A few years ago, my colleagues in what was then called the Church Army in Canada defined themselves as ‘a people of stubborn hope’. That phrase has always struck me – ‘stubborn hope’. I can feel in my bones just what that means: a people who don’t give up, a people who continue to hope for the best from people everyone else has given up on, a people who continue to pray for things to get better when everyone else has come to the conclusion that nothing’s ever going to change.
An RCMP corporal in Aklavik once paid me the compliment of describing me as a person of stubborn hope. He didn’t actually use those words, though. We were talking about a particular extended family in town who seemed to spend most of their time either drunk or in jail or both, and he said to me, “I think you and your family are the only ones in Aklavik who haven’t given up on them yet”.
But how do you sustain stubborn hope when it seems that people, and circumstances, are never going to change? That’s what our gospel for today is all about. At first sight it seems to be about unanswered prayer, and that’s certainly included, but the big picture is much wider than that. Jesus defines the big question in verse 7: “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” The prayer he wants us to keep on praying – the prayer he doesn’t want us to give up on – is a prayer for justice.
Yes indeed, in situations of profound and prolonged injustice and oppression, it’s hard to cling on to stubborn hope, and it’s hard to keep praying ‘Thy kingdom come’ and not give up. What’s it like to be a Christian praying for God’s help in an African refugee camp, where there isn’t enough food to go around and people are dying of starvation every day? Or in a village where children have been abducted and forced to become child soldiers, committing such heinous atrocities that their young spirits are scarred forever? Or in countries where wars - often religious wars – have been going on for decades? How do you sustain enough faith to keep on hoping when the situation seems hopeless and no help seems to be coming?
This is the situation of today’s passage. If you look at the passage just before this one – in verses 20-37 of chapter 17 – Jesus is speaking about the situation many of his followers have struggled with since then: the fact that, even though he promised to come again to judge the living and the dead, it will seem to us as if his coming has been indefinitely delayed. Some skeptics will tell you that Jesus and the authors of the New Testament obviously expected his return to happen very soon, in their lifetimes in fact, and that they were obviously mistaken. I don’t think that’s the case. These passages show clearly that Jesus’ followers would be tempted to give up on his return altogether – and that this would be disastrous for their spiritual lives. Jesus reminds them of the days before Noah’s flood, when people were eating and drinking and marrying right up to the day the rain started; they obviously thought everything would continue pretty much as usual forever! That, Jesus warns them, is a dangerous thought!
Today’s Gospel follows right on. In this passage the followers of Jesus are waiting to be vindicated and delivered. And while they wait, they are the victims of injustice and oppression from the society around them, and it seems like God is never going to intervene on their behalf. They are tempted to give up their faith and their hope; it seems like nothing’s going to change, and there’s no one there to help them.
This is the situation of the widow in Jesus’ parable. The very fact that she goes to court herself, in the culture of her day, shows that she had no man to help her – court was a man’s world in those days, and a woman would be at a disadvantage there. And in her rotten luck, it turns out that the judge who hears her case is a corrupt judge who has no concern for justice at all!
Jesus is saying to his followers “This is how the world is going to feel to you sometimes. You will see yourselves as victims of injustice, with no one to plead your case for you. God will seem to be distant and uncaring, no matter how often you cry out to him”. But do our feelings correspond to reality? Is God in fact like the rascally judge in Jesus’ story? No, he is not! This is not a story like the parable of the prodigal son, where the father is an obvious picture of God. Rather, this is a ‘how much more’ parable: if even an unjust judge will answer a woman’s petition just to get rid of her pestering, how much more will your loving heavenly Father hear your prayers?
In fact, God is unlike the unjust judge in almost every way! God respects and cares for every individual. God is committed to justice. God doesn’t need constant reminders of what he should be doing. In fact, the only similarity between God and the unjust judge is in the result of the woman’s petition: God, like the unjust judge, will give justice to his people – but he will do it out of love, not out of desperate frustration.
Our problem, of course, comes in the timing of God’s answers! Why does it seem as if we have to wait so long, when Jesus says here that God ‘will quickly grant justice to them’?
I think we should approach that word ‘quickly’ with caution. In verse 1 we’re told that this story is an exhortation for us ‘to pray always and not to lose heart’. But if God’s answers always came quickly, we wouldn’t be tempted to lose heart, would we? And at the end of the passage Jesus raises the issue of whether the Son of Man will find faith on the earth when he comes – which is obviously only an issue for us if we’ve had to wait for God’s answers.
In fact, throughout the Bible, there’s recognition that God’s people often wonder why God is waiting so long to answer their prayers. In our psalms, the writers often pray phrases such as “How long, O Lord – will you forget me forever?” I once heard a preacher say, “Some prayers are rockets, and some are tortoises – and tortoises can live to a great old age!”
