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The Power of Prayer


The hurricanes in Florida. The war in Ukraine. The school shootings in Uvalde. In the immediate aftermath of tragedies such as these, there’s a predictable conversation happening behind the scene. Where online or on social media, you’ll see a familiar debate taking place. It begins with someone, maybe a pastor or politician or parent, who says something like “Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of so and so.” And despite the often good intentions behind such words, it has a way of stirring up rage and anger among so very many. With people who chime in and say something to the extent of, enough with your thoughts and prayers, they’re worthless at best and an excuse at worst. We need change, we need action, not your thoughts and prayers …

In the 24 hours after a national or global tragedy, you can almost guarantee that somewhere, in some way this back and forth is playing out.

And so, I’ll ask you all, what are your thoughts on thoughts and prayers? Who’s on the right side of this one? Are our prayers good for anything? Or is our action all that matters?

Truth is, this is not only a tension we feel when responding to the great tragedies of our day, but also in our everyday relationships as well. Someone tells us about something difficult or painful in their life, we sometimes feel we don’t know what to say, we feel at the very least we should tell them we’ll pray, and yet maybe even wonder if our prayers will make any difference.

And so, what are your thoughts when it comes to thoughts and prayers? And what, if anything, does the bible have to say about the power of prayer in the Christian life?

This, along with many more will be a couple of the questions that we’ll address in light of our scripture for today as we reflect on what is often known as “The Parable of the Persistent Widow.”

And here in this parable, we arrive at the intersection of two key themes within Luke’s Gospel, one being prayer, the other being justice.

Prayer has been a central theme within this gospel. Look closely and you’ll notice that Jesus is often praying, often withdrawing to the mountains and hillsides to be with His Father. He’s also constantly encouraging his disciples to pray, whether it be instructing them in the Lord’s Prayer, or when he took Peter, James and John up on a mountain to pray shortly before his transfiguration.

Prayer has been a central theme, and yet justice has too. In beginning his public ministry, Jesus announced that “the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, to proclaim good news to the poor.” And throughout this book, we’ve seen over and over again, Jesus commanding us to give to the poor and to serve the oppressed among us, using positive examples such as the Parable of the Good Samaritan, while also using negative examples such as the Rich Man and Lazarus, condemning the rich man for doing nothing about his neighbor’s earthly suffering.

Throughout this book, there have been these consistent themes of Prayer and Justice. Justice and Prayer. And these two themes collide in our parable here today.

You see, in many ways we’re brought back to a very similar question we just asked moments ago. What’s the relationship, what’s the connection between prayer and injustice?

And so, in honor of the word prayer and as someone who aspires in alliteration, we’ll walk through our scripture today in four parts, each part starting with the letter “P.”

By looking at its purpose, the parable, Jesus’s promise, His plea. Purpose, parable, promise, and plea.

Let’s go ahead and get right to it. This is a message where we are going to stay really close to the text, so if it’s helpful, by all means have your pew bibles in front of you as we go along …

The Purpose

What’s particularly great about this parable is that Jesus gives us the purpose of the parable right from the start, where in verse 1 it says,

1 Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.

So there you have it. The purpose of this parable that Jesus tells is to show the disciples that they should always pray and not give up.

Simple enough, and yet there’s a little more going on than might initially meet the eye. And that is, the purpose of this parable is not simply about how we should be persistent in prayer, though that alone is true, but even more so, that we should be persistent in prayer in the face of injustice and suffering and hardship, and even persecution.

And I say that because of who that parable is directed towards and what they are directed to do. It’s directed towards the disciples, Jesus’s closest friends and followers, and they are told that they should “not give up.” It’s a phrase that’s often used in the bible in the context of withstanding persecution. And after Jesus dies, is resurrected and ascends into heaven, the disciples will continue to face hardship and suffering, even persecution.

And so this is a parable about how they should always pray and not give up. Or in other words, it’s about the persistence in prayer in the face of injustice and suffering.

All of which brings us to the second “P,” the parable itself:

The Parable

In the parable, we find two main characters, a judge and a widow.

And here again is what we learn about these two, this comes from verses 2 & 3:

2“In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. 3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’

Throughout the Old Testament, God’s people were called to show compassion and mercy, especially towards the widow, the poor, and the orphan. And so, you’d expect any God fearing judge to show mercy towards this widow. And yet, it’s just the opposite. This judge neither feared God nor cared what people thought. He’s used to giving people the cold shoulder. He has no interest in supporting this widow, and he couldn’t care less about honoring God by supporting this widow.

And so it says, in verse four, “For some time he refused.” And yet, all the while, you’ve got a widow in search of justice. As a single woman with no husband, in an agrarian and patriarchal society, she’s effectively powerless. It’s not like she can bribe the judge with her money. She’d have little to none of it. She no longer has a man to be an advocate for her, who could stand in as a leading witness. Her best shot at securing justice is by persistently pleading with this judge. In other words, her persistence is the greatest asset she’s got. And she is nothing if not persistent. She, as the text says, kept coming, kept coming, kept coming, kept coming with the plea, “Grant me justice against my adversary.”

And her persistence paid off. Verse 4 and 5 says,

4 But finally [the judge] said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’

This widow leverages the only thing she’s got, her persistence. And her persistence paid off.

All of which brings us to the third P in this passage, that is Jesus’s promise:

The Promise

6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 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? 8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.

