Willow Creek Friends Church
October 20, 2019
Luke 18:1–8 (ESV)
1 And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. 3 And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ 4 For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’ ” 6 And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. 7 And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? 8 I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Pray, in my opinion, is the most important aspect of the Christian life. For me prayer is more then simply releasing the burdens we bear on our shoulders with the hope that if it is God’s will that he might remove some of those burdens. So often that is the image of prayer that we receive from church. It is not surprising when leaders, even well-meaning leaders, will often ask, “are their any prayer needs?” That one phrase teaches so much about our understanding of prayer. We ask God to remove the burdens from our lives, but so many of us participate in these meeting for prayer, and we have even mimicked the service in our own lives. We do this and so often we are left with our burden, nothing has changed. When we do and activity and the results are not what we expect we tend to do one of two things we either try harder or we quit.
Why do we quit? When we pray and the results are not to our liking, we conclude that we must not know how to pray correctly. We begin to think that the only people that really know how to pray must have some supernatural gift. Maybe they are saints, or these spiritual demigods that are almost not human because for some reason God has given them power to manipulate our physical world. This thought process leads us to approach those individuals and we pass our petitions on to them, they take on the burden for us. We all do this, we ask the pastor to pray, we ask the mature women in the church who are always at the Meetinghouses sometimes more often than the pastor, we ask the faithful men who have weight within the meeting. We ask them, “will you pray for me.” This is an important thing to do, it is important because it reveals to us that we are not alone in our struggles. That is the most powerful force within the church, we unite in prayer, we assist other in carrying our burdens, and when we do this, we often see incredible growth within the church. But there is a negative side to asking others to pray. We do not often realize this negative side because there is so much good resulting from intercessory prayer. The negative side of intercessory prayer is if it keeps us from praying ourselves or if it redirects our attention from God and places it on human individuals.
Psychologically and relationally there is a term that is used for having a discussion through someone else, triangular relationships. In this theory there are rescuers, victims, and persecutors. The victim seeks a rescuer to handle their issues with the persecutor. This is not always a bad thing, but it can become bad when the person that identifies as the victim becomes incapable to speak or act for themselves. I think often in our Christian life we fall into this trap. “I don’t know how to pray.” We say to ourselves, and from that moment on we stop, we quit.
Jesus did not live his life in this manner. Jesus would withdraw often to isolated places to pray. He would go to the top of a mountain to pray, leaving the disciples at the base to protect his time of prayer. If we were to look at the life of Jesus, it would seem as if prayer was the most important discipline to enact in the spiritual life. The Gospel of Luke records Jesus withdrawing to pray eight times, and he teaches on prayer seven times. To put this in perspective the number one thing that Jesus taught about was the Kingdom. The Kingdom of God or Heaven is that area of influence that God has, so it is no surprise that this is the most important thing Jesus taught about. But the kingdom of God is unlike the kingdoms of the world so he would have to explain what is important to his kingdom in comparison to the kingdoms of men. It is not surprising that of the parables he taught the majority were themed around money. Money is the measure of influence in the kingdoms of men, so it is not surprising that this was a topic of interest. But the reason money is important to the kingdoms of men is because of the usefulness of that tool, because of that usefulness we often find ourselves entrusting our lives to it. The point of Jesus’s teaching on money is not necessarily about how to manage but he is illustrating the differences of what we believe and entrust our lives in, or where or what our faith is in. So, Jesus speaks about the Kingdom of God and faith.
He then teaches seven times about prayer. Prayer is the language of faith; it is the language of the kingdom. When human beings speak a common language, it is easier for us to interact, trade, and serve one another. That common language is a tool that we utilize for both encouragement and destruction. It is not surprising that the use of language is often spoken about in the New Testament as well, like money. Both language and money can be used in both the kingdoms of men and the kingdom of God, but the difference is how they are utilized.
I mentioned that language can be used to encourage or cause destruction. If we listen to the radio the language we hear is used for a purpose, to encourage and emotional response. It does not matter what you are listening too, it could be music or the news, the words used are put together to convey some information in a way that will encourage you to support some idea. That idea might simply be to buy the newest Taylor Swift album, or it might encourage you to vote a certain way in the election. Language is a tool. Prayer is media of distribution of language within the kingdom of God.