Yes, God can seem a little slow to us sometimes, but it’s always struck me that it’s a little difficult to ask a Being who lives outside of time to hurry up! God sees the big picture. All of time is present to him – past, present and future. We can only look forward to the day when we will be delivered from trouble, but that day is already present to God in an experiential way – he’s already there! But we, of course, are not, and so we have to learn to trust him and to wait patiently for him to vindicate us.
Let me remind you of what this passage is about. It’s not just about the problem of unanswered prayer – which is a real problem that troubles many Christians – or the fact that God sometimes seems slow to give us what we ask for. In this parable, there is a definite content to the prayers that we’re to pray. The widow prays, “Grant me justice against my opponent” (v.3), and the question Jesus poses is “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” (v.7). So the theme is injustice and oppression, and whether God cares about it, and what we should be doing about it.
This is a vital issue for Christians who are trying to read the Bible and apply it to their lives. If you read the Old Testament prophets, or the teachings of Jesus, it’s clear that injustice and inequality are vital issues for God. It matters to God that a small proportion of the people on this earth control the vast majority of the wealth. It matters to God that a person born in Africa has a much lower chance of surviving their childhood than a person born in Canada. It matters to God that a girl in Afghanistan would be shot by terrorists, simply because she wanted the right to go to school like the boys. It matters to God that children around the world are being abducted from their homes and forced to become child soldiers, committing atrocities that scar their souls forever.
But the transformation of the world is a slow thing. It has become abundantly clear to us that attempts to take short cuts don’t work. Over and over again, rich and powerful nations have tried to impose their ideas of justice on poorer nations by dint of military force, and the results have rarely succeeded. As one of my teachers used to say, ‘a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still’. The heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart. As Jeremiah says, ‘The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse – who can understand it?’ (Jeremiah 17:9). The way of Jesus is to change the world one heart at a time, as hearts full of selfishness and violence and hatred are changed to hearts full of God’s compassion and justice.
So we may have to wait a while for the Lord’s Prayer to be answered, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven”. But while we wait, what should we be doing? Jesus poses another question to us in verse 8 “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Our responsibility as Christians is to live our lives in such a way that the answer to that question is “Yes”. How do we do that? We do it by our prayers and by our actions.
First, by our prayers: we don’t give up. In verse 1 we read that this story is about our need ‘to pray always and not to lose heart’. We do this, not because God needs reminding of our needs, but because we need reminding of our dependence on God.
I keep prayer lists, and I use them day. On them I pray that friends and family members who are not yet followers of Jesus will come to know and love him. I bring these same requests to God day by day, but I don’t do that like a child pestering a reluctant parent. Rather, for me these prayers are simply my way of turning to God each day in faith, reminding myself that the conversion of people is a miracle from the Holy Spirit.
When I was a teenager in England I knew a man called Vijay Menon. He told us that before he became a Christian, a woman he knew had prayed for ten years that he would come to Christ. After ten years, the woman died – and two years later Vijay put his faith in Christ. It would have been easy for that woman to lose heart, but she did not – and in time, her prayers bore fruit, although she herself did not live to see it.
But as we think about God’s desire for justice, we surely need to think carefully about the scope of our prayers. We Christians must make that cry for justice part of our regular prayer life. We’re to pray, not just for ourselves, but for all the suffering peoples of the world.
I once heard the great Bible teacher John Stott speak about a little church he’d attended somewhere in the American Midwest. When it came to the time in the service for what we Anglicans would call ‘the prayers of the people’, there were lots of prayers for people known to the congregation – for healings, for help for the suffering, for conversions and so on. But there were no prayers for any needs beyond the borders of that little town. I’ve never forgotten John’s comment; he said, “These people worship a tribal god”. Let’s not be like them. Let’s by all means pray for our own concerns and our own loved ones, but let’s also go beyond that and pray in such a way that our compassion reaches around the whole world.
The Son of Man will see that there is faith on earth when he sees the evidence of our prayers, but also, secondly, the evidence of our actions. A prayer for justice is a kingdom prayer; it’s another way of saying to God “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven”. And when I pray that kind of prayer, I must immediately ask myself the question “What demands are my prayers making on me? How can I put legs on my prayer?” In other words, “How can I live in such a way that I am part of the answer to the prayer I just prayed?”
And so if I am praying for God’s peace and justice for the suffering peoples of the world, it is then my responsibility to make my small contribution to that peace and justice in my own environment. If I’m praying for people I know to hear the Gospel and turn to Christ, it is then my responsibility to speak a word of witness to them when the opportunity arises.
So let’s not give up hope, even when reality seems bleak and hopeless to us – as it sometimes will. Let’s remember that our loving heavenly Father is not like the unjust judge in this story! And yet, if even an unjust judge will answer prayer, how much more will the Father who loves us! So let’s be faithful each day in bringing our requests to him, not just for ourselves and for people we know, but also for those all over the world who are crying out for justice. And let’s end our prayers each day with this thought: “How can I, in my situation, be a part of the answer to the prayer I’ve just prayed?”