TEXT: Luke 18:1-8
… In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people [and in] that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice …” (Luke 18:2-3)
I want to begin today by quoting a writer named Luke Veronis. In addition to being a writer, Father Veronis is a Greek Orthodox priest, lecturer, and writer. Here’s part of an article he wrote in a theological journal called Communion:
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn spent many years in the prison camps of Siberia. Along with other prisoners, he worked in the fields day after day, in rain and sun, during summer and winter. His life appeared to be nothing more than backbreaking labor and slow starvation. The intense suffering reduced him to a state of despair.
On one particular day, the hopelessness of his situation became too much for him. He saw no reason to continue his struggle, no reason to keep on living. His life made no difference in the world. So he gave up.
Leaving his shovel on the ground, he slowly walked to a crude bench and sat down. He knew that at any moment a guard would order him to stand up, and when he failed to respond, the guard would beat him to death, probably with his own shovel. He had seen it happen to other prisoners.
As he waited, head down, he felt a presence. Slowly he looked up and saw a skinny old prisoner squat down beside him. The man said nothing. Instead, he used a stick to trace in the dirt the sign of the Cross. The man then got back up and returned to his work.
As Solzhenitsyn stared at the Cross drawn in the dirt his entire perspective changed. He knew he was only one man against the all-powerful Soviet empire. Yet he knew there was something greater than the evil he saw in the prison camp, something greater than the Soviet Union. He knew that hope for all people was represented by that simple Cross. Through the power of the Cross, anything was possible.
Solzhenitsyn slowly rose to his feet, picked up his shovel, and went back to work. Outwardly, nothing had changed. Inside, he had received hope. [From Luke Veronis, “The Sign of the Cross”; Communion, issue 8, Pascha 1997]
Is that powerful, or what? What that skinny old prisoner did for Solzhenitsyn, Jesus does for us today in when he tells us about the persistent widow and the unjust judge.
Just as Solzhenitsyn desperately needed a renewal of hope, so we need encouragement from time to time—especially if we are to continue in prayer and not lose heart. The skinny old prisoner made lines in the dirt. Jesus does something different: he tells us a story.
There is this judge, Jesus says, who has neither decency nor conscience. He is a corrupt official interested only in his own advantage.
A widow appears in his courtroom. She is poor and powerless, someone to whom the movers and shakers in her town pay no attention. To them, she is a person of no consequence. She has no money to bribe this crooked judge. She cannot afford a lawyer to speak up for her.
So you know what she does? She speaks up for herself. “Grant me justice against my opponent!” she shouts. When this does not bring her immediate results, she remains undaunted. She refuses to be ignored. She keeps coming back.
She returns to that courtroom again and again and again, ceaselessly imploring the magistrate: “Grant me justice!”
“Grant me justice!”
“Grant me justice!”
“Grant me justice!”
Eventually, her persistence wears down the judge. To spare himself further annoyance—and embarrassment—the judge decides not simply to hear her case, but to find in her favour. In other words, even before he hears the evidence, he’s made up his mind to give her what she wants—just to shut her up!
Now, is this a portrait of God? I don’t think that’s what Jesus has in mind—although certainly that is how some people consider the practice of prayer. They seem to view the Almighty as an unscrupulous judge or a petty bureaucrat or an abusive parent. With such a conception of God, it’s amazing that they ever pray at all!
But you know, God is not like that. God is the author of all justice and compassion. It may be that, in prayer, we are supposed to imitate the widow’s persistence—but if so, it is not because God is hard-hearted and uncaring.
Let’s take another look at that judge. What do we know about him? We know that he is unscrupulous, without decency or conscience. He doesn’t care about people. There is no fear of God in him. This judge always has it figured out; he leaves no room for the possibility that God may have more creative answers to the questions his life forces upon him.
Do we know anyone who matches this description? Sure we do! Each of us fits that description sometimes—and some of us even make a career out of it.
There are those times, aren’t there, when each of us lives entirely unto ourselves? When we refuse to allow that God may have a better solution to things than we do? When we don’t even consider that God may be offering us greater things than we can ask for, or imagine?
At such times, our decisions about life leave no place for God—and no room for those with needs and wishes different from our own. The universe, as we understand it, becomes very small, and closed; we are its sole inhabitants. To a greater or lesser degree, I think we are all like that—which is why we say a prayer of confession in church each Sunday.
If, then, the judge represents us, who does the loud-mouthed widow represent?
Could it be that this poor and powerless woman—with her tenacious and unlimited determination—is there as a symbol of God?
I think this fits. God is forever attempting to break into our closed universe, to draw us into relationship, to make us recognize what our relationships with God and neighbour demand of us. God is not the unjust judge. God is the widow who wears him down. Where, then, is the unjust judge to be found?
Listen carefully: that judge is inside each of us, and the purpose of our prayer is to wear him down, to wear him out, to force him to do justice. Prayer is the widow’s voice—strident yet sane, insistent and relentless—demanding that things be different.
Many of us have trouble with prayer. Some even give up the practice completely, because they think that praying is an exercise in futility. They think it’s about telling God what God already knows, or persuading God to do what God wouldn’t do otherwise, or somehow changing God in one way or another. Prayer, however—any prayer worthy of the name—is quite the opposite.
The primary effect of prayer is not on God, but on us. God’s love is already unconditional. God’s justice is already perfect. God’s compassion is already boundless. God recognizes our needs even before we do. It’s not God who needs to change, it’s us! We are the ones who need to get in line with God’s program, and prayer is a large part of doing that.
Prayer is our declaration that we do not want to exist in a closed universe, dependent only on ourselves and our own solutions. Prayer represents our desire to be open to God. In our prayers, the Holy Spirit speaks in the voice of the poor widow who demands justice from our inner judge. The miracle of prayer is that the judge’s resistance breaks down! For once, he does what is right—and may even do so again, in the future!
That loud-mouthed widow would not have succeeded had she not been persistent, and confident, and unconcerned about what others thought of her.
She had what is called in Yiddish chutzpah—which is the quality of audacity. Our prayers need chutzpah—not because God is deaf, but because opening our hearts to God is not easy for us.
There are many things in each of us that can keep God out. Sin is not the only obstacle. Attitudes of mind may keep the door shut and bolted. We may doubt that God hears us. We may consider ourselves unworthy. We may think God simply cannot be bothered with our petty problems. But these are the very attitudes which can be driven out by relentless prayer—by the persistent voice of the widow who refuses to take “no” for an answer.
The story is told of a girl who watched a holy nun praying at the lakeside. Once the nun had finished her prayer, the girl approached her and asked, “Will you teach me to pray?” The nun studied the girl’s face, and agreed to her request. Taking her into the shallow water, the nun instructed the girl to kneel, so that her face was close to the surface. The girl did as she was told.
Then the nun pushed the girl’s head under the water, and held her there. Soon the girl struggled to free herself in order to breathe. Once she got her breath back, she gasped, “What did you do that for?”
The holy nun said, “That was your first lesson.”
“What do you mean?” asked the astonished girl.
And the nun answered, “When you long to pray as much as you long to breathe, then I will be able to teach you.”
May each of us long to pray, and learn to pray—and to persist in our prayers—not so that we can change God, but so that God can change us, and show us that fullness of life which he intends for each one of his children. Amen.