The way we use language will attract or discourage people to the kingdom. Jesus taught about prayer directly seven times according to Luke, and he demonstrated prayer eight. Jesus lived and demonstrated prayer more than he spoke about it. And I think this is very important, because it proves just how important this activity really is.
Language is a tool of communication. It is used to build relationships or in some cases the same tool can be used to hinder relationships. Prayer uses that tool to deepen our relationship with God. It is through prayer that we communicate with God, and it Is also through prayer that God can communicate with us. In the eight instances where we are told that Jesus withdrew to isolated places to pray, Jesus was seen praying before he embarked on his next phase of ministry. Jesus did not decide on his own but acted in cooperation with his Father. This speaks volumes to the importance of prayer if even Jesus, God incarnate, prayed before he acted. It also shows us that it is through prayer that the directions of our ministry should flow. Which makes sense if prayer is the tool of communication between humanity and God.
Which brings us to the parable today. We have a widow that is going before a judge to plea for justice. The judge of this parable does not fear God and does not care about humanity either. Which gives us a picture of the world, the world does not care about faith or relationships unless it benefits them.
This woman faced an injustice, a burden, a struggle like so many of us face. What does she do? She uses language to plead for relief. We must speak about our burdens, acknowledge them or they will just stay in the periphery of our being poisoning our lives. We do not like talking about our struggles, we often feel as if admitting our struggles is a sign of weakness. This is one of my own personal struggles. People that know me know I do not really talk that much. In my lack of talking I will often take on a burden and try to carry it, so that I will not cause others to become burdened. This aspect of my personality is often the source of many of my struggles, especially when it comes to management because I tend to do all the work instead of delegating the task to others. This goes even deeper though, I often withdraw into my own mind when I am stressed, trying to figure a way to relieve the burden, as these burdens pile on, I become overwhelmed to the point I begin to forget the most important things. In the corporate world that would be called burn out. I am not the only one that struggles. We all struggle with aspects of our lives that we cannot seem to handle. What do we do about it?
In this parable the woman continuously goes to the judge. This does not mean that we need take every struggle we face to court. He is instead highlighting the persistence of the woman. She does not give up. There is an injustice and she is compelled remedy the situation. Yet she is going to a judge that does not fear God or care for humanity.
This tells us a great deal about prayer. We not only need to go to those isolated placed, but we do need to share our needs, especially if it is about perceived injustices. Often when we are in the heat of a difficulty, we are not able to make the best decisions. Our bodies are producing hormones that are pumping through out our bodies that hinder our brains from functioning properly. Derek Brown spoke about this at our retreat a few weeks ago. Our bodies produce adrenaline that is necessary to give us quick bursts of strength and energy so that we can ward off an attack, but while our bodies are in this fight or flight mode, our brain’s reasoning is shut down. We need to be able to shut this hormone flow down before we can think again. And at times while we are in the struggle, we cannot do this alone. Sharing our struggles with others, brings them into our lives so that they can help. Our friends are not in the heat of the situation so their brains are drenched in adrenaline, so their calmness can assist our worked-up bodies to relax. And as we share together, we can assist each other make better decisions.
That of course has nothing to do with prayer directly, but there is more. When we encourage ourselves and those around us to pray, calms us even more. And as the stress levels diminish, we can begin to listen again. Our minds engage, we begin to remember the things we knew before, and at times we can sense leadings from God that we may not have even thought of before. Prayer is a power discipline for this very reason. It is in those moments of prayer that Jesus speaks to us the very words that he spoke to the disciples when he surprised them in the upper room, “Peace be with you.”
We acknowledge our struggles, we speak about our struggles, we share our struggles with others, and we pray about our struggles. This is the beginning of healing, because it is identifying terminal poisons of sin that flow through our bodies. Sin are the things in our lives that distract us from God. The things that cause us to turn from God. Often, we regard sin as a breaking of the laws of God, but that is a symptom of a deeper problem. When Israel was bitten by the vipers in the wilderness, the snakes were there because they turned from God, they grumbled against God. They were bitten by these snakes and the only cure from that venom was to turn a look upon the bronze snake that God commanded Moses to erect. Sin comes in many forms, but most often it is simply a lack of faith. We rely on our own wisdom, and our own strength instead of turning toward God. That lack of trust is like the viper’s bite, and if we do not acknowledge, speak, share, and pray that venom will overwhelm us.
