Now I love this tradition, and I commend it to you.
But I mention it this morning because that is my image of the four gospels, except without snarky teen-agers. Probably the gospel writers never sat around a table swapping stories about Jesus. But I like the image.
Each tells the same basic story, of course. But each highlights slightly different things. It is as if Matthew says, I appreciate how much Jesus teaches us about the meaning of the law. Mark says, I appreciate how powerful and mysterious Jesus is. John says, I appreciate how a divine light shines in Jesus. Finally, at this imaginary birthday celebration, our gospel writer, Luke, says, I appreciate Jesus’ commitment to justice and to prayer.
We can see that dual commitment—to justice in the world and also to prayer—in lots of places in Luke’s gospel. Even more than the other gospels, Luke shows the Christian life as active engagement with the problems of the world and then intentional time with God.
Both emphases are on display in our gospel reading for this morning. The story is only told in Luke. And it is no surprise that the hero of the story is a poor woman seeking justice. This woman will not give up, even in the face of the indifference and hostility of the unjust judge. And by her persistence, the woman prevails; justice is done.
That is already a good lesson about perseverance. Even when we feel powerless, even when our cause seems hopeless, we continue to seek justice in God’s name.
But, as is also typical of Luke, seeking justice is not the whole story. The woman’s persistent quest for justice is also a lesson about how to pray.
In prayer, we ask God for something. And sometimes God takes a good, long time to answer. Even then, God’s answer is not always what we want. That can be discouraging. God can seem a little like an unjust judge. But however we feel, Jesus is telling us, we should keep praying in confidence and hope.
That is another good lesson.
But our readings for this morning add yet another layer to the lesson, and it may be the most important of all.
To get this third layer, we have to sit with the parable for another minute.
Not many of us are judges. But anyone who has spent time with small children has been in the position of the judge. When they were little, my children would ask me to buy them something. I would refuse. And the battle of wills was on. They would ask again. I would refuse again. They would ask again. I would get annoyed and tell them to stop asking. They would ask again. I would tell them that there were going to be serious consequences if they did not leave me alone. They would ask again. And, sometimes, I am ashamed to admit, I would give in because the only alternative was child abuse.
I know what it is like to be worn down by persistent, repeated requests. But that is an odd image for prayer!!
Now the parable is starting to work on us, to push us to think hard about what Jesus is saying about prayer. The parable works on us like the poor woman in the story works on the judge. And part of the power of Jesus’ parables is that there is no single right answer to the puzzle.
But our other readings point to one possible answer.
Think for a minute about a prayer of yours that was not answered. I am not talking about a prayer to win the lottery. I mean a prayer for someone you love who is suffering, a good prayer, the kind of prayer that it seems like God ought to answer.
When I have prayed prayers like that, and God has not answered, God seems a little like the unjust judge in our parable. Except that my prayers have not managed to persuade God, which makes it feel even worse.
That is exactly the situation Jesus is addressing in the parable.
Jesus tells us to keep praying. And sometimes God does eventually answer, because prayer is powerful. But even apart from how God answers our prayer, good things can happen.
Our Psalm and the reading from Timothy are not about prayer. But they are about Bible study, which is another way we spend time with God. And what they show is that time spent with God changes us.
The Psalm says, “Oh, how I love your law! All day long it is in my mind.” And that constant meditation on the law of God gradually changes the Psalmist, to the point that he can say, “I do not shrink from your judgments because you yourself have taught me.” We spend time with God, and gradually the mind of Christ is formed in us to the point that we accept even God’s judgments.
Timothy says the same thing in a different way. “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” We spend time with God, and we learn to accept even God’s reproofs and corrections because we are being trained in righteousness.
Like Bible study, time spent in prayer does that to us. We begin by asking God for what we want. Gradually we learn to add, “if it be your will.” If we keep praying, if we keep letting God work on us, change us, transform us, train us in righteousness, we may eventually get to the point that we start by praying that God’s will be done, and only then add our request for things like for our daily bread.
Our reading from Jeremiah describes the ultimate goal, the ultimate gift. God writes the law on our hearts so that we can know God intimately, from the least of us to the greatest.
Prayer works. But sometimes the work is on us, in us. God works on us, bringing good out of evil, life out of death, hope out of despair.
And then, when we have experienced the transforming power of God’s grace and love in prayer, we are ready to return to the world once again, and given new power to continue God’s work of justice and peace.
With fear and trembling, I want to add a sequel to Jesus’ parable.
The judge finally grants the widow justice. And by the time he does, she has come to see that she had been wrong about him, that he could not possibly have granted her justice any earlier than he did. Not only that, she learns that the judge has been secretly supplying her needs the entire time he seemed to be denying her justice. The woman recognizes that the judge is just, and more than just: loving and merciful. And she gives thanks that she has learned to know the judge as he really is, not as she had assumed him to be.
May we too learn that lesson and share it with our world.
In the name of Jesus Christ, who always judges with justice, mercy, and love. Amen.