Scripture: Luke 18:1-8
In 1876 John Griffith Chaney was born into a poor working class family. This was before child labor laws became consistently enforced and when the idea of all kids attending school was still fairly news and consistently implemented. As a result, at the age of 13 he was working in a cannery 12-18 hours a day. Looking for a way out of this life, he moved a little sidewise of the law and operated as an “oyster pirate” and while only seventeen signed on as a sailor for a trans-pacific voyage. After that trip he was able to attend high school, and even attempted to attend the University of California but due to finances he could not stick with it. From there he chased the Klondike gold rush to Alaska, but that did not pan out either. At a young age Chaney had already lived a lifetime full of adventure, and he channeled that into the one thing he had felt he had been consistently good at: writing. He saw writing as best and most viable path out of an impoverished life, so he began writing and he began submitting his works to anyone and everyone who published anything. In return he got back rejection letters. A lot of them. All told, he received 600 rejections before his first story was accepted for print. His first story, “To the Man on the Trail” was published by the Overland Monthly and it was published as being written by Jack London. John Griffith Chaney, much better known today known by his writing pseudonym, went on to become a prolific writer. He did manage to make a career out of writing and his novel, The Call of the Wild, is considered an American classic.
Especially when it comes to the form of the short story, Jack London is still considered a master writer today but in order for his work to ever get published in the first place it took incredible persistence. To be rejected 100 times in a row seems harsh, but to multiple that by six gets to an area where most people would have given up well before then. The success of Jack London shows that persistence, even in the face of what can seem like impossible odds, can pay off. This morning’s scripture is also a story that lifts up the importance of persistence. This morning’s scripture teaches us about the importance of persistence in prayer.
To be honest with you, this is a parable of Jesus that I have struggled with in the past. Verse 1 states that Jesus told this parable to his disciples to show them that they should always pray and never give up, so the parable is meant to show us how to pray. Yet, then introduces a woman who will not take no for answer. In this Scripture Jesus almost seems to encourage pestering God in prayer. There is a very fine line between persistence and nagging. Often my initial readings of this parable have left me with the feeling of nagging, based on the judge’s response in verse 5 where in his internal monologue he states, “Yet because this widow keeps bothering me.” Yet, over the years as I have wrestled with this parable I have come to the conclusion this Scripture is less about nagging and more about perseverance and sustained faith that God will deliver. There are three viewpoints that helped me come to this understanding.
First, the difference between nagging and perseverance is context. The woman in this story is not complaining to a manager to get her expired coupon accepted, but instead she is advocating for herself and standing up for what is right. This parable is intentionally light on details, but it tells us up front that the judge is crooked and the woman’s plea is for justice. The parable also tells us that the woman in the story is a widow. In this era a widow was a vulnerable member of society with very little legal protection. So while we do not know the details, someone taking advantage of a widow would have likely been depressingly common. The widow’s only recourse would be to get a judge to hear her plea. The story also does not give details why the judge refused to listen to her. It does state he does not fear God, which means the judge felt no obligation to follow the biblical command to care for the widows and orphans. Perhaps the judge was waiting for a bribe to make it worth his while, or perhaps he thought the grievance of the widow was just not worth his time. The parable indicates this judge had the power to hear the widow’s case and he had the power to make it right, but he deliberately was choosing not to. So given the woman’s lack of legal rights, lack of social power, and lack of viable options they only viable path to getting justice was to persist. If we hold up Jack London’s persistence in getting published as admirable, then the same is true of this woman’s persistence. She used the only means available to her to pursue justice, knowing that she was going to face rejection after rejection. Nevertheless, she persisted.
The difference between nagging and persistence is context. Nagging is often based in a sense of entitlement. Nagging is a selfish pursuit of what we want. That is not what is displayed in this scripture. The woman persisted because her cause is just, she persisted because it was the only way to make things right. Jesus told this story to illustrate that persistence is necessary and effective. If persistence was enough to influence a judge like the one in the story then we should have faith that God will hear our prayers, and that we can pray with confident faith that God will deliver. Now this does not mean that we can pray for what we want, and if we persist long enough we will speak it into existence. Prayer is not a magic spell to conjure our every desire. If what we pray for is ultimately based in selfishness and in entitlement, then essentially we are nagging. Because we are not perfect, from time to time all of us will occasionally get our needs and our wants confused. Often what feels like a need in our lives, a new job, a financial windfall, or some other intangible are often wants that make us more comfortable. This parable is not about how we can pester God to get our wants fulfilled. What this parable communicates is that we can count on God to provide for our needs, and that until those needs our met we can have faith and persist in our prayers.
