‘Persistent Prayer’ by Revd Ann Mazur

18th Sunday after Trinity, Luke 18. 1-8

I am sure many of us have had an experience like the persistent widow in our gospel reading this morning. If you have ever had to deal with an insurance company or a bank or any large institution on the telephone you might know how it feels to wonder if anyone is actually listening or responding to your needs. You listen to some canned music with the occasional interruption telling you that your call is important to them.

We all experience these frustrations, but sometimes our needs are serious and the experience of feeling unheard in the middle of an emotional or desperate situation can be devastating. We can feel like Sisyphus, in Greek mythology, struggling to lift a heavy weight up a tall mountain, and just when we think we’ve reached the top, it rolls all the way back down and we’re forced to start at the beginning again. More often than not, it is our persistence, our unwillingness to let things slide by, our unwillingness to lose hope, that eventually leads to success.

The gospel reading today is of a strange little parable that Jesus tells his disciples in order to remind them to persist in prayer and not lose heart. At first reading, it looks as though we are meant to contrast the unjust judge with God. If the unjust judge listens then how much more will God our loving heavenly Father listen to our prayers and pleadings. That may be true but if we just consider only that interpretation we will miss what else this parable has to say to us. Let us look more closely at the two main characters.

The judge was probably one of the paid magistrates appointed by the Romans, such judges were notorious. Unless a plaintiff had influence and money to bribe their way to a verdict they had no hope of ever getting their case settled.

Luke in his Gospel has a special concern for the poor and lowly, the widow and orphan. Next to the unjust judge in this story, he puts a widow who sought justice against an opponent. If the judge were corrupt, then we find the widow is a person without resources to bribe the official.

In ancient Palestinian society the widow was helpless and could exert no real influence on those in power, having lost the support of the man to whom she was married. Without a father or brother or husband or son, she was destitute.

But she had one weapon – persistence. It is possible that what the judge in the end feared was actual physical violence.  The Greek is stronger than the translation. It really says, “She will give me a black eye if I don’t give in.” I don’t know if these words are literal or figurative. She may not intend to hit the judge but she was certainly wearing him down by her persistence. So in the end she won the day.

One of the great bishops of the Anglican Communion and the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, was a man of great faith: grounded in God’s Word and scholarly in its theology, but most of all … he was a man with a deep and abiding prayer life. If one were to model a life of “persevering prayer” like the widow in today’s Gospel, it would have been Michael Ramsay. His reflection on today’s Gospel lesson, was this ‘The parable is not just about being persistent in prayer. Rather it is about: the certainty of being heard.’

The certainty of being heard.

Our prayers may not be answered straight away or in the way in which we would like them to be answered. So to prayer that is persistent and constant, must also be added the qualities of patience, trust and faith that support the belief that God answers prayer when and how God wills.

Waiting patiently is not a virtue that comes easily to people like us who live in a society where technology has increased our expectations of instant answers.

But a God who calls us his own and who knows each of us by name, who writes the law of love in our hearts will certainly hear our prayers, will certainly respond to our pleadings.

The widow could have sat at home and worried. Instead of worrying she did something about her problem.

William Ward said, ‘Worry is faith in the negative, trust in the unpleasant, assurance of disaster and belief in defeat.’ It is like sitting in a rocking chair- it gives you something to do, but you never go anywhere with it.

If we are to learn anything from the widow apart from her persistence it is that we should be concerned with justice.

We need to be faithful in prayer for justice in our world, for the destitute, the despised, those who have no voice, for those who are marginalised.

Justice for our world and not just for ourselves. It is the kind of prayer that often does not receive an obvious answer. Yet, we are to be faithful and constant in lifting up such prayers – certain that we will be heard and knowing that we must be patient for answers.

Persistence, faithfulness and perseverance are strongly present in the Genesis story about Jacob’s wrestling match. To begin with, Jacob is on his own at night because he has sent his company on ahead to try and appease his brother Esau with a present. He has a very good reason to be afraid of Esau and he wants him softened up before he meets him again.

So part of what happens in this story is that Jacob wins a blessing from a stranger and this blessing is one that he works out for himself and earns with pain and effort, unlike the one he stole from Esau by trickery. It leaves him limping but it also restores in him some sense of his own value. When at the beginning of the next chapter Esau arrives, Jacob does not hide anymore but goes out to meet him.

We never find out who the stranger is – though Jacob is convinced he has met God. We don’t even know who won: only that it went on a long time. The vital thing we are told is that Jacob would not give up, even when he is hurt. Like the pestering woman in the parable, Jacob is rewarded for persistence.

Let us look again at the first line of this gospel. Jesus said, ‘pray always and do not lose heart.’ It is easy today when faced with all the tragedies and dramas of everyday living to give up, to lose heart in the face of what seems insurmountable evil. Prayer does make a difference. Prayer is rather like a torch thrown before us in the dark, it helps us to go forward, it gives us courage to act. Prayer is our ministry, our responsibility.  Prayer sustains us, for when we turn to God we feel a new strength in our soul. And the last line of the reading says, ‘will he find faith on earth?’

Faithfulness is the hallmark of Timothy’s ministry as we heard in our second reading this morning. He had the luxury of learning the Scriptures as a child and now he must pass on the gift to others. Paul tells Timothy to persist ‘whether the time is favourable or unfavourable’. This is his ministry, his responsibility.

Our faith should be ‘night and day’ like the widow Anna, the first widow we read about in Luke’s gospel. Faith that endures until the coming of the Son of Man at the end of our own personal life and the Second Coming at the end of human history.

Jesus instructed us to pray ‘Thy will be done’ and this is not a statement of resignation but rather a calm and confident handing over to God’s loving care, trusting in him.

In conclusion here is a reflection from Mahatma Ghandi;

I am neither a man of letters nor of science,
But I humbly claim to be a man of prayer.
It is prayer that has saved my life,
Without it I would have lost my reason long ago.
If I did not lose my peace of soul,
In the midst of my many trials,
It is because of the peace
That came to me through prayer.
One can live several days without food,
But not without prayer.
Prayer is the key to each morning and the lock to each evening.
It is a sacred alliance between God and us.
Let everyone try this experience, and they will find
That daily prayer will add something new to their lives,
Something which cannot be found elsewhere.

Let us hope that for each one of us prayer may become ‘the key to each morning and the lock to each evening.’

Let us pray.

Lord God our Father, teach us the power of prayer, its ability to challenge, to encourage, to transform all of life. Strengthen our faith and when we cannot see any answers to our own needs and those of others, teach us to leave all things in your hands in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.