Proper 24, Year C, Luke 18:1-8
How many of us enjoy doing the same thing over and over again. A friend of mine had a summer job growing up at a green bean canning plant. He was on what they called first line, the first part of the conveyor process which the trucks unload on to. He along with a couple of other high school boys would sort through the beans pulling out large items such as sticks, rocks, and rats. It was a rather mundane job watching the green beans zoom by over and over again, all day long. So every once in a while, just for fun, the guys on first line would let a rat go by just to listen to the ladies in the next room scream. My story might lead you to believe that we are talking about repentance, but we’re not. This is about prayer.
In our story of the unjust Judge we find a widow who can’t get a hearing. As we read the passage we get a rather clear picture that this judge didn’t care about anything but himself. What we find is that the lady is remarkable. She is undeterred by the constant rejection. She is relentless and probably even bordering on obnoxious about her request to be heard by the judge. Even with all of this, she has no assurance that the judge will ever hear her case, much as the ten lepers from last week had no assurance that Jesus would heal them when they cried out. Yet because of her relentlessness the judge hears her case.
We are told that this is like prayer in which we have to be undeterred and relentless about praying even though our prayers at times do not seem to make any difference. Sometimes we feel bored by asking for the same thing over and over again, much as my friend was on the green been line. Is it because of God’s seemingly capricious ways, or our continued unanswered prayers, that we try to equate God to the unjust judge in this parable? Though we may see similarities from our perspective we cannot make this connection at all, because God is always just. Having a God who puts justice first is a big part of our faith and it is even what the Judge in this parable tells us. He says, God grants justice to those who cry to him. He does not delay.
This may not seem to be our experience. Some of us pray, we wait, we pray some more. We have been persistent but our prayers don’t seem to be answered. Life is hard; maybe as it has always been, or maybe it seems harder now than it was before. This is the apparent paradox set up in today’s story. God grants justice instantly but from our perspective we do not see it. Christ tells us that we need to keep trying. We need to literally keep the faith. There are times when some of us feel tired. We are worn out by what we see on TV, the dangers around in the world. Some might ask themselves why do I keep going; it just doesn’t seem to get any better. Christ agrees with us that life is hard. Praying and keeping the faith is hard. The passage says that faith such as this maybe too hard for many. The last sentence of the story says “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Will there be anyone left on earth with faith when he comes again? He is telling us to stick it out.
I’m sure that many of you remember Mother Theresa who worked with the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, India. As part of her work she made trips around the world to raise awareness and money for her cause. Tom Long, a professor at Candler, tells a story of Mother Theresa. On one of her fund raising trips she visited with Edward Bennett Williams, a legendary Washington lawyer. He was the lawyer for Richard Nixon and Frank Sinatra among many others big names. Williams was also the owner of the Washington Redskins. When he received an invitation to speak privately with Mother Theresa, he was excited. After all it isn’t often a person receives such an invitation. But at the same time he really had no interest in her current project, a hospice center for people suffering from AIDS. Before she arrived he spoke with his partner and they agreed to be cordial and polite but that they would not give money to her organization.
When Mother Theresa arrived they went to his office where she sat on the other side of a large mahogany desk which dwarfed her. She made her appeal for the hospice; and Williams said, “We’re touched by your appeal, but no.” Mother Teresa said simply, “Let us pray.” Williams looked at his partner; they bowed their heads and after the prayer, Mother Teresa made the same pitch, word for word, for the hospice. Again Williams politely said no. Mother Teresa said, “Let us pray.” Williams, exasperated, looked up at the ceiling and said, “All right, all right, let me get me my checkbook!”
This story may seem to be more similar to the parable of the widow and the unjust Judge, than to God in our lives. But do we really truly know what caused the effect on Mr. Williams; was it the prayer or her persistence. I think most of us want to chalk it up to her persistence, but we truly don’t know. The better question is, why do we feel the need to separate them? From what I understand, Jesus is telling us that persistence and prayer are entangled together. You need them both.
Prayer is hard for if it were easy; wouldn’t we all be doing more of it? Part of the difficulty is that we do not know the will of God. We don’t know if an unanswered prayer is a no, or a not yet. But I believe that prayer opens a connection between us and the mystery beyond. For those of us who do pray regularly we feel this connection, not all the time, but once in a while. This connection gives us hope and assurance that we are at least attempting to working with God. We are attempting to get to know God on a deeper level. And for those people I say keep up the good work. For those of us who do not pray as often as we would like, I say try a little harder, it is much like working out a gym. You need dedication and you need to start off easy and slow to build that spiritual muscle. And like a gym if you are unsure what to do or how to go about it, don’t be afraid to ask for help.