There are many parables of Jesus that cause us to scratch our head. I think some of that is by design. Parables are supposed to make us think, but in all honesty, some make us think more than others.
This morning we look at one of those parables. In Luke 18:1-8 Jesus tells a story about an unrelenting widow. In the very first verse Luke tells us the point of the story. However, we still find ourselves confused.
Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. 2 He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. 3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’
4 “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care about men, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming!’ ”
The story is that there was a widow who apparently had been ripped off. Most likely this left her destitute. The Judge paid no real attention to her because he saw no advantage (like a payoff) in helping her.
The problem was that this woman would not give up. Every morning when the doors opened the first woman in line was this widow. Day after day she showed up. Finally he decided that he would make sure she got justice (he addressed the wrong committed against her) for no other reason than to get rid of her. He addressed her case (apparently to her satisfaction) and she was satisfied (and left him alone).
Jesus concludes with the words
“Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”
What Prayer is Not
On first read the parable sounds like Jesus is saying, “If you just keep praying you will bug God enough that He will give you what you want.” Some may come away thinking that if they become obnoxious in their praying God will give them what they want. I am sure that is not the message of the parable! In order to understand any Biblical teaching there are three basic rules (there are other guidelines but these are key)
- Read the Bible in context. We must observe how the passage fits with what goes before and after the text in question and consider what the words would have meant to the original listeners.
- Compare Scripture with Scripture. If the conclusion we draw from a particular text contradicts another passage of Scripture then one (or both) of those interpretations is wrong.
- Interpret less clear passages by passages that are clear.
Using these principles we can better understand what Jesus is urging us to do. Think about three simple statements about prayer that come from the clear teaching of Scripture: First, prayer is not about motivating God to do something. The Bible affirms that God is good, He is compassionate, and He defends those who are afflicted. In 2 Peter 3:19 Peter explains that the reason the Second Coming of Christ is delayed is because God does not want people to perish but to come to repentance. God is not reluctant to bless, He is eager to bless.
Our text is not saying God is like the unjust Judge. In fact, just the opposite is the case. The point of the parable is that if a persistent widow can gain satisfaction from an unjust and reluctant Judge, then how much more confident and diligent we should be since God desires to bless us?
Second, prayer is not about telling God about needs that need to be met. God does not need us to inform Him. He knows all things. Jesus said,
do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. [Matthew 6:31-32]
Third, prayer is not about getting God to change His mind. In at least three places in the Bible we read words similar to these:
God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill? [Numbers 23:19]
In Hebrews 13:8 we read the Lord is “the same yesterday, today, and forever.” However, let’s admit that there are times in the Bible when it does seem that God determined to do one thing and then “changed His mind”. For example God told the prophet Jonah to go to Nineveh and announce his judgment. When the people of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah, God withheld judgment. Did God change His mind?
To understand this better think about the way you relate to your own children. Let’s say you say to them, “You will not be able to do a certain activity because you have not cleaned your room or made your bed.” In a sense you have declared judgment on your child. You do not hate your child; you give punishment to help them learn responsibility and learn that there are consequences for every action (or inaction).
Let’s say that instead of moping and whining your child says they are sorry and they go into their room and actually does what they were required to do. Let’s suppose they even do it with the right attitude (we are imagining!). Will you now be inclined to allow them to do the activity? Very possibly. In one sense you have changed your mind because you are letting them attend rather than keeping them home. However, your will, your plan, your heart, has not changed. Your plan to teach them responsibility has never wavered. What has changed was not your plan, but your response to the changed actions of the child.
I think this is the same with God. He desires to teach us and lead us into a relationship with Him. When we rebel, He erects roadblocks and barriers and sometimes allows difficulty in our lives to turn us from the wrong way. When we trust and follow Him we experience His blessing (that is sometimes something hard for our good). God’s will and purpose do not change.
