Does prayer work? When you’re going through something and you ask people to pray for you, does it matter? Does it help? Maybe you’ve seen this meme on Facebook about the uselessness of prayer.
“I named my cats ‘thoughts’ and ‘prayers’ because they’re useless.”
I actually think that’s pretty funny, but it’s sadly popular because people believe it. Prayer doesn’t work. Maybe some of you were on social media after the recent Parkland Shooting and you saw this meme showing Neo from the Matrix stopping bullets with his mind.
“When you’re in school and the thoughts and prayers kick in.”
The message is clear. Prayer doesn’t work. Prayer doesn’t matter. Do you believe this? I think most of us would say, “No! I believe prayer works.” But our real answer is not what we say but what we do. If you spend time in prayer every day, you believe prayer works. It’s easy to forget prayer’s power and importance. Today I want to encourage us to both pray more and help us understand what to pray for.
Always pray and never lose heart. (Luke 18:1)
What I like about the parable of the persistent widow is that Luke tells us up front what it means.
Luke 18:1 “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” (NIV®)
So why does Jesus tell his disciples and us this parable? He calls us to…
1) Pray consistently and regularly.
This sounds familiar to another passage of Scripture.
1 Thessalonians 5:17 “pray continually,” (NIV®) or “pray without ceasing,” (ESV)
Is that really possible to pray constantly? The word for “continually” (adialeiptos) really means “to have a consistent practice.” One pastor said it’s not that our prayer should be constantly occurring but constantly reoccurring. So to pray without ceasing means to pray consistently and regularly. If prayer is pouring your heart out to God you can do that by intentionally directing your attention to him throughout your day. I think that’s why Jesus means by saying we should always pray.
If we look at the parable of this widow her practice seems to back this up. She keeps going back to the judge day after day. She’s not always talking but she is always going back. Do you do something regularly, like your daily commute, driving the kids to school or activities, or maybe your Dunkin Donuts run? What if you used the first 15 minutes of your commute or the drive to school to pray? When you pray, pray out loud as it keeps you focused on praying instead of your own thoughts and models prayer for your kids. A great part of Cornerstone’s story is how Karyn Tang prayed for this building when they she drove by years before God brought Cornerstone into existence. Praise God. Prayer works. Pray consistently and regularly.
2) Never give up.
The word for “not give up” (egkakeo) means to “not lose heart.” It’s the same word we find here.
Galatians 6:9 Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. (NIV®)
May we never lose heart! May we hope that God will answer our prayers even when we’re tired and afraid. I love this illustration from C.S. Lewis’ book, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The young girl Lucy, her brother Edmund, and their cousin Eustace are taken to the land of Narnia where the Christ-figure is a lion named Aslan. The three of them go on a voyage and come to the island Where Dreams Come True. This is where bad dreams come true like nightmares. The ship’s crew is overcome by fear and begin to wildly row in the darkness. Each sailor hears a different noise: huge scissors, enemies crawling up the side, and gongs, so what does Lucy do? She prays!
“Aslan, Aslan, if ever you loved us at all, send us help now.” The darkness did not grow any less, but she began to feel a little—a very, very little—better. “After all, nothing has really happened to us yet,” she thought.
A ray of light, a spotlight, falls on the ship and Lucy sees something in it like a cross, an albatross. The albatross circles them three times, lands on their mast, sings out a note, and then flies ahead of them leading their ship out of the darkness.
But no one except Lucy knew that as [the albatross] circled the mast it had whispered to her, “Courage, dear heart,” and the voice, she felt sure, was Aslan’s…
This get’s right down to the heart of it. We pray so that we never lose heart and we never lose heart because we pray. Always pray and never lose heart! But what should we pray for? Can we ask for anything we want?
Pray for justice when justice seems far away. (Luke 18:2-8a)
Now we come to Jesus’ parable.
Luke 18:2-8a He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. 3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’
4 “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”
6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. (NIV®)
1) Pray personally for vindication.
This widow teaches us to ask God for personal vindication. She is an example of the Psalmist David who prayed over and over again for God to vindicate him and save him.
Preserve my life, for I am godly;
save your servant, who trusts in you—you are my God. (ESV)
When you feel wronged or hurt and especially when you feel justified, do not lash out at the one who hurt you but pray to the one who can vindicate you. This parable isn’t a call to pray for all our wants. When I was a kid I bugged my dad till he bought me computer games. I bugged him over and over and he finally gave in. I think sometimes that’s how we interpret this parable. Bug God till he gives you what you want. Although it’s not that it is a call to pray consistently, regularly, personally, and… specifically.
2) Pray specifically for God’s justice.
Orphans and widows were the most at-risk class of people in Jesus’ day. This widow had no husband or man to defend her, which most women had, so it’s left to her to plead her own case. Someone seems to have taken advantage of her. Although we don’t exactly know the wrong this woman suffered, according to one commentary when their husbands died widows couldn’t inherit the property directly. But they were supposed to be allowed to live in their house and on the land until they received a type of settlement. Perhaps this woman was denied her settlement or kicked out (Lk 20:47). We do know that her cause is righteous because although she deserves “justice” the judge initially refuses to grant it.
So we have the widow who is powerless and at-risk but also a judge who has a great deal of power and authority but misuses it for his own pride and reputation. Judges were supposed to judge righteously on the Lord’s behalf. In the Old Testament king Jehoshaphat installed judges.
