Faith on Earth?
(February, 2003 POL)
Edward Bennett Williams is one of those distinguished lawyers who comes from one of those blue blood families who end up heading up lots of foundations and trusts. He and some other friends were in charge of a very prestigious foundation which had funds to give to religious causes. Edward Bennett Williams says he has seen the widow in this story.
One day Mother Teresa of Calcutta came to the foundation seeking money for a hospital she was building for people with AIDS. Edward Bennett Williams was not interested in helping people with AIDS. But Mother Teresa explained to them her project and asked for a gift. They said NO. Mother Teresa said, “Let us pray. ” She folded her hands and began praying. After her prayer she made her presentation again. Asked for more money. They said no. She said, “Let us pray.” and bowed her head and began to pray again. She made her presentation and asked for even more money. They said No. She said Let us pray, and the Edward Bennett Williams said, Ok. ok. ok. Give me the check book.”1 That does sound like our story from Luke.
It took Mother Teresa three repetitions of her request to break down Edward Bennett Williams. I want you to think about the people you know and deal with. Hold up your hands and I want you to take them down when you think the widow would have been successful. The story does not say. But how long do you think the Widow had to keep coming to break down the judge? Put your hands down if you think she got what she wanted in a week or less . . . a month or less . . . three months or less. (If hands still up keep going until all of them are down.) Mother Teresa wore down Edward Bennett Williams in one day with three prayers. The widow wore down the judge we figure in about (whenever the most hands were down). Leonard Sweet2 tells the story of a woman who won an age discrimination case by the same kind of protest but did it pretty quickly with the help of the media and the six o’clock news. But this kind of persistent pestering, asking, calling is successful.
But Jesus does not tell this parable to his disciples as a way to teach them how to get what they want from God. The story is not told to assure us that we can get our prayers answered if we just keep praying. We hear the story and there are those who think it means that if this wicked and reckless judge will eventually give this poor widow woman whom he does not like and does not care for what she wants, then surely a good and loving God who cares for His people will not only give them what they want but give it to them much more quickly if they keep asking.
That would surely be good news to the man Harvey Jackson told me about recently. If this story is to tell us that those who are persistent in prayer will get what they want, this man will get his vindication. For he is absolutely sure he is right, and he is persistent. It was a bad call. It was a blown call. It was the closing seconds of a very critical basketball game and the official made a bad call. The man was absolutely convinced it was a bad call, and he went down on the floor to explain it to the official. Surely, when the official understood the rules he would change the bad call. The man was persistent. His friends tried to hold him back. But the man went onto the floor. He told the officials. The officials did not change the call. The man hauled off and hit the official with all his might. Broke the officials jaw. The police came and took the man away. The man could not understand it. Didn’t the police understand that it was a bad call. It is not right to charge him with assault and battery because it was a bad call. The man pleaded his case before a judge and jury. Surely they will understand. It was a bad call. They found him guilty of assault. He appealed. The appeals court upheld the verdict. He appeals as high as he can get them to hear his appeal. Somewhere there is a judge who will understand it was a bad call and the man will be vindicated in his actions. He is determined; he is persistent. He is still calling up judges. If the parable is only about getting what you want if you are persistent, this man has hope.
But the parable is told to His disciples immediately after the discussion about the coming of the Kingdom of God, how when the kingdom comes there will be some taken and some left. This discussion about the coming of the Kingdom of God and how they have been waiting and hoping for that Day of the Lord for a long time. And Luke says that Jesus told them this parable so that they “ought to pray and not lose heart.” The parable is not about how to get what you want in prayer. The parable is not about how if a mean old judge will hear the requests of a widow to get rid of her, how much more eagerly will a loving God hear the prayers of His people. The parable is told by Jesus so that they will pray without losing heart. To pray without giving up. They will stay constantly and passionately in prayer at all times even when so much of their prayers seem to be the hurling of passionate desires of our hearts at God in the face of prolong silence.
