Toorak Uniting Church

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Jesus taught them that they should always pray and never become discouraged

Luke 18: 1 – 8
Rev. Robert McUtchen
17 October 2010

My late father in law was a funny man. He laughed often. He devised a trick for church lunches when lettuce salad was served. He found a large snail shell, fashioned a passable snail body from putty, lacquered it all, and you had a very passable snail. It was a simple measure then to slip the snail among the lettuce leaves, wait till people were loading their plates, then loudly "discover" the snail. And the snail lived on the fridge near a fridge magnet that said "Prayer changes things". Somehow I’ve always kept that association 36 years later.

The text:

1 He then told them a parable on the need for them to pray always and not become discouraged: 2 "There was a judge in one town who didn't fear God or respect man. 3 And a widow in that town kept coming to him, saying, 'Give me justice against my adversary.' 4 "For a while he was unwilling, but later he said to himself, 'Even though I don't fear God or respect man, 5 yet because this widow keeps pestering me, I will give her justice, so she doesn't wear me out by her persistent coming.' " 6 Then the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 Will not God grant justice to His elect who cry out to Him day and night? Will He delay [to help] them? 8 I tell you that He will swiftly grant them justice. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He find that faith on earth?" Holman Christian Standard version

Read the parable always with the introduction clearly at hand and in mind. Pray always and never become discouraged.

The widow was always the least in Jewish society, yet of all the disadvantaged only orphans had a greater call on the public care than a widow. The undescribed case involved a matter of justice. She has been seriously disadvantaged here by the judge.

She is determined. Have you been ever so determined that nothing would stop you?
She kept coming
She kept pleading for her rights
She pursued him in ways that would publicly embarrass him.
The text uses a word in Greek far stronger than "wear me out" – its closer to – she’ll give me black eye, and that would be embarrassing for me, as well as personally dangerous. Finally he gives in – not for her cause, but for his own sake.

Remember the intro – pray and never be discouraged.
The main focus is not on the judge or his character – rather, the focus is on the determination of the woman, who would not give in.

Questions for us today:

1. What is happening with the perception of prayer, that it is less and less observed in public life, and maybe personal devotional life, in Australia? Does this betray a misunderstanding of what prayer is?
2. Speaking of prayer - How can we avoid two extremes — a rationalistic view that God is not moved in any way by our prayers and a naïve view that we can manipulate God with them?

Prayer is an intrinsic part of Judeao – Christian religious practice and Islam, which developed from these. People have been exhorted to pray for thousands of years. Prayer takes many forms today – the distinctive Islamic prayer form Salaat performed 5 times each day, Jewish prayer tefillot three times a day, and the Christian prayers always including the Lord’s prayer as Jesus commanded. Prayer was something our Lord practised continually, and while we know less of the nature of prayer he practised, we do know that he was frequently in prayer alone, or at least apart from his disciples. One thing becomes clear if you examine any of these prayer forms – none are solely about asking – instead there is plentiful thanks for the blessings of God, praise for the greatness of God, confession of sin and a throwing of the prayer upon God’s mercy.

Prayer has been described as a conversation with God.

C. S. Lewis said of prayer: "Prayer is either a sheer illusion or a personal contact between embryonic, incomplete persons (ourselves) and the utterly concrete Person. Prayer in the sense of petition, asking for things, is a small part of it; confession and penitence are its threshold, adoration its sanctuary, the presence and vision and enjoyment of God its bread and wine."

Lewis’ observation suggest that there is much more to prayer than just asking for things; it makes you wonder whether there is wide perception both in the church, and certainly beyond it, that prayer is ONLY about asking, and that many of the hang-ups and disappointments of prayer not answered in fact arise from this misconception. If prayer is thought to be mainly concerned with asking God for things, then it might be understandable why there are moves to eliminate prayer from areas in community life where it is still practised.

But if prayer is perceived as being primarily a wish list to an undefined God who may or may not exist, then it is seriously misrepresented. Returning to CS Lewis again, he names confession, penitence, adoration, presence, vision and enjoyment of God. Aspects which concern self awareness, self reflection and ethical behaviour, and an engagement with the supernatural however well understood or not. These dimensions of prayer are not so rigorous that people of anything but a strong atheistic position would be excluded.

If we were better able to communicate this sense of prayer, countering the notion of "asking", the community and even church attitude to prayer might change substantially.

Lets now move to the second question: How can we avoid two extremes

a rationalistic view that God is not moved in any way by our prayers,
and a naïve view that we can manipulate God with them?

