Faith In Real Life Blog
“Pray Persistently and Humbly”
Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbyterian Church
April 19, 2023
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 accuser.’ 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?”
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other, for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.
This parable is about the importance of staying in relationship with God (pray always) and hold fast to the promise that no matter what happens to us in life, God will be present and sustain us (do not lose heart). That was a big ask for the widow in this parable and it is a big ask for us in real life.
A widow seeks justice against her accuser. Widows were vulnerable people in the first century. They had little agency and needed an advocate to be seen. This widow could not achieve ‘justice’—whatever that meant in her circumstance—without outside intervention. So, she goes to court and seeks a judge who will rule on her behalf. But, unfortunately for her, the judge is characterized as a man who “neither feared God nor had respect for people.” She had a just case—we know this because, despite himself, the judge finally pays attention to her and grants her justice. But we also know that being in the right does not necessarily mean justice will prevail. This woman was swimming upstream and the likelihood that she would prevail was low.
This is the predicament of all marginalized people. In a world measured by strength and power, the poor, the weak, the old, children, etc. all need advocates to protect them. In a secular world, intrinsic worth (a child of God) is not particularly relevant. People are measured by achievement and social ranking. What can you do for me? What have you done for me lately? Where on the social scale do you fit? These are the questions that matter. In the parable these are the attitudes characterized by the judge. He did not acknowledge God nor other people. The inequities of the world mean that whole groups and classes of people have trouble being seen—much less valued. In FIRL we struggled with the ways we are like the unjust judge. We, too, view people as categories instead of as children of God. When we do, we lose regard for God and for other people. But whether we are the unjust judge or the disenfranchised suppliant, please notice, God is quite capable of working his purposes out without our cooperation or good motive. There is hope for us when we are unjust judges and hope for us when we are dismissed and unseen.
In the parable, the widow persists. She persists to the point of wearing down the judge till he grants the woman justice—” because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ Many a social protest has become such a squeaky wheel that the protesters have finally been seen and justice prevailed. Persistent, annoying demands to be seen, and for justice have been a force for social change for centuries. It is also true that sometimes the squeaky wheel strategy backfires and the backlash evokes rage rather than justice. No size fits all. In real life, our support for the legitimacy of such a protest is largely a function of whether we approve of the cause being espoused. It is hard for me to respect the tactic when the protesters are ‘Proud Boys’ but I’m sure they feel the same way about ‘Black Lives Matter.’ My stated beliefs notwithstanding, it is hard for me to imagine such disparate groups are all children of God.
When I moved from the social stage to the personal, I found myself thinking about our dog, Silvi, as well as our grandchildren. Both are incredibly persistent. Silvi will sit next to our chair with big puppy eyes waiting for her scrap from the table. Lynn quoted a sweatshirt saying: “Every move you make, Every bite you take, She’ll be watching you”. Our rule that we would not feed the dog from the table broke down in the first six months.
The grandchildren are almost as effective. They use a range of strategies from whining to a polite ‘Excuse me,’ but the constant is their inability to comprehend the word no. They persist. And they too have learned they have a better than fifty percent chance of getting what they want if they persist. From their point of view, persistence has absolutely paid off. They know they can wear us down.
This passage, however, is not about squeaky wheels and justice, it is about the nature of prayer and ultimately about faith. It is easy to get sidetracked into debating whether and how God answers prayer or imagining that our persistence is the key to God’s compliance with our wishes. But prayer is not about us nor is it about tactics to get what we want. Prayer is about our ongoing relationship with God. Complaining, begging, and cajoling are authentic parts of that relationship. They are just not sufficient. What matters is our connection with God—not whether our wishes are granted (no matter how just).
God’s promise is that we are seen; we matter, —no matter what life brings. When we hold that faith, we can engage life as it happens. God’s justice is not about fairness—and certainly not about fairness as we would define it, God’s justice is the promise that we are loved no matter what the world thinks. Connection with that promise transforms. Nothing separates us from the love of God. It is good news, and it is hard to accept. It is hard to hold onto when we are in pain, we are mistreated, when our bodies fail us and when people we love are suffering. We want relief from the hardness of life. Just this week I was with a grieving woman who said she knew her thinking was askew, but she had done everything right, had struggled to be faithful but her father still died before his time. In contrast, RG’s grandmother lived with disfiguring and crippling arthritis for years. She ended up bedridden. She prayed for relief from her pain. I’m sure some of those prayers were penitent and some were complaining. In real life, these prayers did not alter her suffering. but they kept her in connection with her God. She was able to engage life even while she was bedridden. Her persistence lay in her unshakeable faith that God was with her.
There is a fine line between doing everything we can (persistence) and believing we can do anything if we try hard enough (hubris). Faith requires us to do everything we can—and wait. Hubris demands that when we do everything we can, we are entitled. We act as if we should be able to influence outcomes. It works for puppies and children, why not us? Our faith moves us from a God who fixes to a God who is present. We do not make that shift easily.
This shift requires great humility. The Pharisee in the second parable spoke as if his good behavior set him above and apart. ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ He failed to see that the moment he thought of himself as ‘better than’, he was sinning. The moment he thought that his fasting and giving were the keys to faithfulness—he was sinning. His entitlement and lack of self-awareness stood in stark contrast to the tax collector who was so aware of his failings he would not look up to God. But this was the man who could receive God’s love. As the last sentence says: “this man went down to his home justified rather than the other, for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
It takes great humility to wait for God’s presence. It takes great humility to confess our brokenness. God calls us to persist in the faith that he loves us and will be present with us. When we can hold fast, all things are possible—even life seems unfair and unbearable. Prayerfully keep your connection with God. Persist. Do not lose heart.
Let it be so.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life (FIRL) gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.