02.12.17 Praying in Desperation Luke 18:1-8 Sermon Outline
Since Amos, the “day of the Lord” had an ambiguous meaning. Traditionally it referred to the hope of ancient Israel, a nation oppressed by others, the hope of God’s deliverance. But in Amos, the nation has become the oppressor! The day of the Lord is still the hope of oppressed people, but not of an oppressive nation. For such a nation, the day of the Lord is a day of darkness and reckoning.
By the time of Jesus, the nation of Israel was both. It was oppressive to some of its inhabitants, and it was again a nation oppressed, this time by Rome. Into this situation, Jesus, like Amos, talked about God’s deliverance. Referring to the “Son of Man,” a title used by Daniel to refer to the Jewish messianic hope, Jesus urges his followers to trust God’s timing and to be ready and patient. As part of Jesus’ teaching on this topic, he offers the parable of the widow and the unjust judge.
The book of Deuteronomy is presented as Moses’ final words to the ancient Israelites on the threshold of the Promised Land. He is reminding them that they must keep God’s commandments if they are to keep the Promised Land.
The widow in Jesus’ parable probably wouldn’t know much of the Bible, but she apparently knows this verse: “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and widow of justice.” (Deuteronomy 27:19) Not only is this the revealed Law of God, but it is also a reasonable practice among people. But it wouldn’t be very convincing to judge who “neither fears God nor has respect for people.”
In Jesus’ day, widows were in a precarious situation. As women they had no rights. If there was an eligible male relative, they were expected to marry him. If she had had a son with her husband, he assumed responsibility for his mom. Widows were socially vulnerable, easily exploited, and an unwanted drain on society. But the widow in Jesus’ parable has some claim to justice, for she keeps asking the judge to grant it.
Jesus may have a particular situation in mind, actually. He starts the parable by referring to “a certain town.” If he is referring to a concrete situation, then the audience would murmur in knowledge. In that audience may have been people who considered the judge an answer to prayer. Maybe his predecessor had too much fear of God, or too much respect for others. Maybe he bent justice to favor the religious or the socially powerful.
For others in the audience, the judge has caused despair. His delay of justice has been a denial of justice, and so people have simply stopped asking. Rather than an answer to prayer, the judge has caused people to stop praying.
For Jesus, this situation provides an illustration for “the need to pray and not lose heart.” Following his teaching about God’s deliverance, Jesus urges us to pray while we wait for God’s justice, for the redemption of the world. Jesus has faith that this is certain.
This is why he contrasts God with the “unjust judge.” Unlike the judge in the parable, God is just, and God’s justice is coming. And those who deny justice will find themselves cursed, just like Deuteronomy says.
So, Jesus teaches, we who believe in God are to pray and not lose heart. This is also part of Jesus’ teaching on prayer, which we know as the “Lord’s Prayer.” There, we pray that God’s kingdom would come “on earth as in heaven.” We’re to assume a day-to-day attitude as sustenance is given to us (“Give us this day our daily bread”). And we’re to forgive others as God has forgiven us. In other words, we’re to begin living according to God’s coming justice now, in the meantime, while we wait.
But the truth is, even as we pray and do these things, we can still lose heart. In this situation, Paul tells us to at least continue praying. He taught that even when we no longer have the words, the Spirit prays for us. Eventually, Paul suggests, our lost heart will return to us as hope.
The technical term for this attitude in prayer is “supplication.” This word shares the same Latin origins as “supple.” It suggests a person bending the knee to beg or plead before a king or a judge, asking for something only they can do.
The Lord’s Prayer is supplication (despite how casually many of us recite it). The Spirit’s prayer for us described by Paul is supplication. They refer to the things only God can provide.
Jesus knows that there is injustice outside God’s kingdom. He urges us to pray and not lose heart. And so at the end of the parable Jesus asks, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” Let us hope that he does, especially among those of us who follow him.