2 Chronicles 19:6-7 He told them, “Consider carefully what you do, because you are not judging for mere mortals but for the Lord, who is with you whenever you give a verdict. 7 Now let the fear of the Lord be on you. Judge carefully, for with the Lord our God there is no injustice or partiality or bribery. (NIV®)
But this judge doesn’t care what man or God thinks. He has no shame and no honor. I read an article this week about the judge presiding over the Manafort case right now, T.S. Ellis III. The article described him as “tough” because he will stop lawyers if they’re not dealing in facts. He’s also “law driven,” and seek=- “just” outcomes. He is even known to show “compassion” on those who take personal “responsibility” for their mistakes and is “not afraid to use his discretion to help defendants when he believes it’s the right thing to do.” That’s not the kind of judge this woman had. In the end what changes this judge’s mind is not the fear or God but the fear of this woman ruining his life. He got tired of her bugging him and gave in.
Although it’s easy to overlook I don’t want us to miss that this woman is not an example of praying for wants. She is an example of praying for justice, specifically justice for the oppressed and at-risk. First, we should pray for human justice. This quote from Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy really made me think.
“The opposite of poverty is not wealth. In too many places, the opposite of poverty is justice.”
As Christians, we should pray for the oppressed and at-risk. When we recognize vulnerable people groups, and I’m thinking of the elderly, unborn, mentally handicapped, refugees, and the impoverished and poor. We should pray for them that God would grant them human justice.
Second, we should pray for divine justice. Notice the woman needs protection from her “adversary.” “Adversary” is the same word used later in the New Testament to describe Satan.
1 Peter 5:8 Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. (NIV®)
As Christians, we should be praying for justice against our adversary Satan. Satan has lot’s of different tools. He can use all his spiritual tools like discouragement, oppression, and temptation, but he can also use the tangible tools of injustice, like racism, predatory lending, and drug and alcohol addiction. Let’s pray specifically for God’s justice, both human and divine. It often feels like God is never going to do it, like God has forgotten us and his promise of justice.
3) God seems far away but he is not.
This passage contains what is called a “lesser to greater argument.” If this lesser thing is true how much more must this greater thing be true? If this judge who is wicked and selfish is willing to grant justice how much more will God the father grant justice to the “elect”? The elect are those God has chosen by his grace and mercy (Eph 1:4-5; Rom 8:29). God may seem far away like a strict judge who never cares for us but in reality he is a loving father who is near and invested in our lives. God seems far away but he is not.
We also need to study the literary context of this passage for a moment. The literary context is what comes before and after your select passage. In Luke 17:20-37, the text right before ours, Jesus speaks of his second coming after he goes back into heaven. He tells us what the last days before his return will look like.
Luke 17:22-24 Then he said to his disciples, “The time is coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it. 23 People will tell you, ‘There he is!’ or ‘Here he is!’ Do not go running off after them. 24 For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other. (NIV®)
The reason we experience injustice in this world, both human hardship and spiritual oppression, is because Jesus has not yet returned. As Christians, it’s easy to feel disheartened and attacked by the evil one, but the evil one wants us to believe the lie that Jesus is not coming back. He will return. It’s been 2,000+ years but Jesus is coming back. We’re one day closer to Christ’s return than we were yesterday. Pray for justice when justice seems far away.
Justice comes with Christ. Do you believe that? Then pray. (Luke 18:8b)
Our parable ends by Jesus asking if he will find this kind of faith when he returns.
Luke 18:8b …However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (NIV®)
Justice is coming, but will anyone be praying for Jesus to bring that justice when he actually arrives? This is a call to pray outside ourselves. To not focus on myself but on Jesus and the world that needs him. Pray for tangible justice in our world and communities and for spiritual justice against sin and Satan. When Jesus comes back will he find people yearning for his return and the justice he brings? Will he find us praying? Justice comes with Christ. Do you believe that? Then pray.
If justice came apart from Christ, you and I would all be lost. We’d all be found guilty and condemned for our sins. Jesus is the judge who recognizes we are guilty but declares us innocent by taking the penalty for our sins upon himself. He went to the cross so he could legally declare us righteous because he bore our sin. One day he will return and will met-out final justice by righting every wrong and making plain every lie. We can rest-assured that the Father will vindicate all his children but the only reason we won’t be held accountable unto death for our sins is because he has forgiven us. Justice comes with Christ. Do you believe that? Then pray.
PreachingToday shared a story of justice for a wrongly convicted man I want to close with.
Nevest Coleman resumed his job as a groundskeeper for the Chicago White Sox after an unexpected hiatus left him unavailable to work-for 23 years. In 1994, Coleman was charged and convicted of rape and murder. He spent the next two decades behind bars until last November, when prosecutors vacated his conviction after considering DNA evidence that should’ve ruled him out as a suspect. Several months later, a Cook County judge granted Coleman a certificate of innocence, which officially cleared his name of all related charges.
Can you imagine what Coleman went through? He served two-decades behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit. That’s injustice! I don’t know if Coleman is a believer but if any of us were in his shoes I’m sure we each would have prayed over and over again for God’s justice, perhaps growing frustrated and discouraged when God didn’t answer year after year. The story continues.
While maintaining a steadfast belief in his innocence, Coleman always looked back fondly on the time he spent working with the team, which felt very much like a family. After his release, friends and family members reached out to the White Sox organization, delighted by an official invite to come and reapply for his old job. After re-hiring him, the team issued an official statement:
“We’re grateful that after more than two decades, justice has been carried out for Nevest,” the team said in a statement. “It has been a long time, but we’re thrilled that we have the opportunity to welcome him back to the White Sox family. We’re looking forward to having Nevest back on Opening Day at home in our ballpark.”
This is a picture of Nevest Coleman returning to his job. He’s the one in the center. Nevest experienced justice and restoration after years and years of waiting. He always maintained his innocence. He never lost faith, and one day his hope was vindicated and he was restored. How much more will we who are in Christ be vindicated and restored? We will all receive justice one day. But those who fall in Christ, our punishment will fall on him. Then we will be able to experience complete justice as he sets all wrongs right. Justice comes with Christ. Do you believe that? Then pray.