I’ve been preaching in churches all over this Presbytery for about a year. Ironically, one of the few churches where I haven’t preached is the one I’ve been attending for the last 4 years! I was very glad to get to preach and lead worship for our friends at Westernville Presbyterian Church.
The text for this week is Luke 18:1-8.
When Sarah and I were in seminary together in Vancouver, there was a certain professor with whom I had a troubled relationship. I met this professor on my first day of classes. Young and eager, I burst into his office after class and told him all my ambitions for getting a PhD and teaching in a university. I was hoping to gain a personal connection with this professor. What I wanted most of all was his affirmation and approval.
After listening to me pouring my heart out, he asked what my undergraduate GPA had been. When I told him, he shook his head and told me that it really should have been a full point higher. In the future, he said, the college would raise its admission standards so that students like me wouldn’t be allowed in.
To be sure, my professor’s response was a bit rude. But, to be fair to him, I had just barged into his office with a heart full of unrealistic personal expectations for this academic professional.
I was devastated, but also determined. I put on my best “I’ll show him” attitude and hunkered down into seminary life. I told myself I would force this professor to give me an ‘A’. So I spoke out in class whenever I had something to say. I submitted papers and articles for his feedback. I showed up in his office whenever I could think of an excuse. But the harder I fought for his approval, the more frustrated I became.
The widow in Jesus’ parable knew a thing or two about frustration as well. Jesus didn’t tell us the specifics of the case she was pleading before the judge. All we know about her is that she was desperate for justice. As a widow with no apparent son, she would have been one of the most vulnerable and disenfranchised people in her society. Some scholars think that the Hebrew word for ‘Widow’ (Almanah) is actually derived from the word for ‘Silence’ (Alam). A widow, in that society, was (literally) a person without a voice. She had no legal recourse for pursuing justice. Her persistence in nagging the judge was her only weapon in this case.
As for the judge himself, we learn quickly that he is not someone to be liked or trusted. Jesus said that he “neither feared God nor had respect for people”. This particular phrase was often used in that time to describe individuals who were both corrupt and powerful. He was above the law because, in the eyes of his society, he was the law. There was no real reason why that judge should listen to this widow. But we know that she prevailed on him in the end. This widow’s obnoxious persistence drove the judge to the point of insanity. In the end, he relented, saying, “I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out”. In Greek, the phrase here can be literally translated, “so that she may not give me a black eye”. As calloused and powerful as he was, this judge was beginning to feel beat up and worn down by a poor, defenseless widow!
Jesus teaches his followers that God is like this judge, only better. He showed that even the corrupt and calloused powers-that-be can be swayed by the persistent badgering. How much more quickly will God, the author of justice, be persuaded to act on behalf of the poor and oppressed?
This was an open question in the ancient world. How long would God wait before helping the chosen people? The book of Psalms is littered with cries for justice and deliverance. Throwing a fist in the air, the Psalmist bellows, “How long, O Lord?” The Jewish people were very familiar with the Passover story in the book of Exodus. Every year they celebrated the liberation of their ancestors from slavery and oppression in Egypt. Yet, this annual celebration led to a difficult question: “If God did so much for our ancestors in the Bible, why doesn’t God do something for us now?” It was all too easy to lose faith in this mysterious and unseen God of Israel. We read that many of the ancient Hebrews turned away from their God in favor of other deities whose idols could be seen with one’s eyes. These lesser gods could be understood and controlled through an elaborate (and brutal) system of human sacrifices.
We, in our society, are no less interested in forces that can be understood and controlled. We, in the postmodern world, are obsessed with quantifiable results. We desire measurable efficiency in everything from the performance of our cars to the performance of our politicians. We are trained to ask the question, “Does it work?” We even ask this question of our spiritual practices. When it comes to prayer, the number one excuse people give for not praying is, “It doesn’t work.” So Jesus’ question, “Will not God grant justice to the chosen ones who cry out day and night?” is an open question for us as well.
Jesus answers this question in verse 8: “I tell you, God will quickly grant justice to them.” Jesus affirms the power of prayer to make a difference in this world, but then he turns the question back around and directs it at us, “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” The question is no longer about the power of prayer; instead the question is about us.
I think Jesus is correcting a deep misconception about the purpose of prayer. In our results-oriented society, we are obsessed with the question, “Does it work?” The value of prayer is to be measured only in terms of the practical results it produces in our lives. Was the sick person healed? Did the check arrive in time? Were the fighting parties reconciled? Did that person find peace before the end? Jesus affirms the power of prayer to make a difference in these areas, but he also invites us to take a look at the deeper importance of prayer. Before prayer changes the world, prayer changes us. This is the standard by which Jesus measures the effectiveness of prayer. Any sorcerer can give you a magic spell to change your situation for the better, but only God can change your heart for the better. Prayer changes you before it changes the world.
In my frustration with my seminary professor, God taught me a lesson about having a changed heart. As I said before, I tried like crazy to get this professor to notice me, but nothing seemed to work. In time, my frustration gave way to hatred. My friends learned to not mention his name in my presence because of the unkind things I would say about him. You could say that I was in desperate need of a “heart transplant”. I prayed for him. I prayed that God would forgive him for the pain he caused me. I prayed that God would help me forgive him.
The answer to those prayers came late one night as I stood on the balcony of my apartment. This professor was on my mind and I prayed once again that God would help me forgive him. Then, a thought occurred to me that made me stop in my tracks. I didn’t need to forgive this professor for his rude comments to me. I needed to ask forgiveness for the bitterness that was consuming my soul from the inside out. Looking back, I think that was the Holy Spirit speaking to me and telling me what I needed to do in order to find peace.
Later that week, I went back to my professor’s office. This time, I sat before him, not as an ambitious young graduate student, but as a broken brother in Christ. I told him about the bitterness I harbored in my heart. I apologized for having such unrealistic expectations about him. I confessed my sin of hatred to the person I hated.
His response surprised me. I had come to think of him as a cold-hearted snake who didn’t care about anyone but himself. In that moment, I found him to be a warm and gracious person who accepted my apology and then prayed for me, right there in his office. In his prayer for me, he expressed his admiration for my commitment to always do the right thing. It was in my moment of greatest weakness that I finally found the personal connection and affirmation that I so longed for from this man.
I never did get that PhD (although I did end up teaching college). Was my prayer answered in the end? I think so. Not because my desires were fulfilled, but because God used that situation to transform me into a new kind of person.
As you look at your life this morning, how have your prayers changed you? Can you think of a time in your life when the power of prayer didn’t just transform your circumstances, but transformed you into a new kind of person? If so, that’s great! It means you’re on the right track. If you can’t think of an example from your life, take some time this week to think about what it is that you’re praying for. As you ask God to change your situation, take an extra second to ask how God wants you to change in the midst of this situation. If you don’t pray at all, why not give it a try this week? You might be surprised at the way it transforms the world around you. You might be even more surprised at the way it changes you.