Cold, Warmer, Hot

Luke 18:1-8

18Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” 6And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth.

Cold, Warmer, Hot

Cold, Warmer, Hot.  Okay, any guesses about what that sermon title might mean?  ( . . . . Children’s game where one person hides some object in the room and another person tries to find it.  The first person must give some clues to help, so if the seeker is far away from the item, he says “cold;” if the seeker gets closer to the item, he says “ warmer,” and if the seeker is right on top of the hidden object, he says “hot.”)  Now what this has to do with this morning’s text from Luke 18 is anyone’s guess.  But we will get to that later!

The parable today is about a persistent widow and a hard-hearted judge.  Now I’m going to ask my Wednesday night Old Testament scholars a question:  Why is it significant that this woman is a widow?  What does that tell you?   (She has no legal status.  The fact that she has to go to a judge suggests that she (a woman) has no sons, no bet av.  She has nothing and no one to defend her.  In a patriarchal culture, any issue of rights or justice would be handled by the most senior male in the family — a woman would never go alone to seek justice.)

         Women’s behavior was extremely limited in ancient times, much as the women of Afghanistan during the recent Taliban oppression. In Jesus day:

  • Unmarried women were not allowed to leave the home of their father.
  • Married women were not allowed to leave the home of their husband.
  • They were normally restricted to roles of little or no authority.
  • They could not testify in court, and could not appear in public venues.
  • They were not allowed to talk to strangers.

Old Testament scholars also know that this judge is not Israelite, not Jewish.  Any case involving Jews that could not be settled by the patriarch of the family would be sent to a panel of three Israelite judges – never just one– for their ruling.

No, the judge in this parable is a mercenary, a Roman who, the scripture says, neither fears God nor respects people. He is in it for the paycheck – and for the bribes he extracts in return for favorable verdicts.  He is unfeeling and crooked, dislikes the Jews, and, now is put off by this poor widow.

Every time he leaves the forum, there she is, intercepting him on the street, begging for mercy, tailing him in a crowd, never giving up. Thank God she can’t get into the courtroom itself! (And my Old Testament scholars know the reason for this, as well.) On and on she goes – repeating the same story – over and over. What is it?  A daughter, a niece? 15?  12?  Who remembers? Someone took advantage of her?  And now she is shunned by her own people. They are all alone.  Boo hoo. What is he supposed to do? Can he prevent such things? Of course not! Let these Jews take care of their own!

But she will not go home. The whole thing has become an embarrassment.  Better to hear her case and give the girl something.  Anything!  Just get her off his back!  Make her stop that infernal begging!! //

Now, bear in mind that this parable of Christ is like several others we’ve talked about.  It is not a perfect allegory.  It is, instead, a simple little story that Christ used to make a singular point.  The point is that we should be like the widow — pray persistently and have faith.  On its surface, that much is clear.

But the story also has a disturbing under-belly.  It appears that Christ is telling us to nag Him with prayer, to beg if need be until our prayers are answered.  Is God being compared to an evil judge who deliberately withholds justice?  NO.  .  Christ says, 8I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.”   If even the most heartless of people can be worn down by persistent prayer, how much more will your loving God readily respond if we are persistent and faithful in our prayer life.

Christian writer Peter Woods says, “one message of the parable is, ‘If hard hearted judges can be moved to act, how much more will your ABBA-Father be willing and eager always to help the children of God?’”.  Now the problem we face is this:  In reality, God sometimes does not grant justice quickly – not by any human standard of “quickly.”

If you’ve ever traveled to the Caribbean, you will understand what I mean by “island time.”  In many tropical cultures, clock time seems immaterial.  When you call a taxi, you may as well go for a swim, have lunch, and take a nap, because it will arrive several hours after your call.   In the British Isles, days are not counted off by hours, and being “on time” has no meaning whatsoever.

So we often get the impression that God is on island time! We want answers now.  We want justice now.  We want relief from pain now.  We want our family crisis resolved now!  And if God is the opposite of a heartless judge, what is keeping Him?  And why must we keep praying when nothing appears to have changed?

Well, surely this metaphysical question has been asked by every believer who has ever lived – from saints on down!  And these are the answers that resonate with me, and give me comfort:

First, the God of the universe is not a Sugar Daddy or a Fairy God Mother.  We cannot stroke a magic lamp, or ride a magic carpet, or click our heels together to get immediate answers.  There is no pixie dust! God created human-kind and imbued humans with free will.  Driven by selfishness, ignorance, and evil, they have destroyed any chance of a world in which God’s will is fully realized. So our God is not a Mr. Fix-it.

Rather, our eternal God has made a contract with his people.  I will be your God if you will be my children.  It is an age-old covenant first made with Abraham, then rewritten by Christ, but still in place today.  God promises to love, protect, forgive, and provide, IF we faithfully love God with all our hearts, our souls, and our minds, and our neighbor as ourselves.  God does not break his side of the . . . . contract, but we consistently break ours.  And thus, our prayers may be to no avail.

