Collect for Trinity XX
O GOD, the giver of life, whose Holy Spirit welleth up within thy Church:
fill us with the gifts of that same Spirit to live the gospel of Christ,
and make us ready to do thy will, that we may share with all thy whole creation the joys of eternal life;
through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Old Testament lesson:
Jeremiah 31, Vv 27-34
2 Timothy Vv 3,14-4,5
St Luke 18, Vv 1-8
On Thursday the church kept the Feast of Saint Luke, Evangelist. It is therefore appropriate that our Gospel proclamation today came again from his gospel. A couple of Sundays ago we looked at the subject of faith and the disciples’ perception that they thought they needed more of it. You will remember that Jesus admonished them by telling them about the mustard seed and the mulberry tree and taught them that the most amazing things can be done with the smallest amount of faith. Today, in the next chapter of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus gave his closest companions advice on prayer. As Luke tells us, ‘He told them a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.’ Jesus’ parable concerns two characters, a judge and a widow. One commentator reminds us that the judge in question would have been a Gentile judge, not a Jew. In those times Jews would not normally take any case before the civil authorities. Their disputes were, where possible, heard before church elders. If arbitration was needed then a tribunal was assembled; one judge chosen by the plaintiff, one by the defendant and one independently and impartially appointed. A single judge never sat alone. You may remember that in his first epistle to the Christian church in Corinth Saint Paul was at great pains to advise his converts not to be disputatious and take their legal cases before Roman courts. In a recent commentary on the First Epistle to the Church in Corinth, Bruce Winter explains the corruption that could be found in civil courts where the rich bribed the judiciary for judgements in their favour.
In this parable Jesus is not likening God to the unfair judge. Just as in the parable of the Shrewd Manager, God is not considered to be like the individuals in the stories that Jesus told. Jesus probably used some local issue, well known to his listeners, to attract their attention and give his story a parochial content. There may have been a widow who achieved legal satisfaction by her persistence. God is contrasted with the avaricious and rapacious judge. If the judge could be wearied into giving a judgement in favour of the widow, how much more readily will God, Jesus argues, give his children what they need? In a short commentary on Luke’s Gospel Anslem Grün suggests that the widow in the parable is seen to represent a threatened Christian community, maybe the one for which Luke was writing; a community that perhaps turned in vain to the state authorities for support. The judge, who hears the widow’s pleadings, does not seem to fear God, for he pays heed to no-one. The widow also can be seen to represent a type of individual, one who is oppressed by enemies, or is hurt by others, and cannot defend herself. The widow in the story is symbolic of the poor and defenceless. She does not have the wherewithal to bribe the judge to get a decision in her favour. The only weapon she has in her armoury is persistence. It may be that the judge feared physical retribution from the widow, who may have been a large and purposeful woman. The word translated as ‘bothering’ – ‘because this widow keeps bothering me’ – can also mean ‘exhausts’ or ‘closes the eyes.’ Eyes can become closed by exhaustion or by assault, as in receiving black eyes! The Greek word used by Luke literally means, ‘to give a black eye!’ However, Luke is suggesting that his readers trust in their prayers, prayers that sometimes seem so weak. It is within prayer that men and women get justice. In prayer they have a right to life, a right to dignity, a right to help. In prayer we find that those who would oppress us in fact have no power over us. Jesus demonstrated this quite clearly for us when he prayed on the cross for those who crucified him: his murderers could not possibly triumph over him.
Thus we are taught by Jesus to pray to our heavenly Father. How may we expect our prayers to be answered? I was taught by a wise old priest many years ago that God answers all prayers: with a ‘Yes’, or a ‘No’, or a ‘Wait a little while.’ Of course, God does not necessarily answer prayer through his own actions – he often uses us to answer the prayers of others, even if we don’t necessarily know that we are doing it. While crossing the Atlantic on an ocean liner, Frederick Meyer, the early twentieth century Baptist pastor, was asked to address some of the passengers on the subject of answered prayer. An agnostic, who just happened to be present at the service was asked, ‘What did you think of Doctor Meyer’s sermon?’ To which he replied, ‘I didn’t believe a word of it.’ Later that afternoon, the agnostic was on his way to another service, just to hear, as he put it, what the ‘babbler had to say.’ He had two oranges in his pocket, and as he walked toward the meeting place, he passed an elderly woman, who was sitting in her chair, fast asleep. In a spirit of fun, the man slipped the two oranges into her outstretched palms. After the meeting, he saw the old lady happily eating one of those oranges. He remarked, ‘You seem to be enjoying those oranges ma’am.’ To which she replied, ‘Yes sir, my Father is very good to me.’ He said, ‘Your Father? Surely your father can’t still be alive!’ She exclaimed, ‘Praise God, He’s very much alive!’ She then went on to explain to the agnostic that she was referring to her heavenly Father, and said, ‘You see, I’ve been sea sick for days. I was asking God to somehow send me an orange to help ease my sickness and I suppose I fell asleep while I was praying. However, when I woke up, I found that he had not only sent me one orange, but two!’ To this response, the agnostic was speechless. Later, during that same cruise, he was converted to Christianity, and was made a believer, based on his new understanding that God did, indeed, answer prayers!
We must then be committed to prayer – Jesus says that we ‘ought always to pray’. This is the theme continued by Saint Paul, who wrote in his first letter to the Christian community in Thessalonica, ‘Pray without ceasing’. ‘Without ceasing’ has the idea of ‘no intermission’. It can be likened to a nagging cough, or that tickle at the back of the throat that suggests that a cough is just about to start. Jesus is telling us to, ‘to be ready, to be on guard, to be watchful’. This instruction contains the idea of being in the attitude and atmosphere of prayer all the time. You see, prayer is more than an obligation; it is also an opportunity. It is an opportunity for us to be in constant touch with our heavenly Father so that we may pray to him any time the need arises. So we must pay great attention to that word ‘persistence’.
We should also be comforted by prayer. The concluding question in verse eight wonders if Jesus will find faith when he returns. That is, will he find his people persisting in prayer before the Father over the things that really matter? The answer to that question depends upon you and me. We may be faithful or we may not. We might persist or we might not. You may ask, ‘where is the comfort in this’? The answer lies in what Jesus said. Notice that he said, ‘When the Son of Man comes...’ The comfort in prayer is this: God’s people may not always do what they are supposed to do, but they can count on the Lord to keep every promise he has ever made. He will be faithful to honour his word to us. We may feel like giving up, but if we keep on praying he will answer us in his time: that is, after all, his promise to us.
Saint Luke, with whom we started, had his Feast Day on Thursday. He was no stranger to prayer – the word ‘pray’ appears over 30 times in his Gospel. Nor was he unaware of the importance of persistence. He was a constant companion of Saint Paul in his many journeyings. In the closing words in his Epistle to Timothy Paul wrote, ‘…and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith…only Luke is with me.’ Tradition tells us that Luke, who wrote the Gospel that bears his name and the Acts of the Apostles, that together form about a quarter of the New Testament, died at the age of 84 in Boeotia, a province of ancient Greece.
Let us ask God for help to be persistent in our prayer life. And a final thought: we are taught that, ‘we will never grow weary in our prayer and our faith will never falter if, after we have offered to God our requests, we add that perfect closing petition, ‘Thy will be done’.’
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