When You Pray, Move Your Feet
Luke 18: 1-8
October 20, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
If you were here last week, you’ll remember that we are in our season of Stewardship, and that our particular emphasis this year is on words – words that count, words that matter, words that describe Christian commitment. We began last week with gratitude, and we continue this week with persistence. That word comes from the gospel story in Luke.
We’re well into the gospel of Luke with these stories, and Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem. He’ll be stopping through Jericho on the way, and en route, he is teaching, healing and telling stories. He has been telling his disciples about the kingdom of God, that kingdom which is coming and is already here. Now he has begun to compare those who are rich with those who are poor. Luke’s gospel pays particular attention to the people who are on the bottom – those who are without status, without means, without power. So through the lens of Luke’s stories about Jesus, we gain a clearer view of what has been called “the preferential option for the poor.”
In today’s reading, Jesus tells a story. And like most of his stories, it sounds simple, but it contains layers of meaning. Let’s listen for what God might have us learn in this story from Luke 18:1-8:
1 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.
2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” 6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"
Jesus chose a widow for the main character of this parable. To be a widow is to be a woman who has lost someone, to be named only as a widow is to be defined by that loss. Poet Donald Hall described that loss like this:
You think that their
dying is the worst
thing that could happen.
Then they stay dead.
dying is the worst
thing that could happen.
Then they stay dead.
That’s the hard truth of loss, isn’t it? For a widow, the loss of her husband is a permanent, ongoing truth. For many widows, it is the loss of almost everything good.
Let’s talk about widows. Many of us, in spite of our numerous friendships with actual widows, carry a mental image of a widow in our heads. Say the word “widow” and what comes to mind? Someone like that that sweet little old lady in the Tweety Bird cartoons – a dear old soul in frumpy clothes, gray hair wrapped up in a bun, in a dusty parlor surrounded by tchotchke – collector’s plates and figurines and painted china and seventeen cats. Or, barring the cats, a yappy little dog with health problems.
The truth is far more interesting, and more varied. A widow in the real world may be just as active, and more engaged, than her younger, married counterparts. She may live on a shoestring, but she lives well, and often is active in the community, in volunteer work, and in the church. Sadly, in the United States, elderly widows are four times more likely to live below the poverty line than married elderly women. Globally, many widows in developing countries are in terrible circumstances. They are living in poverty, without access to health care or income, often homeless -- exiled from their homes and deprived of rights to property or even any legal recourse to claim inheritance, or support for their children.
In Jesus’ time on the earth, to be widowed was often to be in a terrible situation. Women could not work or inherit property, so that absent a caring family or supportive community or adult son, a woman could be forced to become a slave or a beggar – or worse. But the expectation regarding the care of widows was clear. God’s mercy to the Israelites when they were enslaved formed the foundation of the command to care for widows and orphans. Severe judgment was threatened for those who threatened widows, or those who neglected them.
In the 1st century early church, widows had a place of honor and respect. The widow was characterized as one whose piety leads her to continual prayer: “The real widow, left alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day." Because she was alone, she could devote herself fully to God’s work. We encounter widows often in Luke’s Gospel: Anna, the widow who blessed the infant Jesus, “never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day” Jesus severely and roundly condemned those who “devour widow's houses” and he praised the widow who put two copper coins in the treasury. These widows were not just vulnerable victims in need of protection, they were strong, faithful women, devoted to prayer, serving God.
The widow in this parable Jesus told was obviously that kind of widow – even though the judge obviously cared nothing for what the Torah said about the requirement to support and provide for the widow. This widow, in this parable, was going to get justice for her case, whether the judge liked it or not.
Her pressing of her suit was relentless. She badgered the judge.
Day and night. Night and day. Grant me justice!
On and on and on and on and on…
In fact, in the Greek it is almost funny – she was “battering” the judge with her demands,
and he said she was “giving him a black eye” with her insistent demands.
The judge did not give in to the widow because of the merits of her case, though from the way Jesus told the story, we assume that her case did have merits. The judge gave in to the widow because she wore him down. If this unjust judge could be worn down by this insistent widow, how much more, Jesus said, God will hear our prayers for justice!
The thing is, we don’t have to wear God down. We don’t need to complain and nag and whine and natter at God. We only need to pray, to talk to God, to offer up our needs, our hopes, our concerns and our joys, offer them up. It isn’t a process whereby we drop in a prayer and out comes a new bike, as if God is some kind of cosmic vending machine, or a divine butler, standing nearby with a tray, awaiting our latest request.
It is a process of opening ourselves, persisting in faith and trust and hope – persisting in prayer. Because prayer changes things. Prayer doesn’t necessarily change God’s mind, as if God is just waiting for us to make a good case, or God is making hash marks on the wall , and when we get enough, BINGO! we get what we ask for.
Prayer changes people, and people change things.
When we are persistent in prayer, our prayers change. Our words are filtered and sifted through persistent prayer, until they become a call for righteousness, until the desire for God’s perfect justice emerges. Prayer changes us, as the essence and meaning of our prayers come to light, we find that the essence of our hearts is altered, and the prayers which began with our own wants, or which grew out of our badly concealed resentments, or which began with our desire for vengeance or satisfaction, our words are transformed through God’s grace. Our desires begin to conform to God’s mercy and righteousness.
But the change does not end there. Because as we are transformed by God and our wills conform to God’s will, we arise from prayer as changed people who can change people.
The African proverb says, “When you pray, move your feet.”
Persistent prayer makes for persistent people.
Persistent people take action in the world.
Persistent people care for those whom God loves –the littlest, the last, the lost, the least, and they do not give up. They pray – WE pray – for those who are hungry, and then we serve them food. We pray for those who are thirsty, and as we pray, we build the well, and bring them a cup of clean water. We pray for those who are oppressed, whether by poverty or pride, and we stand with them and speak up for justice. We pray for as much light and truth as we can bear, and then we rise to bear what light we can. We pray with words, and move in action, knowing that while our words may divide us, our action in the name of God can unite us.
Jesus ends his story with questions for his listeners. He asks, “will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?”
We persist in prayer, trusting that God WILL grant justice, that the long arc of the universe bends toward justice. We persist in prayer, trusting that God’s timing is not our timing.
We persist in prayer, trusting that God’s power will empower us to get up on our feet and act, as people changed by God, to care for those in need, to change injustice, to work and live and speak the word, the word which comes to us in the Son of Man, the prince of peace and the Word made Flesh.
When you pray, move your feet. And God WILL grant justice.
The word is persistence – in prayer, in action, and in faith.
And when the Son of Man comes, he will find faith on earth.