Readings: Jeremiah 31:27-34 • Psalm 119:97-104 • 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 • Luke 18:1-8
This week’s theme is I am your God; you are my beloved. The prophet Jeremiah reminded the Israelites that God was there when they were plucked up and broken, and he is there to help them rebuild and plant. There is a new covenant. The Psalmist writes, “O how I love your law…” as God promises to never turn away. Paul reminds Timothy that all Scripture is inspired for us and teaches us that we belong to God. The sermon looks at the parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18 and reminds us God is not like the unjust judge—he is the Father who loves us.
How Much Prayer Does God Want?
Luke 18:1-8 (NRSV)
Introduction: Read (or have someone read) Luke 18:1-8. Ask the question, what do you believe this parable is about? Is the parable about how we pray? Is it telling us to pray harder? Pray longer? Get more and more people to join us in prayer? Or is it reminding us who we pray to?
Luke 18:1-8 is one of the few parables where we are told up front what it’s about. We don’t have to figure it out. In the case of this parable known as “The Persistent Widow,” Jesus told it to show that we “should always pray and not give up.” But why would he want to tell us this?
How we answer that question depends on how we view God. If we see God as some judge who is more interested in his law than us, then we may see prayer as the weight we need to add up enough to tip the scales in our favor. And if this is the case, it’s easy to believe the lie that if we pray hard enough or long enough and get enough other people to join us, then God will be forced to bless us. But that is not how the parable is set up. In fact, Jesus has crafted a story of contrast to make an argument of who God really is—a God who cares for us and who can be counted on. Because of who God is, Jesus can tell us to not lose heart in praying.
The story of contrast Jesus uses creates the argument that if it is true for the lesser then it is truer for the greater. In this case the lesser is a “judge.” We are given a not-too-flattering picture of this particular judge. He “neither feared God nor cared about men.” In short, he was only concerned about himself. We see this self-centered judge in full color as he refuses the pleas for justice from the widow. One of the primary duties of a judge in Israel would be to see that the helpless would not get taken advantage of by an “adversary.” This judge doesn’t seem to care about the widow or about doing his job. But the widow wears him down with her constant pleas. In the end the judge grants her request, not out of concern for her, but out of self-preservation. He didn’t want to be bothered any longer and he feared risking his reputation.
Jesus uses this to argue that if the widow was granted justice by such a wicked judge, then how much more will a loving God hear our prayers and come to our aid. His parable does not invoke the need to pray harder to win God over but rather to see who God is for the purpose of placing our faith in him. This faith gets expressed as we participate in prayer with God.
Here are some of the contrasts presented in the parable that can help build our trust in the Father so we can “pray and not give up.”
The widow was “praying” to a judge; we pray to our heavenly Father.
Have you ever noticed how children will search out a particular parent to present their request to? Somewhere down the line they learned who was the softer target. Maybe you have done this in more sophisticated ways as an adult. We seek out the people we think are more inclined to give us a favorable hearing or answer.
In the parable, the judge is not a soft or favorable target. But the widow doesn’t have other options. We may think we can go to other “favorable” targets to get justice or help for our needs other than God. When we do, we may be casting ourselves on the mercy of a “judge” who cares nothing for us. Much in this world lets us down. But when we know that God is our Father—a loving Father who is completely for us—we can come to see that he is the one we can trust with all our concerns. There is never part of God that is turned away from us or against us. He is a Father unlike all others. We see who this Father is in his Son, Jesus. Jesus has revealed to us in his life, death and resurrection that the Father has already judged us as the children he will love for all eternity. If there is something out of place in your life, there is no doubt that the Father is the One you want to talk to about it.
The judge cared only for himself; the Father cares for the whole world.
You probably know the empty feeling when someone agrees with you or grants a request only because it served their own purposes in some way. Ever had someone do you a “favor” only to obligate you to do them one in return? This lets us know that the person isn’t acting out of their care or concern for us; we call this self-serving. The judge in the parable may grant the widow’s request out of his selfishness, but the Father acts only out of his love for us. We can trust his answer to us is always grounded in his love for us. If the answer is no, it’s for our good. If it’s yes, we can receive and enjoy it in full assurance. We can also pray to the Father knowing that he will not abandon his love for others in his answer to us. This is vital to remember; God’s answer to prayer always takes in account his love for ALL his children. God doesn’t play favorites. We don’t always know how our request will affect another person. Just because we pray something that we think is good for us doesn’t mean that answered prayer would be good for another. We come to trust the Father’s purifying work in our prayers, aligning our prayers with his good will for all.
The judge is “bothered” by the pleas of the widow; the Father welcomes and wants to hear our prayers.
