The theme for this week is the loving power of prayer.
Our call to worship in Psalm 119 speaks about our role in meditating on God as a form of prayer, lifting our thoughts beyond the mundane and ordinary to consider God’s perspective of our lives and choices.
97 Oh, how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day.
98 You, through Your commandments, make me wiser than my enemies; For they are ever with me.
99 I have more understanding than all my teachers, For Your testimonies are my meditation.
100 I understand more than the [a]ancients, Because I keep Your precepts.
101 I have restrained my feet from every evil way, That I may keep Your word.
102 I have not departed from Your judgments, For You Yourself have taught me.
103 How sweet are Your words to my taste, Sweeter than honey to my mouth!
104 Through Your precepts I get understanding; Therefore I hate every false way.
In Jeremiah 31, we’re reminded of God’s covenant, his faithfulness, and his willingness to forgive.
27 “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, that I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of man and the seed of beast. 28 And it shall come to pass, that as I have watched over them to pluck up, to break down, to throw down, to destroy, and to afflict, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. 29 In those days they shall say no more: ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, And the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ 30 But every one shall die for his own iniquity; every man who eats the sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge.
31 “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah— 32 not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, [a]though I was a husband to them, says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their [b]hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. 34 No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”
Studying Scripture, thinking about church doctrine and traditions, and then integrating them with personal experience in prayerful contemplation is addressed in 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5.
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
14 But you must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, 15 and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.
16 All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for [a]instruction in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.
4 I charge you [b]therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead [c]at His appearing and His kingdom: 2 Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. 3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; 4 and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. 5 But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
Our sermon text is Luke 18:1-8, where Jesus shares the parable of the Unjust Judge (also called the parable of the Persistent Widow) to help us understand more about the purpose of prayer.
SPEAKING OF LIFE
… featuring Michelle Fleming …
What Prayer Tells Us about Love
Luke 18:1-8 (NRSV)
You might remember hearing some years ago about the humanitarian Mother Teresa. She was a nun who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her efforts in founding the Missionaries of Charity, which managed and supported homes for people dying of leprosy, HIV/AIDS, and tuberculosis. She lived in India for most of her life, and worked to organize soup kitchens, schools, and orphanages. There’s a story told about Mother Teresa. In her efforts to raise money, Mother Teresa was meeting in New York City with the president and vice-president of a large company. They had already agreed ahead of time that they were not going to donate to her organizations, but they said they would meet with her. Mother Theresa sat across from them and shared about her work and the need of the people she served. After she finished, the executives told her, “We appreciate what you’re doing, but we can’t donate at this time.”
Mother Teresa responded to them by saying, “Let us pray,” and then proceeded to beseech God to soften their hard hearts toward the poor and the sick. After she said, “Amen,” she asked again for their support, and they again refused to help.
“Let us pray,” Mother Teresa said, and at this, the president relented and wrote a check.
We might laugh at Mother Teresa’s version of persistent prayer, but we find a similar example in the Parable of the Persistent Widow in Luke 18:1-8. Let’s take a look.
Read Luke 18:1-8, NRSV.
Then Jesus[a] told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”’[b] 6 And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’
What can we notice about this passage?
Depending on the translation you choose, the parable in Luke 18 could be titled “The Parable of the Persistent Widow” or “The Parable of the Unjust Judge.” This difference in perspective highlights the many layers of the parable that offer insight into social justice issues, God’s loving character, and our faithful prayer. Let’s consider:
The Need for Justice:
Jesus begins the parable by describing the character of a judge who “neither feared God nor had respect for people” (Luke 18:2, NRSV). A widow in need of justice kept coming to see him, yet he refused to help her. In the cultural context, Jesus’ Jewish listeners would understand that this judge was ungodly because biblical texts, such as Exodus 22:21-25 or Deuteronomy 24:14, 17-18 specify protections for widows, along with others who are considered among the most vulnerable.
However, this widow’s actions showed her determination not to submit to exploitation. In Luke 18:5, the original Greek can be translated like this: “because this widow causes trouble for me, I will give her justice so that she may not give me a black eye by her coming (hypōpiazō). Paul uses the same word in 1 Corinthians 9:26-27:
So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating (hypōpiazō) the air, but I punish my body and enslave it so that after proclaiming to I myself should not be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:26-27, NRSV)
Notice the word is used in the context of boxing where something was taking a beating. There was an intensity in the widow’s refusal to accept injustice despite her situation. She knew she deserved justice, and she refused to take less.
We can consider our response to social justice issues, where human beings are oppressed and marginalized by human institutions. What if we are struggling from injustice? God is big enough to give us peace – even in the midst of struggling? He doesn’t need our help to fix things, but we can we seek to join in what he is doing?
Do we intentionally seek God for wisdom, insight, and intervention? This parable highlights our need to pray and not lose heart. When we see others struggling because of injustice, will we seek God’s direction? Sometimes we fall on the side of being overly critical for someone’s desire for justice. Can we hurt when others hurt? Can we go to God on their behalf? The parable suggests that praying for justice on behalf of vulnerable people is part of our responsibility as God’s children.
God’s Goodness and Love
Jesus contrasts God’s loving character with the unjust judge in Luke 18:16-18:
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.” (Luke 18:16-18a, NRSV
Contrasting God’s care with the uncaring, unjust judge helps us remember to whom we are praying. We are not approaching the throne of an abusive father, one who would delight in our demise, but instead, we are running into the arms of our Creator, the one who made us and delights in us:
The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing. (Zephaniah 3:17, NRSV)
We are loved by a God who renews us and who sings over us. If an unjust judge finally gave a persistent widow the justice she deserved, how much more likely it is that God will intervene on our behalf.
