“Pray and Don’t Lose Heart” (Luke 18:1-8)
Perhaps you’ve known people like the judge in our Gospel reading today. Don’t give a rip about God. Could care less about being fair in their dealings with people. All they care about is themselves. That’s the way this judge apparently was in his courtroom. All he cared about was his own position of authority. He liked being a bigshot with power. Jesus calls him “unrighteous.” He was unjust in his legal decisions and morally corrupt.
Perhaps you’ve known a persistent woman like the widow in our Gospel reading today, someone who simply would not give up no matter what obstacles stood in her way. Olympic sprinter Gail Devers is a persistent woman. You might remember her as the runner with the super-long fingernails. In the 1992 Olympics, Devers won the 100-meter dash by only 6/100th of a second over her four top competitors in 1992. But just one year before she won Olympic gold, Devers came within two days of having both feet amputated. She had been receiving radiation treatments for an autoimmune disease. Side-effects from the treatments caused her feet to blister and swell. She could barely walk and had to crawl or be carried. But she and her feet survived. Devers began to train again and push herself toward her goal. Who would have thought the fastest woman in the world was the same woman who almost lost her feet? That’s persistence.
Jesus introduces the unjust judge and the persistent widow in order to teach us to pray and not lose heart. The widow in the parable could have given up after only a few trips to plead with the judge for justice. But she kept coming back, and coming back, and coming back. The judge admitted that this woman was a bother. He was growing weary of her. Her persistence was pummeling him into providing her with the justice she demanded.
Pray and don’t lose heart.
We have trouble with both of those, don’t we? We struggle to even begin to pray. How do I do it? What do I say? How long should I pray? Are more words better … or fewer? Can I use the prayers written in a prayer book? Or do only prayers from the heart count? These are some of the questions that are asked when the topic of prayer comes up.
Why don’t we pray? Because we’re lazy. Because we don’t believe that it will make any difference. Because other things grab our attention and distract us. For example, I wake up in the morning, and lately the first thing I do is reach for my smartphone to check Facebook even before I get out of bed. Shame on me. Why not begin the day with prayer? At the very least, make the sign of the cross and say the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. I use the excuse that I need coffee first before I can do anything in the morning. But I sure didn’t need any coffee to poke around on my phone, did I?
Luther wrote a pamphlet addressed to his barber Peter about prayer. Here’s the advice he gave to Peter: “Sometimes I feel I am becoming cold and apathetic about prayer. This is usually because of all the things that are distracting me and filling my mind. I know this is a result of the flesh and the devil always waging war against me, trying to prevent me from praying. When this happens I like to take my little book of Psalms and sneak away into a little room, or, if it is the right time or day, I like to go to church with other people. I begin by saying the Ten Commandments out loud to myself, then the Creed, and if I have the time, I like to repeat certain sayings of Christ, or of Paul, or the Psalms.” That’s a good start in learning to pray and making a godly habit of it, especially as the day begins and as it comes to a close.
So let’s say we have now become accustomed to praying regularly. What happens next? We lose heart. We doubt whether God is listening. We question whether he will ever answer our prayers. Our new-found habit becomes like so many New Year’s resolutions. Set aside. Shelved until next January 1st unless some other goal strikes our fancy. Forgotten altogether.
Consider Jacob’s all-night wrestling match with God at the Jabbok River. The Lord appeared to Jacob as a man. He even humbled himself to the point of allowing Jacob to get the best of him in their bout. Jacob didn’t know who this man was. But the cat was eventually out of the bag when, with one touch of his hand, the Lord dislocated Jacob’s hip. Jacob recognized that this must be God. But instead of letting him go and kneeling down in worship, he hung on to him and said, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” Can you imagine saying that to God? Yet God permitted Jacob to struggle and strive with him, to request a blessing from him, and God answered Jacob’s prayer.