Once I drilled down and came to an understanding of how this parable lifts up the importance of persistence, I felt better with it but I was still bothered. It felt like persisting in prayer, asking the same thing over and over, even if the parable encourages it, seems like a lack of faith. After all, if God heard our prayer the first time, why say it again? It’s not like God is forgetful and needs reminders. So I was left with this questions, until I realized that Jesus himself persisted in prayer.
On the night in which he gave himself up for us, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke record that when Jesus and the disciples went to the garden of Gethsemane Jesus prayed while the disciples were supposed to keep watch. The gospel of Matthew specifies that Jesus went and prayed and returned to find the disciples sleeping. He wakes them and then goes to pray again, to only find them sleeping a second time. After awakening them a second time the gospel of Matthew records in Matthew 26:44, “so he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.”
Not only did Jesus pray, but on that night he prayed the same thing three different times. Like the widow of this morning’s scripture Jesus persisted. Jesus prayer the same on that night over and over again. If Jesus the Christ, the son of God, continued to pray the same thing, then doing so is clearly not a display of a lack in faith. Persistence in prayer is not only what Jesus taught in this morning’s scripture, but it is what he modeled in his life.
This still leaves the question as to why we should persist in prayer, and a book I read recently helped fill in that detail. In her book Open Road Susan Nilson Kibbey writes about the importance of prayer in the life of a congregation. In this books she makes an important point about the Lord’s Prayer. When we pray and your will be done, the world translated as done is one that is set squarely in the present tense. Kibbey wrote, “Translated literally, the dynamic Greek verb Jesus utilized usually meant to come into existence, to break through or emerge in history or for miracles to come to pass. Jesus was teaching his companions . . . to add prayer inviting God to also break through the current reality with new possibilities!”
Prayer is not a wish for a future. Prayer is not a long bomb downfield in hopes for the best. Prayer is present tense. It is communication with God in the here and now. In prayer we ask God to break through, to make the current reality new. So if our prayer is still a need in the present, it makes sense to bring back to God.
Finally, I am really struck by the last sentence of this morning’s scripture: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” Jesus asks this question, after he tells a parable that lifts up persistence in prayer and having faith that God will hear and answer those prayers. The implication seems to be that Jesus is asking, will we have faith to persist in prayer or will we give up? We either believe that prayer works or that prayer does not. In the parable we read this morning, the widow kept going to the judge because it was the only option she had for justice. In the same way, if we believe prayer works then prayer is our only option as well. If we believe prayer works, then what we are asking for in prayer would be what we cannot do on our own. If we believe that prayer works, if we believe that when we pray God hears us in the present, and if we believe that when we pray God can break through and change the current reality, then we will be consistent in prayer. We will bring before God the requests and needs that are most pressing, because we believe prayer works. We will persist in prayer, because we believe it works and when the son of man comes he will find faith on earth in our persistence.
This does leave the question, what is an example of something we should persist in prayer for? What we persistently pray for should be something that is something we cannot accomplish on our own and also something within God’s will. While there are numerous examples, I can think of one on a corporate level that we as a community faith can and perhaps should persist in. After the resurrection and before returning to heaven he commissioned his followers to make disciples of all the nations, and it is our mission as a church to make disciples of Jesus Christ. So a prayer that we can all confidently persist in is that new disciples are made, that more people come to Jesus for the first time, and the lost are saved. Until every single person in our community is a follower of Jesus Christ, this is a prayer that we can persist in and have faith that God will break through.
In this morning’s scripture Jesus told a parable for a specific purpose. He wanted his disciples to know why they should always pray and never give up. May that be the message you take from this morning’s scripture. May you believe that prayer works and may the way that your pray reflect that you believe prayer works. As this morning’s scripture points out, one of the ways that our faith is displayed is how we persist in prayer. So may we be persistent, not because we are nagging God, but because we believe that prayer works, we believe that God hears our prayers, and we believe that God can and will break through to do the miraculous.