For the act of praying to God for what we want is a very real act of putting our faith on the line. That is why so many people hesitate to pray, that is why so many of us are afraid to pray for what we really want, that is why we mumble very general and vague prayers so that when very vague and general things happen we can say that prayer works. Prayer is an act of faith that there is a God who is there, a God who cares and a God who is able to act in history in a way that responds to our prayers. This act of praying is a tremendous challenge to a lively and living faith. And the problem for most of us is that we slowly and steadily lose heart. We become discouraged and disappointed. It is not that we did not try. It is not that we did not do it right. A passionate and zealous prayer life can just wear you out. It can suck the spirit right out of your life. We pray and we pray and we pray for healing and health for one of our beloved friends and we see so little happening, and we get so tired of praying, so embarrassed by our efforts which produce so little. Prayer can just wear your heart out if you are not careful — especially when there is no sign on earth that God has even heard us. You can knock so long at a closed door and then your arm gets tired, your knuckles hurt, and your intelligence begins to try to explain to you that nobody is home. You can only listen to yourself speak into the darkness of your room for so long before you start to listen to that voice that is trying to tell you how crazy you sound talking to the silence. You begin to lose heart, to lose faith, to lose interest and your begin to stop praying.
Notice what Jesus says at the end of the parable, this parable he tells so that His disciples, so that we, will not lose heart. “And will not God vindicate His elect, who cry to Him day and night? Will He delay long over them? I tell you He will vindicate them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?” Will there still be disciples praying for His coming when it comes. Will there still be those asking and praying “Thy Kingdom come” or will we all have lost heart by then?
For Jesus there is no doubt about whether or not the Kingdom of God is coming. God will vindicate His elect. His Kingdom is coming. The question for Jesus is whether or not there will still be disciples praying and hoping and awaiting the coming of that kingdom. The persistence is not what makes God give the kingdom. The persistence will not make God bring the kingdom any sooner. The persistence will only identify those who are ready and waiting for the kingdom when it comes. “Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire, unuttered or expressed” Prayer is the way we express that for which we hope and long for and desire above everything else. What do you want most from life? What do you pray for every night? Most of us probably pray for the protection and health and blessings upon our family. Do you pray that God will come and bring in His Kingdom?
Our persistence in prayer, “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” is not to try to persuade God, like an uncooperative judge, to give us the kingdom because He currently does not want to give it, or to try to persuade him to give it earlier than He intends, but to pray for His Kingdom as one awaiting the gift when it is given. To be ready for its arrival when it comes.
Barbara Brown Taylor, one of the nations more gifted readers of scripture, says, “I keep coming back to that sad little question at the end of the parable: ‘And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?’ It makes you think that Jesus did not know too many persistent widows, or at least not enough of them. He did not know too many people with enough faith to stay at anything forever. Then as now, most people prayed like they brush their teeth — once in the morning and once at night, as part of a daily spiritual hygiene routine.
“What the persistent widow knows is that the most important time to pray is when your prayers seem meaningless. If you don’t go and say a few prayers and demand from the judge what you want, what are you going to do? Take to your bed with a box of Kleenex and complaining about how horrible life is? Just forget about the justice or the peace for today. The demand for justice can just get along without you for one day? No. Day by day by day, you are going to get up, wash your face, and go down there and ask for what you want. You know the routine. You know what will happen, but you will not let their reaction rob you of what give your life its dignity. You are going to trust the process, regardless of what comes of it. Because it is the process itself, the asking and the going, that gives your life it shape, its meaning, its direction. The process keeps you alive, engaged, focused and involved with what matters most in your life, so you do not lose heart.”
Barbara ends her reflection on this parable by saying, One day one of the children in our Sunday School will ask me directly whether prayer really works, and I am going to say, “Oh, sweetie, of course it does. Prayer keeps our hearts chasing after God’s Heart. Prayer is how we bother God and prayer is how God bothers us back, and there is nothing that works any better than that.”3
Jesus told this parable so that we would pray and not lose heart. Are you still praying for what you prayed for last year?
1 Tom Long, as quoted in Wil Willimon’s Pulpit Resource, Oct-Dec. 1998, vol 26 No. 4, pp. 13-14
2 Leonard Sweet, Homiletics, Sept-October, 1998, p. 67
3 Barbara Brown Taylor, Home by Another Way, Cowley Press: Boston, Ma. 1999 .pp 198-201.