This is a huge and complex question, one too great to resolve in one morning! We can however make a start. Today in Rome Sister Mary McKillop will be canonised. In recent weeks much has been written about the miraculous healing of people whose supporters prayed solely to Sister Mary to intercede on the behalf of two very sick people. Others were quick to write in noting that their loved ones had not been so fortunate and were sceptical of the whole thing. They name the huge question – can prayer to God, or an intermediary saint result in a change to a physical condition? That in turn asks many questions

a. does healing mean God has heard the plea and acted,
b. does healing reflect God’s approval of the one praying, or their intermediary, or the patient?
c. Does that mean that certain people are better prayers than others?
d. Does non healing mean God’s disfavour or judgement on the patient?
e. Does death mean healing has not happened?
f. What implications are there for the faith of the one whose prayers are not answered?

Perhaps the first thing to remember is that Jesus encouraged his people to pray, even telling parables about prayer. The parable today concerns praying for a matter of justice – in this case personal justice. I do not believe Jesus was suggesting prayer is exclusively about seeking justice – for ourselves or anyone else. There are ample cases where people pleaded with Jesus for physical healing for themselves or other people. Prayer is about conversation with God, and through that conversation it is inevitable that a person will share with God their deepest longings or yearnings for those they love – whatever the matter.

So – to the first question whether the rationalistic view that God is not moved in any way by our prayers is tenable. Jesus teaches us that God is unlike the unjust judge – he does listen and note our prayers. Taking the idea of prayer as a conversation with God, in any conversation, it is through the medium of conversation that God becomes aware of our concerns. I wonder how much, how often we allow time in our prayer for a conversation to begin – do we allow sufficient time for God to hear and listen to our concerns – and more to the point – is there any space for silence in which God may speak to us – and how do we feel about that silence? Unless we pray in a way which makes space and time for a true conversation, it is unreasonable for a person to claim that God does not hear, or be moved, by our prayers.

Following on from this is the inevitable question – if God hears our prayers, if God is moved by our prayers, does it follow that he will always give us what we ask?

The reality is we are in the realm of mystery and things we do not fully understand when we plead to God to intervene in a situation where we feel disempowered. Equally we should ask, is it fair on God to presume he can always give us what we seek? Rabbi Cushner said in "When bad things happen to good people" that the natural order of the world involves illness, death, and tragedy – not because they are brought on us by God, but because in nature that is what happens. Cancer or disease are part of this realm (so Jesus healings were as much a motif for the wholeness of the kingdom of God). What Cushner does say is that any thing which diminishes the wholeness or perfection of humanity is an offence to God. Perhaps when prayer is offered for a person with cancer or disease, we are asking God to intervene in the normal functioning of the created and independent world. 18 years ago I lost a dear friend in an accident in a rockfall in the Grand Canyon – the rock was responding to the law of gravity when it fell – even had I been able to pray for my friend before she died, should I have prayed that the rock not act in accord with the laws of gravity? Would it have been right to have made such a request to God?

And surely this is one of the major challenges in prayer. I pray for healing for a friend stricken with cancer – one cannot propose that I can manipulate the outcome of his illness simply by praying to God, and causing God to act upon my wishes. This argument is at the heart of the argument of people protesting that Mary McKillop, John Henry Newman, or John Paul 2 cannot really be saints, since there are people who interceded to them and were not healed. What this does reveal is the uncomfortable reality that divine intervention is neither automatic, nor on demand. Equally, as I said some weeks ago, God may provide a response to our prayer which is different to what we asked for, but may be so much better for us. And it is not until later on, much later, that we look back and see that God has carried us, and given us things we did not seek which have blessed us even more than what we asked for.

Prayer is neither a pointless exercise in talking to someone who is not listening. Neither is it our manipulating God – as if we could! Rather, it is an activity Jesus encourages us to do, with determination. In the same way I am reminded of the saying attributed to Knox – faith comes about through discipline.

The encouragement is to pray. Jesus wants us to pray, and to keep on praying, but remember prayer is a multi facetted thing in which getting to know God is by far the greatest part. Praying, determinedly, faithfully, is all a part of prayer; petition and asking becomes a part, simply because it is part of conversation and the opening of our hearts to a dear friend. There is no one way, no right way – but what you apply with discipline and patience may be the place in which you discover that in God’s own strange was, your prayers are answered. Amen.

© Rev. Robert McUtchen, 2010

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