Have you ever been granted a request only because the person didn’t want to deal with you anymore? How does that feel? If we believe God is like this then we are more concerned for the gift and we miss the giver. The Father wants us to bring everything to him in prayer because he wants to be with us in everything. He is not bothered by our prayers in the least bit. Have you felt your prayer was maybe too selfish or petty? Maybe you feel like your prayers are too scattered and incoherent. Are you afraid this would annoy the Father to the point that he shoos you away? It doesn’t happen.
The Father is not worn out like the judge in Jesus’ parable. The Father wants to hear everything on our hearts. Not because he doesn’t already know, but because praying opens us to receive more fully all he has to give us. We share with others only to the extent that we trust them. Prayer in this way warms the Father’s heart as his children come to him in trust. In this trust, the child can then receive what the Father is giving. And the greatest gift we open ourselves to receive through prayer is the gift of communion with the Father.
The judge can be influenced by outside forces such as “nagging”; the Father is true to who he is as a God of love.
Nothing changes God’s mind about us. That can be such a relief from a burden we may not even know we carry. Our thoughts and opinions about one another are easily swayed, are they not? One moment someone is our best friend, the next minute we treat him or her like a sworn enemy. The way we treat others can be swayed by something as simple as bad traffic or a headache. When outside circumstances disrupt our lives, those circumstances can also disrupt our relationships.
The Father is not swayed in this way. He is true to himself. We never need to fear that there is some higher power or cosmic force that has strings attached to the Father’s actions toward us. He is love and he will always respond out of love. The stars do not have to align for the Father’s favor to shine upon you. In Jesus’ life as recorded in the Gospels, we see all kinds of powers and influences align to thwart his mission to the Father for the sake of the world. He was not swayed or delayed. Jesus reveals to us that the Father’s character and heart toward us will never be deterred. You can come to this Father knowing that he does not have other issues to attend to.
The judge “said to himself” in determining how he would proceed with the widow; the Father never talks to himself; Father, Son and Spirit share all things in communion.
All the plans and purposes the Father has for us flow out of his Triune nature of loving relationship. He is not disconnected from our lives lived out in relationship with others. He created us for this purpose. When we approach the Father in prayer we are not praying alone to a lonely God. This can be a scary thing, like going down a dark alley alone to meet a stranger you don’t know. We pray in Jesus’ name. Jesus takes us to his Father. Jesus is the one who prays. When we pray, we are receiving his prayers, participating in his conversation with the Father. Jesus takes our prayers and purifies and presents them to the Father. So, we are not trying to work up a prayer that will be good enough to turn the Father’s ears toward us. Prayer is a manifestation of the Father’s heart already turned toward us in Jesus Christ. The Father is calling us to himself in prayer. Here is an excerpt from C.S. Lewis, who paints a great picture of this dynamic:
An ordinary simple Christian kneels down to say his prayers. He is trying to get into touch with God. But if he is a Christian he knows that what is prompting him to pray is also God: God, so to speak, inside him. But he also knows that all his real knowledge of God comes through Christ, the Man who was God—that Christ is standing beside him, helping him to pray, praying for him. You see what is happening. God is the thing to which he is praying—the goal he is trying to reach. God is also the thing inside him which is pushing him on—the motive power. God is also the road or bridge along which he is being pushed to that goal. So that the whole threefold life of the three-personal Being is actually going on in that ordinary little bedroom where an ordinary man is saying his prayers. The man is being caught up into the higher kinds of life—what I called Zoe or spiritual life: he is being pulled into God, by God, while still remaining himself”—C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book IV, Chapter 2, pg. 143.
As we come to pray, we can come knowing the Father is not talking to himself and we are interrupting; he is speaking to us and drawing us into communion.
These five points of contrast in the parable makes a strong argument for placing our faith in the Father and coming to him with our prayers. As we come to see who God is for us, we will be moved to continually turn to him, and not give up. So, Jesus seems to be telling us through this story that God is the one we can trust for justice. The Father is the one who is faithful to us and can be trusted. No matter what injustices or challenges we face or see in our world, we can bring them to the Father, trusting him to answer. We can badger the “judges” in our world and maybe force a few decisions to go in our favor. Or we can come before our heavenly Father, who favors us completely, not turning from us in our time of need.
Small Group Discussion Questions
From “Speaking of Life” and the sermon:
- Have you ever given up on prayer? Share how you worked past this and started talking with God again.
- Discuss ways we approach prayer as if we need to pray more or harder to get God to respond. Have you encountered this approach before? Have you ever felt that this was what God wanted with prayer?
- Discuss how our view of who God is affects how we pray.
- Discuss how prayer changes when we see ourselves praying to a “judge” like the one in the parable, instead of praying to the Father the way he really is.
- Have you ever thought that your prayers were unacceptable to God? What are things that make us think our prayers are not “good enough”?
- What did you think of C.S. Lewis’ picture of the “ordinary simple Christian” praying? Discuss the difference in praying to a Triune God rather than a solitary “lonely” God.