There is even more to prayer. The woman in the story was persistent. She sought justice. Prayer should lead us to something. When we go to a doctor when we are sick, we go for a reason. We go because there is something wrong, some illness that is hindering our ability to live our lives to the fullest. We have tried all that we can think of, but the problem is still there, so we go and hope that a remedy can be found. We seek that remedy so that we can move forward, so we can go back to work, or so we can do the errands we need to do. While we are at that office, we might also find out something else. The doctor might say something we are doing should probably change. When I was a senior in high school, I had a headache every day for over three months. I went to a doctor and after trying many things and we did not find great solution. The doctor said that I might be allergic to something, but we could not figure out what that might be. While I was in Ukraine I did not have as many headaches and we soon figured out that the artificial sweetener in the chewing gum in America was a trigger for my migraines. After years of struggle we got an answer. I still need more answers but that’s another topic.
Our prayers should be like that. We pray and that time of prayer should lead us to the answers we need. And those answers should lead us to action. The woman in the story persistently sought an answer. That persistence is what Jesus is encouraging in prayer. Not to change God’s mind, but so we can with God, find the direction forward. This is a skill that the Friends church has been known for. When we enter a meeting for business, or to be more accurate, a meeting of worship in which business is conducted, we are to enter that meeting prayerfully. We are to enter with the expectation that God will lead our decision-making process, giving time for concerns to be voiced and time for prayer. A business meeting should never be a debate, because there should not be an agenda that any individual is pursuing. Our goal is to be led by the Spirit of God. We should enter that meeting just like this story, but the characters are reversed. We are not the woman; we are the judge. It is spirit of God that is the woman seeking for justice in an unjust world and we are the ones that should respond to her plea.
I know that I have spent several minutes talking about how we should enter prayer, speaking and sharing our struggles both to God and to our community. I even said that at times the community can become a hinderance to our prayer life, because we can look at people within the church as sources of power instead of God. Now I am saying that we are not even the woman that is persistently seeking justice but the judge. Have I confused us all? The point is that we live in a world that is often opposed to the ways of God. We seek wisdom but the wisdom we often seek is our wisdom. Wisdom from the kingdoms of men. Human justice is often not justice at all. We can justify the killing or enslaving people for many reasons, we can even quote scripture to support our views. We can justify many terrible things for many good reasons. But if we are not seeking the wisdom of God, we will always find ourselves in the same place. The spirit of God is crying out to us to correct the injustice we know is going on around us, but are we listening? Are we even allowing the Spirit a place to speak?
Prayer is a powerful tool. It can bring clarity and healing in our lives. And it can inspire us to action. It is the mode of communication that can take us out of the stress of our temporal realm and show us the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Do we pray?
As we enter this time of Holy expectancy and communion in the manner of Friends, I want to encourage us each to silence our spirit before God. Imagine yourself within this parable as the one to whom the woman is speaking and listen to what she is saying. Maybe she is encouraging one of you to share a struggle with a trusted friend, maybe she is encouraging you to speak out for the justice of another, or maybe she is simply saying “Peace be with you.” Prayer is deeper than sending our requests to God, prayer is listening to God and responding to what he has to say.
My first thought: while not knowing much about the pastoral Quaker tradition, I find myself surprised that you follow the Revised Common Lectionary (although I’m not sure why I should be surprised).
My second thought (and more apropos I think): I have always been a little nervous about drawing lessons from the “persistence” of the widow for prayer. This is after all an unrighteous judge and the only reason he answers is because she is become annoying to him. Where is the point Jesus seems to be making here is a God isn’t like that at all. So I take the lesson to pray but I do not follow through on the lesson to be persistent.
If I am totally honest with myself this may have more to do with my personality and my inability to be persistent about almost anything! But nonetheless I am more comfortable taking my implications from the book of Daniel — God hears our prayers on the very first day.
I use the lectionary simply because it allows a great overview of the gospel and gives the people that plan music an idea of what I might be speaking on. To be honest I have found that it is always what I need to use.
As for this parable I agree it is one of those parables where Jesus is using something annoying in the culture to present truth. It is clear that Christian teaching opposes taking things to the judge. That being said I really think he is making it clear that we should be very intentional in our prayers.
Thanks for reading. And feel free to watch our videos too.
Our Congolese Friends have shared a lot of great music.