"Persistent Prayer"
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
October 17, 2010
Luke 18:1-8

How many saw the rescue of the Chilean miners?  Amazing, wasn't it?  Back on August 5th, as they were mining for copper far beneath the earth's surface, the shaft collapsed and trapped them deep underground.  For 17 long days their families and friends held vigil hoping against hope that they were still alive.  The people of Chile held their collective breaths and millions around the globe prayed that some of the men might have survived the disaster.  Usually, such calamities quickly turn from rescue to recovery operations.  Then that first drill made its way down more than 2000 feet and the world discovered that the men had miraculously survived.

An unprecedented rescue effort was launched.  Advice from around the world poured in and plans were devised.  A much larger hole was drilled, an evacuation capsule was built and then we watched as the large wheel slowly spun, plucking the men up to the surface one by one.  Then, as each man stepped out of the capsule, he was greeted with cheers and hugs and singing.

It can be emotionally overwhelming when prayers are finally answered after days of desperate pleading.  Coincidentally, today's gospel lectionary reading is a parable about the need to keep praying and not to give up.

Jesus tells a story about a widow who goes to a judge to get the justice she deserves.  However, this judge is not the epitome of virtue and righteousness.  Far from it.  He could care less about the woman's predicament or even what God thinks of his callous disregard for justice.  So, he simply ignores the woman.  But she is not going to fade away quietly.  She screams at him, "Grant me justice!  Grant me justice!"

The judge stuffs cotton in his ears and mutters to himself.  But this woman is tenacious and she is fearless.  Every morning as he heads to his office she walks alongside of him arguing her case.  During the day she is outside of his window shouting at him.  Every evening as he walks home, she recites the details of her case ad nauseum.  The judge ignores her for as long as he can, but eventually she becomes such a nuisance - like the neighbor's yapping terrier that never stops barking - that he relents, "Enough already!" he says.  "I'll give you what you want if you will just stop bothering me."

Those listening to the parable smile and nod their heads because they know judges like this.  Corrupt, insensitive and apathetic.  Occasionally they stumble onto justice despite their lack of integrity.  They also know women like this; widowed and desperate, and who will perish if they do not become a royal pain to those unsympathetic to their dire circumstances.  Luke says that Jesus told this parable to encourage his followers to be persistent in prayer and never to lose heart.

When we are children, prayer is relatively simple.  We tell God what is on our minds and we do not filter what we say.  "Dear God, my big brother is being really mean to me.  Could you make sure he falls off a cliff?"

However, as we grow older, prayer becomes more difficult as questions overload our circuits.  With six billion people on the planet, does God really listen to each of us?  Why doesn't God spare innocent people from suffering?  Why do some morally good people face numerous struggles while others who are greedy enjoy a life of ease?  Why did my loved one die an early death?  And, what about the sheer silence that often greets our heartfelt prayers?

Today's passage declares that prayer is anything but easy.  It is hard work and often it is frustrating and unsatisfactory. Theologian Fred Craddock tells of a gathering of people who were upset about injustice in our society.  "During the meeting, an elderly black minister read this parable, and in one sentence summarized the whole thing.  He said, 'Until you have stood for years knocking at a locked door, with your knuckles bleeding, you do not really know what prayer is."1

Some believe that following Christ guarantees you special protection from the sorrows and struggles of life.  They believe that God creates a smoother path for those who are faithful so that they may live a life of tranquility, health and peace.  However, in a world where humans are free to make choices, there are consequences to the paths we choose.  Some of us use our freedom in positive, creative and beautiful ways.  We extend compassion and forgiveness, we strive for justice and truth, and we seek the wellbeing of all people, all creatures and God's natural creation.  In partnership with God, we stake a foothold for the kingdom of God on earth.

However, others of us use our freedom in selfish and destructive ways.  We promote strife, injustice and evil.  All of us live with the consequences of both the good and bad decisions that everyone makes.  Being a person of faith does not put a protective shell around you.  Rather, it provides you with strength to bear the storms, courage to face the darkness and hope that God is always by your side, guiding you to the best possible outcome given your situation.

In today's passage, Jesus says something that troubles me.  He asks two rhetorical questions.  The first is: "Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?"  And then he asks: "Will God delay long in helping them?"  The clear implication is that if we are persistent in prayer, God will give us justice in a reasonable period of time.  Yet each of us can name times when our prayers went unanswered.  How often have you hammered on the doors of heaven, but God did not seem to hear?