Consider again the woman who “beat down” the unrighteous judge with her requests. Jesus is teaching here that it’s okay to “wrestle with God” and “beat [him] down” with your prayers. If the unrighteous judge will finally cave and help the woman, how much more will your loving Heavenly Father patiently listen to your requests and help you. After all, even loving fathers eventually “cave” after being pestered by their children. The children cry out, “Please, Daddy! Please, Daddy! Please, Daddy!” After a while, Dad finally says, “Okay” … but only when he knows that what his children are asking for is not harmful to them.
We can be so afraid and timid in our prayers. Certainly we come in humility, never presumptuously. At the same time, we can come boldly. In the explanation to the Introduction to the Lord’s Prayer, the Small Catechism says that we can “with all boldness and confidence ask [God] as dear children ask their dear father.” And I would add this: you can pray honestly. After all, what’s the use of trying to be dishonest with God? He knows your thoughts. He knows your heart. So lay it all out there. Speak to him boldly, confidently, and honestly.
Listen to this bold and straightforward petition from the widow in our parable: “Give me justice against my adversary!” That’s bold. Now ask yourself, “What adversaries are against you?” Sickness, debilitating disease, tragedy, loss? Loneliness, depression, addiction? Conflict with friends, family members? Discouragement over the situation in our nation or in our world today? Increasing hostility to the Christian faith? What Paul said about people in his day is still true today: “People [do] not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they … accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and … turn away from listening to the truth” (2 Tim. 3:13). Above all else, those adversaries sin, death, and the devil are constantly wrestling with us and beating us down.
And so we cry out, “Give us justice, Lord! Be the God of your people! Answer us! Hear us!” God’s justice could be a fearful thing. But thankfully, he is the exact opposite of the unjust judge. He is righteous. He judges fairly and impartially. And he has already given justice for his elect through the death and resurrection of his Son. The same God who humbled himself at the Jabbok and let Jacob get the best of him also humbled himself in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth and let our sins beat him down to the point of death, even death on a cross. In Christ, your sins have been judged. In his resurrection, you are vindicated and declared not guilty. This is the Word the Church and her pastors are to preach in season and out of season.
“Will he delay long over [his elect]? I tell you he will give justice to them speedily,” Jesus says. We are waiting for the Last Day and the final judgment over all the injustice done against God’s people. It seems as though Jesus is delaying his return. In one sense, this is good. He is giving more people the opportunity to repent and believe the Gospel. It also gives Christ’s opponents the opportunity to bring suffering to his baptized people. Yet that only gives us the opportunity to make the devil’s warfare backfire when suffering drives us to our knees.
Thankfully, Jesus never delays his forgiveness. When it comes to forgiveness, it comes speedily. There is no waiting period. There is never a government shutdown in the Church. Christ’s absolution is not withheld if the church budget is in the red. There is no sliding scale when it comes to the severity of sin and the measure of God’s grace. The Gospel is preached, and your sins are forgiven. The Absolution is spoken, and your sins are forgiven. The Body and Blood of Jesus are placed in your mouth, and your sins are forgiven. Speedily.
Jesus closes his parable with these words: “But when the Son of man comes will he find faith on the earth?” Jesus already foresaw what Paul told Timothy, that as his Second Coming drew near, people would draw farther away from the truth revealed in Holy Scripture. Hearing this warning of Jesus, we ought to pray. Pray that you may remain faithful.
So why pray? Is it because of any supposed “power of prayer”? Is there an automatic guarantee that all our wishes will come true? No. In the Large Catechism and elsewhere, Luther simply says that we should pray because God commands it and promises to hear us. Period. That’s what we stated in the collect today: “O Lord, almighty and everlasting God, You have commanded us to pray and have promised to hear us.” Then our request was that the Lord would “Mercifully grant that Your Holy Spirit may direct and govern our hearts in all things that we may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of Your name.”
So pray. Just do it. God has commanded you to do so. And don’t lose heart. Wrestle. Ask. Beat on heaven’s door. God promises to hear you, not because he is tired of you coming to him, but because he is your loving Heavenly Father who sent his Son to die and rise for you. If he has done that for you, surely he will listen to you and answer you according to his good and gracious will.