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Praying when life is unfair

A sermon by Rod Benson

Luke 18:1-8

Paddy was driving down the street in a sweat. He had an important meeting to attend, and he was running late, and he was having great difficulty finding a parking spot.

Looking up to heaven, he said, “Lord, take pity on me. If you find me a parking place, I will go to mass every Sunday for the rest of my life and give up me Irish whiskey!”

Miraculously, a parking place appeared. Paddy looked up again and said, “Never mind, I found one.”

Sometimes our sad little prayer lives amount to little more than a display of narrow ignorance and self-interest. But most of us also pray for the things that really matter, whether in our own sphere of influence, or for wider worldly concerns.

We all long for things to be different. Some of us plead with God for change of character, to be more like Jesus in his considered wisdom and compassionate service to others. Some of us plead with God for the grafting of new life from outside ourselves that will enable the fruit of the Holy Spirit to take root and flourish and bring blessing to others. Some of us pray earnestly for our loved ones to dance to a different tune, or act out a better script for their lives.

We pray for war, hunger, poverty, corruption and godlessness to be no more. We long for things to be different. We know that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28), but we often feel trapped in the messiness and seeming chaos and disruption of the “not yet.”

We know something of the providence and faithfulness and wisdom of God, both objectively and in our own personal experience, yet we long for God’s promises to be applied more clearly and more quickly to our lives, in the here-and-now.

We long for things to be different. We know that God’s desire for everyone is to love mercy, and to act justly, and to walk humbly with God (Mic 6:8), but we are all too well aware that our everyday world is filled to overflowing with the antithesis of those ideals: There is the cancer of human pride, injustice, callousness, exclusion, and greed, and all there diabolical fruit, maturing and rotting in the midst of ordinary innocent well-meaning lives.

We long for things to be different. And despite the unfulfilled longing of the present time, this parable in Luke 18 encourages us to remain faithful to God, and to remain expectant, and to persevere, confident in the security of God’s wise plan, and secure in the confidence that God will fulfil his promises to us with his astonishing grace and perfect wisdom, and that he will do so soon.

This is the God whom we have come to know, who has revealed himself to us in the Bible and most fully through Jesus, and who guides us through life’s journey by his Holy Spirit.

When Jesus returns to our world in unsurpassed glory and majesty, as he promised he would do, will he find faith on the earth? Will he find us faithful and true, or like the rest?

That is the consolation and the challenge of this parable. Specifically, Luke here calls us, through the teaching of Jesus, to be persistent pray-ers, and to maintain strong confidence in the goodness, grace and wisdom of God.

There are two explicit characters in the story, the widow and the unjust judge.

The widow is a woman alone in court – she has no husband or male advocate to assist her. She is powerless, at the mercy of powerful men, and far from being assured of justice, safety and tranquility by way of court process.

But she knows God, and she is a woman of persistent prayer. And this is the point that Jesus is making: those who follow the way of Jesus “should always pray and not give up” (v. 1).

Now persistence in prayer is not something we in the West, and especially in Australia, are very good at in 2016. We should pray more, and probably with greater diligence and thoughtfulness, whether we pray alone or in small groups, or publicly in church.

It is possible, even amid the frantic pace of contemporary life, and with the multitude of distractions that fill our waking hours, to make prayer a priority in your daily life, and your weekly life.

But persistent prayer becomes much more difficult when no answer comes. We know the need, and we know God’s power, and we know that God wants us to pray, but nothing happens. It may be prayer for the salvation of a close friend or family member, or an end to the long drought of unemployment, or chronic illness, or for a life partner.

We simply have to persevere, and be open to God’s guidance and sovereignty and comfort and care. But where there is injustice, we should not only pray but take action to bring an end to the injustice. That is what this widow does (v. 3).

It sounds counter-intuitive, and feels horrible at times, but we know from Scripture, history and personal experience that “adversity is integral to the process by which God brings salvation” (see Lk 17:25, 32-34).[1]

The second character in the story is the unjust judge – the kind who undermines all confidence in the justice system, who answers neither to the directives of God nor to the patent needs of those around him,”[2] stony-faced but ultimately open to embarrassment and vulnerability.

In the face of the widow’s persistence, he relents. He capitulates. He gives up (vv. 4-5).

We need to pray more against social injustice and those who perpetuate fear and suffering and poverty in the lives of others.

In verse 6, Jesus turns to his disciples and says:

“Listen to what the unjust judge says. 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? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

Challenging words! Jesus uses an argument from lesser to greater to reinforce his teaching. As New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg observes:

If a certain principle is true for fallible and even evil human beings, how much more must it be true with a perfect and good God? In this case, God wants far more readily or quickly to grant his people justice than the corrupt judge wanted to.[3]

But how can this be true after 2,000 years of waiting for justice to prevail, for wrongs to be righted, for Jesus to return? We need to recognise that the term “quickly” does not necessarily mean “immediately” or “in my time frame” or “when I want it to be.”

There is a third character in the story, as there is in all of history and in our personal lives, and that is God (see verse 2).

Yes, there is injustice in the world. Yes, there is suffering. Yes, there are events and experiences that seem unfair or just plain wrong. Yes, there are times when our Christian lives and our fervent faithful prayers seem to have no effect on the world’s slide into error and ruin.

Why doesn’t God end all the suffering and injustice? It seems so unfair and contrary to God’s will. But the God we meet in the Bible, and the God who is so perfectly and so wonderfully reflected in the person and work of Jesus is the same God whom we know today and to whom we pray.

We need the gifts of patience, wisdom and courage. There are big issues at stake. Craig Blomberg puts it well:

The reason God has not brought the end of the world and the righting of all wrongs more quickly is because, when he does, the door will forever be closed to even one more person responding and coming to him in faith.[4]

Until recent times, most of us relied on printed street directories to navigate, especially when visiting large cities or unfamiliar territory. These days our cars come equipped with sat-nav, or we use map apps on our handheld devices (although not while driving!).

One of the down-sides of this technological advance is that we lose our sense of perspective and direction. We get from one place to another by monitoring a dashboard screen that shows the next few hundred metres of the journey, but it’s a narrow view that restricts the wider context.

The same can be true of our work, our family, and our inner life. One of the often overlooked benefits of regular personal and public prayer is that it allows us to attend to our immediate needs, while also grounding us in the bigger picture of the kingdom of God, and national and global issues. Prayer helps restore the big perspective in our busy and noisy lives.

We all need grounding, but we also need to be reminded of the big picture. This parable challenges us to persistence in prayer for God to address specific needs, specific injustice.

But it also allows a glimpse of the big picture of how God is at work behind the scenes, fulfilling his sovereign purposes, unfolding his good will, drawing world history and your history to its grand conclusion, when all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

We all long for things to be different. Pray on!


Sermon 659 copyright © 2016 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 6 March 2016. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


References

[1] Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1997), p. 637.

[2] John Nolland, Luke 9:21-18:34 (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1993), p. 71.

[3] Craig Blomberg, Preaching the Parables: From Responsible Interpretation to Powerful Proclamation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), p. 176.

[4] Ibid.

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Rod Benson

Theologian, researcher, teacher, writer, foodie, husband, dad. Works at Moore Theological College.

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