying to the great King of the universe. God has given us the privilege of being caught up with his purposes in the world. Why don’t we pray more consistently than we do?
A prayer. Almighty God, creator of all things and giver of every good and perfect gift, hear with favor the prayers of your people, so that we who are justly punished for our offences may mercifully be delivered by your goodness, for the glory of your name; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
You may like to listen to the hymn, Holy Spirit Fall Living Breath of God from Keith and Kristyn Getty.
© John G. Mason
Note: Today’s ‘Word’ is adapted from my book in the ‘Reading the Bible Today’ series, Luke: An Unexpected God, 2nd Edition, Aquila: 2018.
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