fish6.gif - 0.8 K

A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Luke 18:1-8
October 20, 2013 - Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

         “Welcome to ABC SuperProducts! Please listen carefully as our menu options have almost certainly changed and are definitely confusing. If you would like to try and find a store near you, please press one. If you would like to place an order, please press two. If you are wondering where in the world your existing order is, please press three. If you are unhappy with an order you have received and would like to be placed on hold for thirty minutes and then abruptly disconnected for no reason, please press four. If this is your third call or more and you are ready to cry, please press five. To repeat these options until you are even more confused, please press six. If you are really ticked off and just want to talk to a human being who can actually straighten things out, please feel free to press any number you want, but it won’t help. Thank you and have a nice day!”

         How many of us have been there? Some of us, like Roger, have also been on the other end of phone trees like that, trying to respond with sympathy and support to desperate calls for help, any help. As Roger will tell you, it’s often there, but it takes persistence to get it.

         Prayer is definitely not a supernatural phone tree, where you just have to push the right numbers to get a direct line to God. But it does take persistence, as Luke tells us to introduce another parable from Jesus. Verse 1 says the parable is to teach us that we need to be always praying and “not lose heart,” not give up.

         This parable is odd, with characters who are not quite what you’d expect in a sweet little Gospel story. A couple weeks ago we heard Jesus tell us to be like a dishonest manager, at least in regard to the shrewdness with which we invest our money for eternity. Now He’s comparing God to another shady character, an unjust judge, who it says in verse 2 “neither feared God nor had respect for people.”

         How do you handle that sort of authority figure? Like the widow did in verse 3. She “kept coming to him.” You call back again and again. You ask for the supervisor, then the supervisor’s supervisor, then the manager. You hang in there, asking for what you want, complaining on Yelp and Facebook, making a nuisance of yourself until the management finally gets tired of you and gives in. That’s what the widow did with the unjust judge.

         Is that really how we’re supposed to pray? Is Jesus teaching us to talk to God like spoiled children? When I was four years old and out on a shopping trip with my mother and grandmother, they decided to stop in a little café for lunch. They asked me what I wanted. A hot dog. Unfortunately that wasn’t on the menu. The waitress apologized, but no hot dogs. Mommy and Grandma tried to interest me in a grilled cheese sandwich or a hamburger or macaroni, but I wasn’t having it. I screamed and cried. I wanted a hot dog.

         You have to give me this: I was persistent. And I was a successful little brat. They gave in. We left the café, got in the car, and drove a few blocks to some seedy five-and-dime where we perched uncomfortably on stools at the counter, and they fed me my hot dog. If you’re a parent, I’m guessing you’ve given in, a time or two at least, to a crying, screaming little monster who can’t be shut up any other way. But is that really how Jesus wants us to be? And is that really how God is?

         As Jesus says in verse 6, “Listen to what the unjust judge says.” In verse 5, that judge who cares neither about God’s laws nor about human suffering, says, “yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” Is that God? Are we just supposed to keep praying until, like my mother, or like the manager of ABC SuperProducts, or like the unjust judge, He just gets sick of listening to it and gives in? Is that what prayer is about?

         We are making a big mistake if we take away the lesson that Jesus means for us to keep badgering God with our prayers. That, in fact, would be just the opposite of what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6:7, where He told us not to heap on lots of empty phrases in prayer as if God would listen more because of all the repetition.

         It’s a pagan idea to think that persistence in prayer means constantly repeating and saying prayers over and over. It’s like the Tibetan prayer wheels on which Buddhists write many copies of a mantra and then turn it, believing that the wheel going around with all those words is the same as saying them over and over.

         Yes, verse 1 says Jesus wants to teach us to always pray, but the reason is not that repetition makes it work better. This picture of the unjust judge is not to say that God is like that, that He can be worn down, can be pestered into finally giving in. You might think that, as you read verse 7 where Jesus says, “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” But the point is not that day and night crying gets God to give in, but that God is better than the unjust judge. Unlike the judge, God is concerned about justice. Unlike the judge, God does care about people.