Maybe the worst way we can interpret this parable is to conclude that God is like this unjust judge, a grumpy old man, a curmudgeon-y, get off my lawn kind of neighbor and that if we bother and pester him just enough, he’ll get tired us, he’ll finally give up, and give us what we want. No, no, no. Not only is that a super depressing view of who God is, but it also reinforces this notion that if God doesn’t answer our prayers it’s because we didn’t pray persistently enough. That’s problematic too.

Instead, this parable falls in a series of what some have called the “How much more” parables. Where Jesus sets up a compare and contrast, where if this person is like this, how much more is God like that?

We saw this with the parable of the lost sheep. If a shepherd is willing to go after one lost sheep and leave the 99, how much more is God willing to go after one lost person whom he created and loves?

And if an unjust judge, who neither fears God nor man is willing to bring justice to a persistent widow, how much more will a compassionate and loving God bring justice to those who cry out to him day and night? Much more so. So much more so.

I tell you, Jesus says, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.

Now, note a couple things here. Jesus says, he will see that they get justice. Not that those who cry out to him will get whatever they want, but rather, they will get justice. And as for that word justice, maybe a simple way of defining justice, is the process of taking what is wrong in our world and making it right. Turning wrongs into rights.

Providing homes for the homeless? Turning what is wrong and making it right.

Providing food for the hungry? Turning what is wrong and making it right.

All that to say, Jesus’s promise is not that those who cry out to him will get whatever they want, but rather justice.

For example, kids, when I was in 3rd grade, for Christmas that year I prayed persistently for a Super Nintendo. It was essentially the Wii or Nintendo Switch of 1995, and yes, I fully realize I’m dating myself here. Jesus’s promise is not that he will give us the video game system that we pray for, even though I imagine you might think it’s a great injustice, or a wrong that needs to be made right that you don’t have the latest video game console, but whatever.

I tell you, Jesus says, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.

So friends, with all that said, let’s move all the more into application and what this means for you and me:

  1. A persistent prayer life

Luke gives us the purpose of the parable by saying we should always pray. Jesus shares a positive example of a persistent woman and then follows it by saying that God brings about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night. The Apostle Paul encourages us to “pray without ceasing.” All of that sounds great and yet also out of reach. Who among us can pray all the time like that?

Well, maybe think of it this way. Have you ever been on the phone with someone you love, someone you’re really close to, and the conversation has the freedom to meander? There may even be brief periods of silence. The same can be true in our conversations with God. Think of it as a never ending phone call. He never hung up, so there’s no need to redial. Just talk to Him. Whenever, wherever. And if you struggle for things to pray for, well, say it with me now, just remember …. Wow, Help, Thanks.

  1. Prayer is action.

Prayer matters. Prayer changes things. And our prayers are heard by a loving and just God who can take action even when we can’t. So yes, by all means, and for the love of God, please send your thoughts and prayers.

Pastor Michael Niebauer says it well when he says, “Whether the change is internal or external, small or big, God shows up when we pray.” Yes. Sometimes God brings about immediate change to our external circumstances, and often he changes us internally, in our minds and hearts.

Now, whether we can or should do more than just pray? Well, consider two other “P” words. What’s your platform and do you have power? For this widow, her persistent pleading was the only tool she had, so she did. And yet, it’s understandable to be frustrated with politicians who send out their thoughts and prayers after the latest school shooting because they do in fact have at least some power and a platform to bring about change.

As for the rest of us, remember that to pray for something that you’re not actively seeking justice towards is most likely not a sign that you’re a hypocrite, rather it’s most likely a sign that you're human.”

We are finite creatures, limited by time and space, people who have been designed to sleep for upwards a 1/3 of their lives, who worship a loving and just God, who is infinite, who is not bound as we are, and who neither slumbers nor sleeps.

So pray. It’s one of the best, one of the most helpful, one of the most tangible things we can do.

  1. Trust in God’s timing

I tell you, Jesus says, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.

Did you catch that word quickly? God bringing justice, God making the wrongs of our world made right doesn’t always feel quick. Often it feels rather slow. It’s all a reminder that God’s timing is so very different than ours.

There’s a humorous and fictional story about a man who was speaking to God. He asked him, "God, is it true that to you a thousand years is a minute?" "That's true," God replied. "And is it true that to you a million dollars is like a penny?" "That's true," God said. "Well, you see I'm a poor man and I was wondering if you could give me a penny," asked the man. "Sure," said God, "just give me a minute."

Let’s patiently, yet persistently trust in God’s mysterious timing while we pray.

And we’ll finish with this. It’s our fourth and final “P.” The Plea.

The Plea

After promising to bring about justice to those who cry out day or night, Jesus turns the tables back on us as his disciples and issues the following plea:

However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

Jesus, as the Son of Man, has been signaling to the disciples his impending death and resurrection, even his subsequent ascension and future return.

And when he does, what will he find? Will he find faith on earth, or will he find something else?

In the end, prayer is an act of faith. A faith that trusts that our God is faithful and keeps his promises. A faith in God, who in his own timing, will bring justice and make all that is wrong in our world right. A faith in God who is still good even if and when he tells us “no.” And if Jesus, God in the flesh, perfect in every way, took time to pray, well, chances are should too.

And since prayer is an act of faith, oh may he find his people praying, praying persistently and faithfully. May he find his people praying.

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