Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Can We Pray?

Can We Pray?
Lk. 18:1-8[1]
  There are some people in this world who have no problems maintaining their faith when it comes to prayer.  I’m not one.  In fact, I have often referred to myself as a “believing agnostic.”  There is so much about faith that is beyond our ability to understand.  How do you really grasp the mystery of “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”  It has challenged the greatest minds of the church throughout the centuries.  How can we explain that God actually entered our experience as a human being in order to restore us all to the kind of life he intended for us.  It’s baffling.  We can come up with words that help us touch the “hem of the garment,” but I doubt we’ll ever fully understand these things.  And yet, we believe.
  When it comes to prayer, I have tended to be a “believing skeptic.”  I believe that God loves us all, that God is as close to us as the very air we breathe, and that God is concerned about us--to the point of counting the hairs on our head (cf. Lk. 12:7)! And yet, many times when we face a crisis and we pray, we run up against the silence of Heaven.[2]  If we have the faith to continue praying even when it seems that our prayers hit an impenetrable wall between us and God, there comes a time when our ability to keep on praying is diminished and we simply “run out” of prayers.  Some of us know the truth of the saying that “Until you have stood for years knocking at a locked door, your knuckles bleeding, you do not really know what prayer is.”[3] I think we could also add that until you have stood for years knocking at a locked door, your knuckles bleeding, you do not really know what faith is. I know what that’s like, and yet I keep praying.
  But that’s really the question: how do you keep praying, how do you keep trusting in God enough to keep praying, when all you seem to get in response is silence? Our Gospel lesson for today contains a parable that is meant to encourage us “to pray and not to lose heart” (Lk. 18:1).  At least that’s what Luke’s intention was in re-telling the story.  We’re familiar with the situation: a woman who was a widow, very likely in danger of losing her livelihood because women could not inherit property, who seeks justice from a corrupt judge.[4]  This judge is the opposite of what any judge is supposed to be.  He doesn’t care about God’s justice, and he doesn’t care about justice for people, either.  Apparently he does whatever benefits himself the most.
  But this is no ordinary widow.  She’s called the “importunate” widow in the title that’s traditionally assigned to this parable.  That’s a word most of us don’t use these days, but it means “persistent,” “demanding” “unrelenting,” and even “annoying.”  And that’s precisely what she was.  She persisted relentlessly in demanding that this judge grant her what was rightfully hers, and she kept doing so until he was definitely annoyed.  He confessed, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming” (Lk. 18:4-5)!  She simply would not give up until she got the justice she deserved.
  In Luke’s Gospel, this parable is a story about prayer that doesn’t give up. But perhaps more importantly, it’s also a story about faith that doesn’t give up.  I think that’s the point of Jesus’ somewhat strange question at the conclusion: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Lk 18:8).  I think what Jesus was asking was whether anyone would have the faith to keep knocking on closed doors, even though their knuckles might be bruised and bleeding.  You know, it’s painful to keep knocking on a door when your knuckles are in that shape.  And it can be painful to keep believing and keep praying when your faith and prayers are met with silence. 
  I think the test of prayer that goes unanswered for months or even years is perhaps one of the most difficult tests of faith we may face.  It’s at that time when our fundamental faith in God is put to the ultimate test.  How we see God has a powerful influence on our ability to keep believing and praying.  If we see God as a distant, uncaring, heartless despot whom we have to beg endlessly before we get even a scrap of mercy from him, that’s not going to encourage us to pray and not lose heart.[5]  But if we can see God a loving Father who knows what we need, who wants what is best for us, and who is working constantly for our good, despite our inability to even have the slightest clue what God is doing, then I think maybe we can pray.[6] 
  Jesus told this story to emphasize the point that God is not a cold and distant tyrant before whom we have to grovel in order to have any hope of getting an answer to our prayers.  In fact God is the complete opposite of the judge who is depicted in that way in the parable. [7] God is the one who is very much aware of the hardship and suffering his children have to endure.  God is the one who cares very deeply for us all, and so we can freely “cast our cares on him.” And God is the one who works to bring our “vindication” speedily--in other words, to make things turn out right--as fast as possible.[8]  I think if we can hold on to that view of who God is, if we can maintain our faith through all the thick and thin that this life brings to us, then we can pray.  And we can keep praying, trusting that the answer will come when the time is right.[9]

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/20/2013 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Source of Life: The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life, 136: “Prayer doesn’t come easily to the lips of some people, let alone spontaneously. Of course in every life there are heartfelt sighs and cries from the depths.”
[3] Fred B. Craddock, Luke, 210.  Cf. also Moltmann, Source of Life, 137, “Faith deepens prayer, and prayer strengthens faith, until we reach the point of ‘praying always and without ceasing’ (Luke 18:1), whether consciously or unconsciously.”
[4]Widows in the biblical perspective were to be the objects of special provision and were to be protected from their oppressors (cf. Deut. 26:12; Jer. 22:3).  On widows in the biblical world, cf. Darrell Bock, Luke 9:51–24:53, 1448; and John Nolland, Luke 9:21–18:34, 867.
[5] Cf. Ronald Goetz, “Petitionary Prayer,” The Christian Century (Jan 29, 1997): 99: “We have a right and a duty to pray... lest by our silence we would seem to abandon the world to the suspicion that any God who could exist, given such a world as ours, is either utterly aloof, or cruel, or impotent, or perhaps all three.”
[6] It is in this respect, I think, that Barth says of the one who prays, “No more is required than this, but this is required, namely, that he shall speak as he is able” and adds, “It will be God’s affair, and he can leave it confidently to God, to hear and understand him.”  Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 3.4:90.
[7] Cf. Donald Penny, “Persistence in Prayer: Luke 18:1-8,” Review and Expositor, 104 (Fall 2007): 741: “Unlike the judge who grew weary with the widow's pleading, God listens tirelessly to our prayers. God is not reluctant. He listens patiently and he answers willingly.” Cf. also Bock, Luke 9:51–24:53, 1450; Nolland, Luke 9:21–18:34, 869–70.
[8] The word translated “justice” can also be translated “vindication.”  Cf. Dorothy Jean Weaver, “Lk 18:1-8” Interpretation 56 (Jul 2002): 319: As Luke sees it, justice is the name for God's action in the world to make right what is wrong. And prayer is the name for the collaboration of humans in that act of God (emphasis original).” Contrast those who see this as a promise of vengeance for those who have been persecuted, cf. Bock, Luke 9:51–24:53, 1451; Nolland, Luke 9:21–18:34, 869.  Weaver also comments (ibid., p. 318), “Jesus' message, and that of Luke behind him, is unmistakable: God is a God of justice. And God will not fail to bring that justice into being for God's chosen ones. Injustice is not the final word (emphasis original).” 
[9] Cf. Penny, “Persistence,” 741, where he reminds us that “Jesus does not promise instant gratification of our requests.”  He adds, “God's answer may not come chronologically soon, but as we pray and wait, we can be confident that his justice will come surely and swiftly. But the most important thing, whether our wait is long or short, is that in the end we may be found faithful, looking to God for our salvation.”

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