Here’s why: Often, we flat pray for the wrong thing. We don’t do it intentionally, but we do it because we are either lazy, or self-seeking, or short-sighted.  Let me give you a silly example:  My thoughtful husband, who never forgets an anniversary or birthday, always asks me what I would like.  Depending on the day or week I have had, I answer something like:  “You know, I’d like you to hire a cleaning lady for a whole year.  She could come every week and clean the whole house.”  Fortunately, Randy knows to wait.

Several days later, I come to the realization that I don’t mind cleaning and it is really good exercise, so what I really need is a new vacuum cleaner.  “Randy, I need a new sweeper.  That’s what I want for my birthday.”  But then on closer inspection, the sweeper is fine.  After all, it’s Sears “Best Quality Kenmore”– which should last longer than 5 years—and the problem is, really that the handle won’t stay in the extended position.

So I change my “order” again:  “What I really want,” I say, “is for you to fix the handle of that stupid sweeper — and then take me out for dinner and a movie.”  Translation:  I already have what I need to clean house, I can do it myself, but a fun night out with you would make me happier.  And that is the request that is answered.

Speaking for myself, the same thing happens in prayer.   I start out asking God for the moon.  God who is all-wise can see my request with far greater vision.  He knows whether granting my prayer will ultimately be good for me and for others, or if –in the days and years to come—it will be harmful. He also knows which of my prayer needs are “first requests” – a cleaning lady for a year! – and which are more reasoned requests that ultimately accomplish much more good.

It is in praying, persistent praying, that our petitions get refined, so that over time, they ultimately align with God’s will and not our own. This is where the sermon title gets plugged in.  Our first prayers are often cold, cold, cold — far afield from what God wants us to ask.  They are selfish prayers, ill-thought out prayers, unnecessary prayers.  “God, do something about this person I work with. She is ruining my workday. Do something!” And God thinks:  “Cold, cold, cold.”

But the very act of talking with God begins to impart wisdom and insight into the situation, and . . . over time . . . our prayers change. “God, give me patience to deal with this woman in the office.  Keep me from lashing out at her incessant talking!”  And God thinks, “Warmer, warmer, you are getting closer to my will.  Have faith! Keep praying!”

Finally, we get on our knees with a new prayer – we almost wonder where it came from!  “God, let me find some way to befriend this person.  She never speaks of any friends or family.  Give me the courage to speak to her.  Perhaps she is lonely and just needs a friend”  And in Heaven, church bells ring and sirens go off, and God says, “Hot!  Hot!  This is what I was after. . . . This is a prayer I will answer!!”  She has been seeking my will and she found it! My evangelical friends call this “praying through” – the moment in prayer when you feel that your prayer has found purchase, that God has heard it, that the two of you are one in spirit.

You see, when we pray, it is often all about us.  When God answers prayer, it is all about everyone.  A popular bumper sticker says, “Prayer changes things.”  I completely agree.  But the sticker could also read, “Prayer changes us.” That last prayer about befriending the difficult colleague?  That didn’t come out of nowhere.  It came from God through prayer.  For the one doing the praying, her heart was softened, her judging spirit was harnessed, and her eyes were opened to another’s suffering – so much so that she could pray for God’s help in reaching out to her.

Persistent prayer deepens our relationship with God and proves our own investment in the request.  If we are troubled by a family problem and commit to praying for it daily, AND if we seek God’s will in the situation, not our own will but God’s will, then we are in right relationship with God, our hearts will be changed, our prayers will come to align with God’s ultimate purpose, and they will be answered.

         And so we get to the main point of this parable.  It ends with Jesus asking, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Why should the Son of Man not find faith on earth? Perhaps there is doubt in Jesus’ question because He, of all people, know it is very difficult to keep praying in trust to a loving parent, when every circumstance of our lives seems intractable and random.  In desperation, Christ called out, “Take this cup from me,” and yet he had to drink the bitterness of the cross.

So how do we keep trusting for “justice, liberation, wholeness, and cure” when there is no obvious way out?

It is here that, again, the widow becomes again our role model.  Despite all the social barriers, despite the odds stacked against her, the widow continues to seek justice. Her prayer is clearly in line with God’s plan for justice.  She is a “marginalized person,” a powerless little person who keeps calling out for justice.   She is the person who lies down in front of a tank, refuses to take a seat at the back of the bus, who blows the whistle on the unethical practices of Big Boy corporations.   Even if nothing changes, her brave stand matters. Because her prayer is one with God’s prayer, God stands with her, cries with her, and strengthens her for the fight.  Sometimes, for reasons we cannot know, God does not fix things as much as he gives the capacity and courage to bear them.

“Will the Son of Man find faith upon the earth?” I believe He will as long as people immersed in suffering continue to pray and work — rather than despair. And so we to pray – for solutions, for insight, for strength, for courage, for patience. And the prayer that really works?  “Thy will be done” – in this and every situation—“thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory for ever and ever.”  AMEN.