The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost
The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean

Luke 18:1-8

An elderly widow, always angry, always persistent, walked out of her house one morning to find her paper missing. Unjustly treated again, she stormed into the house and called the newspaper office. “My Sunday paper was not delivered!” she snapped at the man on the other end of the phone. “I’m a widow!” she continued. “I don’t have a lot and I pay good money for my Sunday paper. I expect it to be here on Sunday morning!”

“Ma’am,” the man said, “It’s Saturday. We don’t deliver the Sunday paper on Saturday.”

“It’s Saturday?” the woman said after a long pause.
“Yes ma’am”
“Well,” she said. “I guess that explains why no one was at church this morning.” . . . “And I do wish I hadn’t left that message on my priest’s answering machine.”

In this morning’s gospel lesson we have another importunate widow. We are never told her name or what her grievance was. By virtue of being a widow, we can be pretty sure she was poor. In those days, in that patriarchal culture, widows lived on the edge, literally and figuratively. Her deceased husband’s estate would have passed on to a son or a brother. Unless there was a family member willing to take her in, the widow was on her own, often with children to care for.

It would be reasonable enough to assume that her pleadings before the judge were to provide some relief for her and for her children as a matter of survival.

There is nothing to indicate that she had any particular religious aptitude or instinct, some quality that would make her stand out as an example of piety for Jesus to point to in this parable on prayer. She wasn’t a nun or a prophet or an evangelist or even noted as a person of prayer.

But chutzpah she did have. A persistence that wouldn’t quit. A life spark that said, “I have a right to expect, and I expect justice.” She had the ability, and the necessity, to think and act “outside the box” when it came to getting her needs met. She would do what she had to do and not give up until she got what she was after.

There’s a story about another widow, who was in church one day as her pastor made a plea to the congregation for extra money to cover some unforeseen church expense. As an incentive, the pastor announced that whoever gave the most would be able to pick three of their favorite hymns. After the offering plates were passed and brought back to the front of the church, the pastor noticed that someone had put in a $1000 bill. He was so excited that by what he saw that he immediately shared his joy with the congregation and asked the donor to identify himself. Amazed, the people watched as the elderly widow stood and shyly walked forward. The pastor told her how wonderful she was to have given so generously and, in appreciation, asked her to pick three hymns. The woman’s eyes brightened as she looked out over the congregation. She pointed to the three best looking men in the church and declared, “I’ll take him and him and him!”

That joke isn’t nearly as powerful as Jesus’ parable. But if you’re willing to stretch the meaning (quite a bit) the point is the same. In prayer, as in many other things in life, never give up. If necessary, be willing to think and act “outside the box.” Be persistent. Do not lose heart. Do what it takes to get what you’re after.

Now, in this parable, take note: God is not to be equated with the callous and uncaring judge. What Jesus is saying is that if even disrespectful and dishonest and unfeeling people can eventually be worn down by persistence, think how much more ready a loving and caring God is to hear our pleas and to grant us what we need. And let me be clear about what I’m saying: It’s not about (prayer is not about) getting our desires and fantasies met, but about our recognizing our needs, and lifting those up to God, insincerity, in regularity, in full expectation and faith that God will provide for our needs.

It is a strange parable, I’ll grant you, to explain the need to pray and pray and pray without ceasing. If the idea of parables is to use simple, everyday illustrations to explain deep, eternal truths, then this one is not the easiest to follow.

However, as is the case with many parables, to more clearly understand what Jesus is saying and teaching here, it is helpful for us to look back to what Jesus had been teaching the disciples earlier about prayer. (Mt. 6.7-8) He cautions them not to fill their prayers with meaningless words, “heaping empty phrases,” just for the sake of praying lengthy prayers. “And do not fill your prayers with eloquent words” to pray in public and impress others. For this is the way the Pharisees pray, and the heathen. “Do not be like them,” says Jesus. Instead, pray for what you need, pray for others, pray in thanksgiving, pray in contrition. But pray for a purpose, not for a show and not for un-needful things. Not to simply spew words that are meaningless—to the pray-er and to God—just to satisfy a minimum daily requirement. “Your father knows what you need before you ask,” says Jesus. “But ask anyway.”
(You may not know what you need, so think, …and then ask.)

God doesn’t need to be lectured or informed on everything that is of concern to us, but it is important that we pray—that we make a connection with God on that concern. And constant, persistent prayer is not because, perhaps, God didn’t hear us the first time. It is to help us sort out those real needs in our lives, the important things, to set priorities through our prayers, and then to be persistent and energized in prayer until those prayers are satisfied. And, sometimes, our prayers are satisfied—they are answered—in ways we would not have expected or recognized, if we had not spent that focused, lengthy, persistent time with God in prayer.

What Jesus is saying is that it is silly to pray for every little trivial and self-serving matter—“heaping up empty phrases” to God. On the other hand, in our true prayers, in our asking God’s help for the things we truly need, we are to be as persistent and dedicated as the widow seeking justice from the unjust judge.

Truly, God does know our needs before we ask but that does not excuse us from the courtesy and the discipline of asking, and caring enough to keep asking, whether they are prayers for ourselves or for others.

Tossing up a prayer once or twice or whenever we think about it—putting that little effort into our prayers and expecting God to take it from there—usually is not effective. For one thing, it shows what little importance that particular concern holds for us. For another, it shows our lack of confidence and faith in prayer, and in God. As in all things, God expects us to participate in prayer. When we pray we are to pray in earnest, with all faith and all confidence that God will answer our prayer. And we pray, and we pray, and we pray until our prayer is answered (even though the answer may be different than what we expected), and then we give thanks.

Simplicity, wholeheartedness, and repetitive requests are required for “effective” prayer. And your part is just as important as God’s. Especially to God.

So, Ask and keep on asking. And our God, the God you call out to, will, in more ways than you can imagine, respond. Maybe you won’t get exactly what you asked for, but you will receive what you need. And in the final analysis, that is the gift of answered prayer.

“Do not worry about anything,” Paul wrote to the people in Philippi, “but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (4.6-7).

Paul knew the secret of prayer. So do you.
Ask . . . in the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.