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Pesky of Prayin'

Luke 18:1-18


Math was never one of my favorite subjects in school. The concepts were easy to understand but keeping the pluses and minus straight proved to be my undoing. However, I did enjoy the logic and analysis required by the subject and enjoyed my discussions with the teachers. I remember one of them saying, "In order to solve an algebraic problem you must define the problem before you come up with a solution."1 The soundness of that advice has helped me in many areas of my life. That may be the reason why people who offer theological solutions before they clearly understand the problem disturb me. I frequently hear someone flippantly tries to encourage another person who is struggling with a problem by saying "Remember, God answers prayer."

In the face of a long-term hardship, after years of enduring intense physical and emotional pain, to borrow the apostle Paul's term, the words sound like "clanging gongs." Those words sting to a heart that cries out in despair. To a body that painfully suffers with each movement, the message is salt to the wound. Why? Because we glibly provide an answer before we have understand the question.

Our search for an answer becomes more complex when we consider the "lavish promises"2 in the New Testament. Early in his book, Luke records a parable about the friend who requests help at midnight. The intent of the parable is to encourage the disciples to persevere in prayer. Jesus than summarizes his remarks by saying:

9 "So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. (Luke 11:9-10) 3
But Richard Foster offers a sobering observation, "The gloriousness of the promise is tempered by the empirical data of our personal prayer lives."4 And C. S. Lewis notes "Every war, every famine or plague, almost every death-bed, is the monument to a petition that is not granted."5 


This highlights the real struggle of prayer. "Prayer raises threatening issues, troublesome questions. Is there a God? If there is a God, is there a God who hears and acts for us? "6 However, while these are very important and perplexing questions, these are not the questions that Scripture attempts to address. The authors of Scripture accept their unanswerable nature. In the first 75 Psalms, I identified 23 petitions that confirmed answered prayer. But I also discovered that the psalmists asked 11 times why God takes so long or why God chose not to grant the prayer request. The psalmist lived in the tension between fulfillment and unfulfillment, between faith and doubt.


So, for us the real question is not does God answer prayer, but rather, how shall we prayer and not lose heart?

In the apparent contradictions of life, in the face of the unfulfilled, unanswered desires of our heart, what will motivate us to keep praying and praying and praying? That is the real challenge of a life of faith. Because if we really believe in the power of prayer, if we really believe that our prayers could bring Osama bin Laden to justice, or protect every person who flies from a terrorist bomb, or a letter laced with anthrax we would never get off our knees? You could not keep us from our prayer closets. But isn't that the real problem, we simply lose heart. To encourage his disciples Jesus told the parable of the widow and the unjust judge.


We do not really know why Jesus chose to tell this parable at this particular moment in his ministry. This story is one of several that would have been lost if not for Luke and his interest in parables that applaud women who demonstrate spiritual truth. The physician fails to mention if the parable addresses a specific question raised by the disciples or a situation that they had recently encountered. Perhaps Jesus detected a tone of discouragement; perhaps the disciples had shown an impatience that raised concerns for our Lord; perhaps even the human side of Jesus was showing through and he wondered if any of them would really have the emotional and spiritual strength to withstand the time of waiting.

The first feature that strikes us is the character of the judge. What a slime ball! He does not attempt to conceal his insensitivity and disregard for justice. Moral crusades are for the do-gooders who wish to fight a losing cause. The ends justify the means with this man. In contrast stands the widow. When her husband died, she did not inherit his fortune that would have been divided up by his sons or brothers. She is powerless and defenseless. While the religious law admonished judges to protect and defend the cause of widow, the civil law granted the judge a wide margin of personal discretion in applying justice. This judge may have owed a favor to the other party in the dispute, or he may have been persuaded by the arguments of the woman's opponent. Whatever, his reason, his first verdict was against the woman. What hope does she have to change his mind? What leverage could she use to persuade him to reconsider his decision? The only resource available to her was her own pesky nature. She pesters the judge by leaving messages on the 1st century equivalent of an answering machine. She visits him at his home and office. She grants him no peace. She is in his face at every opportunity.

