The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24), Year C.
Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, `Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, `Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”Luke 18:1-8
“Thoughts and Prayers”. We hear it time and time again. After every shooting, every hurricane, every tragedy national and personal, every headline, every moment between ad breaks, every speech, the best they can offer, “Thoughts and Prayers”.
We’ve come to the point where we’ve settled into such a routine with tragedy and injustice that whenever it happens, we all know script: “how could this have happened?” “Our hearts are with the victims and their families.” “This is a time for healing, not for debate.” “Will anything be done to stop it from happening again?” “Thoughts and Prayers”.
Sending “Thoughts and Prayers” has become such a cliché at this point that it is more often the butt of jokes than consolation. An image of an empty truck trailer with the caption “Finally, the Thoughts and Prayers arrived!” perfectly encapsulates the bitter feeling about “Thoughts and Prayers”. In the face of real tragedy, when the empty words “Thoughts and Prayers” are all that are offered, there is very little else to feel but resentment and frustration. Empty words, empty gestures, sticking to the script just long enough for everyone else to move on. If the empty platitude “Thoughts and Prayers” is all prayer is, then it is no wonder that so many lose heart.
Today, Jesus tells the disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart. The parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge is another teaching of Jesus that seems almost obvious at first glance. “Pray always like the widow, if even this unjust judge will listen, then surely God, who is justice, will certainly listen to your prayer!” Jesus even says it outright toward the end of the parable, “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.” Well, that’s it right? The Bible says it, I believe it, keep sending those thoughts and prayers.
Only there is more to it. If we hear the parable on such a surface level, we are left with some troubling questions. Seeing the amount of tragedy and injustice in the world, if God quickly grants justice to those who simply pray for it, is Jesus suggesting that we simply aren’t asking enough? How many times have we in this very church prayed relentlessly for justice? Is God really so much better than the Unjust Judge if the answer is that we simply haven’t been asking enough? What does prayer have to do with justice anyway? Then there’s that final question Jesus leaves us with: “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
All these questions suggest that there’s more to this parable than a simple story of “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”. Jesus’ question about faith suggests that perhaps we haven’t really been praying for justice as we need to. It seems that even God is tired of hearing “Thoughts and Prayers”.
The parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge shows us that we have a fundamental misunderstanding of what prayer really is. Most people think of prayer as getting on your knees and asking God for things. The religious will piously tell you that prayer is having a conversation with God, sustaining a healthy relationship with Him. While these answers aren’t wrong, they are incomplete.
What is it that the widow does that we should learn from? It’s not just that she’s asking for things over and over again. She’s not sending the Unjust Judge “Thoughts and Prayers”, she is relentlessly pursuing Justice. The Widow, the weakest and most vulnerable in her society, confronts the power of the Judge and ceaselessly demands Justice. Prayer is not merely words or pious thoughts; prayer is the relentless pursuit of Justice.
So often we think of prayer as a one-sided conversation; that prayer is merely words and good intentions directed toward God. But prayer is not limited to words and pious thoughts. Upon returning from the Freedom March in Selma in 1965, Rabbi Abraham Heschel was asked if he had found time to pray while he was there. He famously replied, “I prayed with my feet”.
Sometimes we do need to pray with words, when we need to make our voices heard. Sometimes we need to pray with silence, when we need to reflect on our actions and contemplate God’s will. Sometimes we need to pray in song, when we need to express our sincerest convictions. But we must never forget that we need to pray with our feet, relentlessly pursuing justice. As disciples, we need to pray always and not lose heart.
That is the question that Jesus asks at the end of the parable. When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth? In truth, injustice remains because we have not prayed for justice continually. We are more comfortable with the status quo, because even though it is full of tragedy and injustice, a few benefit from it, and most of us don’t have faith in our prayers. Sending “Thoughts and Prayers” and doing nothing else is so much easier than praying with our feet.
Yet we must pray always and not lose heart. For some, that prayer is marching in the street. For others, prayer is having honest conversations. Pray at work, at school, at the dinner table, at the ballot box, in petitions, in acts of kindness, pray anywhere where justice needs to be pursued. But pray not with long sentences and pious words, but action. Have faith in your prayers, because even an unjust judge will relent and grant us justice if we pray ceaselessly. Let us pray always, so that when the Son of Man comes, He will find justice and faith on the earth. Amen.