         The last sentence of verse 7 is tricky. Lots of translations make it a question: “Will God delay in helping them?” But the meaning of the word being used there about God is “be patient.” The question is not, “Will he delay in helping them?” but “Will he be patient with them?” It’s the word Paul uses in I Corinthians 13:4, “Love is patient.”

         God is not some overworked, impatient bureaucrat. He’s a loving Father listening to the cries of His children with gentleness and patience. He doesn’t respond to us because our prayers wear Him out. He is going to respond and help us because He is infinitely patient with us, even when we act and pray like spoiled brats.

         So the beginning of verse 8 concludes with the reassuring promise, “I tell you, he will suddenly grant justice to them.” “Suddenly” is a better translation than “quickly.” Christians have been praying for centuries for our Lord to come, to return and set up His kingdom and bring justice to this world. It didn’t happen quickly, but it will happen suddenly, surprisingly, unexpectedly. That’s the promise here.

         Which should give us a clue to something more about this parable. It’s easy to read it as a lesson about our personal prayers, about praying for our needs, for food and jobs and healing and help with a term paper or a family problem. We want to think that Jesus is telling to just keep on persistently praying and, sooner or later, God is going to come around and give us what we ask for.

         God does care about all those sorts of needs. And when Jesus gave us a prayer to pray, part of it was a request for daily bread and help against temptations. But look again at what the woman was asking for and what the judge gave her and what Jesus promises will be given to God’s chosen. What is it? Justice.

         In the parable, justice is needed to meet that poor widow’s particular need. Widows in Jesus’ time were on the bottom rung of the economic ladder. They were expected to wear certain clothing that showed their status as widows. When their husbands died, they did not inherit his estate. It went back to his family and they gave the widow a little stipend. In her dead husband’s family she held an inferior position, almost a servant. And if she went back to her own family, then they had to pay back the dowry paid to the husband’s family for the marriage. Many times widows ended up in debt and were sold as slaves to pay it back.[1]

         It wasn’t only the judge who was unjust. That widow in Jesus’ story lived in an unjust system. People like her were regularly and systematically treated unfairly and abused. She was probably trying to get just enough money to live on from her husband’s family, but they were against her and the system was against her. She needed justice.

         Yes, yes, yes, God absolutely cares about our individual needs and problems. But God also cares about and wants His people praying about the bigger picture, about governments and systems and a world in which injustice  is so often the rule.

         You’ve heard about Malala, the Pakistani girl who wrote a blog about her life under Taliban rule and the struggle for girls to receive an education in her valley. She was shot by the Taliban just about a year ago. Now she’s touring around talking about the need for justice for all the young women like her who deserve a chance to learn.

         Malala’s story is not just about her personal need. Her father is an educational activist who taught her and gave her many of the opportunities she’s asking for. But she realizes there’s a bigger story, a story not just about one girl, but about all girls who need the justice of being treated like human beings and growing into all that God has made them to be.

         Jesus’ call to always pray and not give up is not just about what you or I need or want today or tomorrow. It’s about praying for God to bring justice to His hurting people all over the world. It’s about praying for Muslim girls to go to school, and for Sudanese children to have food and clean water, and for homeless people in our own community to have a place to live. It’s about praying for a world where justice prevails over injustice, where God’s will is done, and all people are treated with love and respect.

         It’s easy to give up on justice, on what’s right. The front page of yesterday’s paper carried a quotation from Jack Roberts, a former county commissioner picked to lead the Oregon lottery. He said, “An ideal tax system wouldn’t rely on gambling revenue. But Oregon is so far from an ideal tax system.” So the ideal is justice, a system that funds education in a way that is fair and equitable. But we can’t have the ideal, so we give up on it and use an unjust system, gambling, which places the cost burden mostly on the poorest people in our state, who waste money they need for basic survival on lottery tickets in the almost impossible hope of striking it rich.

