Praying with Purpose
Sometimes prayer feels like a crap shoot.
Sometimes it feels as though God is only listening about half of the time, and only about half again is listening for the purpose of actually helping me out.
Sometimes I feel as though that prayer is the last thing that I need to do to solve a problem.
Sometimes I wonder why I am even praying at all when it doesn't feel as though it makes a difference one way or another. I mean, if God is going to do what God is going to do... than what's the point?
Jesus prayed a lot. It seemed to work for him. But then again, he had a more direct line to God than anyone, and he sort of thought the same kinds of thoughts that God was thinking. I'm pretty sure that his disciples were fairly envious of Jesus' prayer life and the way he always seemed so confident about the effects of prayer. That's why in Luke chapter 18 we get this:
Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and never give up.I rather enjoy the fact that the author of Luke's gospel put that little bit of commentary at the beginning of the story. It's almost as if he is saying, "Ummmmm, you really need to know what this one is about up front, so here's the moral before the story." Then he relates what Jesus told his followers:
He said: "In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, 'Grant me justice against my adversary.' For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, 'Even though I don't fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won't eventually wear me out with her coming!' And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. 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? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?"There's a lot going on in this little story. And there's more to it than meets the eye, my friends.
To begin with, we need a little bit of background on this passage and it's context. When Jesus refers to a judge here, he is most likely referring to the kind of magistrate that would have been appointed by the Roman government. It would have been the kind of position that would have been given to someone of some status and some wealth because they would have likely used bribes to secure it. These particular judges were in it for the money and not for the sake of doing justice. Although they were commanded by the Torah to fear the Lord, most of them would "pervert justice for a dish of meat." Apparently, that is the case with the judge in Jesus' parable.
The widow in the story represents a fairly significant and visible portion of the population in Jesus' time. The Torah commanded for the care of widows and orphans, but did little to promote their standing in the community. There were laws that protected them, however, but more often than not the laws were ignored or reinterpreted in favor of the rich and the powerful. We can assume that this widow probably had a property dispute in which the law was in her favor. The unjust judge was probably waiting for her to either raise the money for a bribe (not likely) or to curry favor with her adversary (which may very well have been a family member). Either way, the judge is neglecting the Torah's commands to fear God, do justice and to care for widows.
What's interesting is that the widow seems to be habitually showing up where the judge is holding court. Her presence and her pleading have driven him crazy. We need to note here--and we'll come back to this---that she is not asking for mercy or kindness, she's asking for justice. I outlined the judge's words where he says she will eventually wear me out for a reason. The literal translation is "she will give me a black eye." The judge is concerned that public opinion will eventually turn against him. In the end, he grants her justice--not because he believes it is the right thing to do, but because he doesn't want to look bad.
I bet that the widow was really making a scene. She was probably crying out, shouting, crying, pleading, appealing to the judge's sense of fairness and justice. And she did it publicly and didn't hold back a lick. She would not give up and she didn't care what anyone thought. She was at the end of her rope.
Then Jesus says, "So, if this awful human being can come around and at least do the right thing--even if his reasons are messed up--then don't you think God, who loves you, who made you, who cares for you, will give you justice?"
I think I give up too easy when it comes to prayer--at least most of the time. Well, almost all of the time... since we're being honest.
My grandmother Myrtle believed in prayer in a way that I wish so desperately that I could. Maybe you've seen church signs or bumper stickers that flash these horribly cheesy cliches about prayer like: "God answers knee mail," or "Seven Days without Prayer makes One Weak," or "This church is prayer-conditioned."
Myrtle believed all of that stuff. And if you laughed at it she would fuss at you for a really long time. In her younger days she might have given you a good switching, too. Getting switched pretty much sucked. Basically, it meant getting whipped on the legs by a long, thin, green tree branch that would curl around your legs and leave long angry welts. If this sounds like child abuse it's because it is child abuse---but that's how we rolled back in the day, people.
My grandmother buried two husbands. The first, my grandfather, died of a heart attack that was complicated by his smoking and drinking, lack of exercise and poor eating habits. Myrtle's life with my grandfather was fairly hellish and abusive. There were nine kids, and they were all dirt poor. When my grandfather died it was a mercy, but Myrtle was left as the matriarch to a shattered and wounded family that continued for her entire life to endure hardship and heartache. She buried her second husband when I was in my 20's. He had Alzheimer's and a score of other problems. Myrtle buried two sons and a daughter-in-law as well. She never had any money. She cried when the family had to move her out of the house where she had spent almost her entire life. Myrtle passed away in her eighties after choking on some food--a chronic problem exacerbated by old age, poor health, what-have-you.
But Myrtle prayed like a champion her whole life, and she believed that God's will was perfect and she needed to be perfectly happy in it. She wasn't always perfectly happy. She could complain with the best of them, but would always end her complaints with some nod to God's will, or Jesus' love.
Every day of her life she would get on her knees and would pray for all of her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren and all her in-laws by name.
I always knew that Myrtle was praying for me. When I left my faith, when I went my own way... she prayed. When I wasted my life like a prodigal son... she prayed. When I struggled through broken relationships and poor decisions... she prayed. She prayed for me when I married my wife and we began our life together. She prayed for the birth of my sons. She prayed that I would be a good man, a good husband and a good pastor. She prayed for my wife. She prayed...
In I Thessalonians the Apostle Paul simply tells the early Christians, "pray without ceasing." There is no subtle way to translate that. It literally means to pray all of the time---to constantly be talking to God.
To pray without stopping means that I never give up when it comes to praying for God's will to be done---because that is what justice really is, isn't it? It means that I pray without stopping despite the fact that answers are not always forthcoming, and it sometimes feels like a crap shoot.
And to be at peace with that.
It's not about getting what I want. It's about getting what God wants.
The widow did three things: She was persistent. She was humble. She was hopeful. If I want to know what it is that God wants me to do with my life, then I need to be praying with purpose. I need to stop worrying so much about my timetable and simply show up in front of God every day, to plead my case and to hear for myself whether it is justice I am seeking or my own self-interests. I need to be humble enough to admit that I don't have all the answers and that God's plan is perfect. I also need to be filled with the kind of hope that comes when I give up control and place it in the hands of the One who loves me most.
Then I will begin to see the way to go more clearly than I could imagine.