We have a tendency to look at prayer like an opinion poll . . . the more people we can get on our “side” the greater our leverage. We think the more people we can marshal to prayer, the more likely God is to be swayed and give us what we want. But consider the implications of this mindset. Such a belief implies that God is wrong and needs to be convinced to turn in a different direction. But God always does what is right. His plan is perfect He does not need our advice on how to make it better.
So What is the Purpose of Prayer?
So why pray? Why have times of intercession in worship? Why have prayer meetings or prayer chains? The simple answer is: because God has told us to do so. Since Jesus saw value in prayer we should also. In James 5:16 we read “the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective”.
Perhaps it is more about what we are praying for. If we are merely praying to get what we want, prayer will seem empty and ineffective. If we are praying to understand the mind and the heart of God and for strength to do what He has called us to do, we will see that prayer has power.
Philip Yancey, in his book “Searching for the Invisible God” suggests that some of our confusion in prayer may be the result of the way we pray.
A friend in Japan wrote that he has understood the proper spirit of prayer more by listening to Japanese Christians than from the teaching of American missionaries. “We know how to come to God as humble servants with boldness,” he says. “You don’t have to tell Japanese people about hierarchy. When they learn that God is the Lord they immediately know all the implications of that. They know who’s boss and that is never questioned. When they pray they use language that combines the highest forms of speech and the most intimate phrases of love and devotion. When they ask for something they ask with true humility, knowing they have no right to what they’re asking except that God gives them the very right to ask and promises to answer.”[i]
We must remember that prayer is the means by which we develop our relationship with God. We do not come into prayer as equals. We come to God as the one who alone can meet our needs. He is the One who gives strength. He is the One that breaks the power of sin. He is the One who can turn the darkness into light. It is He who turns death into life. We need a relationship with Him more than we need anything else.
Let me confess that much of the time I pray only when I need or want something. Imagine a marriage where the only conversation you had with your mate was when they needed you to do something for you. Would you consider this a real relationship? Would you feel truly valued and loved? Of course not! Yet we act as if God should be pleased that we take time now and again to ask Him to do stuff for us!
Jesus challenges us to develop an intimate, deep, and personal relationship with God. The way we do that is to continue to talk to and with God in prayer. Let’s do a quiz,
- When was the last time you simply enjoyed God’s company in the time of prayer? Have you ever spent your time just praising Him and thanking Him?
- When was the last time you asked God a question in prayer and then actually waited for an answer with a willingness to take action?
- When was the last time you asked God to bend your heart to His will instead of attempting to convince Him to agree with you?
- When was the last time you spent time with God reviewing the day and your behavior before Him during that day?
If you don’t have any of these times then you may be viewing God as your “genie” rather than your Lord.
If we seek a relationship with God it will mean,
- We will ask God to help us to honor Him in our infirmity rather than just asking Him to take the infirmity away.
- We will ask God to build a relationship rather than simply eliminating a conflict.
- We will ask God to teach us contentment and trust rather than just asking for more money.
- We will pray for wisdom and patience to trust His timing rather than demanding that God act “right this second” (as if He served us).
True prayer is concerned primarily with our relationship to God. Our goal will be to honor Him in every area of life because we know that HE is what we really need.
Second, perseverance in prayer builds character and faithfulness. Most of us are pretty short-sighted. We live in an immediate gratification culture. Our goal is to get what we want immediately and eliminate any discomfort we now experience. When Paul faced a “thorn in the flesh” (whatever it was) he asked God to remove it. God did not. Paul learned God was teaching him this simple truth: “My grace is sufficient for you.” Paul came to proclaim “when I am weak, then I am strong.” Paul learned that when He was trusting God He was stronger than when things were going well.
In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus didn’t tell the disciples to simply “say a prayer”, he told them to “watch and pray”. He said, “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”. I think the point is that prayer, like any communication, involves diligence. We must wait upon the Lord. We must do more than simply pray we must keep praying until our hearts are aligned with the heart of God. That’s exactly what we see Jesus doing in the Garden. He prayed fervently and did so three different times. He kept praying until He could embrace the will of God about the cross. He finally reached the point where He could say, “Not my will but Yours be done.” We must learn to watch and pray.