Finally, in desperation the judge considers his options. I find it interesting the way Jesus has the judge talking to himself. It reveals the powerful impression this powerless woman left on the man. After reviewing the alternatives the judge decides to grant the woman her request just so, she will leave him alone.


Mother Teresa of Calcutta was also known for her pesky, persistence in her pursuit of financial support. One day, she came to a prestigious foundation, seeking money for a hospital she was building for people living with AIDS. 
The leadership had already decided that they would listen politely, let Mother Teresa have her say, and then send her on her way with a firm, but polite no. In their opinion, "AIDS was not one of our favorite diseases."

Mother Teresa explained to them why she was in their office, asked them for money, and they said no.

"Let us pray," said Mother Teresa, folding her hands and bowing in prayer. One lawyer rolled his eyes looking at another, but they also bowed their heads and prayed.

After she said "Amen," she went through her request again. Again, they said, politely but firmly, no.

"Let us pray," said Mother Teresa, bowing her head and folding her hands again. She prayed again. She launched into her request. 

"All right, all right!" said one of the lawyers. "Give me my checkbook." 7

Some may ask, "Then does this parable teach us that hard-headed, relentless prayer is finally answered?" "Does it mean that if we just ask God enough times, if we never relinquish and nag God, the Creator of the Universe will finally give in to our requests?" Somehow that does not fit with the portrait of a servant approaching his master in humility. Nor does it fit the positive image of a gracious parent who cares about the needs of their children.

I ache for both the parent and the child when I see Mom or Dad, finally give in to the whining pleas of a child in the grocery store who just has to have a pack of gum or bottle of pop. The parent knows that they have been manipulated and feels angry and resentful. The child is learning an unhealthy pattern of behavior.

If this were the lesson of the parable then I believe that Luke would have begun the parable another way. He would have had Jesus say, 

"Then Jesus told them a parable about how to get their own way through prayer." Or 

" Then Jesus told them a parable on how to nag God." 8

Instead Luke wrote: 
"Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. "


Luke wrote his introduction to highlight the importance of the disciple's perseverance in prayer. Perhaps he understood the message of the parable to be less about the disciple's response and more about the character of God. Perhaps Luke saw this not as a story proving that persistent pray is rewarded but rather a parable reminding us to trust in the trustworthiness of God even when the answer is not forthcoming.

An elderly woman called the telephone company about a problem she was having with her phone. While her problem was serious, it did not come under telephone company guidelines. In other words, it was the customer's problem to solve, and not hers. The customer service representative did everything she could to explain to the woman that she would have to solve the problem herself.

The customer, a widow, living alone by herself on a fixed income, persisted. 

During the conversation, the widow said something that really got touched the customer service rep. She said, 'I've always loved and respected the telephone company. Since I was a young child, coming home alone, my mother always told me, 'If you have any problem, just call the operator at the telephone company and she will help. I trust the phone company to do what is right."

The telephone representative realized that this was not merely a dispute over money and service, but was a discussion about the character of the telephone company. Was this a company who cared, a company that valued its long-term relationship with a customer, a company who could be trusted? Even though her complaint did not fit the company's service policies and guidelines, a repairman fixed her phone that very week.

The parable of the pesky widow presents us with a similar message. Its not a parable about how we can bend God's will to align with our will. It's not about nagging God into submission! It is not a parable to explain why God does not answer all our prayers. It is a parable to remind us that we can approach God again, and again and again with our cries of anguish, with our pleadings and with our prayers and he will hear us because he can be trusted. We can be pesky because he is trustworthy.

1 Adopted from an idea by Tom Skinner, If Christ is the answer, what are the Questions?, (Grand Rapids: Zo ndervan, 1974), p. 9.
2 Richard J. Foster, Prayer: Finding The Heart's True Home, (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1992), p.182.
3The New Revised Standard Version, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers) 1989.
4 Forster, p. 182.
5 C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malchom,(New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1964) p. 58.
6 William H. Willamon, "On Not Losing Heart," Pulpit Resource, Vol. 26, No. 4, p. 12.
7 William H. Willamon, "On Not Losing Heart," Pulpit Resource, Vol. 26, No. 4, p. 13-14
8 William H. Willamon, "On Not Losing Heart," Pulpit Resource, Vol. 26, No. 4, p. 13-14

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