Persistence in Faith and Prayer
Jesus ends the passage with an important question:
“And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8b, NRSV)
We often think of faith as belief: belief in a set of theological doctrines or belief that there is a triune God who created everything there is, including us. However, we can expand our idea of faith to encompass the belief that God truly is who he says he is, that nothing surprises him, and that he is in control. Our faith in and through Christ motivates us to participate with him, joining him in doing good in the world by pointing to the one who can fix all things. In other words, our faith trusts in God’s ultimate power and authority despite the presence of evil and injustice.
This brings us back to the first verse in the passage:
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. (Luke 18:1, NRSV)
We remember Paul’s admonition to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17, NRSV), but sometimes we view this as a requirement to having our prayers answered rather than seeing it as a means of developing a deeper connection with the lover of our souls.
When an answer to prayer is delayed, we sometimes think to ourselves, “I must not be praying enough or praying the right words.” This type of thinking is based on the wrong idea that we control God by our prayers – or actions. In reality, we must redefine faith as a willingness to persist in seeking to connect with God, believing in God’s goodness and love even when faced with difficult circumstances.
- This type of faith is a way of living that refuses to turn away from the connection with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, even when life doesn’t make sense.
- This type of faith persists in the face of sorrow, and it’s the faith the prophet Habakkuk spoke of:
For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay…but the righteous live by their faith. (Habakkuk 2:3, 4b, NRSV)
Our faith enables us to persist in hope and love, living out our Christian value of loving others as ourselves. Our faith makes us take our troubles to the One who provides what is best for us. Consider these New Testament examples who were commended for their faith:
- The centurion who asked Jesus to heal his slave (Matthew 8:5-13)
- The paralyzed man and the friends who lowered him through the roof to be healed (Luke 5:17-39)
- The bleeding woman who touched Jesus’s robe and was healed (Luke 8:43-48)
- The grateful Samaritan leper (Luke 17:11-19)
- The blind beggar on the road to Jericho who was healed (Luke 18:35-43)
Notice these people who received healing had suffered, some of them for years and others for their entire lives. Their healing was a long time coming. Even Jesus was not resurrected for three days. But God’s justice and healing will prevail, and when we think about the certainty of this, we can see how God might be more like the determined widow in the parable who refuses to give up in her pursuit of justice.
Think of prayer as our way of saying “Yes” to letting God love us. This can help us be persistent in prayer without turning it into a transaction, expecting God’s response in direct proportion to our effort. Carmelite nun Ruth Burrows offers these thoughts about our role in persistent prayer:
Almost always when we talk about prayer we are thinking of something we do and, from that standpoint, questions, problems, confusion, discouragement, [and] illusions multiply . . .
Our Christian knowledge assures us that prayer is essentially what God does, how God addresses us, looks at us. It is not primarily something we are doing to God, something we are giving to God but what God is doing for us. And what God is doing for us is giving the divine Self in love . . . We are here to receive this ineffable, all-transforming, all beatifying Love. (Essence of Prayer, pp. 1-3, 5)
Author and therapist James Finley sees setting aside time for quiet contemplation as essential to cultivating receptivity and awareness of God’s loving presence:
Since “God is love” (1 John 4:8), God’s ways are the ways in which love awakens you again and again to the infinite love that is the reality of all that is real …. Your heart becomes accustomed to God, peeking out at you from the inner recesses of the task at hand, from the sideways glance of the stranger in the street, or from the way sunlight suddenly fills the room on a cloudy day. Learning not to be surprised by the ways in which you are perpetually surprised, you will learn to rest in an abiding sense of confidence in God. (Christian Meditation: Experiencing the Presence of God, pp. 33-34).
Persistent prayer and “unceasing” prayer stem from cultivating an awareness of God’s love that is ever-present in our day-to-day lives. We grow more confident of God’s presence and goodness, and when our prayers seem to go unanswered, our faith is resilient and patient.
- Recognize our role in ensuring justice for those who are marginalized in our culture. Jesus’s parable tells us we are to pray with purpose and seek God’s direction – all while not losing hope. This parable shows that justice for the most vulnerable is important, and we need to consider our response to those who cry for justice.
- Realize that we are loved with an everlasting love. God delights in us and always has our best interests in mind. He is persistent in loving us and providing what is best for us.
- Understand that faith means persistent hope in our loving God, and unceasing prayer is our confident “yes” to rest in God’s presence and care. By living in this confidence, we learn to see God’s presence in everything, even the most difficult of circumstances.
Mother Teresa was persistent in prayer, wearing down the executives who were reluctant to support her work with the poor. In the “Parable of the Persistent Widow,” we see persistence demonstrated and we see justice for vulnerable people. If an unjust judge eventually heard a poor widow or a couple of New York City execs finally paid attention to a nun from India, how much more will a loving God attentive to our prayers. Our understanding of prayer moves from a stance of control and transaction to a relationship where we seek to say “yes” to God’s love and allow it to flow to others.
Burrows, Ruth. Essence of Prayer. HiddenSpring, 2006.
Finley, James. Christian Meditation: Experiencing the Presence of God. Harper San Francisco, 2004.
More on PLACE-SHARING … as we focus on developing our LOVE AVENUE
Two weeks ago, we watched a video in which GCI President Greg Williams discussed our participation in the Great Commission and how we can share the love and light of Christ with our neighbors.
Last Monday, we watched a video of President Williams interviewing Cara Garity, who will be coordinating the GCI place-sharing project.
Tonight, I want us to look at another video. This time, the video is of Cara Garity interviewing Pastor Tamar Gray, a pastor in Cleveland, Ohio. Hopefully, it will shed some more light on the concept of place-sharing, as we prepare for our convention.
When It’s All Been Said and Done