         Jesus told this parable to teach us not to give up on the ideal, not to give up on justice, not to give up on a vision of a society, of a world, where men, women and children are treated fairly with dignity and respect and with the love of God. Cry for justice and trust in the promise that God will bring justice. Don’t give up on that promise.

         This parable and promise ends with a haunting question: “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” That question drives home a couple more things about all this. First, the promise of God’s help here is definitely not about some speedy granting of our prayer requests. Yes, yes, yes, God is listening to all our prayers about broken hearts and sore feet. But the promise here is about the ultimate answer, about the Son of Man coming, about Jesus returning to set up His kingdom on this earth. That is when justice will finally and completely be done. That’s what we are to keep praying for. That’s what we’re saying whenever we repeat, “Thy kingdom come…”

         The second thing about that final question is that it pierces to the heart of how you and I are living and praying, right now. Have we given up, given up on God’s promise of justice? Are we, like Jack Roberts, content to accept the injustice around us and even join in it? Or will we be faithful in praying for something better, and faithful in working for something better?

         Back in Nebraska, Dennis was an attorney in our church who worked for the attorney general’s office. For a couple years he pushed for an investigation into some allegations of child abuse in the state. He kept getting ignored and refused. The allegations involved prominent business people and no one wanted to offend them.

         Dennis told me he had pushed all the buttons, like talking to that automated phone system. No one was listening. He was frustrated, but he just kept pushing. Eventually questions got asked, and they dug into social service records. The abuse was revealed and the perpetrators and those who covered it up were exposed. Dennis stayed faithful to his cause, and justice arrived.

         God is not unjust. God is full of patient loving-kindness for everyone who is praying and working for justice, for a world where children are safe, where single mothers like that widow are helped, where poor and mentally ill people have housing, and where no one ever gets sold as a slave. God is listening. Christ will come. Let’s not give up.

         In an old TV western, “The Rifleman,” Mark the boy gets typhoid fever. Lucas his father and an old eccentric doctor work to keep him alive. At one point Lucas mounts his horse and gallops away into the mountains to return hours later with buckets of rapidly-melting snow lashed to his saddle. They pack the snow around the feverish boy, cooling his overheated body. Then they sit down to wait through the night and presumably, to pray.

         It’s the early hours of the morning and Lucas has nodded off in his chair beside the bed. He opens his eyes and quickly turns to look at his son. He leaps up in joy when he sees sweat trickling down his little face. The fever has broken! He’s going to be all right.

         That’s our role in this unjust and uncaring world. We are not to give up, not to accept the way things are around us, whether it’s child abuse or racial discrimination or just plain dishonest business. No, we are to keep our faith in a God who wants something different and who will one day bring something different. In the meantime we are always to pray, always to work for justice in the hope of that day.

         Through Jeremiah, God told the people of Judah not to give up, even though the Babylonians had hauled them away into exile. He promised a new day was coming, a new day when God would write His law, his justice on their hearts, and everyone would know God. And in Paul’s second letter to Timothy we heard him tell the young pastor to be persistent, to keep teaching the truth, even when it seems like it’s not doing any good.

         Beth and I saw the film “Gravity” on my birthday Friday. It was a thrill ride. At one point Sandra Bullock’s character is hopelessly accepting death and says, “Nobody will mourn for me. Nobody will pray for my soul.” Then she says something that should indict and inspire all of us who believe in a God who wants us always to pray and not give up. She said “I’ve never said a prayer in my life. Nobody ever taught me how.”

         That’s why we pray and never give up here together as a church. We don’t want there to be little girls or boys who haven’t learned to pray. We don’t want there to be men and women freezing to death on our streets. We don’t want this world to be unjust. We want everyone to have faith and hope in Jesus Christ who is coming again to bring justice.

         So we get behind on our budget. We get worried about our personal problems. We get pessimistic about the small difference we make in the big scheme of things. But we do not give up. We have a God who hears all our prayers, who wants every child to learn to pray, and to have hope, and to have a future with Him by faith in Jesus. And we also rejoice in the comfort that He wants all that for each of us too. Don’t give up.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, p. 453.

Last updated October 20, 2013