I remember Rebecca getting cancer when her son was an infant.  Everyone who knew her prayed that the surgery and chemotherapy would be her ticket to a full life.  But on the day her son turned two years old--the day he should have been celebrating with cake and ice cream- we buried his mother.  I believe God held her with loving arms and welcomed her into everlasting life.  I believe God gave her husband the strength he needed to survive his loss and to become the father he needed to become, but that little boy did not benefit from losing his mother.  Her death was not the outcome for which we were praying.

We pray for those in bone-grinding poverty, yet the lines at the soup kitchens get longer.  We pray for wars to cease, yet the tanks keep rolling.  We pray for the marriage to hold, yet the threads unravel and the divorce is final.  Sometimes our prayers seem to be to no avail.  Could it be that a good part of the problem is that we misunderstand prayer?

In the parable, Jesus does not say that God eventually responded to the woman's cries and cajoled the rotten judge to give her justice.  He says that the women wore down the judge until he finally relented.  We forget that prayer is not designed to change God, but rather to change us.  Prayer does not make God aware of something God has overlooked; neither is God withholding divine grace and justice until we ask with the proper piety.  By setting our needs before God, prayer helps us clarify them.  People who have a thin prayer life offer shallow prayers.  And shallow prayers are often selfish prayers.  When we use prayer for self-gratification, we corrupt it.  Theologian Huston Smith says, "This is the opposite of religion's role, which is to de-center the ego, not to pander to its desires."2 The more time we spend with God, the more our prayer life gains depth.  The more we pray, the more we mature into the person God wants us to become.

Persistent prayer does not simply ask God to make things right while we sit high in the stands and cheer. Persistent prayer motivates us to climb down out of the stands, to step onto the playing field, and to get into the game.

One of our chief misunderstandings of prayer is that prayer is intended to get God to swing into action.  We see a problem and we ask God to fix it.  Prayer is more than talking and listening to God.  It includes putting our faith into action.  In prayer, we discern that God is calling us to become the divine hands and feet in the world by reaching out to those in need and doing everything in our power to create just conditions for all people

The parable hints at this in the final verse.  Jesus asks, "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"  He is not asking: Will he find individuals who affirm the correct theological doctrines?  He is asking: Will he find people who are doing the will of God? Will he find a great divide between the haves and have-nots, the oppressors and the oppressed?  He wants to find people whose persistent prayer life is keeping them focused on God's vision for righting the wrongs we encounter.

Tom Long shares a story about Edward Bennett Williams, the legendary Washington criminal lawyer.  "He was a powerful lawyer who represented Frank Sinatra and Richard Nixon, among others.  At one time, he owned the Washington Redskins and the Baltimore Orioles.  Evan Thomas's biography of Williams tells the story about the day that Mother Teresa paid a visit to Williams because she was raising money for an AIDS hospice.  Williams was in charge of a charitable foundation that she hoped would contribute.  Before she arrived for the appointment, Williams said to his partner, Paul Dietrich, 'You know, Paul, AIDS is not my favorite disease.  I don't really want to make a contribution, but I've got this Catholic saint coming to see me, and I don't know what to do.'  They talked it over and agreed that they would be polite, hear her out, but then say no to her request.

"Mother Teresa arrived and she was like a little sparrow sitting on the other side of the huge mahogany desk.  She made her appeal for the hospice, and Williams said, 'We're very touched by your appeal, but that's not where we want to put our money.'  Mother Teresa said simply, 'Let us pray.'  Williams looked at Dietrich; they bowed their heads and after she prayed, Mother Teresa made the same pitch, word for word, for the AIDS hospice.  Again Williams politely said no.  Mother Teresa said, 'Let us pray.'  Williams saw where this was going, looked up at the ceiling, and said 'All right, all right, hand me my checkbook!'"3

"When the Son of Man comes, will he find you persistently praying and pestering for justice?



1.      Mark Sargent, "Keeping Heart, Trusting God," on the Day1 website for October 17, 2004.

2.      Huston Smith, Why Religion Matters, (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), p.45.

3.      Thomas Long, "Praying without Losing Heart," on the 30 Good Minutes website for October 7, 2007.