Third, persistent prayer keeps us from drifting away. Jesus warned his disciples that tough days were coming. He warned there would be false teachers and fierce persecution. Prayer gives us a chance to check our lives and make sure they remain “on track”. When we spend quality time in prayer God will alert us to danger.
For some reason we seem to think that we can live our lives however we want, and then, when we “need Him”, we can turn back to the Lord. The married couple that never really talks to each other may think that they will talk when they have something important to talk about. However when that time comes they don’t know how to talk to each. They have drifted apart and can no longer find each other. We will only be sensitive to the whispers of God’s Spirit when we talk with Him regularly.
The Big Question?
Note the concluding question in verse 8: “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” The question is not whether or not the Lord will return or whether justice will be done. He will and it will. The question is whether or not Christ’s followers will “give up” before that time comes.Jesus wonders,
- Will we be faithfully and diligently pursuing a relationship with Him?
- Will we be working to establish His kingdom?
- Will we be pursuing justice and extending compassion?
- Will we be doing what He told us to do?
- Will we truly love God or will we turn to Him only when we have exhausted all other possibilities?
It’s a haunting question isn’t it? Are we growing weary? Is our passion waning? Are we becoming seduced by the world? The only way to combat this is to hear what Jesus is saying about passionately pursuing a relationship with God.
So what do we do? First, we need to work at prayer. By this we mean more than just setting aside a time and place for prayer (even though that is a good start). We must pursue the right heart and attitude in prayer. We must learn to pursue prayer for relationship with God rather than for stuff from God. We must bow before Him as Lord rather than bark orders at Him. We need to learn to watch and pray.
Practically, instead of praying that God make a certain boy or girl like us . . . we should ask God to help us to wait on that one that He has prepared for us. Rather than ask for the coveted promotion, we should ask God to help us to be faithful in whatever He gives us to do. Rather than pray that our problems disappear we should pray that we will be faithful even in the midst of the trial. Even as we pray for healing we should also pray that we glorify God in our infirmity. We must seek His will not ours.
Second, we should pray honestly. Rather than trying to sound pious, we should pursue genuineness and honesty before the Father. It is OK to tell God that you are uncertain, that you are scared, that you are frustrated, that you are having trouble doing what He wants you to do and that you don’t know what to do. If you can’t trust God with the truth, you don’t trust Him at all. Honesty is the key to real intimacy in any relationship.
Third, when we pray for others, though we should certainly pray for healing and deliverance, we should do so with the understanding that sometimes God is doing something more wonderful than we understand and something different than what we expect. Part of our frustration in prayer is that we, in our arrogance, assume that what we think is right is undoubtedly correct and that God should do what we ask Him to do in the way we want Him to do it.
This is the real reason for our frustration at “unanswered prayer”. The problem is that we decide what the answer should be. We are trusting our own understanding rather than trusting the Lord of life. Then when God doesn’t do what we want or doesn’t do it when we want it, we impugn His character by saying He did not answer our prayer. Often God is doing something much greater than our feeble minds can grasp. His answer is more profound (and wonderful) than we can presently grasp.
Finally, we must never give up. In World War II Winston Churchill uttered those famous words that rallied a country and the world,
We shall not flag or fail. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.
This is the attitude Jesus wants from us. He wants us to see that the battle for the Kingdom of God is a battle worth fighting. He calls us to never, ever, ever, give up. We are to enter into relationship with God in prayer and hold on tight, confident that God is a judge who is eager to do what is good, right, and excellent. Though we may struggle with prayer we must keep working. Though it seems we’re not getting anywhere we must not give up. We need to keep praying. We don’t need to fear Him, bug Him, or convince Him to help us . . . He loves us. Our job is to hang on and never let Him go. And if we do this we will be among those who will be found faithful when He comes.